Monthly Archives: November 2008

Class vs. Sexuality: The Proposition 8 Vote

Last week, John Russo provided an important look at voting patterns amongst Ohio’s working class and rightly concluded that “the older, predominately white, industrial working class continues to be a major influence on voting patterns but is increasingly being offset by a new working class composed of younger, more diverse, and better educated voters,” and that “Race may matter less than it did in the past, but the combination of race and class still matters.”

With John’s insights about the intersections of race and class in mind, we looked at some of the demographics behind that Other vote, much in the national news, that took  place on election day-California’s Proposition 8, the measure that not only denies Gay and Lesbian residents the right to marry, but actually rescinds these same rights granted by an earlier court decision.

The measure was approved by 52 percent of voters and has sparked not only visible protests across the nation but animosity between the Gay community and the Black and Hispanic communities, which endorsed the ban. Exit polls indicated that 70 percent of black voters supported Proposition 8, while 53 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of whites and Asian Americans voted for the measure.

Of course, pinning the passage of the ban on any one group is both destructive and inaccurate. African Americans comprised only about 10 percent of the total vote in California. The reductive analyses of the vote as a black/white issue neglect the role of class and education in the passage of Proposition 8, a relationship that can be mapped by looking at the Los Angeles Times voter demographics feature.

A quick scroll over the map reveals the possible role that class and, quite possibly the current economic conditions, might have played in the vote. For example, a whopping 71.5 percent of voters in Colusa County voted in favor of Proposition 8. In that same county median income is reported as less than $45,000 and the region saw more than 20 foreclosures per 1,000 homes-the county’s population is more than 25 percent Hispanic.

County employment data reports that 24 percent of residents are employed in the agricultural sector and the county unemployment rate is forecast at 12.2 percent-almost 58 percent of the vote went to McCain. In Lake County, 58.3 percent voted for Obama and 52.6 percent voted yes on Proposition 8. County median income there is also less than $45,000, its population is more than 75 percent white, with less than 10 percent holding a bachelor’s degree.

Although these data may tell only part of the story, they do seem to suggest a relationship between economic conditions and voting patterns on social issues, and quite possibly a disturbing trend. David Brooks notes, for instance, that the worsening recession might deepen social rifts along the lines of race, class, and gender:

… recessions are about more than material deprivation. They’re also about fear and diminished expectations. The cultural consequences of recessions are rarely uplifting.

The economic slowdown of the 1880s and 1890s produced a surge of agrarianpopulism and nativism, with particular hostility directed toward Catholics, Jews and blacks. The Great Depression was not only a time of F.D.R.’s optimism and escapist movies, it was also a time of apocalyptic forebodings and collectivist movements that crushed individual rights.

For Brooks, the lessons of history suggest that the current and pending economic downturns might produce dissatisfaction and alienation that could translate into anti-progressive political actions and outcomes aimed at various groups. And while the recession will likely not produce the same ire aimed at the same targets as previous downturns, new groups, might become targets; such as Gays and Lesbians, and, judging from the sentiments on Capitol Hill and local media this week, unions.

So while mainstream and Gay and Lesbian media outlets focus attention on the racial dimension (arguably the more sensational story) of the passage of Proposition 8, the economic and class dimensions of the vote suggest a more complex stratification of interests, attitudes and beliefs.

Reporting about this stratification will be important for journalists in coming weeks and months. This type of reporting will allow audiences to understand complex issues in more than just polarizing ways. It’s not a simple black versus white story.

Tim Francisco & Alyssa Lenhoff

The Youngstown Election Report: Notes on Unions and White Working-Class Voters

Now that the election is over, pundits of all kinds have begun to pour over the election results in order to determine how Barack Obama won the election. Important here is the question of how and by how much did a black candidate win Ohio and Mahoning County.

In a post-election editorial, Youngstown commentator Bertram DeSouza suggests that local Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about the Obama victory. After all, Obama carried only 19 of Ohio’s 88 counties and failed to get as many votes in Ohio as John Kerry did in 2004. In Mahoning and Trumbull counties, Obama received 61.7% and 59.6% respectively, far below the percentages gained by local Democratic candidates.  As elsewhere, Obama won Ohio by increasing voting totals among blacks, young voters, Hispanics, and college-educated voters throughout the state.

