The Audacity of Populism
Eighty-one percent of Americans now agree that "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track," the most since this question has been asked and a remarkable preponderance of pessimism by any comparison.
And this recession is only beginning; real home prices have dropped only about 13 percent, since peak) after rising 70 percent (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) from trend levels until mid-2006. There is a long way to go before we see a sustained recovery.
The combination of a long, deeply unpopular war and what looks like it will be the worst recession in at least 25 years -- and possibly much longer -- carries the potential for serious political upheaval. It would take political incompetence of the highest order for the Democrats not to score significant gains in Congress and win the presidency in November.
But first Barack Obama, the likely Democratic candidate, has to clinch the nomination. The experts agree that if he wins Pennsylvania on April 22, the race will be effectively over.
His major obstacle is the race issue, and this will probably be true for the general election. The white working-class voters that will swing Pennsylvania in the Democratic primary will probably also be the swing voters in the general election (if it turns out to be a close election). The whole flap about Obama's pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, was mainly a means of introducing race into the campaign.
Obama's brilliant speech on March 18, which confronted the issue head-on, elevated the level of discussion and managed to win high praise from both the New York Times (which had endorsed Clinton) and the Washington Post (an early and strong supporter of the Iraq war) editorial boards. This was no mean feat. But there is only a limited amount of education about race and racism that can take place during an election campaign -- in fact we may have already seen most of it.
The Democrats have not taken the majority of the white vote in a presidential election in 44 years. After the civil rights movement had won its victories in voting rights and other institutional changes in the 1960s, President Nixon's "Southern Strategy" molded the white backlash into a semi-permanent electoral majority for the Republican Party. President Reagan launched his 1980 campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- a place most known for the murder of three civil rights workers in the 1964. The speech was about "states' rights," long known to Southern whites as code for racial segregation. It was no coincidence, and Reagan's other coded messages about such concepts as "welfare queens," helped to consolidate the Republicans' political niche as the "white people's party." It is rarely talked about here, but similar phenomena in poorer countries are often referred to as "tribalism."
But there is one way that Obama can reach those white working class voters who are currently -- without consciously recognizing that it might have something to do with race -- groping for excuses not to vote for him. It may be old fashioned, but he can appeal directly to their class interests. He has moved in that direction since losing these voters in Ohio and elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, he is talking about how he has "met too many workers who have to compete with their teenage kids for jobs at the local fast-food joint that pay $7, $8 an hour because they lost their pension and their health care."
But he needs to do more. He needs to convince these voters that he will do everything in his power to protect them from the impact of this recession. He should say: "Enough already with the billions of our tax dollars going to the bankers and the homebuilders and the greedy, irresponsible, super-rich people who got us into this mess." He can promise he will fight for legislation that would ensure that no homeowner who can pay the current rental value of their home -- now generally much less than their mortgage payment -- will be evicted. This is something that could be guaranteed easily with no cost to the taxpayers.
He needs to propose a bold stimulus package -- several times larger than the relatively small amount that Congress has passed -- on a scale that we have not seen since the New Deal. Something that would focus on employment creation and deliver jobs to the de-industrialized areas where 3.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost over the last decade. He needs to promise labor law reform that will restore the right of workers to join unions and protect their wages, which have not even kept up with inflation over the last year and have stagnated over the last three decades.
This kind of appeal won't please the media and the pundits, who will rail against "class warfare" and "populism." But it can win over these "Reagan Democrats" whom the party has been unable to capture since 1964. They are more ready than ever for a strong populist message, and as the recession deepens, the gap between them and the media's conventional wisdom will widen. He can talk about how the Iraq war, too, drains resources that could be used to help working people here at home.
According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, only 13 percent of registered voters think Obama would pursue polices that favor the rich over other citizens; 53 percent think McCain would do so. What Obama needs to do is convince the swing voters that this difference will have a significant impact on their lives. If he can do that, he will do well in Pennsylvania, and will most likely become the 44th President of the United States.