The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 43           November 23, 2004  
Middle-class contempt for workers
fuels liberal panic over U.S. elections
(front page)
U.S. president George Bush won another four years in the White House November 2 by a significant margin. He received 51 percent of the popular vote, compared to 48 percent for Democrat John Kerry. The result was even more stunning to liberals and middle-class radicals because the turnout was larger than in previous elections and closer to what Democrats and their hangers-on worked for and dreamed about. About 116 million people, or 58 percent of eligible voters, went to the polls—the largest percentage since 1968, according to the Associated Press—and Bush won 3.5 million more votes than Kerry.

Middle-class liberals and social democrats in the United States and abroad reacted with contempt for the working class. They argued that Bush won the election because most of the “American people,” by which they mean a majority of working people, are ignorant and reactionary. They portrayed Bush as dumb and those who voted for him as even dumber.

In fact, during campaign speeches and in his televised debates with the president, Kerry asked people to vote for him because he would carry out a more intelligent war on terrorism, a smarter war in Iraq. And every time he implied that Bush, and those who might vote for him, were stupid, Kerry lost tens of thousands of votes.

American patriotism marked the entire bourgeois election campaign. All the capitalist parties that ran candidates campaigned along this line. In this framework, Bush took advantage of having been in office for four years. He played on the fact that no attacks involving “terrorists” from abroad have taken place in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. And he made a more convincing case from the point of view of the ruling class that he will build on his record of taking the fight to the “terrorists” wherever they are—far away from any U.S. city.

In his election campaign, Bush also promised to cut taxes. He promised to simplify the tax code. He promised to allow everyone to put a smaller portion of their wages into the federal Social Security system and a larger portion into their own retirement accounts, “a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.” These proposals appealed to large layers of workers and the middle class.

Working people are deeply fearful of what the future has in store for them, and rightly so. They know they are working longer and harder and earning less than they did 10 years ago. The problem is that they have never lived through the kind of depression conditions that are developing in the world. Most think they’ll be better off managing their own savings than trusting the government to give them a pension some time in the future. And on the second part of that they are correct.  
Failure of liberalism
This reaction has a lot to do with the failure of liberalism, which uses demagogy to convince working people they are better off with the Democratic Party.

The majority of working people know what happened during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Health care grew more expensive. The number of people without any medical coverage was 40 million by the end of Clinton’s second term, 2 million more than when he took office. And that happened during the longest post-World War II upturn of the business cycle. Even though the number of the uninsured increased to 45 million and medical costs continued to rise under Bush’s watch, Kerry’s promises to improve health care by pointing to the Clinton legacy rang hollow.

Above all, it was Clinton’s Democratic administration that took the first real step toward gutting the social wage, something that even Ronald Reagan wouldn’t touch in the 1980s: it carried out Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

Leading the bipartisan assault against half a century of social gains by working people, in 1996 Clinton signed the “welfare reform” bill adopted by Congress. The legislation eliminated federally guaranteed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and cut off food stamps and Medicaid to many working people. In doing so, Clinton opened the battle by the ruling class to take back concessions codified in the Social Security Act, which was pushed through Congress in 1935 under the pressure of rising labor struggles.

AFDC meant that aid would be given as a right to families with dependent children, that is, to families without parents who were breadwinners. Organizations of widows of miners who had died on the job because of lack of safety resulting from the bosses’ profit drive were among those who demanded it. AFDC also came to cover the families of soldiers who went to war and were killed or came back maimed and unable to work.

Working people won the concessions included in the Social Security Act—which encompassed guaranteed pension, disability, and unemployment benefit floors, as well as AFDC—through hard-fought battles in the 1930s. In the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, these gains were consolidated and extended with the addition of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and cost-of-living protections. Workers fought for such minimal lifetime security to keep their class from being torn apart by the ravages of capitalism. The working class struggled to entrench these measures as universal social rights, with automatic funding not reviewed in annual budgets, and without any degrading “means testing.” Far from being the “dole,” these entitlements represent a small part of the social wealth that workers and farmers produce through their labor. These benefits are a social wage that, together with the hourly wages paid directly by employers, make up the basic living standards of working people. Very broad sections of the middle classes depend on them as well.

