Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pervasive Feelings And Class Warfare: A Coda

Many people have written over the past couple of years--including faithful (and valued) commentators here and at TPM in response to my last post--that President Obama blew it pretty much from the start by failing to adopt a more "populist" line. This is code for other code: populist means more committed to fighting for the "economic interests of lower-income people," which in recent days has come to mean, rather misleadingly, the other 99%.

Sure, Republicans and Democrats from red states blocked him on almost everything he tried, from climate change to immigration to infrastructure spending. But Obama after (or is it before?) the healthcare reform "failed to make the case" that the federal government could be a lever to redress the grotesque inequalities that have grown up over the past generation.  It was the economy, Stupid. Okay, not Stupid, Timid.

The background premise is that "class" trumps (or, with the right leadership, could be made to trump) other divisions. Many progressive Democrats of a certain age (me, too) acquired this premise reading socialist classics in the 1960s, and it's circulated like an antibody ever since, reinforced, oddly, by the sincerity (or vanity) of professional economists of all kinds.

If you appeal to citizens' "bread-and-butter" interests, presumably, you've got them. Obama's task was to rally "ordinary working people" to confront those whose income is 10 or 20 times theirs. Obama "failed to connect" with "lunch-pail Democrats" because he allowed himself to be identified rather with Robert Rubin's acolytes. (Obama's "they-cling-to-guns-or-religion-or-antipathy-to-people-who-aren't-like-them" remark didn't help, though it was a window onto his understandable apprehensions.)

LET'S LEAVE ASIDE the question of how many "ordinary working people" actually remember (or have even heard of) Robert Rubin. Leave aside those who loudly identified Geithner, Summers, etc., as Obama's Wall Street tar babies, and over policy differences about how to deal with "toxic assets" (remember them?) that now seem rather trivial. The serious question, with Republicans whining about "class warfare," is what exactly is a class, and between which classes does class warfare generally get fought?

This is not the place for a full answer, but I think I should add a coda to my post. It is that populist appeals would not likely have been interpreted by "ordinary working people" in quite the way the way the theory calls for. (Marx was more astute about the bourgeoisie than he was about "the proletariat," too, but that's another story.)

America's first African-American president, who happened to know at first hand what was the matter with Kansas, also knew not to look for a definition of class only in a book of Studs Terkel's interviews. Implicitly, he looked also in J. Anthony Lukas's disquieting classic, Common Ground, which depicts Boston-Irish working class fears during the busing riots.

Obama knew, in other words, that class warfare has not generally been fought between the working class and "the ruling class" but between the working class and the (alleged) underclass. This means between ethnic whites and exasperated blacks, Southie and Roxbury, the docks against the inner city--what Obama saw working the streets of Chicago, by the way. Why is this so obvious when we watch "The Wire" and so hard to see when we write blogs for The Huffington Post?  

No doubt, Terkel could still find a great number of ethnic white working people who'll perceive brotherhood in shared economic interests, without being prone to racist simplifications; 35-40% still say they'll vote for Obama. This many people is a moving testament to the success of the civil rights movement, when you think about it. But 60% of ethnic white males have now turned against Obama, reverting to form, that is, to the pattern we've had since busing, the busting of unions, affirmative action, rustbeltization--that is, since Ronald Reagan. Again, Obama won with under 53%. This much of a shift among lunch-pale ethnic whites and he will lose.

Which is why Newt Gingrich is talking about "food-stamps," of all things. Romney is talking about "Europe." This guy? Not us. Without this residual class resentment, Fox-News is unimaginable. Obama broke the mold with this group in 2008, not by stressing economic egalitarianism per se, but by speaking about unity, individual responsibility, the "America" his grandfather fought for--by advocating for a more predictable middle class life (health insurance, student loans) and an administration run by someone more responsible than the person who'd choose Sarah Palin.

