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Joe Six-Pack

August 14, 2001

by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young

Politicians are prolific at telling us what we need. They have been doing this for a long time, so they should be good at it. In earlier days it was a good 5-cent cigar, or maybe a chicken in every pot. Cigars and chicken pots aren’t much in style today, but the politicians have adapted.

More recently it has been - and you may fill in the blank here - better health care, more cops, a tax cut, better schools, safer cars, cheaper prescription drugs, the list goes on. Indeed politicians telling us what we need is much of what passes for political dialogue these days. But somehow, things haven’t really become better. Health care is still a problem, the schools still struggle, and taxes are still too high, accidents too common and so on. What’s wrong here?

What’s wrong we think is that Joe Six-pack simply isn’t consulted enough any more? He has become the missing man of contemporary politics. His opinions don’t matter and public policy is the worse for it. Who is Joe Six-pack.

For the record, Joe Six-pack is the mythical common person, ordinary guy, man (and women) in the street. He (and she) is a rank-and-file citizen who views public affairs in a straightforward uncomplicated way. A wonderful caricature of Joe and his women can be seen in that great Oscar winning 1978 film the Deer Hunter. This film did more than make big stars of Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken; it captured the essence of life as Joe Six-Pack lived it. The film was set in Clairton, Pa., but Monesson, Beaver Falls, Johnstown, or Scranton would have served the purpose just as well

Once Joe was the final arbiter of sound politics and workable public policy. Politicians would use the term for example to ask: how do the Joe Six-packs of the world look at this, or how do we explain this one to Joe Six-pack?

It was a reality check -- a vital way to think about how public policies would play at the street level. Alas, politicians today who speculate about Joe and his opinions have become rare. These days, instead, Mr. Six-pack has largely been replaced by polls and focus groups, and other technological marvels of the blown-dry crowd. Rather than looking to Joe for judgment about political matters, modern pols look at “ the numbers” or read the latest focus group reports. It’s not the same. Joe is not that easy to replicate.

Today, it’s fashionable in politics to segment voters. The soccer moms, the new technocrats, the new entrepreneurs are good examples of groups that have been subjected to specific appeals. But Joe doesn’t fit into all this very well.

A brief profile of Joe is necessary since he has become virtually a missing person in contemporary politics. He is a composite figure, but the term itself usually refers to working class people -- blue-collar types, many of whom suffered disproportionately during the many post WWII recessions and the loss of jobs as major industries fled the many small towns and cities that make up Pennsylvania’s landscape. Joe is literarily the type of person who supposedly buys beer by the six-pack. (In Pennsylvania of course, Joe must acquire his beverage of choice in multiples of four six-packs at a time if he buys at a beer distributor-and you don’t need to be a politician to figure out what he thinks about that particular arrangement).

The contours of Joe’s mind have not been precisely mapped, but six characteristics are prominent:

He is not deeply interested in public affairs, nor very knowledgeable about them. Government and what it does is not a central concern in his life.

He possesses a direct uncomplicated view of public life. He expects politicians to behave as he would in their place. Just because government makes things complex doesn’t mean he has to do it also.

He does not expect a great deal from government and usually does not want a great deal from government. If you tell him something is “close enough for government work," he will understand what you mean.

He holds opinions that tend to be conservative, especially on social matters, but he is proud to be an American. Life for him has an amazing simplicity about it. If you commit a crime, you do the time. To burn the American flag is unthinkable. If your country calls, you enlist with little hesitation. The Second Amendment is a fundamental right.

He loves his country, but does doubt the wisdom of its government on occasion. He may not be cynical about government (although he often is), but he is always wary of government’s propensity to expand and grow.

He is especially sensitive to tax increases and spending for social programs. He would agree with Justice Holmes that taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society. He just wants to make sure he can continue to afford to live there after he pays his taxes.

Joe’s characteristics have led some to caricature him as a boob and a rube - a selfish insular person who ignores public affairs and eschews serious political debate. But this is simply untrue. Joe cares as much as anyone, but he cares mostly about issues that matter to him, that affect his life, and those of his family. When these arise the Six-packs are able and willing to work through even the most complex issues.

In other ways too the unflattering stereotype of Joe as a Neanderthal falls far short of reality. In particular the image of Joe as terminally apathetic is elitist and misleading. The everyday ordinary Joe’s (and Jane’s) are neither apolitical or anti-social. They lead busy fulfilling lives that do not center on politics. It is sometimes hard for those whose lives do center on politics to understand this.

What? Politics is not the center of existence - the ultimate purpose of living -- the raison d’etre of life itself? Yep, it’s terrible, but true - life is not all about politics-- and no one understands this better than Joe Six-pack.

That is why Joe’s perspective is so important. Contemporary politicians have lost that perspective and it’s a big loss. Thinking about public policy from Joe Six-pack’ point of view can be liberating. It provides fresh perspective on current issues and inoculates against over-reliance on conventional wisdom. Keeping Joe in mind also helps policy makers to translate concepts and ideas into terms that make policy relevant and meaningful to people in their daily lives.

So, Joe we need you back in the game, buddy. We miss your wisdom and insights - and most of all your good common sense. It is time to bring you back into the discussion. We can’t do it without you.

And Joe -- we don’t need to ask what you and the other Joe Six-packs of the world might think about this particular proposal -- you would definitely like it.

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Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2001 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.