The late senator Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat who voted against the 1996 bill, warned of its consequences at the time of its passage. The law was “the first step in dismantling the social contract that has been in place in the United States since at least the 1930s,” Moynihan said. “Do not doubt that Social Security itself, which is to say insured retired benefits, will be next.”

This step by the Clinton administration undermined working-class solidarity by reinforcing the dog-eat-dog reality of capitalism and the notion that those without may be taken care of by charity.

Republicans now play on this record of liberalism. Bush is poised to build on the Clinton legacy by pushing for “reform” of Social Security pensions.  
Appeal of ‘ownership society’
Prior to and during the Republican national convention in September, Bush promoted his proposals for what he called an “ownership society.” He used the specter of “the huge baby boom generation approaching retirement” to push what is now a standard myth concocted in ruling circles that there are too many old people, and their rising numbers threaten Social Security with bankruptcy. He repeated these rationalizations during his first post-election news conference on November 4.

Bush proposed giving workers tax credits as an incentive to open their own individual retirement accounts, where they can save at least a portion of what is now withheld from their paychecks for Social Security retirement pensions. Workers could then invest these funds in the stock market or elsewhere and have the security that the government can never take that away from them, Bush argued. He also advocated tax-free “health savings accounts” to provide medical insurance based on individual coverage rather than employer-sponsored plans. Workers would supposedly be able to keep this individual health plan even if they changed jobs. This was a major selling point, because working people who switch employers often lose their insurance or end up with worse coverage.

The president also proposed to make permanent the tax cuts instituted over the last few years, as a way to allow people to save money for the future in these “changing times.” He coupled this proposal with a pledge to simplify the federal tax code. Other Republican politicians, like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, have proposed abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and replacing it with a flat national sales tax or value added tax.

These proposals by the Republicans are a disaster for the working class as a whole. The number of workers who can pay off mortgages and become net homeowners or owners of capital is very small, or you wouldn’t have a hereditary working class, and competition for jobs—and thus capitalism—could not survive for very long.

Any flat tax will affect working people disproportionately. And the offers of tax credits to invest for your own pension and health-care plan are will of the wisp. Many workers don’t have the time to do this on their own nor the resources to hire accountants to do it for them. Those who do try will be butchered in a sudden economic plunge, when investments in the stock market can disappear with a blink of an eye and savings can be eaten up quickly by an inflationary burst.

These promises, however, appeal to millions of workers. The threat of an economic catastrophe make workers feel vulnerable. The more ambitious layers of the working class—who imagine their children getting ahead, or count on their relatives to get ahead—listen more to such proposals by the Republicans. The ethos of “taking care of number one” prevails among large layers of the population, including many working people, as solidarity breaks down further because of the failures of liberalism and in the absence of a generalized labor upsurge.

Many workers don’t see how they can defend or fight to expand Social Security today. One of the reasons stems from the refusal of the labor officialdom to fight for entitlements that cover the entire working class—like federally guaranteed health care for all—during the post-World War II capitalist boom. The union tops concentrated instead on getting “fringe benefits” in contracts with individual employers. Recently, however, large companies like United Airlines have moved to abolish all pension plans for employees. Others like the former coal giant Horizon Natural Resources have torn up union contracts and dropped medical coverage for retirees. These facts show millions that the bosses can cut fringe benefits, along with wages, with the stroke of a pen in the absence of a fight by the labor movement.  
Resentment for ‘cognitive elite’
The liberal panic over the outcome of November 2 also showed the utter contempt for the working class by middle-class liberals.

An article in the November 4 New York Times was one of many shedding light on the attitudes of many liberals toward the results of the election. It was titled, “Blue City (Disconsolate, Even) Bewildered by a Red America.” The headline was referring to the colors used to designate areas where the Democrats won (blue), and those where the Republicans prevailed (red). The reporter interviewed New Yorkers he ran into at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, mostly professionals or business people.

“I am saddened by what I feel is the obtuseness and shortsightedness of a good part of the country—the heartland,” Zito Joseph, a 63-year-old retired psychiatrist, told the Times. “This kind of redneck shoot-from-the-hip mentality and a very concrete interpretation of religion is prevalent in Bush country.”

His fellow dog walker Roberta Kimmel Cohn chimed in that New Yorkers were not as fooled by Bush’s statements as other Americans might be. “New Yorkers are savvy,” she said. “We have street smarts. Whereas people in the Midwest are more influenced by what their friends say.”

