United States: Who speaks for the 99%?

"It was decisive action and mass defiance – ultimately forcing the use of federal troops -- that ended Jim Crow legal segregation... Fundamental and radical change, as history shows, comes by mass direct action and popular outrage. Martin Luther King marched and demanded equal rights under Republican and Democratic presidents."

By Malik Miah

February 8, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Against the Current-- The bitter truth about US politics is that neither of the ruling-class parties speaks for the working class or poor. The Democratic Party’s President Barack Obama likes to talk about the “middle class” and how he stands up for them, but he rarely mentions that poverty disproportionately hits African Americans and Latinos. While he personally supports social programs for the working poor, his proposed budgets would reduce funding for these programs.

The Republican Party is worse. It proposes massive cuts in Medicaid spending that services the very poor (the Ryan budget slashes $1 trillion) and is campaigning that the poor need to pay more taxes at the same time it demands new tax cuts for corporations and the supper-rich .01%.

The Republican presidential candidates seem to only speak for the 1% and upper class. Mitt Romney, the leading candidate and former private equity fund manager of Bain Capital, openly states that he’s “not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net”. He’s tried to say that wasn’t what he meant -- but of course it’s exactly what he meant, even if he didn’t mean it to sound that way. Naturally, he’s not worried about the rich either, since his proposed economic plan lowers their taxes even more.

Romney’s net wealth is reportedly $250 million. He lives off investment income. He hasn’t had a job in more than a decade. He jokes about being unemployed. In 2010 and 2011, his tax returns show $43 million of “passive income”. He paid 13.9% in federal income taxes, while maintaining several offshore bank accounts that conceal much of his fortune.

Romney’s rivals in the presidential field (as of February) are just as out of touch with working people. The former speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, creates a make-believe caricature by labelling Obama a “European socialist” who channels the views of his Kenyan-born father; Obama is “un-American, and not one of us”, Gingrich tells his supporters.

Former senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum has made his central qualification to be president that he is more Christian than the Pope. He opposes the rights of women — opposing not only abortion rights but contraceptives. He despises gays and looks down on public education. When asked at a campaign rally about the high costs of health care and medicines, he ridiculed the questioner and defended the right of drug companies to reap big profits.

The libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul says the Federal Reserve is evil and wants the country to return to the “gold standard”. He opposes the 1960s Civil Rights Acts, claiming they violate ”individual liberty”; he defends the “right” of property owners to refuse to serve, rent or engage with anyone they please. A son of the US South, his meaning is clear: bigotry trumps equality. Racist newsletters were published under his name in the 1990s.

The way it isn’t

A common theme of the Republican presidential candidates is how they want to go back to the United states prior to the first African-American president. Those who dropped out of the presidential race — former Texas governor Rick Perry (who had a "niggerhead" rock on his ranch), Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Tea Party favourite) and a former business executive from Georgia, Herman Cain (the self-proclaimed real “Black man”) — were similar in substance but simply more obviously ridiculous.

In the Republican view, Barack Obama is a creation of the liberal media, and thus his election was a fluke. Their USA is one where whites of all classes feel comfortable with the government that looks like them -- a country where the ethnic minorities know their place.

The far-right conservative apparatus (Republican elites, talk-radio blowhards and think tanks funded by billionaires) advocate income inequality and social Darwinism. Their publications like Forbes magazine, National Review and financial newsletters/seminars preach the virtues of market superiority and why wealth inequality is the engine for US-style capitalism.

“Greed is good and regulations bad” is their motto. They define it as the basis of “American exceptionalism”, claiming it’s why the United States is the greatest and most innovative country, and in Romney’s words, “the hope of the world”. They argue that anyone can become rich, showing that income and wealth inequality is a sign of a vibrant market system. (The reality is that there is less “social mobility” in the United States today than in most other industrial nations.)

Herman Cain explained that it is the fault of the unemployed for not having a job. Gingrich says Black children lack a work ethic and should take the jobs of unionised school janitors. He called Obama the "food stamp” president, arguing that people who need food stamps to feed their families do so because they don't want to work. Romney explains how “corporations are people; money is free speech" and how banks feel pain too.

The “survival of the fittest” ideology of the right wing includes the view that capitalists are superior to the working class and poor, because they are smarter and create wealth. This social-Darwinist creed is rarely so openly spoken, which is why many Republican leaders were upset when Romney spoke their true views about the poor.

The majority of Americans, including Republican voters, believe the rich should pay higher taxes. Americans support unemployment insurance and social security. They support public workers who fight fires and teach their children in public schools.

