Honest discussion about the roots of working-class angst and how to address it has gotten seriously burned in the firestorm of controversy fanned around comments by Sen. Barack Obama that working-class people are “bitter” about the economy and government.
However poorly phrased his original comments were, they were based on a fundamental truth: that conservatism, having failed for more than three decades in its promise to bring broad prosperity to all Americans, has exploited the issues of God, guns and gays—and the lie that government is their enemy—to keep their con going.
For awhile it worked, as millions of voters were convinced to vote against their interests by conservatives armed with polarizing rhetoric. But there is no disputing the anger as these same working-class voters are finding that they’ve been duped.
The percentage of Americans polled by Gallup who say that they are worse off than they were five years ago—31 percent—is the highest recorded by the polling firm since it started asking the question in the mid-1960s. And that belief is based in reality: Median household income in 2006, $48,201, was lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in 1999, the Census Bureau reports. The latest Democracy Corps memo includes a poll finding that 74 percent of Americans believe the economy is seriously off track.
That same memo also suggests that voters have caught on that conservatives who claimed they were taking government “off the backs” of the working class have put in into the pocket of corporations. “The focus of people’s anger are the corporate special interests that dominate government, producing a demand that politicians make it a priority to take back government for middle class Americans,” the memo says.
But there’s been a lot more interest among the punditocracy in branding Obama “elitist” for trying to synthesize this working-class anger than in talking about causes and solutions. As former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes in his blog:
Are Americans who have been left behind frustrated? Of course. And their frustrations, their anger and, yes, sometimes their bitterness, have been used since then — by demagogues, by nationalists and xenophobes, by radical conservatives, by political nuts and fanatical fruitcakes – to blame immigrants and foreign traders, to blame blacks and the poor, to blame “liberal elites,” to blame anyone and anything.
Rather than counter all this, the American media have wallowed in it. Some, like Fox News and talk radio, have given the haters and blamers their very own megaphones. The rest have merely “reported on” it. Instead of focusing on how to get Americans good jobs again; instead of admitting too many of our schools are failing and our kids are falling behind their contemporaries in Europe, Japan, and even China; instead of showing why we need a more progressive tax system to finance better schools and access to health care, and green technologies that might create new manufacturing jobs, our national discussion has been mired in the old politics.
Andy Ostroy of The Ostroy report writes:
Both Clinton and the McCainiacs know exactly what Obama was referring to when saying the nation’s poor and middle classes were bitter. And why shouldn’t they be? Starting with Ronald Reagan in the 80′s, their values were co-opted and their loyalties misused and abused, and they were routinely directed towards hot-button issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control. These Reagan Democrats, by the time George Bush and Karl Rove got through with them, felt duped, dirty and betrayed. And now they’re still without proper health care, jobs, quality education for their kids, and are mired in a housing crisis. You’re damned right they’re bitter, and they ought to be. They were mercilessly used and abused. And that’s what Obama was talking about.
Dave Lindoff at Democratic Underground writes of his experience in rural Republican communities in upstate New York that have been left impoverished by conservative government policies and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which led to the disappearance of thousands of factory jobs.
It’s Republicans who have whispered the poison in their ears that their high taxes are because “the Blacks” are getting all that welfare money and are getting all the jobs through “quotas.” It’s the Republicans who have warned them about “hoards” of Mexicans coming across the border to steal their jobs. It’s the Republicans who have been warning them that Democrats are going to take their hunting rifles and shotguns away. It’s the Republicans and their Christian fundamentalist front men who have been saying that the Democrats have been causing the nation’s decline by supporting licentiousness and a “gay” agenda. And it’s Republicans and Democrats who have been hyping the bogus issue of national defense to keep people from focusing on the deliberate dismantling of the U.S. economy that is underway. (Over years of Republican and Democratic administrations, the tax contribution of U.S. corporations to the national budget has fallen from 50% in 1940 to just 14% today. Between 1996 and 2000, 61% of all corporations and 39% or large corporations paid no taxes at all, and that situation has only gotten worse in the Bush years.)
Anything but the real issue, which is how to provide funds so that the children in places like Spencer and Hancock (towns in upstate New York) can get a decent education without bankrupting the local taxpayers, how those communities can get jobs again, so that their children won’t have to move out, how to ensure that everyone in town can have health insurance and access to medical care.
It is true that “bitterness” does not tell the whole story of these voters. Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, in a study of white working-class voters for Brookings, says that these voters actually have “a bifurcated view of their economic situation”:
On the one hand, they tend to believe that things have changed for the worse—that the economy is doing poorly, that the security that families once enjoyed is disappearing, that leaders just don’t get it. On the other hand, these very same members of white working class believe that they are holding up their end of the economic bargain, that they are working hard and doing right by their families, that their story is one of optimism and hope, not pessimism and despair. Even today, with most white working class voters embracing a negative economic story overall, many still believe a positive economic story applies to themselves.
Their conclusion: A successful appeal to these voters would “connect economic security to economic opportunity.” It would frame the progressive principles that brought the nation the New Deal and the Great Society and link them to the desires of individuals and families to move forward toward the American Dream. And, as the Democracy Corps has been saying, it is time “to change who government works for”—all of the people, not just the wealthy few.
Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage outlined the challenge in his post on working-class voters:
Progressives have to prove that government can work. That it can make health care and college affordable. That it can help generate good jobs here at home. That it can curb the Wall Street casino and insure that increased profits and productivity are widely shared. We have to take reinventing government seriously, not as a slogan or a gimmick, but as a fundamental project of reform.
Republican Sen. John McCain was scheduled to give an address Monday in which he was expected to pile on to the so-called “elitism” of telling the truth of the working-class mood. But if McCain stays within the framework of the conservatism he espouses—a conservatism that truly wants government, as the title of Grover Norquist’s latest book suggests, to “leave us alone,” abandoned in the midst of record economic inequality, instability and injustice—he will be at a loss to offer more than stale, attack-dog rhetoric. With the bankruptcy of conservative ideology as plain as the foreclosure signs popping up on millions of homes around the country and the lengthening lines at unemployment offices, voters have lost their taste for that bitter pill.