“Do you know how I described New York to my European friends?” Beverly Camhe, a film producer, told the Times. “New York is an island off the coast of Europe.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, liberals and social democrats had similar reactions, showing a hardening of bourgeois anti-Americanism after the U.S. elections. The British tabloid Daily Mirror, for example, ran a photo of Bush on the entire front page of its November 4 issue with the headline, “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”

“Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states,” said novelist Jane Smiley, in a post-election essay. “The history of the last four years shows that red state types…prefer to be ignorant…. They are virtually unteachable.”

The middle-class left had a similar stance. “Bush won the election by triumphing in areas in the South where racism, political reaction and the legacy of slavery are the strongest,” said an article in the November 11 issue of Workers World, the weekly newspaper of the Workers World Party. This is a Stalinist group that ran its own feeble presidential campaign, gaining ballot status for its candidates in three states (Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington State). Bush “won the states in the Southwest and Great Plains area dominated by mine owners, millionaire land owners, agribusiness, cattle barons and oil monopolies,” the article said. “But in the large and middle-sized cities…in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast—Bush’s reactionary agenda was rejected across the board.”

Most professionals, Hollywood entertainers and producers, newspaper columnists, novelists and other writers, television newscasters, and university professors in the United States today are liberals. These are among the social layers that Kerry appealed to. They include former radicals who three or four decades ago were Maoists, or belonged to the Weather Underground or other groups on the “left.” Many of these people today live in apartment buildings or housing complexes with security guards. As capitalism’s economic crisis marches on, they become more fearful of losing their privileges and their contempt for workers increases. This “Bell Curve” bias of aging radicals and middle-class liberals is resented more and more by working people.

The Bell Curve is a book by Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein that was released in 1994. Its publication caused a scandal in the bourgeoisie. The reason for the scandal? In the debate around the book, both supporters and critics, liberals and conservatives alike, were forced to acknowledge that capitalist society necessitates maintaining a class hierarchy—which is a product of social relations, not a biological fact—that permanently denies equality to the majority of human beings, those who work for living.

The book’s purpose was to provide a rationalization for better-off layers of professionals and the middle class—those the authors call “the cognitive elite”—as to why they deserve to be richer and more comfortable than the great majority of humanity; it’s because they are supposedly smarter. It was aimed at middle-class liberals, in particular. “Quit denying it!” was the message of the authors. “You deserve to be better off. It’s necessary, especially in this computerized and hi-tech world we’re living in.”

The book was also a warning sign that even if layers of workers would be taken in by such ideological rationalizations for a while, deepening social polarization and impoverishment was leading to inevitable class battles. Ultimately The Bell Curve sounded the trumpet of these coming class confrontations, of a future civil war. It was written to give courage to those who are determined to defend their better living standards against those who produce all the wealth, along with nature—the toiling masses of humanity.

It is these attitudes of the “cognitive elite” that a majority of working people resent. Most workers do get the signals right. They know what’s being said when Kerry implies he is smarter than Bush.  
American patriotism
Another factor in the outcome of the election was U.S. imperialism’s successes in the imperialist “war on terror,” which Bush enumerated in his speeches—from Afghanistan, to Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

While Kerry went out of his way to argue that he would do a more effective job in fighting the war on terrorism, Bush was more convincing by pointing to his solid four-year record in doing just that.

Kerry’s remark on Iraq in his concession speech was a fitting conclusion to his pro-imperialist, pro-war campaign. “America is in need of unity,” Kerry told supporters at Faneuil Hall in Boston, November 3. “Now more than ever, with our soldiers in harm’s way, we must stand together and succeed in Iraq and win the war on terror.”

The entire framework of the election campaign was built around American patriotism. Not only the capitalist parties that ran candidates—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and others—but “socialists” who backed Kerry or the so-called independent ticket of Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo campaigned along these lines.

The Communist Party USA, for example, argued that people should not hold their noses when they vote for Kerry, but campaign energetically for the man. It tried to paint, with even more zeal than in previous elections, the record of one of the twin parties of American imperialism, the Democrats, as “progressive” for working people.

