The failed recall attempt of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker comes as no surprise to most of us liberals in the Midwest, though it still stings. It hurts not only because we failed to boot a corrupt and ruthless governor from the state capitol, but also because it underscores a more troubling phenomenon: A new kind of class warfare is emerging in the Heartland, and it is one the Republicans have been so good at orchestrating in order to win elections.
In the Bible Belt, Republicans have long been able to divide working people (by that I mean anyone who depends on an earned paycheck to stay afloat) on social issues — gay rights and abortion. In the Rust Belt and Grain Belt, that’s been a bit harder, as there is a strong “live and let live” ethic in the Midwest. We like our neighbors and tend to accept, if not value, our differences. We also like our pulpits free of politics; we prefer preachers to be soft-spoken and potlucks are often more important than politics. The overwhelming support for President Obama in Wisconsin in 2008 (he won some very conservative rural counties) proved all that.
What the deep pockets and political might of Scott Walker — and other Midwestern Republican governors — signal is a troubling new trend: There is now a new way for the rich, ruling class to use fear and envy to divide the American middle class, a strategy that doesn’t even need to use the traditional wedge issue of religion.
As Wisconsin’s new political landscape so clearly indicates, conservatives have now managed to vilify plain old working people as elitist fat cats. Librarians, teachers, public employees, and union laborers: Basically, people who earn health insurance and decent wages have suddenly become the things that stagnate an economy and raise taxes, when in truth they, and those wages they enjoy, have been the lifeblood of a struggling post-industrial economy.
But by declaring war on teachers, union laborers, and public sector employees, the well-heeled spinners behind the rise of Scott Walker have managed to make struggling Americans vote against their own best interests out of a sense of fear and envy. Struggling workers — and most comfortable middle-class workers — often to need an identifiable villain, someone who is holding them back from success, in order to vote Republican. If Republicans can present themselves as an enemy of that villain, they win. That’s what happened happened last night in Wisconsin.
America is a great nation, but also a jealous one. In an economic era of struggle, ease is resented. Those struggling to save for retirement and health insurance, those struggling to keep up with property taxes and utility bills, are easily going to be led to a passionate resentment of those who have such things “easy,” as Walker and his spin doctors have been claiming. It’s a lie that these middle class workers have it easy, and it’s a lie that they are the reason behind stagnant wages and dwindling job prospects in Wisconsin. Ironically, it’s the end of a union workforce and the collapse of public oversight of corporate interests that is most to blame for the woes of the working class.
If Barack Obama plans to win in November, he needs to unite two factions of the Rust Belt population: The middle-class of public workers and union members and teachers, and the other middle-class, which ranges from self-made entrepreneurs to struggling service industry workers. How does he do it? With an honest message that points to the real villain: An increasingly greedy corporate culture that stops at nothing in its quest to consolidate power and wealth.
There is, in fact, a 99 percent in this country. But right now, a big chunk of it votes in the interest of the 1 percent. Now is not the time for the corporate-friendly moderate Democrat along the lines of Bill Clinton, one who backpedals on health care and fair wages. Now is the time for a leader who speaks compassionately about the struggles of American families, and speaks honestly about the reasons behind them.
The president seems to have come out of the gate with this message; here’s hoping he’ll take it to the finish line, no matter how the political winds blow. It’s the only path to victory in an increasingly divided and scared nation.