A deserted feeling in working-class America

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Of all the groups in the Democratic orbit, it is labor that has assumed the most demanding role in this year's midterm elections: keeping the white working class from flooding into the Republican column.

"When our canvassers call on our members on their doorsteps, they hear Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly in the background," says Dan Heck, who heads a massive union-sponsored program in Ohio devoted to persuading its members to vote this November for candidates who would mightily displease Beck and O'Reilly.

Heck's organization, Working America, was created by the national AFL-CIO in 2004 to reach out to white, working-class voters in key swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. "Right now, we talk to 25,000 people every week," says Karen Nussbaum, the program's national director, "and we'll knock on a million doors in the next two months. The people we talk to are the volatile 40 percent in the middle of the electorate. They're angry, and they're not sure who to blame or what to do about it."

"A number of these folks are evangelicals, some are conservatives," says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "We still manage to find common ground with them, talking about ending tax breaks for the rich and penalizing companies that offshore jobs." Poll after poll makes clear that it is working-class whites who have most decisively turned away from President Obama. With only 7 percent of the private sector unionized, the AFL-CIO now reaches out beyond its members to preach the gospel of economic progressivism -- public investment in infrastructure, reviving manufacturing, clipping Wall Street's wings -- to swing voters who, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been card-carrying union members.

Working America can claim some notable successes over the past six years. Its members, recruited on their doorsteps by the group's canvassers, voted heavily for Obama in 2008 -- one reason he handily won Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two states with the most Working America members. But the Great Recession has made labor's task decidedly more difficult this year.

In an April speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Trumka affirmed that "working people are right to be mad at what has happened to our economy and our country." Our political leaders, he continued, need to validate that anger -- and remedy its causes -- if they are to keep that anger from turning into racial, religious and homophobic hatred. The roots of that anger, and of the recession, lie in our creation of what Trumka termed a "low-wage, high consumption" economy in which the manufacturing of things has been supplanted by the manufacture of debt.

Working America's canvassers hear that anger every day -- sometimes directed at Wall Street, sometimes at the president, immigrants and other right-wing bogeymen. They grapple with it by highlighting job-creation programs (improving local roads) and anti-offshoring legislation that Democrats have backed and Republicans opposed. Next week, they'll start campaigning for actual candidates, using these criteria.

Their message is surely the right one. The question is whether congressional Democrats and Obama in particular actually measure up to progressive-populist claims that labor makes for them. That they have passed landmark progressive legislation, and mitigated the scope of the recession, is beyond question. Hampered by Republican opposition, however, they clearly haven't done enough to turn the economy around.

Nor has Obama done what Trumka and his organization's canvassers do on a daily basis: validate Main Street America's anger. That doesn't mean that Obama needs to sound angry himself, God (and David Axelrod) forbid. But labor is on to something that seems to have eluded the White House: If Obama and the Democrats are to have a fighting chance against Beck, O'Reilly and the Republicans, they need to acknowledge how our power elites have betrayed Main Street America, and how Main Street America is right to be enraged. Nearly 80 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt did just that -- railing at the "money changers" of Wall Street who had defiled the nation, even as he crafted programs that created jobs and regulated finance. The Becks and O'Reillys of his day -- chiefly, radio demagogue Father Coughlin -- railed at the New Deal's secularists and Jews subverting the nation, but Roosevelt, with an ascendant labor movement going door to door for him, beat them back.

Like Roosevelt, Obama has created jobs (if nowhere near enough) and regulated finance, but the empathic anger seems beyond his capacities or inclinations. That may be one of the biggest obstacles confronting labor's canvassers this fall.


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