Thursday, October 30, 2008
Obama rarely mentions the working class, and when he does it is usually in the past tense. It comes up from time to time, as when Michelle Obama referred to herself as a "working class girl", but as a rule the Obama-Biden ticket prefers to flatter American workers as "middle class". And Obama's own prejudices about the working class aren't particular pretty: his discussion of blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania was rather condescending. Finally, though Obama's centrist platform is preferable to McCain's rightist one, he shows no sign of being able to deliver the kinds of policies that American workers need - whether black or white. As Michael Yates has pointed out, whether the worker in question belongs to America's shamefully large population of prisoners, or to a union, or has a child in education, Obama doesn't have much to offer - he has something to offer, but just not very much. As Alexander Cockburn has pointed out, moreover, what he does offer is subject to being ditched at the last moment or at the first hurdle.
Even so, the enthusiastic support that Obama is getting from American workers is unmistakeable. Just this morning, I was pondering a headline that said Obama was leading the polls in the 'Buckeye State'. Two things occurred to me: 1) what the fuck is the 'Buckeye State'?; 2) the reason they said he was ahead by 9 points in that state (turned out to be Ohio) was because of Obama's massive lead among working class voters. Not just working class voters: "white working class voters". Even those supposedly reactionary blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania give Barack a lead of 11%. All the major unions, who have committed unprecedented funds to this election campaign, are backing Obama, and they are supplying footsoldiers and funding for the campaign. That includes the union that Joe the Plumber belongs to, by the way. By contrast, as far as I can discover, there is not a single union backing McCain, who is relying on the NRA, Joe Lieberman, Donald Trump and the literary giant Joe Eszterhas for his props. Even those rural and small town workers that are supposedly hanging on every word from the hockey mom are shifting. The McCain campaign has been going round trying to scare voters that Obama's proposed modest redistribution of wealth constitutes 'socialism', but they are losing on this issue. The reason is because Obama's proposals are not a nasty little secret, but a part of his appeal. Blue Dog Democrats won't want to acknowledge it, the media won't mention it, the Republicans will keep it very much under their phoney ten-gallon hats, but the vote for Obama is overwhelmingly going to be a class vote. This gives the lie to the idea that America's white working class is irredeemably racist and reactionary. Even Sarah Palin's efforts to connect Obama to Palestinian 'terrorism' (by way of an old association with the extraordinary Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi) don't appear to do the trick. (I might add that three quarters of Jewish voters are siding with Obama, so they don't appear to be desperately worried by the urgent security threat posed by Arab academics.) The enthusiasm of Obama's supporters, plain in the turnouts to his rallies (I'm not impressed by the weeping, but the turnout is consistently massive), is also obvious in the turnout for early voting where, despite GOP blocking efforts, the overwhelming majority of voters to make their way to the polling booths have been Democrats - 52% versus 34% for the Republicans, last time I checked. Of course, this doesn't remotely represent the likely outcome on polling day. The average Obama lead nationwide is 6%, and that is probably an overestimate given that many of those most likely to support Obama either won't vote or will be prevented from voting. Nonetheless, the Democrats are unlikely to find this much momentum again, and if they can't turn the GOP inside out this time, they're not going to do it.
Socialist Worker points out this week a little-noticed but significant fact: American trade union membership has risen as a share of the total workforce for the first time since 1983, rising last year by 311,000 members. The best chances for organised labour in the US remain in the public sector, and to the extent that Obama is likely to increase employment in that sector this bodes moderately well. Further, it is much easier for unions to organise with a strong social security system and a decent healthcare system - Obama doesn't exactly promise either of these, but he is at least not planning to destroy social security, as the McCain campaign is, and he does promise some limited reforms in healthcare. But, as Kim Moody reports, America's unions are now engaged in a struggle to roll back some of Reagan's repressive anti-union legislation so that they can improve their performance in the difficult private sector. This is because employers have found various ways to frustrate and limit unionisation drives, whether via the pathetic National Labor Relations Board (a shadow cast on the present by the New Deal past) or through a 'card check' agreement with those employers. To even have a chance of the Employee Free Choice Act passing, they need to turf Republicans out of the legislature as well as the executive. This is part of what's driving their support for the Democrats. The union leadership may be wrong in assuming that Democrats will be amenable to their goals, and their bureaucratic approach means that grassroots struggles are being subordinated to this top-down effort. Nonetheless, it seems obvious enough that having a massive popular purge of the Republicans will make the prospects for organising less hostile.
Candidates like Nader or McKinney are far more sympathetic to organised labour and not at all beholden to corporate capital. But, of course, they aren't likely to beat the Republicans, and that is the single determining factor among working class Democrats when it comes to this election. While Nader has performed well in some polls, he now doesn't get more than 4% in any state, his support squeezed by the increasingly ugly struggle between the Obama and McCain. It would be good if he got a solid 5% in non-swing-states, the better to act as a pressure on the Democrats from the Left, but this is unlikely to happen. What is happening, however, is that in unleashing a movement tied to an electoral outcome, the Democrats are raising expectations that no future administration can live up to. If the Democrats not only net all three branches of government but also, as is being suggested may happen, get a sufficient majority to block GOP filibustering, then they have no excuses.