Any recent history of “folks” in political discourse must begin with Barack Obama, who used the word more than twice as often as any other president, according to a BuzzFeed analysis. When discussing his budget policy in 2012, for example, the president spoke of “folks in the top 1 or 2 percent,” as well as “folks who can least afford” to pay new taxes. Main Street, Wall Street—they are all just folks, in the end.
If Obama’s reliance on the word was a rhetorical tic, it was a revealing one that highlights the kind of friendly consensus he believed could exist between the one percent and the rest of America. “Folks” always seem to be working together in a spirit of unity, which is why it sounded so perverse when the president said, “We tortured some folks,” in a 2014 press conference about the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques. He went on to warn his audience not to be too “sanctimonious” about the tough job that “those folks”—the CIA interrogators, now—were doing in Iraq after September 11. In straining to put the Bush years behind him, Obama had conflated victims and perpetrators: They, too, were all just folks.
Politicians claiming Obama’s mantle as a consensus builder have inherited his devotion to the word. Joe Biden regularly begins his sentences with it: As he told an audience in Philadelphia last year, “Folks, I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity.” See how unifying folks can be? Even the pointy-headed folks who don’t care about unity are still folks like Joe.
For Biden, and for generations of liberals before him, the term was a useful way to paper over the awkward class divisions that had prevented the United States from uniting around a shared political project. In an 1842 short story, the social reformer Catharine Maria Sedgwick praised a poor Irish immigrant family that managed to keep a clean, decent house. “Everything had a becoming appearance,” Sedgwick wrote, “and it was evident they had lived like folks.” To be like folks, in this construction, was to live in a genteel, eminently respectable poverty. The turn of phrase acknowledged class inequality, even as it suggested that good manners, hard work, and clean bedsheets could overcome it.
The Great Depression spurred Americans to celebrate “real folks,” although, as the cultural historian Sonnet Retman has written, that could mean black Southerners, Dust Bowl migrants, industrial workers—or the rural, white “real Americans” mythologized within a nativist tradition that descends from Father Coughlin to Sarah Palin and, now, to Donald Trump. Today, politicians often aspire to be seen as one of those real Americans—the straight-talking, salt-of-the-earth folks who gave us banjo music and barbecue. But when they drop their g’s in church, ride through Des Moines on a Harley, or sip a beer at a campaign stop with “reg’lar folks,” most are playacting: a privileged cohort of other-than-real Americans desperately trying to convince a mass following that they are, indeed, just plain folks.