Midterms: A Big SHIFT to the Right? Yes and No
Written by Bill Onasch - November 5, 2010
A Necessary Introduction
Those who ignore or deny class divisions in our society have a tough time figuring out what’s really going on in elections. Elections rarely initiate significant changes. They at best register–often in a belated and distorted way–changes in relationships between classes in the real world.
Many liberals, and nearly all union officials, talk a lot about a Middle Class–especially how it is disappearing. But this Middle Class is more defined by living standards or self-identity than any kind of independent role in how society runs.
Despite the significant changes arising from what’s become known as Globalization, the three traditional classes within what our rulers like to call Free Enterprise, remain:
- The dominant class, who calls the shots both economically and politically, known by various names as the capitalists, employers, ruling class, Establishment, bourgeoisie, etc. They own and administer the commanding heights of the economy; groom, select and finance politicians of both major parties, and maintain a revolving door between their lobbyists and public servants at all levels. They’re doing quite well, thank you. In the mid-70s the share of total income going to the top 1 percent of households was about 9 percent. Today these super-rich wind up with over 23 percent.
- There’s the working class–the big majority of society, doing most of the work. They may own stocks through their 401(k) and at times dabble in the stock market. Many own their homes. Some hope to become rich some day. But none can long survive on their own without wages and benefits from an employer. Unlike the ruling class they have not fared so well. More than twenty million of them are looking for full-time work and can’t find any. Over the last three decades their average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.
- And then there is a true middle class, what classical economists referred to by its French description, petty-bourgeoisie. This diverse class includes the self-employed, the strip mall merchants, owners of fast food franchises, working family farmers. Some employ small numbers of workers in job shops. It’s common to hail them as the biggest source of job creation. But in fact most small producers are supplier vassals to big corporations and are often the most vulnerable to economic downturns.
The two, but no more than two party system has served the ruling class well for the last 150 years. It provides stability–often through gridlock between branches of government--and assures the voluntary compliance of the majority with the decisions of a tiny minority.
It is also used to resolve intra-class disputes that may arise at the top. For example, when fuel prices soar that’s good news for the energy capitalists but can be a big problem for those in manufacturing and transportation.
The ruling class has little interest in pure ideology. They train their political servants to focus on personality and empty slogans. In recent years mean spirited negative personal attacks have been added to the electoral playbook. While the Establishment generally feels more comfortable with the traditional Republican Party they understand the need to rotate parties in power.
The Last Two Years
In 2008 widespread public dissatisfaction with the GOP was already palpable when the housing bubble burst and financial crisis appeared imminent. The ruling elite recruited Barrack Obama as a likeable fellow who effectively sold the vacuous slogans of hope and change. They made sure his campaign got the material support needed and surrounded him with an impressive array of reliable advisers.
Obama did not disappoint his sponsors. He forged a winning coalition of unions; civil rights groups; Latinos; feminists; environmentalists; GLBT activists; most antiwar groups;–and, above all, college and high school youth–groups that might have otherwise caused the ruling class trouble.
On election night hundreds of thousands gathered in a Chicago park in hope of getting a glimpse of the President-Elect and his family. His inauguration a few weeks later was like a coronation, revival and Woodstock all rolled in to one. Smart people started comparing him to FDR and speculated about what would be accomplished in his First Hundred Days. A committee decided to award him the Nobel Peace Prize even before he took office.
In a “Dear Bill” message I received from AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka on the day following the election he says,
“President Obama inherited two wars and an economy teetering on the brink of a second Great Depression. He took immediate steps to avert catastrophe. Years from now, we’ll look back and see these two years as the most eventful for working families in 40 years.”
Obama did indeed inherit two wars from Bush. To ensure continuity in the war drive he kept Bush’s Republican Defense Secretary. In Iraq he accepted the state of force agreement Bush had already negotiated which has led to “only” 50,000 GIs remaining in that still bloody theater.
In Afghanistan he did just as he promised during his campaign–that war has been greatly expanded and has spilled in to Pakistan as well. Brother Trumka and the much of the peace movement ignored Obama’s inconvenient campaign pledge of escalation--and helped maintain silence about the wars during the Midterm campaigns.
This is not to say that the Obama administration completely ignored the antiwar movement. On September 24, 2010, the FBI carried out coordinated raids on the homes and offices of antiwar and trade union activists in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. Agents confiscated computers, mailing lists, cell phones, passports, political literature, correspondence--and children’s drawings. They also served subpoenas to 14 people to testify before a federal grand jury about alleged material support for foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). I haven’t received any messages from brother Trumka about that ominous outrage--though numerous central labor bodies and a Minnesota state AFSCME council did condemn it in no uncertain terms.
