Last Tuesday’s election results confirm a significant divergence between the American public and the political establishment. Voters voiced their resounding opposition to austerity politics and the corporatist policies followed by both the Republican right and the Obama administration. They gave enthusiastic support to social programs paid for by higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, and a defense of public schools from privatization.
Obama’s “Grand Bargain” to rationalize healthcare, foreign policy, and the US deficit is foundering on the groundswell of resistance to neoliberal policies on one side, and a Republican party on the other determined to prevent any meaningful attempt to extend welfare benefits to those most in poverty.
E.J. Dionne comments: “To say that this election nudged the nation leftward is not to claim a sudden mandate for liberalism. But it is to insist that the center ground in American politics is a long way from where it was three years ago — and that if there is a new populism in the country, it is now speaking with a decidedly progressive accent.”
The most significant feature of Bill de Blasio’s crushing victory in the New York mayoral election was his support across demographic lines, from the working poor and middle class to much more affluent voters in Manhattan. What enabled him to overcome the opposition of the media, Wall Street, and a number of city union leaders was the receptiveness of New Yorkers to the growing plight of the low-waged and minorities in the world’s most income-segregated city. His call to tax the rich in order to provide much-needed services for the working poor resonated strongly with the public, as well as his pledge to end police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color.
It was not an isolated success: the most progressive city council in many years was installed in New York, and across the country electoral victories for anti-austerity candidates in Boston, Virginia, and Washington state demonstrated the change in the public mood.
The New York Times reported that the political makeup of the City Council has been drastically changed. “The elected public advocate, Letitia James, a forceful liberal, has spoken emphatically for people seen as marginalized. … For decades, the City Council formed a culturally and fiscally conservative bulwark against the effusions of liberal mayors. It too has grown markedly liberal. This is because of assiduous organizing by the Working Families Party and to the reality of New York: From the hills of the central Bronx to the immigrant-rich flats of Queens and the lower middle-class neighborhoods of Staten Island, the incomes are static and the benefits few.”
The Working Families Party’s executive director Danny Cantor explained on Democracy Now that “the lesson of the de Blasio and the council victories, is that people actually like what we’re talking about when we say, wages ought to be higher, people’s lives ought to be a bit more secure, transportation ought to be a massive investment, so on and so forth. … We are living … in the world Occupy made, for sure … we are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this inequality … the core issue of our time.” The party is based on community activists and labor leaders, he said. “It’s a party of labor, but not a labor party; a party of blacks, not a black party; party of greens, not a green party. You can’t do any of those things in America. It’s too complicated of a country to just be one constituency.”
He referred to the success of another initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an anti-privatization slate took over the school board: “parents and working families and teachers sort of rebelled against the, you know, ‘no child left untested’ crowd that really wanted to privatize, and they won. … I think it’s going to reverberate in … the school reform wars around the country.”
In Boston, too, former union leader Marty Walsh was elected mayor, despite strong attacks from the media. John Nichols pointed out: “They created a video up there that showed him at a rally protesting Scott Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, and said, ‘Do you want this kind of person as your mayor?’ Well, Boston decided they did want that kind of person as their mayor.”
In SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, voters supported a mandate for a $15 an hour minimum wage for airport, hotel, and restaurant workers. The local economy is based on the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was hard hit by outsourcing. Union leader David Rolf explained: “These airport jobs, like baggage handlers, ramp workers, jet fuelers, concessionaires, these are jobs that paid $16, $18 an hour back in the 1970s and the 1980s. They used to be living-wage jobs. … That’s all changed. The major airlines outsourced those jobs and turned them into minimum-wage jobs, which impoverished a whole community. So SeaTac saw its grocery store become a Goodwill and its video store become a pawnshop because the impoverishment of those jobs hurt the whole community.” Voters took the opportunity “to say to CEOs and to Congress that they’re impatient with waiting for them to do the right thing for American workers and it’s time we took matters into our own hands.”
The close result in the Virginia governor’s election was a referendum on the hold of the Tea Party on Republican legislators. Political commentator Ronald Brownstein writes: “[Democratic candidate] McAuliffe essentially replicated the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that allowed President Obama to carry the state twice. Like Obama, McAuliffe triumphed by combining just enough socially liberal college-educated whites with an overwhelming margin among minorities to overcome a cavernous deficit among blue-collar whites. … According to the exit poll, [Tea Party Republican] Cuccinelli carried Virginia’s white voters without a college degree by 69 percent to 25 … McAuliffe captured nearly four-fifths of nonwhite Virginia voters.”
The Southern white working class does not figure in official Democratic party strategy, but this is challenged by progressives who aim to articulate the frustrations of the working poor. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to win over workers who currently vote against their class interests. He believes they will respond to an uncompromising socialist message; speaking to an In These Times reporter, he said: “These are people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, these are people who want Social Security defended, they want to raise the minimum wage, they want changes in our trade policy. And to basically concede significant parts of America, including the South, to the right-wing is to me not only stupid politics, but even worse than that—you just do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people.”
The escalating campaigns for a higher minimum wage and recognition of worker rights at companies like Walmart are also showing signs of impatience with the stranglehold of corporate Democrats on the Obama administration. The public is demanding more fundamental change than the government can deliver. It’s time for a rebirth of the socialist tradition in America.