Saturday, June 07, 2008

What's the matter with West Virginia?

Clinton is now down and out, and if Barack Obama has any sense he will not consider her for the VP. This isn't because she's vicious and ruthless and would probably undermine him in office - actually I would quite enjoy that. It isn't because of her race-baiting either - Obama doesn't really mind all that, and can adapt. It is because she will probably cost more votes than she will draw. However, one of the claims she successfully established for herself was that she had a critical appeal among white working class voters and Hispanics. I do not mean to say that this claim is accurate, but many commentators believe it. In fact, there is some limited truth to the claim. For although Obama did make some surprising breakthroughs in white working class areas, it was Hillary who commanded this vote in the main. Look at some of the states where Hillary won: Indiana, an overwhelmingly white, manufacturing state; West Virginia, an overwhelmingly white, manufacturing state; Ohio, overwhelmingly white with - like London - a poor urban core and a rich right-wing belt around it; Kentucky, a southern/mid-west state, overwhelmingly white, with a strong history of car manufacturing; Pennsylvania, an industrial heartland, overwhelmingly white. You may wonder what Hillary had to offer those people apart from fear of the 'black peril'.

It's very simple, and it doesn't take long to explain. Barack Obama is a neoliberal candidate who has hitched his wagon completely to Wall Street. He can provide a faintly progressive veneer to the accumulation practises of the uber-rich. Clinton, while I don't for a second she would have proved more progressive in office, placed herself to the left of Obama on the economy. She knew something quite important, and that is that Bush had won these areas strongly in 2004 after years of Democratic hegemony by posing as an economic nationalist and a defender of jobs. West Virginia, for example, used to be a hardcore Democratic state. Yet it went Republic big time in 2004. This is what Mike Davis had to say at the time:

A bastion of the powerful steel and mine workers' unions, West Virginia was famously loyal to the national Democrats in such dismal elections as 1956, 1968 and 1988. Yet last week Kerry lost West Virginia by a shockingly large margin (13 percent) ... The great achievement of the Clinton era was to realign the Democrats as the party of 'new economy', of the bicoastal knowledge industries and high-tech exporters. Instead of an economic rescue package for the heartland as demanded by the industrial unions, Clinton rammed through the job-exporting North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Kerry campaigned on that legacy. Like Gore, he was heavily funded by the entertainment, software and venture capital industries. And, also like Gore, he campaigned without a compelling economic message or serious proposals to stem further loss of industrial jobs. At the most, he promised modest tax breaks for corporations that kept jobs at home. Bush, on the other hand, had imposed temporary tariffs on imported steel in 2001. The tariff was undoubtedly a cynical Rove-inspired tactic to capture blue collar Democrats, but it worked. From a West Virginia standpoint, the Texas cowboy had the guts to stand up to European competitors, while Kerry offered little more than aspirin for terminal cancer. Bush was perceived (however incorrectly) as an economic nationalist while Kerry was tarred as an untrustworthy Europhile.


So, this is what Hillary Clinton did: she talked up 'bread and butter' issues; attacked Obama on NAFTA; pledged to cut taxes on exorbitantly high 'gas' prices; proposed tax cuts for 'middle class' (working class) Americans and tax rises for the rich; and stressed the importance of defending manufacturing jobs. It doesn't do to puff Hillary as the Bull Moose reformer, even if she looks like a testosterone-fuelled white supremacist at times. And Obama did make some similar pledges on tax and the minimum wage. In fact, Obama got into trouble for raising the issue of class at one point - but it was in such a fashion that he was accused of "elitism". And it is worth remembering that Clinton is to the right of Obama on the single biggest economic issue facing America, the trillion-dollar 'war on terror'. Nonetheless, Clinton was relentless on the 'bread and butter' issues, the manufacturing job issues, and particularly pushed a version of the economic nationalism that Bush did: 'get tough with China, bring jobs back home', was one of her themes. She also attacked 'corporate America' for union-busting, and was far more successful in getting union money than Obama, who was more successful with Wall Street. Clinton was explicitly appealling to the constituency that would once have been called 'Reagan Democrats' - those who are right-wing on social issues, but tended to vote Democrat for the sake of their material well-being. To repeat a theme of Chomsky's, asking whether Clinton's proposals amount to anything is like asking whether the promises in a Colgate commercial amount to anything. Of course they don't. But she successfully segmented and targeted an audience that is furious over the Bush economy and in all probability developing a long-term allergy to the Republicans.

In truth, what's the matter with West Virginia is what's the matter with the rest of America. The Democrats ditched the New Deal about thirty years ago, and now the only apparent repository of statist Keynesianism is the GOP, which is mainly in the business of defending business. And there isn't a serious organised alternative. Davis is right: the Frank thesis, that poverty-stricken 'red state' voters are voting against their economic interest, contains an unstated and insupportable premiss, which is that people have a real chance to express their economic interests at elections. They do not. They have something equivalent to a market research survey: what policy flavour do you prefer, on a scale of 1 to 5...?