The Democrats, Obama, and the White Working Class
Forklift Operator Stacy McCoy is Not Stupid, Ignorant, or Racist
Working class white people – critical to the outcome of the 2008 presidential election – are often more complex than many middle-class observers know.
Take Stacy McCoy , a 40-something white forklift- driver and trade union officer I know in eastern Iowa.
Stacy recently announced that he was “thinking seriously about voting for that Republican asshole John McCain.” This was interesting news given that Stacy was a strong supporter of the semi-progressive pro-union Democrat John Edwards during the lead-up to the Iowa Caucus. Never mind that Obama is an at least formal supporter of the critical pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act  and that McCain is a Republican union opponent. Never mind that McCain’s health care plan would impose income taxes on employees’ health care benefits and force untold millions of workers into the non-group health insurance market  or that McCain promises to enact and preserve numerous other and related plutocratic and imperial outrages.
If I related Stacy’s comment to any of my remaining over-educated liberal friends, they would roll their eyes and scoff. Their instantly voiced explanations for Stacy’s statement would include some or all of the following alleged factors: Stacy’s hopeless stupidity; Stacy’s pathetic ignorance; and Stacy’s miserable racism.
But Stacy isn’t stupid or ignorant. He’s sharp as Hell. He reads all the time. He’s a political junkie who has followed all the issues, twists and turns in the presidential campaign. He’s an effective and knowledgeable union and political activist.
And Stacy isn’t racist. He opposes racism in his workplace and his union. He caucused for the black presidential candidate Jesse Jackson Senior in 1988. He’s read and admires the history of the Civil Rights Movement. It bothers him that some of his fellow workers won’t vote for the Democratic candidate simply because Obama is black. “I caught some Hell for supporting Jackson, I’ll tell you that,” McCoy recalls.
I think it would be ridiculous – okay, stupid – for Stacy McCoy to vote for McCain. But I think he may well end up voting for Obama at the end of the day, when he looks the proto-fascistic arch-plutocratic GOP ticket in the eyes on the eve of the election.
More to the point of this essay, I think his voting threat is about smart and understandable proletarian alienation from a slippery and bourgeois candidate and party.
How Obama Lost McCoy
Stacy’s problems with Obama and his campaign aren’t about racism or ignorance or stupidity. The problem is he knows too much about how the Democratic candidate is functioning within the narrow policy and political grooves set by the predominantly white corporate and imperial elite. Stacy strongly dislikes Obama’s appointment of pro-Wal-Mart apologist Jason Furman – from the neoliberal Hamilton Project” – as the Obama campaign’s economic policy director. Wal-Mart is the United States’ leading anti-worker company
There’s some unpleasant history from the Iowa campaign behind McCoy’s distance from Obama. Stacy still recalls with disgust how Obama railed against Maytag for eliminating good union jobs in nearby Galesburg (in western Illinois) but never said anything to his leading funder Lester Crown - who sits on Maytag’s board of directors – about Maytag workers’ fates .
Another bad memory is Obama lying across Iowa by claiming that he’d passed a bill to regulate the nuclear industry’s radioactive releases after a nuclear plant owned by the Exelon Corporation (a leading Obama campaign funder) spilled millions of gallons of contaminated water near Joliet, Illinois three years ago .
Then there was Obama accusing John Edwards of being a hypocrite for letting “527” organizations linked to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) run television commercials on Edwards’ behalf in the fall of 2007. But Edwards rightly never included organized labor in his definition of the corporate-plutocratic “special interests” controlling U.S. politics and policy . And Obama is now enjoying support from SEIU “527” ads in Iowa.
It irks Stacy that Obama says nothing meaningful about the corporate assault on workers’ pensions across the nation.
Stacy notices with irritation that Obama does not call for adequately funding the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
McCoy observes that Obama supports giving $200 billion to bail out the mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae but makes no call for massive government housing relief for millions dealing with foreclosure and eviction.
Back during the Iowa campaign, Stacy recalls, Edwards advanced aggressive plans, including a mandatory moratorium on foreclosures, a seven-year freeze on interest rates, and big federal subsidies to help working people keep up with payments and to restructure loans. Obama’s proposals were “mild, to say the least,” and fell to the business-friendly right of those put forth by Edwards and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Dennis Kucinich.