In the giddy early days, Trumka, and most union officials were convinced the new regime would quickly pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). That would pave the way to massive organizing drives to rebuild shrunken union ranks. Alas, early on the President told them that was way too ambitious, they would have to settle for the part of EFCA that provided for card check recognition. But it turned out their buddy in the White House was not prepared to spend as much as a penny of political capital on that either.
This was in sharp contrast to the bold moves taken by Obama in restructuring General Motors and Chrysler where tens of thousands of jobs were eliminated and steep concessions, along with a no strike pledge, were extracted from the UAW. Our current union historians describe this as “saving the American auto industry.”
The President campaigned for office as an advocate of universal health care. When Senator Max Bacchus assembled a table of “players” to testify how this could be accomplished advocates of single-payer–which the AFL-CIO is on record supporting–were excluded. When the single-payer folks protested their rebuff Bacchus had them jailed for contempt of Congress. There was no offer of a Presidential amnesty.
What we got in the end, of course, was a requirement that everyone be covered by insurance company robber barons. Pleas by labor for a token “public option” were blown off. Trumka even had to concede a tax, for the first time, on so-called “Cadillac” union health plans in return for raising the tax threshold a bit. Today labor officialdom is virtually the only force hailing this widely rejected “reform.” Meanwhile the USA has slipped to forty-ninth place in the world in average life-span and insurance premium increases are running in double digits.
In his campaign appeal to Latino voters, Obama pledged prompt action on immigration reform. Even though no legislation was passed during his first two years his administration has taken action–workplace firings and deportations of immigrant workers, many of them union members, have increased sharply over levels in the Bush administration.
Establishment environmentalists were thrilled when the Bush global warming deniers were replaced. They got behind a cap-and-trade scam–that would have sanctioned increases in carbon emissions for years--that died in the Senate after narrow passage in the House. They tried to give cover to the President as he wrecked any chance for a global agreement at last year’s Copenhagen summit.
Trumka wasn’t the only VIP to send me a Dear Bill message. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune was up bright and early on the day after to contact all us lapsed members, “We cannot let the overwhelming demand for clean energy be blocked by Big Oil and Coal companies and their climate change-denier cronies in Congress, please donate to re-join the Sierra Club today to continue our fight.“
Shortly after I received this plea (which I will ignore) I came across a headline Obama drops plan to limit global warming gases–his very first concession to the new Republican House majority. The lameduck Democrat Kansas Governor gave his Sierra Club supporters another unpleasant surprise on Election Day as reported in the Kansas City Star,
“In a surprise move on Election Day, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson ousted the official who had blocked construction of the [coal-fired power] plant in western Kansas. The removal of Roderick Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, increases Sunflower’s chances of being built, environmentalists and others said.”
Future generations of “working families” may well view the past two years as eventful. But they may not share Trumka’s see no evil, speak no evil approach to the White House and Democrat Congress. Even he acknowledges in his personal note to me, “But the economy is still a mess, and we have difficult work ahead.”
But in the very next sentence he makes clear he still doesn’t hold labor’s “friends” responsible. No, our indicated next step is, “It’s up to us to force these new members of Congress to move bold initiatives to fix our economy and put America back to work—or force them to pay the price for inaction in 2012.”
There’s no denying that President Obama has served his ruling class sponsors remarkably well. He used his honeymoon period skillfully to help Finance Capital and General Motors to get through a very rough patch. He induced a labor climate that saw strikes at historic lows as unions accepted unprecedented give-backs to the boss. On his watch corporations accumulated an enormous mountain of cash. And it’s nothing but blue skies for corporate health care.
He even demonstrated the courage to take on the traditional “third rail” entitlements of Social Security and Medicare, appointing a bipartisan debt reduction commission–that includes former SEIU president Andy Stern. Their recommendations are due in a few weeks.
A Shift at the Top
The ruling class loyalty to Obama has nevertheless proven to be as fleeting as Obama’s support to his former pastor. Now that he has dealt these blows to the working class–that only a popular Democrat could have got away with–his usefulness to them is coming to an end. With Obama and his party now thoroughly discredited they decided it was time to shift far to the right, along the lines of their opposite numbers in Europe and Canada. This includes slashing or privatizing public services and shifting even more than ever the burden of taxes on to the working class. And they want to be free of even the gentlest restrictions on the way they make profits.
They poured old vinegar in to new wine bottles, blaming failure of economic recovery on tax-and-spend Big Government, with its intrusive red tape. Let small business keep more of their money, and free them from bureaucratic regulations, and they will create jobs.
As is usually the case, the majority of workers did not vote in the 2010 election. They understood they had no horse in the race.
All polls showed that not only had the President lost majority approval; most didn’t think much of either of the major parties. But angry people, taught that change is through the ballot box (or electronic device) and voting is a civic duty, can only take retribution against those in power by voting for the opposition party.