Why race-baiting works

Facts are stubborn things if known. Misinformation and lies, however, can appear as facts if the billionaire-driven propaganda machine repeats them over and over again. That’s why the far right focuses on the mythical Obama and employs a race-baiting strategy.

The far right and establishment Republicans all know that subtle and not so subtle race-baiting is the most effective weapon to attack the president, knowing that he won’t respond directly. Obama does not want to face a counterpunch by the right claiming he is “playing the race card”.

The tactics of the far right are working so far. Their hatred of Obama is visceral. In thinly veiled racist rhetoric, right wingers appeal to many millions of white people, especially in the deep south, who look down on or don’t trust Blacks.

Most whites, however, aren’t racist and recoil from the far right’s race-baiting. The best answer to racism is to go on the offensive and educate people about what’s being done. The failure over the last three years to do so is a central reason why so many blows and setbacks have occurred for voting and civil rights. The African-American leaders don’t dare cause problems for the Black president by marching in the streets.

It is possible the extreme transparency of the far-right racist appeal will backfire as independent voices speak up. It could lead to the reawakening of the social organisations against the right. The labour movement led recall campaign in Wisconsin, the Ohio referendum on labour rights, and most significantly the broad-based defence of Planned Parenthood shows the potential for victories.

The rulers’ best president

Whether or not Obama is reelected, he’s not the solution even if he is the bogeyman target of the far right. Obama is not a “socialist” or even a New Deal liberal. Ironically, an objective look at Obama’s policies shows he’s at best a centrist Democrat.

Obama’s economic program and his foreign policies (the president who killed Osama bin Laden) are mainstream capitalist and imperialist politics. His use of unmanned drones (more than George W. Bush used in his eight years in office), his execution of US citizens abroad without charges or trial (al-Awlaki in Yemen) and his decision to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) after promising to veto it, show where he stands.

The NDAA is quite telling about Obama’s disregard for democracy and support for an imperial presidency. The Act states quite clearly that it is legitimate to arbitrarily arrest US citizens without subsequent benefit of legal counsel. It allows possible torture and imprisonment of non-citizens, legal residents and citizens whom the president declares to be engaged in activities “harmful to the United States”.

As an olive branch to civil libertarians, Obama said he didn’t agree with all of the new law. Then he vigorously defends its powers. The fact that habeas corpus is thrown under the bus has gotten little play by the pro-Obama or mainstream media.

On domestic polices Obama’s key decisions, from health care to help for small businesses and the big banks, come from previous Republican and conservative playbooks. While the far right presents a fantasy Obama to their supporters, it knows he is not a threat to “American capitalism”. The real reasons are cynical and strategic: how better to win an election than by demonising Obama?

Yet even this is not the primary motivation for the most extreme wing of the Republican Party. Its objective — the real goal of the organised far right — is to seek to turn back the clock to an era where the demographics of the country were predominantly white, and where power remains in their hands even as people of colour become a majority in the US by 2050. To them it is not one election, but future elections and power relationships.

Obama’s re-election in truth is in the best interests of the ruling class. He reflects the future demographics of the country and ruling class, not the past. A move to reverse gains of 50 years could in fact lead to a social backlash that the government and Wall Street might not be able to contain.

Impact of OWS movement

The weakness of a mass response to the right’s attacks has fuelled the extremists’ belief they can impose positions that are not supported by public opinio. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is changing the equation.

Obama is reflecting the themes of OWS in his campaign speeches. It’s a way to deflect the race-baiting tactics of the Republicans -- without actually discussing race and racism -- and to line up with popular anger against the super-rich.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), between 1979 and 2007, incomes of the top 1% grew by an average of 275%. During the same time period, the 60% of Americans in the middle of the income scale saw their income rise by 40%.

Since 1979, the average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households has decreased by $900, while that of the top 15% increased by over $700,000, as federal taxation became less progressive. From 1992-2007 the top 400 income earners in the US saw their income increase 392% and their average tax rate reduced by 37%. In 2009, the average income of the top 1% was $960,000 with a minimum income of $343,927.

In terms of ownership of wealth (income, real estate, investments) the top 1% in 2007 owned 34.6%, while the bottom 80% owned 15%. The numbers shifted even more after the great recession of 2008. The top 1% now own 37.1% of overall wealth, and it is rising. The financial income gap is even wider.

The problem for working people, the oppressed and poor is the rhetoric of Obama and liberals is talk about “shared sacrifice” when in truth the only group sacrificing are the bottom 80%. Obama calls for a modest increase in taxes paid by the wealthy, but he also says the 99% must accept a restructuring of Medicare, Medicaid, social security and other social programs.

