The 2012 presidential race is shaping up as a new kind of political fight being fairly openly fought around the issue of class and inequality with racial overtones.
Not so long ago, during Barack Obama's 2008 election for example, class was the "C" word; class was virtually a forbidden topic in American politics. During the Clinton era, politicians sidestepped the issue and got votes by appealing to the "middle class." American voters were taught to think of themselves as members of a nearly classless society within a naturally prosperous nation.
During Obama's first presidential election, his main response to the serious and growing economic crisis was to maintain the fiction that the interests of all economic classes, whether rich or poor, were identical. The 2008 presidential campaign, on the Democratic side, was all about hope.
The hope was that once the economy recovered, as it always did in the modern age, a new tide of economic recovery would lift all boats. This recovery would ease racial tension aimed at immigrants and the low income minority voters who made up much of the Democratic party base.
Especially under the post-9/11 period of corporate domination, the wealthy interests supporting the Republicans were benefiting from exploitative policies that resulted in extreme income inequity. This really amounted to class warfare, but to even raise the issue of inequality would bring immediate charges of inciting class warfare from Republicans.
Even as late as last year, frank discussion about economic injustice was deemed to be such a sensitive topic that Obama was afraid to discuss the issue of rampant and growing economic inequality. Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote at Politico that,
in May 2011, historian Robert Dallek finally asked Obama what the group [meeting in the White House's Family Dining Room] could do to help him. Obama's answer went right to a present-day concern: "What you could do for me is to help me find a way to discuss the issue of inequality in our society without being accused of class warfare."
In the 2008 election, Obama had been packaged and sold to voters as the wise and moderate choice. A reasonable African American, a non-partisan political mechanic willing to work with anyone to fix the economy.
He was elected as a man focused on helping a capitalist system, temporarily indisposed by financial excess, to recover. Fixing the economy would require everyone to pitch in and make some sacrifices to restore economic health to Wall Street, from whence benefits would trickle down for the common good.
How fast our politics can change. The 2012 election is now shaping up to be much more about anger and political polarization than hope. This election is now akin to choosing between two armies defined by class interests. Both parties are actively engaged in partisan warfare on the battlefield of congressional politics.
This legislative branch of federal government is essentially gridlocked and dysfunctional on basic issues of policy. Despite his willingness to compromise on virtually everything, Obama is being portrayed as a socialist intent on inciting class warfare.
Jason L. Riley wrote at The Wall Street Journal that,
After securing victory in all five Republican presidential primary contests last night, Mitt Romney told an audience in New Hampshire that President Obama is resorting to class warfare because he can't run on his record.
During the Republican primaries, each candidate had tried to outdo the competition by appealing to the large numbers of voters identifying with an increasingly angry and extremist Tea Party faction that is united with corporate interests in unquestioned devotion to U.S. military power and global finance capital. Government regulation of private capital has become the new enemy.
The Republican party line is that with bold finance capitalists like Mitt Romney in charge, private capital can be freed from the crippling influence of government regulation, thus opening the way to a new era of jobs and prosperity. The Republican convention in Tampa was pretty much dominated by angry white high income party activists ready for a political war against liberals and their fellow travelers.
Many had assumed that with Romney safely positioned as the Republican party nominee, he would tone down his extreme right-wing positions and become more like the moderately centrist governor of Massachusetts he used to be. However, his choice of a leading anti-government ideologue, Rep. Paul Ryan, pretty much blew that theory. Romney has chosen to run as an extreme right wing, selectively anti-government candidate.
Tim Dickinson wrote in Rolling Stone :
The GOP legislation awaiting Romney's signature isn't simply a return to the era of George W. Bush. From abortion rights and gun laws to tax giveaways and energy policy, it's far worse. Measures that have already sailed through the Republican House would roll back clean-air protections, gut both Medicare and Medicaid, lavish trillions in tax cuts on billionaires while raising taxes on the poor, and slash everything from college aid to veteran benefits.
In fact, the tenets of Ryan Republicanism are so extreme that they even offend the pioneers of trickle-down economics. "Ryan takes out the ax and goes after programs for the poor – which is the last thing you ought to cut," says David Stockman, who served as Ronald Reagan's budget director. "It's ideology run amok."
