The Most Bonkers Phrase From CNN’s Presidential Debate

“People who shower after work” has been used by politicians to demonstrate an empathetic connection with people in blue-collar jobs.

The shower imagery could be evoked to suggest a simmering class tension. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

If you were playing presidential-debate bingo last night, “taking a shower after work” probably wasn’t one of the things you expected to hear from any of the 10 Democratic candidates who took the stage. Yet centrist contenders twice used it as a shorthand in seeking to distance themselves from the more left-leaning agendas of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

About halfway through the debate, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio appealed to the interests of the blue-collar voters whom he said the Democratic Party has largely abandoned: “We’ve got to talk about the working-class issues, the people that take a shower after work, who haven’t had a raise in 30 years,” Ryan said. Later on, Montana Governor Steve Bullock got in on the shower-taking talking point during a discussion of climate policy: “I think Democrats often sound like the people that, as Congressman Ryan would say, shower at the end of the day [are] part of the problem.”

How did pre- and post-work showering habits become a rhetorical proxy for the white- versus blue-collar distinction? The trope has been in use for a few decades now, starting off as something of a folksy adage before taking on increasing cultural significance as emblematic of a kind of class divide. Politicians and pundits alike have latched on to the imagery of “shower after work” to brandish their populist bona fides and demonstrate a connection with hardworking people in jobs that leave them dirty at the end of the day.

Looking for variations on the theme in newspaper databases, I came across early examples presented as lighthearted observational humor. In 1988, for instance, a syndicated word game called Scram-lets (a knockoff of the long-running Jumble puzzle) led readers to finish a modern-day proverb: “Have-you-ever-noticed department: There’s one type of job where you shower before work, and one type of job where you shower after work.” This was accompanied by a cartoon of two men, one wearing overalls and toting a toolbox and the other with a suit and briefcase. A similar piece of homespun wisdom came in 1995 from the comic strip Pluggers, in which the cartoonist Jeff MacNelly illustrates reader-submitted observations about working folks. “There are two types of pluggers: Those who shower before work and those who shower after,” the strip read, depicting an anthropomorphic crocodile in a suit passing by a rhinoceros pushing a wheelbarrow.

Despite these cheerful examples, the same imagery could be evoked to suggest a simmering class tension. In his 1991 book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, Sam Keen, a contributing editor for Psychology Today, offered a list of “the hidden, largely unconscious, tyrannical, unwritten rules that govern success in professional and corporate life”—the first of which was that “cleanliness is next to prosperity.” According to Keen, “Sweat is lower class, lower status. Those who shower before work and use deodorant make more than those who shower after work and smell human throughout the day.” An article about undesirable jobs that ran in The Cincinnati Post on Labor Day in 1993 quoted a man who cleaned septic tanks and restaurant grease traps as saying that there are two kinds of jobs in the world: “the kind where you shower before work, and the kind where you shower after work.” (The man fell into the latter category.)

A 1994 column from Vermont’s Rutland Herald shows an early example of post-work showering as a political identity in the fanciful tale of a farmer named Bub, who won the lottery and tried to buy a major-league baseball team. When he considered whether the players should be unionized, he said, “I’ve always heard that unions are for people who shower after work, not before.” And because baseball players take showers after games, Bub figured “those fellas got just as much right to a union as anybody else.”

This line of reasoning would later come to national prominence in pointed commentary from Leo Gerard, then the president of the United Steelworkers union. In December 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, Congress and the lame-duck George W. Bush administration were slow to bail out the “Big Three” automakers even after providing a massive bailout to the major banks. “The message here could not be more clear,” Gerard wrote in a column for HuffPost. “Washington will bailout out those who shower before work, but not those who shower afterwards.” Gerard followed this up with appearances on CNN and MSNBC, where his “shower” line was a big hit. The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert also quoted Gerard approvingly.

Meanwhile, starting in the early Aughts, the shower-taking trope received a big boost from the liberal commentator Ed Schultz, who died last year. When Schultz was preparing to launch a talk show for the left-leaning Democracy Radio in 2003, he pledged “to represent the people who take a shower after work.” He repeated the line in a 2005 interview in The Nation, when his national presence was on the rise. When Schultz launched The Ed Show on MSNBC in 2009, he told the audience on his first show, “I’m going to be the guy who represents people who take a shower after work.” And throughout his tenure at the network, he would often introduce a segment with a blue-collar theme by saying, “Here’s a story for the folks who take a shower after work.” In Schultz’s oft-repeated formulation, the people who showered before work were left as an unspoken contrast.

It would take another couple of years before politicians started embracing the “shower” sentiment as a populist flourish. In a 2010 speech on the Senate floor about income-tax rates, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota expressed concern for “the people who get up and go to work and then have to shower after work, because they’ve got dirt under their fingernails”—not the most succinct phrasing, but appropriate for the rambling senatorial style. Like Dorgan, most of the officials who have relied on the “shower” trope have been moderate Democrats from midwestern and Plains states, such as Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly both used it (though unsuccessfully) in their 2018 Senate campaigns. The New York Times recently quoted David Betras, a local Democratic Party leader who had stepped down from his post in northeastern Ohio, as saying the party had “lost its voice to speak to people that shower after work and not before work.”

But Ryan, another Ohioan taking issue with his party, has been the one to turn the “shower” line into a political standby. He first tried it out in cable-news appearances after the 2016 general election, when he launched a bid to replace Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader. The phrase appealed to Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, who said, “I like that line, ‘Take showers after work.’ That’s well put, Congressman.” CNN’s S. E. Cupp was even more impressed, telling Ryan on her show last June that it was “one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in politics.”

Some of the commentators watching Tuesday’s debate, however, weren’t so kind. Charlotte Clymer, a press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign who was live-tweeting the debate, reacted in real time: “Tim Ryan... good lord, what is that line?” On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert lampooned Ryan’s “weird way of connecting with the common man,” suggesting CNN’s countdown clock for the second presidential debate today was actually “how long Tim Ryan is going to spend fantasizing about your after-work shower.” After all of that rhetorical heavy lifting, the “shower” line may need to be replaced with a demographic description that isn’t so overworked.