Romney paid, like most 1 per centers, less than 14% in federal income taxes. In 2011, corporations -- which the US Supreme Court says have the same rights as people -- paid only 12.1% of their profits in federal taxes, the lowest in at least 40 years (The Wall Street Journal, February 3). The average middle-income worker pays twice that.

Obama understands that defending capitalism at home and abroad is his job as president. Giving some support for the concerns of workers and poor is the best way to keep the popular anger within the Democratic Party.

The most significant development in 2011 was the rise of the OWS movement that Democrats and Obama seek to co-opt. It changed the debate in most of the country from balancing the federal budget to income inequality — “99% versus 1%”. It has inspired the unrepresented, the poor and labour to demand fundamental change.

Mass action and independent movements

Those suffering the most are told to throw their energies behind re-electing Obama as president. This is no solution.

It was decisive action and mass defiance – ultimately forcing the use of federal troops -- that ended Jim Crow legal segregation. Women won the right to vote by direct mass action. The labour movement’s major advances in the 1930s were not gifts from FDR but were won through mass action, including sit-down strikes. Today, the labour movement is declining because it is too weak to protect its previous gains and organise new members.

Counteroffensives ensued after each of these historic victories. The ruling-class goal was containment, then rollback. They knew time was on their side so long as their political power was not threatened. Social movements would eventually decline with complacency or exhaustion.

Black equality would be partially rolled back (most affirmative action programs and school desegregation plans). Yet integration did not slow down; the rise of a Black middle class, free to move to suburbs and to work and live in areas historically denied even to affluent African Americans, continues.

The latter trend has led to deeper class divisions within the Black population as the less-educated, homeless and lower- income Blacks are left behind. During the era of legal segregation that was not possible for the Black educated. Whites “accept” for the most part this professional layer, which is present even on Wall Street.

Martin Luther King Jr., whose monument now sits in Washington, used non-violent mass civil disobedience to win basic civil rights in the 1960s. The movement did not focus on politicians, and King continued the movement for full equality speaking up for the very poor with his “Poor People’s” campaign.

For women to go much beyond the right to vote it took a second wave of feminism, winning gains in employment and reproductive rights. Immigrants’ rights and basic rights for other minorities arose on the backs of the civil rights movement. The movement for gay and lesbian rights took direct action too.

It was no accident that the conservative President Richard Nixon signed many of the most significant civil rights laws in that period.

The counteroffensive against these gains began in earnest in the 1980s. The shift from mass pressure and action demanding fundamental rights, and the resulting integration of many of the leaders of the social movements into the major parties, helps explain why the far right’s counter offensive for 30 years is succeeding.

The contradiction is that the very progress that led to the election of the first Black president is the same reason for today’s racist backlash. The victory of the civil rights revolution, winning for Blacks the right to vote and some slice of political power, led the white segregationists to flee to the Republican Party that now uses racial code words to win elections. The goal of the counterrevolution is not a return to the 1950s laws of Jim Crow segregation, but to retain the old power relationships of a bygone era

What next?

What happens next depends on the social movements and independent political action by the working class and poor. It means focusing demands on institutions of the state — both parties of "free enterprise”, the president, Congress and the courts. This is the lesson of Occupy Wall Street, which seems diffuse but in fact targets the power of the 1%.

So long as the political framework is defined by the fight between Obama and the far right in 2012, the working class and poor will be weaker and unable to advance their own interests. At the same time, the Black community will stand behind Obama as the racist attacks against him escalate.

A majority of Latinos facing anti-immigrant policies and comments like those made by Newt Gingrich (“Spanish is the language of the ghetto") and other minorities will also likely vote for Obama. (The only exception is Cuban Americans, who enjoy their privileged position of immediate legal status as soon they step on US territory.)

Established labour unions will also vote for Obama and the Democrats. So who speaks for the working class and poor?

No capitalist political party does. Rather, it’s the diverse independent organisations and voices seen at Occupy Wall Street and the many social organisations that place demands on the government and state for working people, minorities and the poor.

These activities are not dependent on electoral politics or presidential elections. The challenge is to continue with these efforts, while knowing that most working people of colour will likely vote for Obama as a firewall against the most extreme racist and right-wing forces in the country.

Fundamental and radical change, as history shows, comes by mass direct action and popular outrage. Martin Luther King marched and demanded equal rights under Republican and Democratic presidents. The movement won. The legislation and structural changes came after the victory, not the other way around.

[Malik Miah is an editor of the US socialist magazine Against the Current.]