Why class conflict is back in style
With the help of the unlimited corporate cash made possible by the Citizens United ruling, it seemed possible until a few months ago for the Republicans to essentially buy the election. It is now beginning to look as if the Republicans have gone so far to the right, and so fast, that they have generated a backlash of fear that the polls indicate is likely to cost Romney and his corporate allies the presidential election. The Republicans now seem to be in panic mode, willing to use any means to try to hang onto power.
In the midst of this period of intense political polarization, Obama can't expect to run again as a centrist, offering not much more than scaled back hopes and still expect to win. Since Obama's election four years ago, the optimism of his core supporters has greatly faded. The public has watched Obama bail out the banks with their tax money without seeing much in return. Under the Obama administration, the rich have been getting richer fast, while most U.S. incomes have declined in real terms.
The 2010 movie Inside Job revealed the truth about institutionalized exploitation of the general public by the biggest banks and their allies. Wall Street bankers were revealed as gamblers promoting risky deals, confident that their bad bets would be covered by either the Federal Reserve or U.S. taxpayers. The public saw scandalous exploitation of the middle class by the unchecked power of concentrated wealth. Yet nobody went to jail.
The economic crisis was actually global, leading to a global upsurge of riots and protests. In early 2011, the Arab Spring, with economic roots, shook the established political order of the Mideast. In September of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed to come suddenly out of nowhere, a great wave of publicly expressed political outrage against gross inequality and rapacious class oppression by those the Occupiers termed "the 1%."
The Wall Street Occupation captured headlines and stayed in the U.S. news for months, as government officials worked behind the scenes to stem a nationwide surge in regional occupations modeled after the original Zucotti Park Occupation in Manhattan.
The new middle class divide
The Occupy movement has portrayed the current situation as a battle between the oppressed masses and their ruling oppressors; a struggle between the few and the many. This picture presented by the Occupy movement, of the 1% exploiting the other 99%, is true in its way, but still too simple to explain the political dynamics behind this election.
The 1% formulation leaves out the economic forces that drive the Tea Party support and their less energetic sympathizers who also vote out of the political equation. As David Goldman points out in his "Spengler" column at Asia Times, the once monolithic American middle class is now internally divided into roughly equal groups, each with their own distinctly different economic interests and political perspectives.
The great split down the center of American society is not between the rich and the middle class, as the Obama campaign suggests, but within the middle class itself. This helps explain why Paul Ryan was a smart choice for the second spot on the Republican ticket. There are still more people paying taxes than getting a check from the government, and their patience with tax creep is exhausted. The home price collapse wiped out nearly half the median family's wealth during 2007-2010, but the tax burden middle-class homeowners continued to rise...
Now the baby boomers are entering their 60s after losing nearly half their wealth, in the least business-friendly environment the country has had since the 1970s. Rising taxes at the state and local level, and unprecedented deficits at the federal level, worry the middle class, with good reason.
Americans are concerned about the lack of opportunity, but they are even more concerned about the risk that they may lose what little they have left. It's not enough to promote entrepreneurship, as Romney does so enthusiastically. It's also important to talk about deficits. That is the thrust of the Tea Party, a classic middle-class creditors' party responding to the well-justified fear of higher taxes and inflation.
With this situation in mind, it gets a lot easier to make sense of the 2012 presidential election as a political contest between two emerging sectors of an implausibly large middle class, each with different perceptions and class interests.
The upper income sectors of the middle class tend to vote Republican, trying to protect their modest savings from federal taxation that would benefit the poor. They fear a loss of their savings that would be squandered on social programs to benefit the poor, those who don't pay federal taxes, and who tend to vote Democrat.
The top 1% already have most of the wealth and all the political power they can buy, but they lack the numbers needed to win an election. This being the case, the natural course is for the 1% of Republicans to ally themselves with the upper income sector of the middle class, who vote Republican based on their hopes, fears, and class interests.
The video secretly made of Romney speaking to his wealthy contributors revealed a man who views the election in just this way. In order to win the election, Romney needs to pit the interests of the affluent 50% of middle class taxpayers, focused on their own wealth preservation, and get their support in opposition to those who depend on a multitude of federal benefits like pensions, social security, food stamps, and what remains of the social safety net.
The Republicans are united in opposition to nearly all government taxation in theory (excepting foreign domination and bank control perpetuation costs). This outlook is rooted in the Tea Party source of political support, since their anti-tax position requires the broad support of voters to win elections. Realistically the Tea Party is motivated by trying to minimize the tax burden placed on the "have a little and desperate to save what's left" sector of the middle class, which is increasingly fearful of sinking toward poverty through taxation.