It riles Stacy that Obama says nothing about fighting to guarantee adequate, free, and universal health care or to fix the nation’s unemployment insurance system or about setting up public works programs to provide decently remunerative work for anyone who needs a job.
It galls McCoy that Obama says nothing about reversing the Bush administration’s reactionary anti-union policies and putting pro-labor people on the National Labor Relations Board or about going after anti-worker trade agreements.
Stacy doesn’t like it that Obama doesn’t promise to fight to make sure that Social Security is never privatized or to expand its benefits to working people.
It bothers McCoy that Obama says nothing about putting money and enforcement power behind the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Stacy thinks that if Obama was really a “progressive” he would talk about dismantling the corporate-backed, right-wing No Child Left Behind Act and say more about college grants for low income workers.
Stacy wonders why Obama never cites the terrible statistics of poverty and class inequality in America – the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world. “Edwards talked about that stuff all the time,“ Stacy notes, “and he had the balls to blame Democrats as well as Republicans for letting it happen. It ain’t for nothing that Nader endorsed Edwards and basically told Obama to piss off.”
Then there was how Obama went to NASDAQ last year and told the lords of finance capital and corporate America that “you care about this country and the future we are leaving to the next generation. I believe your work to be a part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America,” Obama said. “I think the problem is that no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal” [6a].
“That was total bullshit and Obama knew it,” Stacy says. “Those guys will take your job to Mexico or China at the drop of a hat. They’couldn’t give a flying fuck about the USA – believe me.”
Stacy likes how Obama repeatedly identifies himself as a “pro-market” and “free trade” “guy,” saying things like, “Look, I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market”
“Oh, he loves the market? That’s nice. That’s precious. I like that. I’ll give you a translation on that: ‘I love the big banks and corporations that run the market and screw working people over 24/7.’” [6b].
“That was some real ‘free market’ stuff with Freddie and Frannie. I’d like some of that ‘free market love.’”
Stacy connects Obama’s conservative, corporate-friendly positions and silences to Obama’s corporate funding - imagine. He loathes Obama’s decision to blow off the U.S. presidential public financing system and Obama’s claim that his funding base amounts to “a parallel system of public financing.” “All you have to do,” Stacy notes, “is go online to see what a line of total unmitigated bullshit that is. It’s all there: Goldman Sachs - half a million; Lehman Bros, four hundred thousand. There’s about four or five of these big multinational law firms, totally corporate, at three hundred grand at least. And look for Exelon – they’re up there. Whatever. ‘Parallel public financing system’ my ass. This guy wouldn’t have got out the front door of this campaign without big-time corporate sponsorship from the word go. Money talks, bullshit walks.”
And then there’s the foreign policy deception. Having lost a cousin in George W. Bush’s colonial wars, Stacy is tired of “Obama’s bullshitting on Iraq.” He’s “sick of Obama pretending to be antiwar when it’s obvious to any numb-nuts he’d stay there forever. The other thing is that anyone who gets out of there under Obama is going to get shipped over to get his ass shot off in Afghanistan.”
“One thing about McCain,” Stacy observes, “is that he pretty much tells you straight up that he’s all for the wars. Obama pretends like he isn’t. I mean he can’t even sign on to getting Blackwater out of Iraq. Gee, what’s that about?”
“Don’t Lecture Me – Tell Me How You Are Going to Fight for Me”
The other thing Stacy doesn’t like about Obama is his tone. “You should see this guy in person. The guy talks down to you, like a professor or something. It’s like he thinks you’re stupid. It’s this whole Harvard thing: it’s all ‘on the one hand, blah blah blah,, but on the other hand, blah, blah, blah.’ It’s like watching paint dry. He reminds me of Bill Bradley or something. My old man told me about hearing Adlai Stevenson once in Chicago. He said ‘you know, either that guy is really stupid or he thinks I’m really stupid. Either way, I don’t like it.’”