Some have argued that unions were responsible for the Obama victory. The AFL-CIO had a two-prong strategy. First, each union would be largely responsible for getting union households to vote for Obama. Second, the AFL-CIO built a new organization, Working America, that was responsible for turning out nonunion white working-class voters for Obama. Over 200 paid organizers were hired by the AFL-CIO as part of the Working America project to work in Ohio. Together with 175 SEIU organizers in African-American communities and community organizers from ACORN,  MoveOn, and the Public Interest Research Group  in suburban communities, Working America played a central role in organizing nonunion households in Ohio.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO strategy focused on “union heavy swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.” Exit polls by AFL-CIO pollster Peter Hart suggest that Obama won among white male AFL-CIO members by 18 points, even as he lost among white male voters overall by 16 points.  Support from white male union members contributed to Obama’s victories in industrial states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Thus unions provided a “firewall” that prevented a McCain victory.

But the Ohio results among union voters were disappointing. CNN exit polls show that in Ohio only 58% of union members and 56% of union household voters went for Obama. This is much lower than in other Midwest battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, and even lower than the national average which includes many states with meager union density.

Nation or States

Union Households

Union Members

% of voters % for Dem % of voters % for Dem
National

21%

59%

12%

60%

Michigan

34

67

18

71

Missouri

28

59

14

63

Ohio

28

56

15

58

Pennsylvania

27

62

15

68

SOURCE: CNN Election Center

Further, and more disturbing, in the Youngstown area union members staffing phone banks reported resistance,  especially among UAW and building trade union members, who often mentioned that they would not vote for Obama because of race.  Of course, this information is anecdotal, but it is consistent with traditional white working-class voting patterns. In 2004, only 40%  of whites in Ohio with no college education (working class) voted for John Kerry.

While internal union activities were less effective in Ohio than in comparable states, the AFL-CIO s’ involvement in Working America here was arguably much more successful in influencing voters in nonunion households. In Ohio, 51% of nonunion households voted for Obama — a seven-point increase from the 44% that voted for Kerry in 2004.

So what can we conclude?   My guess is that the older, predominately white, industrial working class continues to be a major influence on voting patterns but is increasingly being offset by a new working class composed of younger, more diverse, and better educated voters.  For example, black voters in Ohio grew by 3% since 2004 and supported Obama by a 95 point margin compared to John Kerry’s 68 point margin. Likewise, while they still vote Democratic, the unionized white industrial working class is declining in both numbers and political clout. Lastly, because Ohio has an older, less educated population with fewer black and Hispanic voters than other states, race continues to influence voting patterns here.  Race may matter less than it did in the past, but the combination of race and class still matters.

John Russo

Class and the Election: A British Perspectice

I’m a Brit sitting in the middle of an amphitheatre in Warren,Ohio waiting for Joe Biden to do his bit at an election rally. It is a beautiful, hot fall day, the sun is shining, and the site is filling up with people of all ages, colours, and classes. There are kids from local schools given the morning off to take part in a little piece of history. In the front and scatted through the crowd are labour people, made obvious by their bright uniform tee-shirts, some yellow, some purple. The air is filled with chatter and various upbeat pop songs. I am waiting for the Springsteen song which I’ve heard in the ten second election coverage clips I have seen on TV back home.

After a time the speeches start, each one building up expectations for the main event. Each reflects in different ways on the same themes, on work and what has happened to it, war and the desire to end it, the need for unions, and, and this is what strikes me most — class. All of the speakers, without exception, are talking about class. I am pleased to hear it, surprised even at the regularity of its appearance. However, this is America, I have to remind myself. They do things differently here, and this is just as true with the issue of class. Because for all of this talk of class, that pesky pronoun ‘middle’ always gets in the way. It has to be inserted, so that what the speakers say can be acceptable to both those present as well as those who may view snippets of the speeches later. Sitting through one speech after another I wait for the working class to get their place in the sun. At one stage I heard about ‘hard working families’ or ‘working poor,’ but I waited in vain for the ‘working class.’ All of the speakers acknowledged the labour people in front of the stage. All of them note the need for a strong union movement, but its role seems to buttress the middle class by ensuring that enough good jobs were created, ones with health care and pensions. In a classic reversal of Marxist ideas, where the bourgeoisie became their own gravediggers, it struck me that working people were now abolishing themselves in order to create and sustain a viable middle class.

This is all obvious for Americans. You know by heart the semantic gymnastics that politicians have to go through to not remind those who are living on what are objectively low incomes in the industrial world that they might be part of a working class. And while it is true that the political vernacular in the UK rarely uses the term ‘working class,’ many people still think of themselves in those classical classed terms. When interviewed many British people will not offer up a classed identity, but when prompted many, say 30-40%, will regularly see themselves as working class and unashamedly so. This figure has changed surprisingly little since social scientists asked people about class matters in the 1960s when Britain still had a very large manufacturing base of traditional industries and the communities that served them. Often times now people avoid class in their vernacular – they use proxies such as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary.’ For many the term ‘middle class’ still comes with the kind of negative linguistic baggage that I am guessing the term ‘working class’ does for people in America. This is one reason why the governing Labour party in the UK has been given such a fillip by the recent events in the global economy. This is, I think, because people read these events in class terms. The corporate greed exposed by the sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch is what you expect from ‘them.’ For the great mass of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ people, these events are yet another illustration of the City reverting to type, and some take vicarious pleasure in stories of bankers losing their jobs, or at least failing to earn enough to heat the swimming pool.

