The howling winds and torrential rain of Hurricane Sandy parallel the barrage of Republican propaganda sent through mail, radio, TV, newspapers, and internet, thanks to the money made available by super PACs and the Supreme Court. Humans are powerless to stop the flood of outrageous assertions swamping their homes.
When you look at what the Republicans are saying, though, it’s clear that the much-ballyhooed conservative swing of 2010 didn’t actually happen: a large majority of Americans, whether they vote Republican or Democratic, want to preserve government entitlements and disagree that they should be reduced to fund the deficit. For that very reason, the Romney campaign is going to great lengths to project its own plans onto the Democrats, so now Republican-inclined voters believe that it is really Obama who is going to cut Medicare and Social Security.
E.J. Dionne asks pointedly: “If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans?”
The hurricane has foregrounded the importance of the role of the federal state in disaster relief and brought global warming back into the political discourse, to the extent that Republican New Jersey governor and, until last week, Romney cheerleader Chris Christie has publicly praised Obama’s efforts, and New York mayor Bloomberg has endorsed Obama for president. Romney, meanwhile, is evading questions about his belief that FEMA responsibilities should be transferred to the states.
Even so, many Democratic party supporters are anxious that the polls indicate a tight result and even the possibility of a Romney victory. Union members canvassing in Ohio told the Guardian they feared legislative destruction of union rights if Romney gets in.
But far from ending the class struggle, the election is going to exacerbate it. Although the presidential debates discussed little that was relevant to most people’s lives – like global warming or poverty – the effects of both are now starkly real in a way that campaign rhetoric cannot obscure.
According to the New York Times, “Many of the bedrock assumptions of American culture — about work, progress, fairness and optimism — are being shaken as successive generations worry about the prospect of declining living standards. … By last year, family income was 8 percent lower than it had been 11 years earlier, at its peak in 2000, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Census Bureau.” Poverty is being created by structural changes in the U.S. economy, in particular automation and part-time working practices.
Suppressing any mention of poverty in the debates hasn’t been able to hide the fact that hurricane-hit New York runs on low-waged labor, which relies on the now-flooded subway system to reach work. Retailers have appealed to their employees, many part-time, to come in, but for most it’s not worth the effort, since their wages are likely less than what it would cost them to get into the city.
The New York Times reports that: “While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full-time, reducing their pay and benefits. … In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers’ schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand. ‘Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts,’ said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aéropostale and Pier One Imports.”
What is strange is that the states with the lowest incomes, the most precarious jobs, and taking the most government help – all in the South – are the most strongly Republican. The rhetoric of religious conviction and the value of families is something that resonates with the low-waged in the South, especially poor whites.
Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein points out in his book Retail Revolution that “regardless of their religion or their cultural values, lower-income individuals live in a much more unstable society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle-class people whose income and lifestyle they covet. … in states that constitute the Wal-Mart heartland—Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana—divorce rates are 50 percent above the national average and twice as high as in more affluent New England.”
Even though the notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart pays the lowest wages in the country, and many of its workers need Medicaid and food stamps to survive, it has been able to command a certain loyalty among many employees until now.
“Wal-Mart’s identification with family, community, and the supposedly traditional values of a bygone era attracts many customers and employees whose own lives are far removed from the stability they crave. … The result is an imagined community where economic and moral lives are interconnected and virtuous. … the low pay, high turnover, awkward shifts, and general precariousness that have become the norm for so many American workers create a longing for community and stability that the ethos of the company seeks to fulfill.” [Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, New York 2009:71]
Although the electoral divide in the U.S. approximates that between the Union and the Confederacy, what we have now is not a civil war but a battle for power between two factions of the ruling elite: one which wants to rationalize the state in a way which preserves the wealth of bankers and corporations, heading off dissent with minor reforms; and the other which wants to overturn all federal regulation and impose Southern labor conditions on the country, removing the social safety net, all the while using the language of morality and family values to obscure their true aim.
However, the mood of resistance among low-waged workers is rising, as evidenced by the strikes of Walmart employees in California spreading to shopworkers in the company’s heartland: recently “… three workers at a store in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, left their shifts to protest outside with homemade placards. They were apparently encouraged by news coverage of the other strikes – the difference being that the Sapulpa employees worked independently of the national group that’s been coordinating the actions, OUR Walmart … ‘I saw what was happening at stores in Dallas and around the country, and I did my research,’ Jeffrey Landry, 34, told the press.”
The huge gap between political discourse and sober reality means that any moves by Republicans to rapidly cut entitlements would have a catastrophic effect on their voting base. Whatever the election result, the Walmart strikes on Black Friday after Thanksgiving will usher in a new era of intense labor resistance.