Thinking Through and Beyond the Election



I admire any person who'd rather think than sulk. Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and his response to Tuesday's Republican landslide was to order his thoughts, lay them out in an e-mail, and on Friday send it to friends. One of those friends is my sister Michele, and so it came to me. If you're trying to get a grip, you should find Dreier's work helpful.


An occasional media critic, Dreier got his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1977, and his dissertation was on Chicago's newspaper culture as he found it, with particular attention paid to the old Chicago Journalism Review, established in 1968 in response to everything wrong with that culture. Here's a piece he cowrote for Editor & Publisher a year ago on journalism's mishandling of the ACORN story.

And here's his reaction to this week's elections:

Friends and Colleagues:

You’ve already been bombarded with analyses of Tuesday's election. Most of these mainstream analyses have to do with the "mood" of the country. Do Americans think Obama and the Democrats went too far in promoting "big government" solutions? How did the Tea Party seem to come out of nowhere to have such a big influence? Was the election a repudiation of liberal values and policies, proving that America is really a "center right" country? Why was turnout so low among liberals, Democrats, young people, and people of color? Was there really an "enthusiasm gap" among Americans who had supported Obama and the Democrats in 2008? Is that because (a) Obama and the Dems didn't live up to their expectations? or (b) Obama and the Democrats enacted a robust and progressive agenda, but did a lousy job of selling it to the American people, including their own base?

Below are some of the more interesting analyses that address these questions. I’ve linked quite a few articles in this list. I’ve divided it into three sections: (1) Big Money = Big Winners. (2) The Voters — What Happened? (3) What To Do Now? Scroll down, look at the topics, and decide which ones to read now and which ones to put on your “to-do” list….

1. Big Money = Big Winners:

Almost every mainstream political pundit has missed the real story of Tuesday's election. The real winners are America's biggest corporations, banks, oil and energy industry, the insurance companies, the super-rich, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

* The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has done us the huge favor of articulating in simple terms its agenda for the next Congress. Here it is. For the next two years, we can expect the Chamber and its business allies to expand their “cry wolf” warnings that any proposal to require big business to be more responsible, to protect consumers, the environment, workers, and working families will “kill jobs.”

* A small network of business groups and right-wing Republican political operatives, including Karl Rove, did an extraordinary job of raising and targeting huge amounts of money to Republican candidates, including several supported by the Tea Party. NPR put together this inter-active chart, "A Web of GOP Influence" that identifies the key players. NPR reporters did an outstanding job of researching this business/right-wing political operation. Here's an article that explains what they uncovered.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was the key player in funneling money to GOP candidates and paying for TV and radio ads attacking the Democrats. Read this Washington Post article by Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, about the Chamber's influence.

Another big winner on Tuesday was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the court, whose "Citizens United" ruling opened the floodgates for massive and hidden corporate cash directed to conservative candidates and campaigns, as Zach Carter and Joshua Holland explain in these two short Alternet blogs: here and here.

The Tea Party ’s success is due in large measure to the millions of dollars pumped into their organizations and their candidates by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers (as Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker), money funneled through organizations run by former Cong. Dick Armey and other political operatives, and millions of dollars of free publicity provided by Fox News (run by former Republican operative Roger Ailes) and by the many right-wing radio talk show jocks like Rush Limbaugh. Without that big-money support network, the Tea Party would be a chaotic, fragmented network of local cranks and kooks.

As Jake Blumgart and I report in our Huffington Post column on Tuesday, the Tea Party and the Republican Party establishment are ideological twins. During the past month, the mainstream media invented the idea that there was a major rift within the GOP. There certainly differences in style and rhetoric between some Tea Party candidates and other Republicans, but their policy views are almost identical. For example, the fiery Sen. Jim DeMint (the Tea Party’s top cheerleader in the Senate) and buttoned-down Sen. Mitch McConnell (the Senate minority leader) have virtually the same voting record.

