At first glance, CBS' fully hyped new reality show, Undercover Boss, could appear to be a fairy tale scripted by the Republican National Committee. The series follows corporate chiefs whose hearts are so large and commitment to the well-being of their employees so great that they work alongside them, disguised as entry-level grunts, to learn "the truth" about their jobs and make their lives better. In the pilot episode—which aired after the Super Bowl, the most coveted launch pad on television— Waste Management president and COO Larry O'Donnell is so touched by his workers' self-sacrifice and loyalty to the company that he corrects work rules "unfair" to them, improves conditions to make them more comfortable on the job, and grants them promotions.
Certainly, many on the right will cheer the message that, unlike the merciless robber barons depicted in much of today's news, corporate bosses will take care of their employees without compulsion by the government.
These are not the workers who consider their jobs to be nothing more than necessary means to live. They aren't the workers who fear, despise, or are indifferent toward their bosses.
But what should be troubling to both conservatives and liberals is that Undercover Boss not only promotes a political ideology with a dark and little-known history, it is also the fullest expression in popular culture of the dream promised by Barack Obama.
The larger message of the series is that businesses should operate as families. Before it shows O'Donnell being a good boss, the episode establishes him as a good father. O'Donnell's tall, athletic son is "the joy" of his life but his disabled daughter, whose brain was damaged at birth because of a negligent doctor, is the reason he takes "safety so seriously" at his company. "Family is the most important thing in my life," he declares from behind his desk.
Once in the field, O'Donnell finds workers who are mistreated, unappreciated, and doing the most miserable jobs in the company but who nonetheless perform their duties with relentless, cheerful selflessness. Walter, who picks up trash around a landfill despite being on dialysis, complains only that able-bodied people do not work as hard as he does. "When I see a perfectly healthy person dragging around and I can go out there and work circles around him," he tells O'Donnell, "that really pisses me off." At another landfill the undercover boss encounters Jaclyn, who is paid for one job while doing four. When O'Donnell sympathizes with how much work she has to do, Jaclyn replies that "it's not much to me." And though she has already battled five kinds of cancer, undergone a hysterectomy, and is caring for three families in a house that is nearing foreclosure, Jaclyn's ambition is for neither higher wages nor less labor but instead a lifetime of service at Waste Management. "I just want to work," she says.
And then there's Fred, probably now on his way to folk-hero status, who smiles and laughs through his job cleaning port-a-potties. O'Donnell marvels at how Fred takes a job "that most people would consider nasty" and "turns it into something just funny and fun." Most importantly, O'Donnell learns, "if we could all be that way what a great company we would have."
Back at Waste Management headquarters, O'Donnell reveals his identity to the employees, sings their praises as "unsung heroes," grants their career wishes, and offers fatherly bear hugs. The workers, overwhelmed with affection, declare their devotion to their boss and company. The episode ends with a rally outside the corporate offices where O'Donnell announces to the assembled employees that working alongside them made him establish "a connection with the folks that do the really hard jobs at this company." The black and brown and white faces in the crowd beam back at the president and cheer him with standing ovations.
These are not the workers who consider their jobs to be nothing more than necessary means to live. They aren't the workers who fear, despise, or are indifferent toward their bosses. The workers in Undercover Boss do not join unions or go on strike—as did the Waste Management employees who in recent years, as members of the Teamsters union, struck the company in Milwaukee. Rather, they suffer stoically until their superiors rescue them.
As the show itself implies, the kind of unconditional devotion demonstrated by both the boss and workers in Undercover Boss is not normally found in the American workplace. But it is often found in the American family. And it is what President Obama promised to build between blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, government officials and citizens, and employers and employees.
American politicians often speak of family, work, and nation but few have merged the three concepts as effectively as Obama. At the core of his campaign rhetoric was the declaration that "we're all connected as one people," obligated to uphold the Biblical injunction that " I am my brother's keeper." Obama pledged to dissolve the lines among Americans and make us " come together as a single American family."
Workers like those in Undercover Boss—" men and women obscure in their labor," as the president put it in his inaugural address–keep his vision of the national family together. They " work hard and give back and keep going without complaint." They are like the automobile workers in Michigan he honored in accepting the Democratic nomination who, after they learned their plant was closing, " kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made."
Obama has also repeatedly called on business leaders to behave toward workers the way the television version of Larry O'Donnell behaves toward his. As he said in his nomination acceptance speech, " Businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road."
What to Obama is the politics of " mutual responsibility" is what political scientists have labeled "corporatism." It is a political ideology with a largely unknown, and troubled, history. Corporatism originated in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum,which responded to socialists' demands to abolish class divisions with a call for both classes to "not only be united in the bonds of friendship, but also in those of brotherly love." This required that owners treat their workers with "fatherly solicitude" and that workers "fully and faithfully perform their work."
In the United States, corporatism was advocated most famously in the 1930s. Several commentators have noticed parallels between the Obama administration's oversight of General Motors and Wall Street firms and the National Recovery Administration of the early New Deal, which oversaw industries and was charged with merging the interests of business and labor until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a massive following, sympathized with the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini—whose economic systems were also based upon corporatist principles—and directed employers to act as caring fathers and workers to behave as loyal children.
Those who see the world of Undercover Boss as more of an Orwellian nightmare than the Promised Land might be wise to consider an old maxim the next time they are inspired by a politician's call for unity and brotherly love: Be careful of what you wish for–you might get it.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). He teaches history and cultural studies at Occidental College and has taught at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research.