That is why there was a swing of nearly a hundred seats to the GOP in the House, where everything was up for grabs , and the Republicans are only a couple of seats shy of control of the Senate, where only about a third of seats were in play this time. Such longtime Democrat fixtures as Feingold in Wisconsin, Oberstar in Minnesota, and Skelton in Missouri, will now have to get by on five-digit monthly pensions and tax-payer provided health care for life.
Both sides tried to cater to the anger present among likely voters. Negative campaigning has long been standard procedure in U.S. electoral politics. This election, about three billion dollars was spent on nothing but. Candidate security manhandled frail protestors to the ground and handcuffed at least one reporter. The Republican candidate for Governor of New York threatened to “take out” a journalist. A Democrat congressional candidate compared her opponent’s refusal to take an additional sobriety test at a traffic stop to drug-addicted Lindsay Lohan.
Conventional wisdom is that while such negativity may not be pretty it’s effective. Since nearly every candidate did it that’s difficult to verify. Tens of thousands turned out for a satirical protest of disgusting candidate behavior sponsored by the Comedy Channel.
The Tea Party–the murky “party within a party”–is crowing about several victories of novices they put forward. But some were considered just too weird for prime time. Sharon Angle, who came close to beating the Democrat Senate Leader in Nevada, early and consistently refused to disclose her positions on any issue until she was elected. She even hired a stunt double to distract the media. Christine O’Donnell, who had defeated an Establishment Republican in the Delaware Senate Primary, and best known for being a witch in her youth, was clearly astonished in a debate when she found out that the Constitution does indeed have language separating church from state. In Alaska, a Tea Party blessed candidate beat out the incumbent Senator in the Republican Primary. As this is written the votes are still being counted but it appears the incumbent has won after all–incredibly as a write-in candidate.
The media gave much attention to this self-styled “grassroots” phenom. While there are several groupings who speak as the Tea Party all are orchestrated and financed by familiar players–Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, Glenn Beck and his groupies, and the very shy brothers heading up the Koch empire. These veteran movers and shakers may find they have grabbed a double-edged sword as they move on to the challenge of passing laws. While they try to use Tea Party to hold Republican feet to the far-right fire, in through the open door have poured the birthers, homophobes, survivalists, creationists, and other bit players who move from one floating freak show to another.
The Democrats who survived–often by denouncing ObamaCare and runaway government spending–will do their best to work responsibly with the new House leaders. State and local officials will take their cue from what happens in Washington as well.
Things were bad under Bush. In most important respects they got worse under Obama. Moderates no more, the new political alignment coming out of the Midterms guarantee even more brutal attacks on the working class, accelerated destruction of our biosphere, and erosion of democratic rights. Certainly in this sense there has been a huge shift to the right.
The Underlying Story
If that was all there is to the story I wouldn’t be writing about it. Reality is more complex and not nearly as hopeless as our masters and their minions would have us believe.
First of all, it’s worth repeating that there was a silent working class majority that held the whole disgusting spectacle in contempt.
Peter Hart polls of voters, commissioned by the AFL-CIO, show that even the minority who voted strongly oppose some of the key demands of the right wing victors. Only 28 percent favored privatizing Social Security and the same number favored raising the retirement age. 77 percent favored government spending to “create jobs by investing in roads, bridges, schools, energy systems.” 65 percent favor continuing unemployment benefits as long as a worker remains jobless. These results indicate that there is no great groundswell to go barmy and join Dick Armey.
Despite massive spending by Big Oil on California’s Proposition 23, to repeal the state’s “job-killing” climate change law, it was soundly defeated by 59 percent of the voters. No mandate for environmental destruction there.
In Ohio, veteran labor activist and educator Dan La Botz threw his hat in to the ring for U.S. Senate–running as a Socialist. I don’t believe he had a single paid TV spot, negative or otherwise. His real grassroots movement managed to garner him over 25,000 votes.
Another poll taken by Hart among just AFL-CIO members perhaps clarified the reasons for high abstention rates. When asked which party has “a clear plan for strengthening the economy and creating jobs?” neither did particularly well–35 percent answered Republican, only 30 percent thought the Democrats did. With such a lack of confidence in the twins a logical follow-up question would have been, is it time for labor to have a party of our own? That wasn’t included in Hart’s report but numerous such polls of union members have been taken in the past–and always the majority says yes.
No, the working class has not made a big, fundamental shift to the right. The real question is how long can our unions, environmental groups, movements for civil and human rights, survive as our leaders support a rightward marching party controlled by bosses, polluters, and bigots.
On those rare occasions when summoned by their leaders to strike or demonstrate union members almost always respond with courage and enthusiasm. A relaunch of the Labor Party, with genuine material support by the unions, could mobilize not only union activists for working class politics but that great silent majority, presently largely unorganized, as well. To me, that’s the politics of hope.
Special thanks to Brother Onasch for allowing the Penn Fed access to his writings. Visit Bill on the web @ KC Labor.org