The drubbing of Obama and the Democrats in the midterm elections offers many lessons. There are obvious ones, such as confirmation of the old saying, “All politics are local.” While the polls were akin to a civil war slaughter with an electoral battlefield stained blue, the Democrats did manage to defeat some right-wing and Tea Party candidates on the two coasts even as virtually the entire South and large portions of the Midwest gave the Republicans a heavy boost.
The second lesson is a “New” New Deal is not possible under the current political configuration. If we are lucky, the next two years will be a time of gridlock in Washington. For if the right prevails, hang on to your wallets and head for the high ground. If the Obama administration buckles under on oil drilling in the Gulf Coast and Arctic, thereby putting environmental issues on the back burner, and “compromises” on Social Security, like Bill Clinton’s signature on the Welfare Reform Act 15 years ago, we are in for another huge puncture in the 75-year-old social programs, and the climate apocalypse will be nearer.
A less obvious lesson is that Obama (and many Democrats) hates politics. He refuses to accept that politics involves choosing one’s enemies and pursuing them to the final victory. In his characteristic tin-eared fashion, President Obama responded to the election rout by calling for a new era of cooperation between the two parties. If Obama finds a partner, it is likely to be on the partner’s terms. Will the hard right have the temerity to follow through on its promise to curb Social Security and Medicare, which remain the third rail of American politics? Or will Obama clear the path for them by reviving his lame post-politics line, a stance he temporarily abandoned as his party was drowning?
The Limits of Jobs
For many on the left the failure of Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to address the jobs crisis — favoring huge bank, insurance and auto industries bailouts instead — set off the electoral avalanche. But could the economic malaise have been remedied by better policies alone? Would Obama have avoided disaster if he had focused on jobs instead of healthcare?
While the two parties drone on about jobs, they remain silent about stagnant wages and private-sector job growth that is overwhelmingly in low-paid sectors such as food and home services, the repository for many undocumented immigrants. If Obama had a jobs program would it have been a direct injection into people’s pockets rather than bank coffers? That is what the ballyhooed plan to staunch millions of foreclosures turned out to be: another bank bailout.
Lesson number four is that liberals are more fearful of mobilizing their base than they are of the right or of the consequences of the Obama administration sacrificing popular needs in order to serve finance capital and the war machine. German filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder summed up the current liberal mindset in the title of his powerful 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. A few liberal economists like Nobel Prize laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz support more stimulus programs directed to ordinary people, but cannot bring themselves to call for a “New” New Deal. Labor, civil rights, feminist and environmental movement leaders are unwilling to find ways to force the administration’s hand. It took nearly two years of right-wing organizing at all levels before the AFL-CIO and its allies finally mounted a demonstration, the “One Nation” rally in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2. Safely tucked in the Democrats’ fold, the liberal groups refused to criticize Obama and the rally degenerated into cheerleading for the Democrats.
France and Greece in the Streets
Contrast the absence of mass demonstrations in the United States with France and Greece. When Nicolas Sarkozy’s government proposed raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and extending the age of full benefits from 65 to 67, it provoked strikes, street demonstrations, factory occupations and road blockages. For the first time since 1968, students joined workers in the streets and universities ground to a halt. The three major unions united to sponsor the strikes and street actions, joined by virtually all parties on the left, from the centrist Socialists to the Communists and the Anti-Capitalist Party who previously could not agree on anything. In Greece demonstrators filled the streets after the Socialist government announced new austerity measures to shift the crisis onto public employees.
While defensive struggles, these mass mobilizations went beyond relatively narrow issues. Unions and left organizations correctly understood these governments were trying to reverse the post-war compromise — which even center-right administrations agreed to in the past — of exempting the social welfare state from draconian cuts. Sarkozy and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s hubris is certain to reignite the struggle for power, though it might be confined to parliamentary alternatives. In France some are talking about radical change and are re-imagining what a new French Revolution might look like. While the Greek Socialists emerged from the direct action phase with victories in local elections, the political situation there has become increasingly unstable.
For two years, flanked by his neoliberal team of head economist Larry Summers, Fed chief Ben Bernanke and as Treasury Secretary, the grim Tim Geithner, Obama has adopted the discredited trickle-down policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations of which Summers and Co. were architects. Economic growth has inched forward as the federal government poured trillions into corporations, but joblessness remains devastatingly high.
In the United States, the “U6 rate” — which tracks unemployed, underemployed and discouraged workers — is at 17 percent of the active labor force. Add to that another 3 percent or so who have dropped out of the labor force entirely, have never held a job or were forcibly retired on small Social Security benefits and even tinier pensions, and you have a real unemployment rate nearing Great Depression levels.
The Democrats have not figured out the fifth lesson: In capitalist societies, in times of economic crisis, all politics are symbolic. FDR discovered this early in his first term. While no enemy of capitalism, he addressed rampant youth unemployment by instituting a Civilian Conservation Corps to clean up the rivers, forests and urban dung heaps, and put many to work in a Public Works program to rebuild the roads, the streets and public buildings. From 1933 to 1935 the Roosevelt administration put more than 2 million unemployed workers directly on the federal government’s payrolls. With falling tax revenues, it financed these programs by increasing the national debt, the reduction of which is a sacred cow in the current debate.
