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This Was the First Class Warfare Election of Our Gilded Age — and the Middle Class Won Big

“God, guns and gays” didn’t work this time. The tricks used to divide working people and counter populist appeals backfired.
 
 
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In 2012, class warfare broke out in American politics. And from the president to key Senate races, the middle class won.

When the 2012 campaign began, the lousy economy made President Obama vulnerable. Republicans were favored to take back the Senate, given retirements in conservative states. Republican billionaires — the Koch brothers, Adelson and others — put up big money in the effort to have it all. Instead the president swept to victory, and Democrats gained seats in the Senate and the House.

Many factors contributed. Republicans learned once more the shortcomings of a stale, male, pale, Southern-based party in a nation of diversity. The GOP “legitimate rape” caucus helped give away two Senate seats. But too little attention has been paid to the new emerging reality. This was the first class warfare election of the new Gilded Age — and the middle class won big.

The Republican nominee Mitt Romney was inescapably the candidate of, by and for the 1 percent. He came from the world of finance and carried their agenda. He won the primaries, as Newt Gingrich complained, because he had more billionaires than anyone else. And the rich right were on a wilding, not only funding the Romney campaign, but also filling the coffers of superPACs and their offspring with hundreds of millions of dollars.

The class war, ironically, broke out in the Republican primaries. After Romney’s victory in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry savaged Romney as a “vulture capitalist,” the “man from Bain” who profited from breaking up companies, shipping jobs abroad, and leaving a broken carcass behind. Romney’s negatives soared, reaching the highest on record.

And of course Romney reinforced the impression with revealing moments that exposed his yacht club cluelessness: “Corporations are people, my friends”; “I like firing people”; elevators for his cars; the $10,000 bet; $375,000 in speaking fees “isn’t a lot of money”; trying to appeal to Bubba because he knows a lot of NASCAR owners. He secreted his past income tax statements, while the one he revealed exposed a 14 percent tax rate on over $20 million in income, with, in the imitable phrase of former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, his money “wintering in the Cayman Islands and summering in the Swiss Alps.”

Needless to say, Obama is neither by temperament nor predilection a populist class warrior. But faced with potential defeat, he turned to what works. The depths of the Obama presidency came in the summer of 2011 after the debt ceiling debacle, in which the president was roughed up by Tea Party zealots, and emerged looking weak and ineffective.

Obama came back by deciding to stop seeking back-room compromises with people intent on destroying him and to start making his case. In the fall, he put out the American Jobs Act and stumped across the country demanding that Republicans vote on it. His standing in the polls began to rise. Then Occupy Wall Street exploded, driving America’s extreme inequality and rigged system into the debate. In December, the president embraced the frame: He traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas, revisiting a campaign stop Teddy Roosevelt had made in the first Gilded Age. He indicted the “you’re on your own” economics of Republicans while arguing that “this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”

In the run-up to the election, the president’s campaign employed two basic strategies. First, the president consolidated his own coalition. He defended contraception and pay equity while his campaign attacked the Republican “war on women.” He reached out to Hispanics by ending the threat of deportation for the Dream kids. He not only ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but also moved to embrace gay marriage. Widely described as socially liberal measures, these were also profoundly bread-and-butter concerns. Could women choose when to have children? Could Hispanic children be free to pursue the American dream? Could gay people gain the economic benefits of marriage?

 
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