“I went up to hear him in Cedar Rapids Obama’s putting everybody to sleep on currency regulation or something and I turn to the person next to me and say, ‘Jesus Christ, this isn’t a fucking book-signing. He needs to rock the house and get some people good and pissed and ready to run through some walls, like Jesse or Edwards.’”
“Bill Clinton had a helluva stump speech. Even Hillary had more fire in her bones in the town halls. Obama ain’t got it. He isn’t close. I’m not sure he even wants to win at this point.”
“I’d like to get a hold of his handlers and say: ‘Hey, do NOT fucking lecture me. Tell me how you are going to fight for me and kick some Republican ass, ok?”
Some of this reaction might seem counter-intuitive to those whose exposure to Obama is limited to the big televised speeches he delivers so well. But when you see Obama on the campaign trail and in the town hall setting, speaking off the cuff, it can be a little depressing and off-putting. There’s often very little passion in his slow, baritone, and quasi-academic prose. There’s a big indignation deficit in is presentation given the depth and degree of plutocratic and militarist damage inflicted on ordinary people at home and abroad by Bush, the Republicans, the corporations, the Pentagon and their “corporate Democrat”
(Edwards’ repeated phrase in the long Iowa campaign) enablers over the last eight (perhaps I should say over the last fifty) years. Obama sometimes seems like he’s showing off for his former law students, not talking to working people with good reasons to be seriously pissed off at corporations, capitalists, and Republicans. You get the feeling that for Obama, populist outrage doesn’t make any sense. He seems to see working-class anger as dysfunctional, besides the point, and even a little stupid. He is not a fighter
Obama may have been born into relatively obscure origins but he ended up being from Harvard, the Joyce Foundation, Hyde Park, and the University of Chicago. He’s the carefully crafted product of pinstripe patronage and aristocratic vetting sessions in upper-end zip-codes. Like Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and the wind-surfing John (“I am Not a Redistribution Democrat”) Kerry, he is not temperamentally or ideologically wired to channel populism. As with his predecessors, it seems possible that highbrow disdain for plebian populism may be trumping even his desire to attain the presidency [6c].
Watching Obama go yet wonkier and dull and centrist as the corporate-evangelical messianic-militarist Republicans successfully roll out their deadly new faux-populist brand, I’m also starting to wonder if Obama really wants to win. Maybe he figures he’s already got it made for life – which he does. Maybe he thinks the best thing now is just to get his ticket punched and enjoy the ride, secure in his legacy as a beautiful, noble, and superior loser, like Stevenson or Gore.
“What They Deride as 'Class Warfare'”
Whatever his motives, if Obama loses to the arch-reactionary McCain-Palin ticket, it won’t be only because of racism. Among other things, it will also be because he and his campaign were unwilling or unable to make an aggressively populist case for voting Democratic to the American working class.
And that will be a monument to the absence of change in America’s corporate-managed one-and-a-half party system” (Sheldon Wolin’s term), where the Democrats persistent role is to function an “inauthentic opposition” [6d]. It’s nothing new. Given the closeness of the 2004 race and the unpopularity of the heavily plutocratic George W. Bush administration by the summer of 2004, Kerry could have won the last election if he’d run just a little bit further to the populist left.
Kerry’s failure to do that followed in accord with Thomas Frank’s important and widely read but commonly misunderstood book on why many working class Americans vote Republican instead of following their supposed natural “pocketbook” interest in supporting the Democrats - What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America . Released just before Bush defeated Kerry with no small help from working class whites, Frank’s book has often been taken to have argued that Democrats lost “heartland” (working-class) voters with excessive liberalism on “cultural issues” like abortion, gun rights, religion, gay marriage, and gender roles, letting the clever GOP conjure working-class voters away from their “real economic interests” with such “diversionary” concerns . At the end of his book, however, Frank made it clear that that he blamed the corporatist shift of the Democratic Party to the business-friendly right and away from honest discussion of and opposition to economic and class inequality for much of Republicans’ success in winning over white working class voters:
“The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McCauliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far out-weighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and --- more important --- the money of these coveted constituencies, 'New Democrats' think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshipping country really wants to be the voice of poor people?”
“…The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up” .