The next day, I watched the presidential debate on primetime TV, which seemed to be largely about Joe the Plumber. Joe seemed to be doing a lot of work in McCain’s narrative: at once standing for an ordinary working American, while at the same time encapsulating middle class entrepreneurship. In the UK, an appeal to feel sorry for someone earning over $250,000 (£130,000) would elicit little sympathy. While there are many who earn considerably more than the average income of around £30,000, by the time you reach the giddy heights of a quarter of a million dollars many fewer people can identify or even aspire to that figure. Did McCain, in using Joe as an ordinary figure actually damage his campaign by highlighting the gulf between his own understanding of class and those of the working class majority? Perhaps John McCain’s legacy might be to shift popular views of class in the USA.

Tim Strangleman, guest blogger
Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of a new textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods

From the 19th Hole: What Obama’s Election Means

I played golf Tuesday, as I do every Election Day.  The hours on the course help consume the time between the opening and closing of the polls-hours when political consultants can’t do much except wait and worry.  Yes, it’s true, we worry constantly, but until “E” Day we delude ourselves into thinking we can do something about whatever the hell the crisis of the minute happens to be.

So I golf because swinging and swearing makes the time move faster and it’s almost as aggravating as running a campaign.

After the round my golf buddies and I retired to a local bar to lie about our rounds and watch the early election returns. I alone was elated as it became apparent that Barack Obama was about to score an overwhelming victory. My joy was counterbalanced by the long faces of my playing partners, all middle aged, middle class, white businessmen whose race-based revulsion for Obama is, supposedly, more typical of the white working class.

As the results poured in they contemplated moving to Canada, Costa Rica, or Greenland in order to avoid the catastrophe that would accompany the election of the first:

(A) Muslim President

(B)  Domestic terrorist President

(C)  Alien-as in not an American citizen–President

(D) Communist President

(E)  “Colored” President

(F)   Black Panther President, or

(G) All of the Above and worse

Their reaction was not surprising. They had repeatedly expressed these and similarly outrageous thoughts over the past two months as Obama’s election assumed an air of inevitability.

My buddies wondered, how could Americans be so dumb, so gullible?  Didn’t they listen to Rush, Hannity, or Savage, read the Drudge Report, or watch Fox News?  Obama had done so many horrible things and yet he was going to be the president.

It wasn’t right.  It couldn’t be.

Except it was unfolding before their eyes on one of the six huge TV screens that hung over the bar.  Right there, sandwiched between a rerun of the Texas/Texas Tech game and an inane show on the Golf Channel, their America was slipping away-drowned by the blue wave washing over state after state, including Ohio.

Gone because we’d made a “colored guy” president.

And then I offered them some hope-words of consolation that helped them stop crying into their Blue Moons.

I told them that Obama’s victory, a true watershed moment in our nation’s history, the culmination of a struggle that began with slavery, ran through the Constitution’s declaring that slaves were three-fifths of a human being, through the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, to the Reflecting Pool where Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream, to the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts, was, ultimately, as much a dream come true for racists like them as it was for slimy liberals like me.

“How could that be?” they asked, ignoring the fact that I had called them racists because they are and they don’t care.

Simple, I answered.  From now on whenever someone like me has the nerve to say that discrimination or racism or lack of equal opportunity still exists, you can say “That’s bullshit.  A colored guy’s president, which means if you get off your lazy ass, go to school, stop taking drugs, and quit having illegitimate kids for the welfare money, you can do anything.”

And therein lies one of the serious dilemmas created by Obama’s victory.  He’s proven that the American Dream can indeed become a reality-that anyone, anyone, can be elected President. But in so doing he’s forever changed the dialogue about race and opportunity in our country.

On one hand, those of us who view Obama’s victory as validation of government programs and policies that provide, protect, and enhance equality of opportunity for all will argue that we should do more.

Those who have always opposed such programs will, on the other hand, almost certainly argue that his victory means we no longer need to do anything at all.  They will say that equality is obviously a fait accompli.  Need more money for urban schools?  Ridiculous, a black guy’s president.  Need more protection against discrimination in the workplace?  Forget about it, a black guy’s president.  Need to invest more in our inner cities to create economic opportunity?  Forget about it, a black guy’s president.  Which, in their minds will be concrete evidence that we’ve actually done way too much-after all, a black guy’s president.

