It was just two years ago that our hearts soared when President-elect Obama gave his victory speech in Grant Park. After eight dark years our hopes were buoyed for changes that would address the nation’s deep problems and return a sense of pride in being an American. And on January 20 we wept with joy as we inaugurated our first Black president.
To understand what went wrong we need to look at the very different reaction of another group, the very rich, the plutocrats who had prospered beyond their wildest dreams under previous administrations. They looked upon this new, young, charismatic president with fear and trembling. They saw a man at the head of a massive popular progressive movement that, in the midst of a systemic crisis, could bring about the “wrong” kind of change, change that might narrow the income differences between them and a declining “middle class,” change that might punish the bankers and those on Wall Street who had caused the crisis by their reckless gambling, change that might even nationalize the banks so they could be made to serve the public rather than private interests. And even though from Day One President Obama continued the same bank-friendly bailout program begun in the waning days of the Bush administration and surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders, they were not reassured. Because what was at the root of their fears was his base. Those massive popular forces that had elected him had the potential to demand progressive changes that would reverse the relentless move to the Right during previous decades. They might even force their president to go farther than he intended. An awakened, mobilized populous is a dangerous thing, dangerous to the plutocrats.
And so, they launched a preemptive class war against the new president. They sought to block him at every turn, they hoarded the bailout money rather than release it as credit into the productive economy, they strategized to destroy the president, as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has openly stated. Through the copious use of the filibuster, the minority party in the Senate blocked initiatives. In a quixotic quest for bipartisanship, President Obama and Congressional Democrats appeased the Party of No again and again. It was such appeasement that empowered his opposition… and disillusioned his base.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of working Americans found themselves without work. Homeowners faced the loss of their homes. Millions found the American Dream slipping away as they experienced downward mobility. Austerity and insecurity became the new normal – insecurity, and resentment. Resentment that the government was giving trillions of dollars to save the rich, but doing too little to rescue ordinary Americans. The plutocrats and their allies were very successful in deflecting this resentment away from themselves and directing it against government. Rather than seeing government as the instrument of the popular will, many came to see government as the enemy. Since the Reagan administration the public had had it drummed into their head that “government is the problem.” Now many were all too ready to see “big government” rather than “big business” as the problem.
This has fueled the Tea Party movement. Financed by plutocrats like the Koch brothers, organized by their operatives and encouraged by lavish attention from the corporate media (especially that political machine called Fox “News”), this reactionary populism grew in the absence of any progressive populism. Some, although not all, of its followers could have been won to a progressive movement and maybe still can. What is needed is an organized effort (from unions?) to highlight how it is the giant transnational corporations, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus on “free trade” that is destroying the “middle class.” Such anti-globalization sentiments are strong among Tea Party rank and file as well as in the population as a whole.
What if the AFL-CIO declared a moratorium on all job relocations from the US and backed this up with militant mass actions and public outreach at the local level? [As suggested by Roger Bybee in the November issue of Z Magazine.] Such actions could go far to educate the public, winning them away from the corporate Right and mobilize them into a progressive movement for change we can believe in. The last two years should have made it obvious by now that we cannot wait for Obama to lead such struggles. We’ve waited too long for a savior already. Real change will have to come from a social movement, not from the political elite. The present political system is dysfunctional. Democracy requires the action of the people, it always has and always will.
A class war is underway in the U.S. As Warren Buffet has observed, so far his class is winning it. That’s because we haven’t been fighting. When will we begin?