Probably the most striking feature of the recent election was that it appeared to be a clear victory for multicultural America. The long-running, right-wing Republican strategy of attacking women and the nation’s many minorities collided with a multicultural electorate, symbolized by the re-election of an African-American president. The question is: What are the longer term implications of this victory?
First, it should be noted that this was a watershed election for the gay community. Not only were openly gay candidates elected more often than not (US Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, six out of seven openly gay or bisexual US representatives, seven states electing their first openly gay state legislators, and voters in four states supporting same-sex marriage). Rather clearly, too, the repulsive Republican comments regarding rape and abortion helped to mobilize the strong Democratic vote by women. And of course, huge majorities of the black and Latino population voted for Obama.
As Jon Stewart tweaked a Bill O’Reilly lament, with tongue firmly in cheek, it was the “moment when the family from the 1950s sit-com, ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ ceased to be real.”
I would argue that the spread of consumer capitalism and popular culture throughout the mass media makes it increasingly difficult for attacks on these populations to produce electoral success, especially as people of color continue to increase their share of the populace. That’s the upside.
On the other hand, however, race may be the exception to this rule – in part, because white racism commonly sees lower class when imagining or encountering people of color, and in part, because this perception gains credence from the fact that huge, impoverished minority populations have been trapped in our inner-city ghettos for decades. Class inequality, in short, gets reinforced by racism, and racism gets reinforced by class inequality. With the exception of a few years in the 1960s, the federal government has done more to create this condition than it has to remedy it, largely because the government designs federal policy around market incentives that predominantly benefit the better off. And racially coded attacks on poor populations have buttressed right wing campaigns all the way back to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, producing what historian Michael Flamm has called the “Southernization” of American politics.
Which brings me back to the election. There is one very important sense in which social class became significant in this election. With its 99% / 1% symbolism, the Occupy Wall Street movement created broad public awareness of the grotesque degree to which the extremely wealthy have for decades benefitted at the expense of everyone else. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they nominated a candidate who could readily be identified with the 1%, and the Obama campaign made the most of this opportunity. Given the intransigent recession, it’s unlikely Obama would have been elected if there hadn’t been an Occupy movement.
Furthermore, in the post-Citizens United (US Supreme Court decision) era, huge campaign contributions by the richest fraction of the 1% – Karl Rove’s Crossroads America, Sheldon Adelson and his ilk – were soundly and repeatedly rebuffed by popular votes. One can take pleasure in the fact that their hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions essentially bought them nothing.
At the other end of America’s inequality, however, the profound level of poverty in America, the fact that the mortgage debacle that triggered the economic recession disproportionately impacted people of color, to say nothing of the virtual invisibility of our inner cities – all were left out of the campaign spectacle created by six billion dollars in campaign funds.
A 2011 US Census Bureau report noted that nearly one in six Americans is poor (up 12.5 percent since 2007), while one in five American children live in poverty – as do more than one in four blacks and Latinos. It’s worth noting, however, that the census counts a family of four as poor if their total income is below $22, 314 a year, whereas Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty maintains that twice the poverty level is needed to enable families “to meet basic needs.” An AP report this past July noted that the poverty rate is likely to “climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s.”
Yet, as the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) documented in their own study, of eight major national media outlets, poverty “barely register[ed] as a campaign issue” – a mere 17 out of 10,489 campaign stories in major national media during the last six months of the campaign. “PBS News Hour” aired a single campaign story addressing poverty, while “ABC World News,” “NBC Nightly News,” NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and Newsweek carried no campaign stories featuring poverty.
One reason the mass media pay so little attention to poverty is that neither of the two major parties address it, and the Beltway fixation with the so-called “fiscal cliff” virtually ensures that this will continue despite the fact that bargaining between the White House and Congress is likely to increase the burdens being placed on America’s poor, working and lower-middle classes.
Issues of class and economic inequality will only make it onto the nation’s political agenda if people come together around their shared grievances to build a mass-based political movement. This means building bridges across the divides that have long been inflamed by right-wing rhetoric. Perhaps, following the lead of organizers in the Occupy movement, this solidarity can be expedited by making debt a centerpiece of organizing – bringing together those who bear the burdens of student debt, homeowner debt, credit card debt, medical debt, and even those populations who are losing out because local governing bodies are weighed down by municipal debt. That’s a lot of people on whom the 1% has been profiteering.