American patriotism, said an article in the January 31 edition of the party’s newspaper, the People’s Weekly World, must be adopted by the left, “because millions of Americans believe in it, cutting across all class and color lines.” The author concluded with the following: “If the left wants to unseat George W. Bush from his office, it can only be done by being extremely sensitive to these deep feelings of patriotism, and not allowing the far right to drape themselves in the American flag.”

Ralph Nader, who tried to apply pressure on the Democratic Party from the left, also took pride in being an American patriot, and his campaign was backed by the International Socialist Organization and other “socialist” groups. In his quest for the presidency, Nader courted rightist Patrick Buchanan, among others. In an interview with Buchanan for the ultrarightist’s American Conservative magazine, Nader identified with the “bristling patriotism” of conservatives and called for defending “American jobs” and opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In the end, Nader became even more irrelevant to the bourgeoisie, reaching barely above one-tenth of the vote he scored four years ago.

“Save America! Dump Bush!” said a large banner that the officialdom of the UNITE union hung on the wall of its main office building in New York throughout the election campaign.

This was a framework that Bush could handle well. He played on the fact that no “Islamic” or other “terrorists” from abroad have carried out any other attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. The only such incidents in the following three years were the anthrax scare in the fall of 2001 and the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area by two men, both African-American, a year later. But these were carried out by pure products of America, not “foreign terrorists.”

So the president was more convincing to millions in the working class and the middle classes than his Democratic opponent when he argued that he would build on his record of taking the fight to “extremists” as far away as possible from U.S. borders.  
Bush: a social reactionary?
Finally, the image of the Bush administration painted by the liberals and the middle-class left as rightist and reactionary on all social questions is false. Bush adopts a very reactionary stance in many of his public speeches: he panders to the rightists on gay rights, abortion, and affirmative action. But in point of fact, this is not reflected in most of his administration’s policies on these issues. His intervention in the Supreme Court cases around such questions have been soft, largely aimed at appeasing the conservative base of the Republicans while assuring the defeat of rightist initiatives.

One example of this course was the June 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld affirmative action in higher education as the law of the land. The decision was issued in response to a rightist legal challenge to two affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. The Bush administration filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to invalidate both of these programs as based on quotas. At the same time it accepted the consideration of race as a factor in college admissions, which angered right-wing groups. And members of the administration, especially National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, campaigned openly for affirmative action.

Similarly, Bush’s backing this spring for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage between same-sex couples was grandstanding to consolidate support among conservative-minded voters who constitute an important part of the Republicans’ electoral base. At the same time, the president put forward no timetable and proposed no campaign to speed the progress of the amendment, which died in the Senate in July.

In addition, Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney came out in support of civil unions for same-sex couples. A week before the November elections, Bush said he disagreed with the Republican national platform opposing civil unions for gays and lesbians. “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do,” Bush said in an October 25 interview on the ABC television show “Good Morning America.” He added, “I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights.”

It seems that this is a majority view across the country. Even though referenda banning gay marriage were approved in 11 states on November 2, a post-election survey by the Pew Research Center said that 60 percent of U.S. residents favor some kind of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Under the Bush regime, a new Republican party is being shaped, in fact, more to the center of bourgeois politics.

Kerry’s positions on social questions did not differ much from Bush. Kerry, for example, campaigned as a Massachusetts Catholic who would not vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that decriminalized abortion. But he made it clear he is opposed to abortion because of his faith.

All these factors provide cogent reasons for Bush’s reelection.

They also show why workers are not more prone to be attracted to imperialist liberalism than to imperialist conservatism. Either way, working people and the oppressed go to the wall.

In the absence of any mass proletarian leadership, working people seldom vote on the basis of “program.” To the degree workers vote—and the “electorate” under bourgeois democracy is disproportionately weighted toward the middle class and professionals—they look above all for a possible road forward in face of the concrete conditions of daily life under capitalism. In doing so, they’re forced to choose between the twin parties of the exploiting classes, or occasionally a short-lived “third party” that’s an offshoot of one of them. And if “our country” is fighting a war, they have to be very convinced before switching the incumbent “commander in chief.”

This is what the Socialist Workers Party campaign explained, in offering a working-class alternative to the parties of capitalism and saying, “It’s not who you’re against, but what you are for!”
Related articles:
SWP vice-presidential candidate speaks in Toronto  
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