It’s been three weeks since the election and I still encounter so many people who can’t believe that Pennsylvania, like most of the rest of the country, is a “red” state. In 2016 Pennsylvania finally voted for a Republican presidential candidate, even if by the slimmest of margins. Just as maddening for Democrats, Katie McGinty lost the senatorial race to rightwing nut Pat Toomey by a similar margin.
But it doesn’t end there: our congressional delegation has 13 Republicans to five Dems, and the GOP increased its already considerable margin in the General Assembly; they now have a 122 to 81 advantage in the house and a veto-sustaining 34 to 16 margin in the state senate. We’re going to be seeing red a lot for the next two years.
Liberal commentators – insulated elitists that many of them are – have been blaming the white working class, or non college-educated whites, for the nationwide debacle. I’m tired of hearing all the snide “Pennsyltucky” comments: they’re not funny and, as the polling data is showing, not very accurate. A lot of college-educated people pulled the lever for Trump and other down-ballot Republicans, including the highly educated union members in the two teachers unions.
No, lack of education wasn’t the problem. Stevie Wonder captured the mood of voters of all races and genders decades ago when he sang:“We are sick and tired of hearing your song/Telling how you are changing right from wrong/’Cause if you really want to hear our view/you haven’t done nothin.’”
Anyone trying to come up with an electoral strategy to reverse national and local GOP dominance should study the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign for president.
A working-class problem?
Perhaps the “problem” with those workers – especially the white ones – is a problem of leadership: no leadership and misleadership. With only 11 percent of all eligible employees belonging to unions – 6.7 percent in the private sector – it’s safe to say that most workers have no organic political leaders. They have to find them where they can, among politicians, religious leaders and celebrities. There’s not a lot of political clarity or wisdom to be found from Kanye West, Angelina Jolie or someone from the cast of Duck Dynasty.
But looking to one’s obvious leaders — trade union officials — doesn’t offer much better. Take, for example, the inane remarks of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. After attributing Hillary Clinton’s defeat, at least in part, to sexism, she reaches this conclusion: “So I think we’re never really ever going to understand it.”
Okay then, she’s not familiar with feminist theory. Even worse, Weingarten goes on to say that Bernie Sanders, who has been in Congress since 1992 and whose record is an open book, “was never tested or vetted by anyone, and frankly we have no idea whether he would have actually been able to get through this crucible.”
By “anyone,” Weingarten means anyone in the Democratic Party power structure – the very same people who find unions and union leaders like Weingarten contemptible. Our nation’s labor leaders have no independent political vision. It’s embarrassing to see how slavish they are in serving Democrats who reciprocate by giving very little in return. Labor would be better off eschewing electoral politics altogether and concentrating on organizing and representing workers.
It would be great to see this kind of leadership replaced by one that has vision and true dedication to their membership and the working class in general, and that is a matter that must ultimately be settled by working men and women. But in the meantime, we need aspiring political leaders who understand the value of creating or being a part of broad movements for change. And that type of leader can come from anywhere, not necessarily labor. Back in the 1980’s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was such a leader.
Hope through struggle
Unlike Barack Obama’s Hope/Change thing, Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” slogan was tied to a history of participation in grassroots movements and a vision of creating a new movement — a Rainbow Coalition — to achieve goals that mainstream politicians and commentators saw as either unreasonable or unachievable. His platform called for affirmative action, passing the ERA, cutting defense spending, a foreign policy based on respect for self-determination, immigrant rights, civil rights, single-payer health care, reversing the Reagan tax cuts for the rich, ending the so-called war on drugs, free community college for all, support for family farmers, reparations for the descendants of slaves, and more.
To achieve these objectives, Jackson believed in coalition building — fusing existing movements into a Rainbow Coalition of common interests. He visibly fought for his platform before his first presidential run in 1984, between the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, as well as during the latter campaign.
Jackson won 11 primaries or caucuses – in places like Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi and Vermont, where he had the endorsement of then Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders. He had strong finishes in several others and his campaign registered 2 million new voters. Needless to say, many of his supporters were white working class folks; he even won some endorsements from majority-white union locals.
Jackson’s big weakness was his considerable ego and willingness to compromise with Democratic Party power brokers at the expense of his Rainbow Coalition, which never developed the capacity to function effectively without him. He ended up getting it backwards, and we’re all the worse off for it.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. The potential power of coalitions based on common interest was demonstrated. Nor should we place all of the blame on Jackson: he was indeed a charismatic figure, but it’s not his fault that our nation’s culture, political and otherwise, is so enamored with charisma.
We still need to build and sustain powerful mass movements; if we are to succeed in electing politicians who will serve our people’s needs, they need to be tied to and pushed by masses of people.
Crying over the defeat of Hillary Clinton — a (possibly) good person who is certainly not beholden to people like us, but instead to ultra-rich ruling-class powers — is a waste of time. Scapegoating white workers misleads people who are already confused. We need to build strong movements — in labor, among oppressed people of all races, genders and colors — from which strong leaders — not just a leader — can emerge to serve our interests.
As bad as things seem to be, the future is unwritten. But it’s past time to write off people like the Clintons, who haven’t done nothin.’
— Coleman Saint James