This was Obama's promise and he kept it. Had he come out of the blocks attacking Republican leaders and free enterprise principles, that is, without first showing how badly he wanted, and embodied, "bipartisanship" (also code for a hybrid of black and white)--had he radicalized his "narrative" and advanced the claim that government action was needed to (how did he put it to "Joe-the Plumber"?) spread the wealth--he would not have spooked Wall Street nearly as much Main Street. He would have been suspected of reverting to form himself, a Jesse Jackson in John Kerry's clothing.

The point is, Obama might have expected progressives to be shrewd enough to understand the dilemma he faced. That ethnic white working men do cling to what he was overheard saying they did; that, by implication, "ordinary working people" respond to a strong leader, yes, but so long as that leader looks like Giuliani or Christie. If you are black in America, they have to believe you are brave, sincere, a unifier and wicked smart.

This is where we especially let Obama down. We made "independents" believe, with unearned superiority, that we could have done better.


pabelmont said...

I suspect that (while class warfare is a delightful subject), a better (or more timely) subject is DOING THE RIGHT ANTI-TRUST.

What I have in mind is denying the large corporations (and their associations and employees) from "owning" or "renting" the government via the legalized system of bribery called campaign financing, lobbying, and post-Citizens-United issue advertising and other corporate politicking.

Part of the answer to this need is clear: corporations (and other associations [other than explicitly and solely political organizations like parties and PACs and campaigns] must not be allowed to give or spend money for political purposes. This requires a constitutional amendment, but it would be a simple one and one that does not conflict with First amendment freedoms. If associations of people cannot do politics, well, that's OK because the people themselves can form PACs to do politics,

There is, however, a second and far harder part, namely, restricting the right of citizens (people-persons, if you like) to spend money in excess of some annual limit (say $1,000) for political purposes. this is necessary if the very rich (e.g., owners of large corporations, CEOs, hedge-fund-managers) are not to use money to control politics in exactly the way that corporations themselves have been forbidden to do. An "end run" around a prohibition on corporate political action should not be possible.

However, it is very hard to define "political action" and "political purpose" and creating a constitutional amendment for this part of the anti-trust "solution" would be much more difficult. I invite discussion.

I expect to piost on this soon at

Potter said...

This is where we especially let Obama down. We made "independents" believe, with unearned superiority, that we could have done better.

( Unless I don't understand you) are you suggesting, Dr. Avishai, Obama right or wrong?

I am disappointed in your excuses for Obama while at the same time you hold the standard up so high for Israel.

It seems to me at least that Obama was not a black president so much as our president. That much was clear. We did at first love to see that we have elected him and want to feel good that we have achieved something here in electing our first non- white president. He identified himself as black at first but then moved on- or so it seemed. And that was as it should have been. But still we have a long way to go to be a color blind society. Racism persists. But to say that he could not do this or that because of his color- well, I don't buy it.

On Obama's own terms, as David Bromwich says, Obama made an appointment with us and he failed to keep it. Had he kept it he would not be working so hard right now. I do note that he has now noticed where his support is and he is now fighting to get that back.

Also note that Krugman has been defending him.

No- I think it was Obama that let us down, and we ( some of us anyway) are going to rally behind him as we look at the alternatives.

Yoni said...

I totally disagree with this analysis. It would have been correct in the "normal" economic situation as we knew in the last three decades or so. But in a crisis like we have in the last three years it does not hold water. The populists are not the traditional "lower income" people Avishai is writing about. Today's populists the over eight millions people who lost their job, the millions of people whose house price has been devalued to be under water, and the millions of middle class people who have seen their income stagnate for two decades as the economy expansion benefited only the 1%. In a situation like this their "populist" reaction is the most normal one. And to have no answer to their distress, while bailing out wall Street, is wrong much as it foolish politically (since only the extreme right is left to channel their justified anger).
Would Avishai have argued in 1933 that F.D. Roosevelt should adopt the same policies as his predecessors (say that of W. Wilson)? Obama missed the moment to step up to the level required by the size and depth of this crisis. Only now he is beginning to express the distress of the middle class decimated by Wall Street and globalization. It may be too late.

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