In this regard, the Tea Party sector is in a strategic alliance that overlaps with the prevailing desires of the 1%; the very wealthy who oppose nearly any changes to the status quo, which would be likely to cost them very much to implement. All this based on a predictable preference for the very rich to employ as little of their own money to stay as rich as possible, and for as long as possible." According to The Huffington Post,
Voters remain overwhelmingly pessimistic about a still sluggish economy, yet appear poised to reelect President Barack Obama because of perceptions that he understands their lives better than Republican nominee Mitt Romney and would do more to favor the middle class rather than the very wealthy.
The nightmare scenario for the 1% and their Republican allies is that the currently repressed but still deeply held sentiments visibly expressed by the Occupy movement remain, ready to be channeled and expressed as support for Obama over Romney, as is indicated in an October 1, Gallup Poll.
More Americans believe middle-income earners would be better off in four years if President Barack Obama is re-elected than if Mitt Romney wins, by 53% to 43%. The public also says lower-income Americans would be better off under an Obama presidency, while, by an even larger margin, they say upper-income Americans would do better under Romney.
In other words the polls suggest that the public is really viewing this election in terms of their class interests. They suggest that a populist pendulum of political awareness may be swinging to the left, perhaps even picking up speed as it goes. Obama's previous hope is now being replaced by fear of Romney's rapacious greed-junkie reputation.
The context is that many American families are barely surviving now. Members of the Democratic Party base are pinning their diminished hope on the promises of a somewhat more combative and re-imaged Obama. If Obama isn't FDR, at least he isn't Mitt Romney, who scorns them in private on the secret video.
As Saul Alinsky used to say, there are only two real sources of power -- people power and money power. If Obama fails to satisfy even on the scaled back expectations of his popular base during his second term, things could head in the direction of Greece. Lacking a decisive edge in corporate money power, he has to depend on continuing political support from his popular base for his people power.
Obama told a meeting of bankers in 2009 that he is the only thing standing between them and the mobs with pitchforks. In the absence of mobs with pitchforks, and also without effective support from Congress, Obama lacks negotiating power:
"My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks," Barack Obama told the CEOs of the world's most powerful financial institutions on March 27, when they cited competition for talent in an international market as justification for paying higher salaries to their employees.
Arrayed around a long mahogany table in the White House state dining room, the bankers struggled to make themselves clear to the president, but he wasn't in a mood to hear them out. He interrupted them by saying, "Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen. The public isn't buying that."
The latent potential of left populism
The 2012 presidential race is in this way shaping up as a new kind of political fight being fairly openly fought around the issue of class and inequality with racial overtones.
Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, describes the current reality of class in the USA as follows:
...in America today we have the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on earth and... the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. Today, the top 1 percent earns more income than the bottom 50 percent of Americans. In 2010, 93 percent of all new income went to just the top 1 percent. In terms of wealth, the top 1 percent owns 42 percent of the wealth in America while the bottom 60 percent owns just 2.3 percent...
Most Democrats and Republicans are far too dependent on corporate money to talk as candidly as Sanders does. However, if Sanders and other independent progressive voices like him keep talking about class and civil rights in an honest way, people are likely to start listening to them more than Obama.
In proportion to the attention people pay to Bernie and other truthful populists, it is going to get increasingly harder for those like the Koch Brothers to maintain the control of the 1%. It is a lot easier when people are ignorant and there are only "lesser evil" choices.
Put in political context, this election outcome is of huge importance. Not because of what Obama can or will accomplish, but because of what the public desperately hopes and expects that he can get done -- as a sign of a revival of American class consciousness.
It is important because of what is likely to happen in consequence if the public's scaled-back expectations are not satisfied. This election is in an important way a de facto political referendum on the populist goal of preserving what remains of a social safety net dating back to the great depression.
Obama must depend on retaining wide support to deliver on expectations. His claim that he is the only thing standing between them and the "mobs with pitchforks" needs credibility. Lacking a threat of mobs with pitchforks that he can successfully restrain, plead for, and then help in some modest way, Obama lacks both political power and purpose.
The public will expect Obama to bring some relief as their benefit for electing him. If elections can't bring change, then the public support for government plummets, meaning the 1% will increasingly have to resort to naked power to maintain class control.
This is not easy to do in a nation that can see more clearly than ever that class does indeed make a difference, and that they will probably be better off listening to Senator Bernie Sanders than to President Barack Obama.