Politics and the working class

It is with a sense of frustration and loss of faith that I watched John Edwards get knocked out of the US primaries. He predicated his campaign on three main points: 1. America needs universal health care, 2. America needs to end free trade agreements which hurt American workers, 3. The Democratic Party should represent the “working class”, rather than being in the pocket of corporations and the wealthy. I didn’t see eye to eye with Edwards when it came to foreign policy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military budget, the environment and a whole host of other issues, but he was breath of fresh air compared to all the other Democratic candidates who carefully crafted their campaigns to woe the big funders (aside from Dennis Kusinich who never had a chance). It was invigorating to hear a candidate who stated openly that he represented the “working class” Americans who hadn’t benefited from a rising stockmarket and the outsourcing of their jobs abroad.

Edwards cultivated small-town populism with a America-first patriotism, but at least Edwards tried to return the Democratic party to its roots as the party which represented the working class, rather than the party which represented the Democratic Leadership Council, the big corporate funders, Wall Street, and Hollywood; and then wrapped this coalition of the wealthy under cheery rhetoric about “soccer moms” and the vaguely defined “middle class”. Almost everyone in America wants to be considered the middle class, including people earning over $100,000 annually, so the term was flexible enough to fool the working stiffs into believing that the Democratic Party represented their interests, while allowing the rich to continue promoting their interests under the guise of promoting the “middle class”. Remember Clinton’s “middle-class” tax cuts? They were hardly geared to helping people in the median income group, but they did an excellent job of targeting the educated suburbanites who vote based upon their economic self-interest. They like to call themselves the “upper middle class”, but they could just as easily be dubbed the top quintile of the income bracket.

Edwards broke with all the obfuscating language of Clinton, Tony Blair and all the other promoters “the New Democrats” and “the third way”. Pretending that you represent the working classes while stabbing them in the back with your economic policies may build large enough coalitions to get you elected but it is fundamentally dishonest. In a system which is truly democratic, this dishonesty doesn’t work, because there are a lot more people in the working class and candidates who represent their interests should win elections. Sadly, we live in structurally-flawed representative democracy which does a good job of lulling us into believing that we live in democracy, but actually it’s a representative plutocracy which debates the interests of the upper quintile. Sure there are elections and they do count for something, but they are carefully constrained elections with a narrow set of choices which allows very little debate about the real policies which effect the vast majority of Americans. Until you have spent some time in a country like Bolivia where ordinary people get to vote for real policy change, you can’t see how limited US democracy really is.

Other countries have more democratic systems which have more ability to represent larger proportions of the citizenry, simply because they allow more than two credible parties. Clinton-style triangulation doesn’t work when there are credible parties to the left which can attract working-class voters, but US politicians feel free to obfuscate and disassemble for the working class without fear of loosing their votes. In the long run, the Democratic Party has lost many of its working class voters, as they rightly concluded that the Democratic Party wouldn’t represent their economic interests, but at least the Republican party was willing to pander to their cultural interests like gay bashing and religious conservativism. Most members of the working class would rather have universal health care, better social services, trade policy protecting their jobs and a higher minimum wage, but when the Democratic Party gives them nothing, it is easy to turn to the Republicans who will at least give them same-sex marriage, family values and America-first patriotism.

I know too much US history to delude myself that we ever had a democracy which represented the interests of the majority of our citizens. Reading the writings of the founding fathers is sure to disabuse you of the idea that we live in a true democracy. The founding fathers were very careful to note the need to design a system which didn’t represent the majority. Only a few such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine made any attempt to argue that the lower and working classes deserved equal representation in the new democracy, and their arguments were quickly shunted aside. We certainly live in a more democratic country today than in 1787, when the majority couldn’t vote because they didn’t meet the property requirements, but votes are only peripherally important in the formation of policy, as any good lobbyist will tell you. Policy is largely formed outside of election processes, and money has always played a central role in determining that policy.

Despite the undemocratic nature of our democracy, it has at various times allowed for a better representation of the working classes than it does today. Certainly between 1932-1968, working class interests had a much larger representation at the table when real policy was being decided. There are a number of structural reasons why this has occurred. The loss of union manufacturing jobs overseas and the shift toward service jobs has left the working class largely disorganized and leaderless. Of course the economic globalization which allowed this to happen is partially a technological change (robotics, internet and better telecomunications, just-in-time manufacturing, etc), but it mostly based upon an ideological and political shift toward neoliberalism (which goes by many names such as the misnomer “free trade”). Economic globalization happened because of policy decisions which where heavily lobbied for by the largest corporations and their wealthy stockholders who benefited. Politicians chose to listen more to corporate lobbyists than working class voters because they knew that money was important to winning elections than attracting votes with policies which benefit the majority.