Harold Meyerson’s column in the Washington Post last week points out that the years that the Tea Party zealots consider the “golden era” of American prosperity they mean “back to the period between 1950 and 1980, when the vast majority of Americans encountered more opportunity and security in their economic lives than they had before or since.” This period was anchored by major government initiatives (like the interstate highway program, the space program, and federal housing programs), strong unions, and a redistribution of income from the top to the middle and bottom!

2. The Voters: What Happened?

The important questions are “who voted” and “who did they vote for?”

Ruy Teixeria’s excellent analysis of Tuesday’s election reports the following: “Turnout levels were also unusually low among young and minority voters and unusually high among seniors, whites, and conservatives, thus contributing to a massively skewed midterm electorate.” This is another way of saying that young voters, minority voters, liberal voters, and Democrats voiced their frustrations by staying home, while conservative voters voiced their frustrations by going to the polls. Another word for what Democrats did is: “self-defeating.”

Low turnout among young people made a big difference in many key races on Tuesday. In 2008, 66% of voters under 30 voted for Obama — a landslide by any standards. Even more remarkably, 54% of white voters under 30 voted for Obama two years ago — the only age group among white voters that gave Obama a majority of their votes. In 2008, under 30 voters represented 18% of all voters.

Last Tuesday, under 30 voters represented only 11% of all voter. Among those under 30 voters who came to the polls, 57% voted for Democrats — a huge margin, but considerably smaller than their Democratic vote two years ago. The Obama campaign did a remarkable job of inspiring and mobilizing young voters in 2008. Little was done in the past two years to keep them politically engaged.

The exit polls show that low turnout among voters who supported Obama and the Democrats in 2008 was compounded by voters who switched from voting for Democrats in 2008 to voting for Republicans last Tuesday. For example, 13% of voters who supported Obama in 2008 voted for Republicans in House races last Tuesday.

Union members and their family members came through for Democrats on Tuesday, giving them 60% of their votes. But union households represented only 17% of all voters this year. Two years ago, union households represented 21% of all voters, and 59% of them supported Obama.

African Americans came through for Democrats, too. They gave Obama 95% of their vote in 2008, they gave Democrats running for the House 90% of their vote on Tuesday. But two years ago, African Americans comprised 13% of all voters; on Tuesday, the comprised only 10% of all voters. Like young voters and union voters, their decline in turnout hurt Democrats in close races.

3. What To Do Now?:

We’ve had two days now to wallow in self-pity and finger-pointing. Now it is time to figure out what to do differently to reverse these losses in 2010. What should progressives do? What should Obama and the Democratic leaders do?

On Monday night, the wonderful Rachel Maddow did us all a big favor by devoting 15 minutes of her show to documenting the incredible legislative successes of Obama and the Democrats in the last two years. It is worth watching. Yes, Obama wasn’t able to deliver everything progressives hoped for when we campaigned and voted for him in 2008, but, as Maddow points out, his total legislative accomplishments are remarkable. Obama didn’t do a great job selling his achievements, and the cynical media didn’t help by giving the Tea Party and their GOP friends a huge megaphone to attack everything Obama did. But progressives and liberals also bear some responsibility for the “enthusiasm gap” that kept so many people away from the polls on Tuesday.

Amazingly, as Harold Meyerson notes in today’s Washington Post, Americans who blamed Wall Street for the nation's economic problems favored Republicans over Democrats by a 14% margin!! It is time to reframe the debate over which party is in Wall Street’s pocket!

In his column Tuesday, Robert Reich reminds us that during FDR’s first term, almost every major business organization and leader, as well as almost every daily newspaper in America, attacked his New Deal ideas — such as Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act — as unwarranted “big government” and even “socialism”. During his re-election campaign in 1936, FDR mobilized public opinion against his political enemies. “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he thundered. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” FDR won re-election in a landslide. Reich suggests that Obama and progressives should follow FDR’s example.

