Surveying the wreckage of his party’s 2014 election campaign, Howard Dean, on the November 9th Meet the Press, was candid, with such sound bytes as, ““Where the hell is the Democratic party …You got to stand for something if you want to win.” The Republicans’ message was, “We’re not Obama.” What was the Democrats’ message? “Oh well, we really aren’t either.”
Translation: “Get my message; we need a message.”
No matter how hard the Democrats tried to demonize their Republican rivals—the data in several states show a far higher rate of negative ads from Democrats —they couldn’t match the Death Star ferocity of the GOP message attack: the failed presidency of Barack Obama. That energized the Republican base. Nothing so potent was tendered to bring out the Democratic base vote, especially among white workers.
In election eve comments, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka placed the blame on the victors’ having “enough big-money backers to drown out the truth.” He did see hope in a number of ballot issues that directly aid working people, especially raises in the minimum wage (Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska) but also including mandating open school board meetings (Colorado), a right to vote amendment that proponents say precludes voter ID requirements (Illinois), guaranteed birth-control prescription coverage (Illinois), a millionaires’ tax (Illinois), and repeal of the automatic gas-sales tax increase (Massachusetts). Many passed in the same states that swung to the Republicans.
“The defining narrative of this election was confirmation, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Americans are desperate for a new economic life,” Trumka said. “In way too many elections, they got a false choice. In these very difficult times, they did not a get a genuine economic alternative to their unhappiness and very real fear of the future. But when voters did have a chance to choose their future directly—through ballot measures—their decisions are unmistakable.”
One such opportunity happened in Richmond, Cal., where the Richmond Progressive Alliance ran candidates for city office against a slate owned, in effect, by Chevron, the city’s main employer. Chevron red-baited the progressives, spending $3 million on a whispering campaign suggesting one of the insurgents was gender-challenged and another was “a dangerous anarchist” because he took part in nearby Oakland’s Occupy action.
That pricey disinformation gambit didn’t work; the Alliance is a group with a 10-year history of recognized successes, including being instrumental in raising the minimum wage; cleaning the air—largely by wrenching agreements out of Chevron; lowering energy bills; and ending the police practice of driver’s license checkpoints. Among its many campaign issues: saving the local medical center, fighting for teachers’ rights and better schools, and instituting job training for youth and other local residents at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. And what is singularly important: it’s a 24/7 operation; they don’t fold up between elections, but serve as the political base for elected officials committed to social change instead of corporate control. As the Alliance’s basic literature says, “It is between elections that corporations and entrenched interests have the most influence in bending government to their way.”
A giant October rally saw more than 500 attendees pack the Richmond Civic Center—to meet the candidates and hear Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the slate and predicted the Alliance and its grassroots work would prove a model for other cities. The three council members plus the mayor, a well-known area independent running on their slate, are now Richmond’s elected leadership.
Few Working-Class Issues Prominent in Campaigns
It would seem that, in principle,Trumka was right about working people reliably voting their class interests when those interests are starkly drawn. So why weren’t working families’ needs front and center on candidate appeals? Why wasn’t wage stagnation pinned on the GOP? Or Wall Street banking theft? Where were the critical living wage demands? And where was organized labor in making these class issues part of the Democrats’ campaign? Why didn’t it disabuse the Democrats’ notion that keeping their heads down and waiting for the GOP to implode is not a strategy; it’s barely a tactic. Continue reading