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.