It is striking to look at the Eisenhowser presidency and see how carefully Ike framed his policy in ways which wouldn’t offend the major unions. In comparison, the Clinton presidency asked for the union vote then largely ignored them on issue after issue, whether it be NAFTA or the minimum wage. When it came time to vote on NAFTA, the unions weren’t even consulted until a few days before the final vote, whereas the corporate lobbyists were at the table adding their provisions to the treaty from day 1. Robert Reich as the Secretary of Labor noted how the working class stopped showing up to the polls after Clinton abandoned them, leading to the Republican revolution in 1994 when only 28% of the electorate voted. Looking at campaign funding largely explains why the Democratic Party has stopped paying attention to the union rank and file and now panders to Wall Street and its corporate funders. Of the major Democratic candidates only John Edwards received more funding from unions than corporations, which goes a long way to explaining why he lost.

Many in the working class rightly decided that voting was a waste of their time, so they stopped showing up at the polls. In the absence of class-based organizing, many in the working classes have turned to religious-based organizing, but the religious leadership in the Christian fundamentalist movement have almost always represented upper class economic interests even when talking about working-class cultural values.

Another major factor has been the consolidation of the media into large conglomerations which represent the interests of Wall Street. They have so skillfully crafted our news into entertainment, that many people seem to be blissfully unaware of their economic interests when they go to the polling booth. The fact that the majority of Bush supporters in the last election didn’t know where Bush stood on major policy issues was not an accident, it was the result of a media industry which shapes our news in ways so that the average person is largely uninformed or misinformed. Of course not everyone is being misled, people who read the Wall Street Journal are actually quite well aware of their class interests, but the average American is getting much less information about policy decisions than they were half a century ago.

To a large degree, the fact that the base of the Democratic Party today sees Barak Obama rather than John Edwards as a vote for change is due to a corporate media which reports more on image and the political horse-race rather than policy positions. Anyone who analyzes what Obama actually says realizes that he will not end the war in Iraq. Although Obama may withdraw more of our troops over time and beef up our major bases in Iraq and our over-the-horizon forces stationed outside Iraq’s borders, Obama has made no commitment to actually end the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq is a central policy question in the minds of many American voters, but you rarely see a newspaper article which analyzes the candidates’ position on this central question. If they did, Obama would be ridiculed for saying one thing while in front of stadiums of cheering Democrats and saying another thing when talking to the Democratic Leadership Council. Obama knows how to make all the right noises to soothe whichever group he is addressing, but an independent and aggressive media would grill him over the stake for his two-faced declarations.

Of course it would be misleading to characterize John Edwards as a totally forthright candidate on many issues, including the war in Iraq which he voted to fund while in the Senate. On the campaign trail he gradually became the most anti-war of the three major Democratic candidates, but could never move beyond wishy-washy statements. Nonetheless, John Edwards did represent a real change of course for the Democratic Party and a shift moving the party toward working class interests and away from Wall Street. Sadly, most Democratic voters who proclaimed to be voting for “change” were largely unaware that Obama only represented more Clintonianism under new face, whereas Edwards actually represented a fundamental shift in policy. The prescient who did support Edwards were buried by an avalanche of corporate funding for Clinton and Obama. So once again in the 2008 elections the working class will either have to vote for Democratic candidates who woe their votes with grandiloquent pronouncements but make economic policies which stab them in the back, or they will yawn and stay away from the polls because no candidate represents their interests.

Of course in the long term, this election will not be the truly significant determiner of policy, although it may make some difference over whether we invade Iran or whether real scientists sit on government advisory panels. Whatever promises Edwards made on the campaign trail, he probably wouldn’t have been able to enact many of them without a concomitant change in the political climate of America. As Howard Zinn notes, policies which benefit the working class rarely come from just elections, but rather from organizing and mobilizing and credible threats in the streets. The New Deal and the Great Society legislation came about because FDR and LBJ felt real pressure and revolt from the working class pushing them to change policies. Pulling the ballot leavers makes it possible to get sympathetic politicians elected, but they are rarely act unless there is a credible threat forcing action. The millions of desperate unemployed and the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn in the Great Depression made the New Deal possible, just as the growing marches and discontent of the 1960s made the Great Society appear reasonable. Reversing the neoliberal policies which have ravaged the American working class over the last 3 decades will only be possible if the working classes start mobilizing independent forces outside the framework of party elections.

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