And that means that those of us who recognize Obama’s election for what it really is — merely the end of the beginning of the struggle for equality and opportunity — must not become complacent.

In order to prevail in this struggle we must use his victory as an example of what can happen when a man or a woman regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or class has the opportunity to succeed.   We must use it to frame the impending policy debates on issues like education, health care, workers’ rights, taxes, immigration, and regulation.  We must assert that by creating more opportunity for all we will create more Obamas in the years ahead.

And that is, after all, our ultimate goal: creating a nation in which electing an African-American, woman, Latino, or disabled person president is no big deal to anyone at all.  If we can use Barack Obama’s election to achieve that goal, his victory will truly be a triumph for the entire nation and not just for one man.

Leo Jennings, guest blogger

Jennings is a political consultant who has working with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

Movement Building and Political Organizing

The Democratic ground game in the 2008 election is unlike anything we’ve seen since 1948 – or, given the role of the internet, maybe ever. A week before the election, the focus is now exclusively on traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities. But the larger, longer-lasting impact is that organizing skills and attitudes are now back on the American scene, with the potential to transform more than just one election and to build a broader working-class movement for social and economic justice.

Though Barack Obama’s approach to political organizing deserves the lion’s share of kudos for the scale of the effort in 2008, labor and community organizing has been building capacity for more than a decade – schooling people in the organizer’s craft, developing rank-and-file leaders, and spreading experience of the power of organized collective action.

The labor movement “turned the page” in 1996 when the New Voice leadership of the AFL-CIO made a major rhetorical and financial shift to developing a new generation of union organizers who are cross-trained in organizing labor-community coalitions as part of organizing new members. Unions increased their efforts (and budgets) to organize new members, with disappointing results thus far, but they also staked out a political program independent of the Democratic Party even as they organized more effectively within the party to advance their issues. Unions have spent a lot of money on a variety of new approaches to political organizing, but the main drift has been away from endorsing and funding candidates to year-round political education and activism on legislative issues that affect union members and their neighbors.

This year the labor movement concentrated on member-to-member political education with an emphasis on one-on-one contacts at work, at home, and on the phone. And as exemplified by a late summer speech by AFL-CIO Vice-president Rich Trumpka, they are directly addressing racial ignorance, fear and outright racism among their own members. This is now supplemented by a new organization, Working America, that has enlisted nearly 3 million nonunion workers to become politically active in both electoral and movement activities. Begun in 2004, Working America is now active in fourteen states, from Colorado to Virginia. The group’s activist blogs provide a taste of what they’re doing.

Community organizations are focused on electoral politics as never before, but not simply for its own sake. As exemplified by the best-known national network of such groups, ACORN, registering and turning out voters are just part of a larger process of organizing and mobilizing for local campaigns on living wages, affordable housing, environmental justice, and a wide variety of local issues. What’s new here is the breakdown of the traditional wall between political and “nonpartisan” community organizing.

Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is widely (and justifiably) praised for building organizational infrastructure everywhere. This involves funding DNC staff in all 50 states, instituting more rigorous (and more Washington-directed) candidate-selection processes for Congressional and gubernatorial races, and much else. But as Bob Moser has been reporting in The Nation for the past two years, the DNC’s 50-state strategy also means linking community, labor, and faith activists with emerging Democratic politicians and activists who are progressive by the standards of their locality. Though the DNC’s primary purpose may not be to build grassroots organizing capacity, its renewed presence reinforces and encourages the grassroots organizers who are already there.

Finally, Barack Obama has brought a community organizing approach to politics that purports to be building not just to win an election, but also to hold elected representatives accountable as they govern – at all levels, including his.

Camp Obama has trained hundreds of organizers, who have in turn trained thousands of rank-and-file leaders in various localities. Like many of Obama’s field staff, Joy Cushman, head of the Obama Organizing Fellows program, comes to politics from an apprenticeship not in GOTV operations, but in community organizing. According to Cushman, the Obama field effort is focused on finding and developing authentic community leaders not just as volunteers for canvassing and phone-banking, but to lead the effort in their areas and to integrate election organizing with their existing activism. The goal is to nurture a network of leaders who will continue working for progressive political efforts at the local and state as well as the national levels. For more about this, see Zack Exley’s “The New Organizers.”

What happens after next week’s election is anybody’s guess. But today’s working-class organizers do not expect to wait passively and see. Electing sympathetic politicians is part of building a social movement, but not the most important part. Organizing and mobilizing at the grassroots is. And now there are a whole lot more people doing that.

Jack Metzgar