By 1932 more than a quarter of the labor force or about 13 million people were out of work. Roosevelt understood that the prestige of his policies depended not on solving the crisis, which is beyond the capacity of a capitalist state, but in populist initiatives that could yield immediate results, regardless of their actual economic impact. Politics is about perception, not chiefly solutions. Now, as well as during the 1930s, the state has no intention of implementing full employment, though back then the state had the option of all-out war. Joblessness keeps wages down and usually prevents the working class from rising up unless it is organized by radicals.
If history is a guide, the Democrats would not have staved off some losses this time even if they switched priorities. Nearly every midterm election witnesses such slippage. But they might have held on to the House. Moreover, the healthcare and financial regulation bills are so flawed that many Congressmembers who voted for the bills failed to defend them during the campaign.
One undeniable factor is the crumbling of the Obama coalition. Around 29 million voters who cast ballots in 2008 stayed home this year. Young voters, aged 18-29, who trend heavily Democratic, fell from 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 to a paltry 11 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the senior vote skyrocketed from 16 to 23 percent, and went Republican by a 21-point margin. Fewer women, blacks and Latinos showed up, and the Democrats suffered some gender disaffection. By every measure, the 2010 electorate was white, older and conservative, and Republicans gained in every category. In the Midwest the working class was either missing or shifted right, especially in Michigan, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois.
The Democrats failed to mobilize their traditional constituents to vote because they did not perceive enough differences between the parties. It is not unreasonable to view the Republicans and Democrats as virtually identical in their core beliefs — that the main problem is the deficit, that the huge war economy and the Afghan and Iraq wars are unassailable, and that the business of government is business. The best face on this convergence is to charge the Democrats with timidity, which ignores the fact that they are in the pocket of big money.
Deeper still is the widespread disillusionment, shared by millions, with the state — not only the government but also the education system, the unions and many cultural institutions responsible for maintaining our sustaining ideologies of progress. Everyday life is increasingly fraught with uncertainty and danger. The “informal” economy of drugs, prostitution and petty theft beckons for many young men and women who do not qualify for military service.
Meanwhile, state and local governments, once the haven in a heartless labor market, are shedding workers with a rapidity that wipes out prospects for a large segment of the racially oppressed. There may be some deflation in housing prices, but food, healthcare and rental costs are climbing. The cost of post-secondary schooling has gone through the roof, leaving many workingclass students, especially youth of color, behind. For millions of blacks and Latinos, the term “middle class” remains an elusive goal. Yes, the lives of the top 20 percent of these groups have improved since the Civil Rights struggles forced the hand of the state, but 80 percent are worse off.
Midwestern cities are a shambles. After decades of decline, New England is split between relatively prosperous metropolitan areas like Boston and Providence and industrial wastelands such as Bridgeport and Fall River and decimated fishing and textile towns. Even the once booming South and Southwest have witnessed the flight of textile mills and apparel industries that once employed hundreds of thousands at lousy wages.
These are “economic” issues, but they are experienced as a vanishing horizon of opportunity to become workers in industries that offered low wages, but allowed young people to survive. Factory disappearance prompts massive youth migration. But to where? How many dreams can San Francisco, New York and Atlanta accommodate? Is the next destination for trained technical workers Mumbai?
While hard times are not a novelty in America, this is no cyclical recession. It marks a new era. There is no immediate prospect for the return of decent factory jobs, and employment that is available requires credentials and skills. Experts say that education is the key to escaping from poverty and a life of contingency. But as jobs for qualified workers shrink, graduation rates are declining as well. Less than half of recent high school graduates can expect to earn an associate’s degree or more. This trend reflects a return to times when most people lived off the land or on factory labor. But farm and industrial technologies and deindustrialization have made chronic unemployment a reality for perhaps a quarter or more of the work force in the coming years regardless of growth rates.
The United States is declining as a leading source of productive activities. As personal and government debt mounts, it remains doubtful that we can renew the economy on fictitious capital, the main form of which is consumer credit used to buy homes and cars, and pay college tuition and health bills.
Enter war and military power. We are evolving into a militarist state. The war psychosis absorbs a huge chunk of our national budget and has become politically unassailable, meaning budget cuts will fall on social programs. Arms are among our most buoyant exports. Most dangerous, the state, under the Democrats more than the Republicans, has literally fulfilled George Orwell’s nightmare of Big Brother. In the name of the dubious war on terror, the government has won the right to tap our telephones and spy on our emails, Twitter, Facebook entries and electronic technologies to come.
We like to ascribe McCarthyite hysteria to the right. But the drift toward authoritarian rule is riding a wave of Democratic initiatives. Uncomfortable? Only for those who persist in emphasizing the few differences between the parties and ignoring the degree to which both are in the thrall of big capital.
Stanley Aronowitz is a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of 25 books. He is co-author with William DeFazio of The Jobless Future.