Today, as in 2004 and during previous candidate-centered corporate-crafted presidential election extravaganzas, the Democrats’ problem is not just that workers are diverted from their real economic interests by racism, liberal cultural elitism, and devious Republicans (Karl Rove et al.) who know how to press “cultural issues” to get working class folks to vote “against their own pocketbooks.” It is also that Democrats collaborate with Republicans in taking class injustice and the workers’ material and (I would add moral-) economic issues "off the table," thereby encouraging lower-class resentment (which abhors a vacuum) to flow into reactionary channels .
“Vacuous-to-Repressive Neoliberal Politics”
Those who cling to the notion of Obama as a “true progressive” whose left and democratic orientation has been “squandered” or carefully hidden thanks to his national political ambitions and/or his political handlers might want to consider an interesting description of the young phenomenon penned by the veteran black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. just as Obama’s political career began.. By Reed’s account, Obama came to the political game in the mid-1990s with an already advanced and highly cultivated bourgeois taste for incremental change and accommodation to power. His finely honed centrism was a habit of thought that flowed naturally from his elite socialization in a corporate-neoliberal post-Civil Rights era at privileged private institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and the metropolitan foundations (including the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Joyce Foundation) on whose boards he sat and in whose circles he moved (a rarely noted aspect of Obama’s biography) while he worked as a Chicago lawyer. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, shortly after the latter won his first election to the Illinois legislature and more than eight years before the world beyond Springfield and the Chicago and Washington money-politics elite discovered the “Obama phenomenon”:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway” .
Clinging to God and Guns
The young Harvard lawyer and state legislator Obama’s ideological character aside, the more seasoned Obama currently standing one election away from the presidency thinks and functions well within the moral, ideological, and policy parameters set by the economic elite. As Alexander Cockburn noted last March, “Wall Street has nothing to fear from Clinton or from Obama, who floats on vast contributions from Wall Street” . The left business and political observer Doug Henwood made a similar point in early April of 2008, noting that possessors of “big capital would have no problem with an Obama presidency. They like him because they're socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he's the man to do their work. They're also confident he wouldn't undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth” .
This was the deeper elitism that “mainstream” (corporate) media coverage deleted when Obama helped provoked charges of class and cultural snobbery with some revealing comments to an elite gathering of fundraisers in San Francisco prior to the April 22nd Democratic primary – won decisively by Hillary Clinton with large support from white working-class voters – in Pennsylvania. “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone for 25 years and nothing’s replace them…And it’s not surprising,” Obama told his wine-sipping West Coast listeners, “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Later, in clarifying his comments, Obama said that poor white small town Americans simply “don’t vote on economic issues,” turning instead to things like guns, gay marriage, abortion and religion .
This sounded like very much like the official version of the “Thomas Frank Kansas thesis,” technically incorrect since working class whites actually vote more on the basis of economic concerns than do affluent whites . The bigger difficulty was that it deleted the deeper Tom Frank argument on how the Democrats lose working class voters by clinging to the corporate center on economic issues, taking the workers’ material concerns largely “off the table,” and running (unlike Edwards’ 2007-08 campaign) from “the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.”
Stacy didn’t like it when Obama went off on the cultural alienation of the proletariat in San Francisco. “The guys I work with would like to vote more on economic issues,” McCoy told me: “OUR economic issues. And that’s not really what the Democrats are about anymore, if they ever were. It’s like they can’t be bothered to come off their high horse to get dirty and really make the case for voting for them. Naw, they’re too good for that old time shit. It’s like we’re just supposed to automatically get it: ‘Hey the Democrats are OUR party. Whooppeee – ain’t this some good shit? Happy days!’”
Last I heard, Stacy is thinking about voting for Nader or McKinney. I don’t know if either of those candidates on the ballot in Iowa, to be honest, but that would sure beat the Hell out of voting for John McCain. There’s a chance that underlying circumstances – including above all the expanding meltdown of U.S. finance capital and a growingly restive and angry working class majority – could push Obama left in ways that help Stacy McCoy and others jump on board the Obama band-wagon.
