EFCA, AIG and the Political Struggle Over the Current “Populist Anger”
The conservative spin-machine is running at full throttle in its attempt to thwart the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and potentially related-pro-worker legislation.
Today’s Wall Street Journal, for instance, featured an op-ed by former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao that invokes some of the usual boogiemen: the threat of “European-style policies,” which merit no discussion and spell doomsday a priori; the horror of expanding so-called “entitlement programs” such as paid leave for workers for family-related reasons; and allusions to the Democratic Party’s “governing elite” (which it is, for sure, but railing on elitism smacks of deceit and opportunism when it comes from a central mouthpiece of the ruling class).
An editorial in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal, discussing the anti-AIG backlash, decried that “[w]e've now got a full-fledged mob on our hands.” The editorial chastises the Democrats’ opportunism in piling upon AIG (fair enough, especially now that Senator Dodd’s role in constructing the bonus loop hole has been revealed). It evades any discussion pertaining to the roots and causes of the rightful mass anger towards the bonuses, and instead uses the Democrats as a proxy to denounce this anger.
There is a reason why conservatives are so viciously on the attack. They are scared that legislation like EFCA, popular support for raising taxes on the wealthy, and the legitimation of public spending programs could overturn the anti-labor, pro-business worldview they—with Democratic Party assistance—have worked so hard to establish as mainstream “common sense” during the last few decades. With their worldview so momentously discredited by the economic crisis, there now exists an opening for a shift towards a more just, pro-worker political-economic arrangement.
We see glimpses of this in the furor surrounding the AIG bonuses. The anti-AIG outrage is populist fodder for further anti-big business legislation. Right now, a proposal for 90% taxation on the AIG bonuses is being proposed in the House. This could be a significant political defeat for conservatives. It could be an opening for progressive tax policies that distribute wealth downwardly.
Unfortunately, paper victories won’t amount to much if there is no mobilized base to push them further. The anti-ruling class anger that is erupting among tens of millions of Americans is now shapeless, lacking organization and political programmatic basis. The struggle to harness this anger to various political interests is in full gear.
The left is not winning this war. If it doesn’t, the moment will pass and public opinion will mostly likely be successfully re-integrated into a new pro-business capitalist consensus. It’s happened before—after the Great Depression/WWII, for instance.
Where we now stand, conservatives are going to win the public opinion struggle over EFCA. The Far Right’s strategy of appealing to peoples’ basest emotions and of lying via omission of inconvenient facts is being complimented by a comparatively lackluster effort by labor and its supposed political allies in the Democratic Party.
Right now, many Americans are skeptical of the labor movement, and they are more conditioned to believe the Fox News line on EFCA than they are to listen to the AFL-CIO (if they even have access to the latter’s view). The problem is that the class-hued populist anger now fermenting is detached from the labor movement, not feeding into it. Labor should be conducting a massive campaign—via commercials, mail-outs, door-to-door meetings, and massive mobilizations, backed by tens of millions of dollars… in other words, all the things they typically do for Democratic Part presidential runs—that tie EFCA and the union movement more generally to the anti-big business sentiment now boiling up. Labor needs to do a better job of positioning itself as the voice and vehicle for the broader, inchoate pro-“Little Guy” and anti-corporate steam that politicians are now vying to channel into their own ships.
The political willpower for a broad shift in American political culture is there, but it needs to be fought for, and much more strongly so. If this is the contingent moment that those on the left-progressive political spectrum have been waiting for, our actions are not reflecting this. The Right, on the other hand, clearly understands the stakes. Democrats are just opportunistically riding the waves created by everyone and everything else.