This is coming from someone who spent much of his time over the past several months phonebanking and canvassing for Democratic Party candidates in Oregon. I did so because I agree with the Communist Party brochure which stated "The stakes couldn't be higher for the future of our children, our country, the environment and the world. Together, this battle can be won." and "A vote to change control of Congress is a vote calling for tolerance, unity and equal opportunity. It is a vote to reject immigrant bashing and to embrace comprehensive legalization and full rights for all workers....(it) is a vote that says return the troops from Iraq, and reallocate the resources to our cities, towns and rural areas...Changing control of Congress is not an end, but just the beginning."
This is sound logic as seen and experienced from within the labor movement.
Less than one week has passed since the election. The newspapers and airwaves are still full of analysis, much of it half-cocked, and I am encountering a number of younger Democrats crowing over the Democratic victory at the polls and a number of older Republicans wringing their hands in defeat. A survey of some of what I have seen over the last seven weeks seems in order.
The September/October issue of Dollars & Sense is devoted to an overly-optimistic view of "the new militancy" in the unions. We have been hearing about a "new militancy" annually since 1905. Dollars & Sense locates this militancy currently among migrant workers, hotel workers, young people working in fast food and retail industries, in the Smithfield Foods struggle and among flight attendants. I hope they're right, but I'm suspicious of accounts which do not come from the rank-and-file and which do not deal with the complex situations faced by most trade union activists. We have a labor movement in which a suggestion to remove the word "union" from our organization's names can be floated and taken seriously (because it does not get good response in focus groups) and in which we find almost no official support for national health care. The recent Delphi strike and the issues which caused the strike to be called were not politicized to the point of being a factor in the elections. In fact, there is almost no mention of the elections, healthcare or Delphi in this issue of Dollars & Sense.
The November issue of Harper's did much better by carrying a number of informative articles on the elections. In The Kids Are Far Right, Wells Tower reports on the annual National Conservative Student Conference held in Washington, D.C. last July. The article acquaints us with the real barbarism of part of the right and draws the connections between this barbarism and groups such as the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The Cato and AEI editorials heard on National Public Radio provide cover for a political movement which is fundamentally nihilistic. The post-election reader comes away wondering if the Republicans lost the election in part because sections of their core constituencies have abandoned the Party and moved further to the right than the Party itself has, repelling or abandoning more traditional conservativism. A vicious libertarianism may be challenging the Party's neoconservative and religious wings. This raises the possibility that forces among both the Democrats and the Republicans may be playing to a non-existent or weak neoconservative "center."
An article by Gary Younge on Barack Obama in the November 13 issue of The Nation hints at what Ken Silverstein says plainly in Harper's. Obama's base has been with "social activists" but these activists will be disapppointed if they expect much more from him in the near future. For Younge, the constraints on Obama come from complex issues of race and misplaced liberal expectations. For Silverstein, the constraints come from Obama's packaging and repackaging himself in order to get and keep campaign funding. This is the fellow who once backed Lieberman and who stepped back from his own previously-held antiwar and anti-Bush remarks in a speech before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. It is interesting that labor and class are not at issue here. Are labor leaders standing on principle by not supporting someone who vacillates and who plays to the right wing of the Democratic Party, or have they abandoned people of color and "social activists," or do they have their eyes set on Hillary Clinton or John Kerry in 2008?
Writing in the the November 20 issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn gave us a pre-election reminder when he wrote "Pick a topic---the war, the economy, a 2 million-plus prison population, the environment, the condition of organized labor, the Constitution. Can you recall any Democrat this fall having said something on such a topic suggesting that in the event Democrats recapture the House or the Senate or both, anything of consequence might occur?"
Cockburn had a point. We tended to hear the Democrats make promises where there were none. We are so desperate for hope and change, I think, that we allowed ourselves to see the election as an end and the results as a victory. It's wise to remember the Communist point that "Changing control of Congress is not an end, but just the beginning."
The day after the election I listened to Tim Nesbitt on KBOO describe Ted Kulongoski as something like a "working families' Governor." This is quite a statement given initial union hesitancy to support Kulongoski, and Kulongoski's comments during a debate with Saxton that his views on immigration matched those of President Bush. It would seem that not everyone in labor shares the analysis of Dollars & Sense or, worse, that immigrant workers and the militancy they may represent may be thrown overboard in a search for compromises on other issues. Perhaps labor's official program is now so minimalist that it doesn't take much to get the "working families" tag.
Kulongoski's first real speech to labor came just a few weeks before the election. Speaking to a relatively small group of union members, the Governor sidestepped immigration issues, raising the minimum wage, and the war in Iraq entirely, and focused instead on public education, healthcare, and pensions. It was a good speech but he really said very little and promised nothing and he did not have to do a hard sell to the crowd.
