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The Transforming Potential of the 2012 Elections

Mark Solomon, December 5, 2012

Post-election analyses on the left have acknowledged the unprecedented impact of demographic changes, great advances for women, significant victories in cultural battles, resistance to voter suppression and to Super- Pac billions There is a consensus that a powerful grass roots movement is essential for moving the Obama presidency in a more progressive direction. There has been less discussion of the alignment of social forces both in the election and after the election, of the internal political conflicts raging in ruling circles and how those conflicts impact mainstream voters and progressive struggles as well as affecting concrete opportunities for major advances.

Some pundits have noted that the 2012 election marked one of the most ideologically divisive contests in memory. There has been very little acceptance of that estimate among progressives. Many on the left have generally contended that the election did not alter a broad ruling class consensus on global neo-liberalism (untrammeled pursuit of maximum profits shorn of legal constraint and undergirded by military muscle). Without doubt, the ideological distance between campaigns was contained within a somewhat narrow space. For many, especially engaged activists, the ideological distance at best was hard to perceive.

However, that picture is inadequate. It does not acknowledge actual divisions within the ruling class that undergirded the political stands of the major candidates and parties, engendering an especially vitriolic contest. The dividing line was between unbridled neo-liberalism in global and domestic policies versus what can be called "corporate Keynesianism."

The Republican-Romney campaign was a model of virulent neo-liberalism -- pushing a destructive race to the bottom, taking deadly aim at organized labor, stoking racism, sexism and anti-immigrant currents, ramping up military spending, ridiculing the environmental crisis, abandoning any vestige of commitment to a social safety net and financial regulation. Heavily underwritten by Wall Street, energy, real estate and gambling interests, that wing cultivated a base built largely upon manufactured racial, gender and anti-immigrant grievances. It was activated by racist "dog whistles" and pseudo-populist tales about "big government" redistributing wealth from productive citizens to "moochers" and "takers."

That Romney-led current was contested by an incumbent administration even as the latter continued to fashion its domestic and foreign policies with fidelity to corporate power. Its landmark health care reform was thus anchored on the insurance industry. Its foreign and security policies remained in the grip of the military-industrial complex, the national security state and global imperial objectives. At the same time, its approach to major foreign and domestic issues sought relative nuance: tamping down expensive and politically difficult wars; seeking multilateralism in promoting its global economic and strategic interests, engaging in advocacy of nuclear disarmament while conducting drone warfare and targeted assassinations.

The administration's domestic mission, reflective in some measure of its traditional working and middle class base, was to adopt moderate reforms aimed at preserving social stability by controlling growing and potentially ruinous economic inequality. Crucially, it sought to apply the core mantra of Keynesianism: government intervention through investment in the economy to make up for collapsing private financial investment.

The election then turned on resistance to the class warfare pursued by the Romney-Ryan campaign. Millions of voters were less concerned with Obama as the lesser evil (a preoccupation on sectors of the left), than with the battle between the Republicans' blatant pursuit of inequality versus the Democrats' tax policy that advocated modest redistribution of wealth. Thus taxes emerged as a decisive class issue.

Among the electorate there was little familiarity with ideological labels like Keynesianism and neo- liberalism. But there was urgent concern with the class warfare issues spawned by those competing currents. In light of a divided ruling class, working people aligned with the formation that best represented their class interests, that would checkmate rampant reaction and thus would create space for progressive advance. In addition, the inseparable intersections of race, class and gender brought into the coalition newer forces themselves under attack from Republican neo-liberals: women striking back against the war on reproductive choice; