Workers Left in Dust at Expense of Social Issues

By Christopher Cook

Watching a presidential election show in the US from overseas offers an interesting “outsider” perspective. Sometimes it helps one see broader trends (the forest rather than trees). For instance, what is going on now with the Republican Party?

Starting about 40 years ago, the Democratic Party fell apart when it abandoned the working middle class and the labor unions that supported it in order to focus on social issues (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environment, etc.). It took political courage to fight for those progressive social issues, and no thinking person with a conscience can fault the Democrats for doing so. But was it necessary for the Democratic machine to take its eye off the economic ball in order to do so? I think not. In any case, it was a grave error.

By abandoning the industrial base of the US economy and watching as the jobs shifted overseas, the Democrats lost the support of the majority of working middle class Americans, many of whom did not give primacy to social issues they felt didn’t directly concern them.

Soon enough, these voters were picked off by the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Democrats tried (often unsuccessfully) to cobble together a coalition of minorities, women, gays, environmentalists, etc., along with die-hard liberals from the professional middle-class. These coalitions have never provided the Democrats the kind of reliable, sturdy and broad party base it once enjoyed. Now the Republican Party has repeated the same pattern. It, too, abandoned the working middle class while focusing on social issues like family values, prayer in schools, abortion, anti-gay legislation, immigration and racial fears, etc., while enriching investors who make money off banks and global corporations that build economies overseas in low-wage countries.

While the Republicans catered to regressive social sentiments — a nostalgia for the past and fear of the future — what was left of the nation’s industrial base was swirling down the toilet, leaving a so-called “service economy” in which some money gets exchanged but little real wealth gets created. The wealth that is created is mostly paper wealth (financial market gains for those who own capital) and predominantly goes to the super-rich 1% (or 5%, if you prefer). As for the working middle class? Abandoned once again. At least economically. And they know it. Disgruntled Tea Partiers taking to the streets was the first sure sign of that.

So now the Republican Party, until recently a solid coalition of conservative social advocates and conservative economic interests, has splintered: the social conservatives versus the Big Money boys versus the anti-government libertarians. Or, if you will, the Gingrich/Santorum and Romney and Paul factions, each distrustful of the others. The Republican center, like the Democrat center before it, cannot hold because it doesn’t exist anymore.

Someday historians will look back and ask, “Why did the Democrats, and later the Republicans, focus on social issues while abandoning the economics of the working middle class?” And I suspect the answers will be something like this: The Democrats abandoned the working middle class (at the time largely white, fairly conservative on family issues, and heavily dependent on labor unions) because the party itself became increasingly dominated by liberal professionals who did not make their living making things.

They were lawyers, academics, media and political consultants and the like. That is, “service sector” professionals. People who made very comfortable incomes leeching off the industrial base, off the working people who actually made real things to sell: autos, appliances, shoes, steel, etc. For these liberal professionals, social issues became more important than the economic issues from which they were increasingly insulated, and which they eventually abandoned through neglect.

Whereas the Republicans abandoned the working middle class because the party’s economic principles and values — deregulation, free trade, corporate power, etc. — never really supported their economic well-being. Behind the curtain, the wizard pulling the levers was the Big Money boys all along. Their advocacy of conservative social causes was an expedient means of controlling the political system. And it worked. The political system is more for sale now than it ever was, as are the politicians who manage it. And the social conservatives are, at least for the moment, disoriented. After all, their party is about to nominate a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who they don’t even trust.

Which raises the question: Is there now a political party that really represents the economic interests of the US working middle class? After all, it isn’t just labor union wages that make American workers “uncompetitive” in a global economy; not even minimum-wage workers in the US can compete with Chinese workers making a dollar an hour.

So it appears that most American middle-class voters this year will face a choice between two main political parties, Republican and Democrat, neither of which really have their economic interests at heart. Whether Obama or Romney wins the presidential position won’t matter as much as everyone pretends. Campaign rhetoric aside, even on social issues the two are more alike than different.

The Show, however, must go on. It raises aspirations and expectations for millions of hopeful voters. Well, for a year anyhow. And perhaps that is no bad thing.

Christopher Cook, a former US journalist and union activist, and author of fiction books and stories, lives in Prague, Czech Republic. See

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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