By Saturday the Democrats were beginning to talk about Iraq again. A front page article in The New York Times on the Democrats and Iraq raised more questions than it answered. A page 13 article on labor and the new Congressional lineup highlighted the relationship between Blue Dog Democrats and labor and noted that labor is not pushing the Democrats to the left. The article also quoted Gary C. Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, as saying that President Bush may have to agree to a higher minimum wage and higher housing subsidies in exchange for labor not blocking some trade agreements. If this is indeed the case, it is quite a trade-off and speaks volumes about our lack of world and class consciousness within the labor movement.
According to Frank Rich, writing in today's New York Times, Arizona voters turned down immigrant-bashing politicians and the Republicans lost a major share of the Latino vote. The white evangelical vote remained consistently high and consistently conservative. I was disappointed, then, to receive an e-mail from the supposedly-liberal Sojourners saying, in effect, that the vote was what it needed to be and that evangelical voters were rightly rejecting the left and the right.
California Congressman George Miller spoke on National Public Radio this morning and framed the Democratic agenda as supporting increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 over two years, stabilizing or lowering the cost of prescription drug prices under Medicare through negotiation and bulk purchasing and doing something to contain increases in college tuition and associated costs. These are almost all market-driven solutions to systemic crises. If the market had worked in the first place, we would not be having these debates. Given Hufbauer's comments and the unreliability of Blue Dog Democrats, we might wonder what the line of compromise will be and what will get traded off. On the other hand, this could mark a significant defeat for Republicans and either lay a basis for further Democratic progress or, perhaps just as likely, serve to dispose of labor issues for the time being and lay the groundwork for a Blue Dog Democratic presidential nominee.
The media speaks of a Democratic agenda which does not quite match Miller's or, for that matter, labor's words. Iraq comes up but, as noted above, there is little of substance coming forward. Perhaps we can ditto that with immigration, although Kulongoski's position---a position apparently not far from Bush's---is probably generally shared across the upper echelons of the Party. The media adds stem cell research and healthcare. Stem cell research will be problematic for both the Democrats and Bush. (Stem cell research seems to eclipsed the struggle for reproductive rights nationally. The Democrats allowed struggles for gay rights and reproductive rights to be fought out at the state levels without much national press or solidarity and seem to have stayed away from gun control altogether.) The healthcare crisis may be solved piecemeal, if it is solved at all. Labor may officially be satisfied with almost anything which moves towards universal coverage---not national healthcare, mind you, but universal coverage.
In today's Salem Statesman-Journal, Peter Courtney does not bother mentioning labor's priorities, even in passing. In The Oregonian, Kulongoski reaches out to so-called "moderate" Republicans and says that his biggest problems have been with the Senate Democrats. And, again, there is no mention of labor's priorities or agenda.
Rumsfield is out and Gates is in. Listening to Gates' acceptance speech, I was struck by how non-committal on policy and goals he was. Rumsfeld was facing an almost open rebellion from senior military leaders. Some anti-war forces mistook this as liberal pressure on Rumsfeld and Bush, but a close examination of what was being said publicly shows that these were disagreements most generally from the right. The New York Times and National Public Radio both seem to be hinting that there is a serious and fundamental disagreement within the administration over how to move forward in Iraq. The Richard Pearl interview on NPR this morning showed that there are forces around Bush who still believe that the invasion was justified by the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and who have little or no concern with stability there. Others around the administration seem more concerned with stability. The dominant response in the media by the Democrats has been to float, once more, the possibility that Iraq can be turned into a federation of states or communities---a arrogant and imperialist undertaking---and to look at how the war and the occupation have been mismanaged. These are not antiwar positions.
While all of this is going on we have the Borat film in movie theatres. Are art and politics parodying one another in a crude and barbaric---and ultimately racist---dance that reflects America's unease with itself? Does this explain, at least in part, the willingness of Democrats to compromise with the right, Harold Ford's loss in Tennessee, the emergence of nihilistic libertarianism and the weak-kneed approach to labor's minimalist program here in Oregon and nationally?
Who really won on election day? The debate has moved so far to the right in the US that it sometimes seems difficult to say. If the Republicans have lost control of 23 state legislatures and Congress, they have also managed to pressure the Democratic Party into drifting in their direction. Labor, it seems, may drift along with it.
Our major task is to mobilize labor, African Americans, Latinos, youth and women in order to pressure the Democrats on withdrawal from Iraq, justice for immigrants, rebuilding New Orleans, judicial appointments, labor rights, education, clean energy and the environment, reproductive rights and workers' rights. Our success in mobilizing, and the results of those mobilizations, will tell us who really won on election day.