Obama’s biggest victory (which the Republicans now hope to repeal) was the passage of the historic health care reform. As I wrote last May in the American Prospect, that victory happened because progressive groups — unions, consumer groups, community organizing groups, and others — mounted a grassroots protest campaign that saved the health care bill from defeat. The activists focused public attention on the influence and greed of the insurance industry, and gave wavering Democrats, including the President, the support they needed to push for a reform bill. Progressives and liberals need to sustain an permanent protest campaign focusing on the outrageous greed, irresponsible practices, and political influence-peddling of big business. It would help if the President and the Democratic leaders were partners in this “inside/outside” strategy.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Marshall Ganz, who helped design Obama’s grassroots organizing effort in 2008, argues that Obama needs to find his voice as an inspiring “transformational” leader, and, in doing so, help unleash the potential power of his 2008 supporters.

We need to constantly reframe the public debate to remind Americans that the Republicans, like Cong. John Boehner (the likely next Speaker of the House) and Sen. Mitchell McConnell, are wholly-owned subsidies of corporate America. That’s where they get their money. That’s their agenda. In case you’ve forgotten already, here it is again.

Boehner, McConnell, and their corporate sponsors have already declared war on Obama, the Democrats, and any attempt to tame corporate abuses, or reduce income inequality and poverty. McConnell today repeated that his top priority in Congress is to make Obama a one-term President. As Ganz, Reich, and others have written, this is no time for Obama and the Democrats to compromise principles for the sake of an illusionary bi-partisan consensus. Boehner, McConnell, DeMint and the other Republican leaders have absolutely no interest in bipartisan compromises.

In an article on the Alternet website yesterday, Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, the progressive think tank, has outlined a public investment policy agenda.

Two recent issues of the American Prospect include special reports that offer a road-map for the Obama administration to rebuilt the economy — “Jobs Well Done” (in the October issue), and “Recovery, Not Austerity” (in the November issue).

As progressives, we have a responsibility to push our allies in the White House and Congress to propose legislation to put Americans back to work (including a second jobs bill), force banks to renegotiate mortgages and stop foreclosures, and raise taxes on the wealthy who have gotten wealthier while the rest of America was sinking. If the Republicans propose repealing the health care bill, Obama should remind Americans that the GOP wants to allow insurance companies to deny insurance to sick people (with “pre-existing conditions”) and raise premiums arbitrarily. Like FDR, he should dare the Republicans to oppose bills that will put Americans back to work, save their homes, raise taxes on millionaires, and force insurance companies, mining companies, oil companies, and banks to behave responsibly.

If you’ve gotten this far, stick with me for two other matters:

The newly-energized Republicans will ratchet up their attack on government, public sector employees, and public school teachers. The attack on school teachers takes the form of calls to evaluate teachers using standardized test scores of students. The Economic Policy Institute released a fantastic report a few weeks ago documenting the serious problems with this approach. The report is cleverly titled, “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers." The report was written by some of the nation’s leading educational researchers, including Diane Ravitch, the former Bush administration education official who has changed her views about conservative ideas she once promoted. Ravitch’s new book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education), and her recent article in the New York Review of Books, “The Myth of Charter Schools,” are both well worth reading.

Although Obama’s stimulus plan was not big enough, it nevertheless has helped the country avoid a Depression-level collapse. In general, neither Obama nor the mainstream media have done a good job reporting on the many public works projects and private sector jobs created by this investment of public funds. But there are exceptions to this good news, and one of them is in my hometown of Pasadena. There, the City Council targeted its entire $11.1 million federal stimulus allocation for a politically-connected development project that will create poverty-level jobs. In the current issue of the Pasadena Weekly, I expose this outrageous misuse of federal financing in an article entitled, “Poverty Living at Luxury Prices.” The city’s stimulus funds are going to a developer who wants to convert a former retirement home for 160 elderly and disabled residents (who were illegally evicted) into a luxury hotel that will create about 75 poverty-level jobs!!!! Pasadena’s business community and its historic preservationists joined forces to support this project, but a coalition of union, community, and faith-based activists are trying to get the City Council to rethink their decision. Over the past 15 years, activists in cities across the country have fought for local “living wage” and “accountable development” laws, with many successes, as I wrote about in the American Prospect earlier this year. (“Good Jobs/Healthy Cities” - . Pasadena hasn’t quite learned that lesson. Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, makes a similar point in her great Huffington Post column, “Good Jobs: The Only Cure for Poverty.”


Peter Dreier

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