In the meantime, we are still waiting for Obama to comment in the source of the bitterness that leads him to cling to the guns of America’s corporate-military empire and to a faith in God he propounds before right-wing evangelicals while the nation sinks deeper into the socioeconomic, spiritual and ecological swamp produced by unchallenged structures and doctrines of Empire, Inequality, and Dollar Democracy. “Presidential elections,” Cockburn noted last March, “are mostly about keeping important issues off the agenda, whether it US complicity in Israel’s atrocious crimes in Gaza or the funds voted by Clinton and Obama for the Iraq War, now arriving at its fifth anniversary, or impeachment of a President destroying constitutional protections” . Or the growing misery imposed by “free market” capitalism on American middle-, lower-, and working-class communities of all colors across America, the “beacon to the world,” according to U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), “of the way life should be” . Plus ca change...
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, author, and former labor historian in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987). See Paul's "ZNet Book Interview" at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18670
1. My ethnically matched (Scotch-Irish) pseudonym for a worker, trade unionist, and Democratic Party activist I know in eastern Iowa.
2. Allowing check-card certification of unions, the EFCA could be the most important pro-union labor law to be passed in more than seven decades.
3. Bob Herbert, “McCain’s Radical Agenda,” New York Times, 17 September, 2008.
4. See Bob Secter, “Obama’s Fundraising, Rhetoric Collide,” Chicago Tribune, February 2008, sec.1, p.7.
5. See Mike McIntire, “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama,” New York Times, 3 February, 2008, section 1, p. 1.6.
6. Paul Krugman, “State of the Unions,” New York Times, December 24, 2007.
6a. Barack Obama, “Our Common Stake in
6b. As Laurence Shoup recently noted in Z Magazine, Obama “fail[s] to note that the market loves and rewards those who already have money and power, not those lacking these advantages. To say that you ‘love the market’ is akin to saying that you love the ruling class (the top 1 percent of the population that controls 20 percent of the country’s wealth and nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth) and do not care about the great majority (the 60 percent of the population that controls only 25 percent of the income and 5 percent of the wealth). To say ‘I love the market’ – at a time when the financial system is deflating because of decades of lies about how great unregulated markets are which fueled rampant speculation, phony valuations, and deceitful assurances – is to be deaf to the reality of powerful interests are protected by the government while everyone gets a lecture on personal responsibility. ‘Change we could believe in,’ would involve confronting the perversity of market-driven capitalism….” See Laurence H. Shoup, “Obama and McCain March Rightward,” Z Magazine (September 2008), p. 27.
6c. For elaboration and sources, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), pp. 47-54. See also Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007) and Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How
6d. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
7. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan, 2004)
8, For a recent example, see Larry Bartels, “Inequalities,” New York Times Magazine (April 27, 2008), p. 22. As Bartels points out, Frank badly exaggerated white working-class voters’ susceptibility to cultural diversion: “In recent presidential elections,” he notes, “affluent voters, who tend to be liberal on cultural matters, are about twice as likely as middle-class and poor voters to make their decisions on the basis of their cultural concerns.” In other words, working class white voters don’t especially privilege “cultural issues” (God, guns, gays, gender, and abortion) over pocketbook concerns and actually do that less than wealthier voters.
9. Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, pp. 242-43, 245.
10. For early reflections, see Paul Street, “Frank Discussion: Moral-Economic Abandonment, Race, Security, and Psychological Wages,” ZNet Magazine (November 6, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=72&Item ID=6592%20.
11. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).
12. Alexander Cockburn, “The Spitzer Sting,” The Nation (March 31, 2008), p. 13.
13. Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008
14. Paul Krugman, “Clinging to a Stereotype,” New York Times, 18 April, 2008, p. A23.
15. Bartels, “Inequalities.” Another problem with Frank’s book was that it badly underestimated the roles of race, white working-class (racism, militarism, and “national security” in explaining how the Republicans’ have won white working class votes. For an early critique (and appreciation) of Frank along these lines, see Street, “Frank Discussion.”
16. Cockburn, “The Spitzer Sting.”
17. United States Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Senate Floor Speech, Congressional Record, Records and Proceedings of the 107th Congress, Second Session (October 9, 2002), p. S10149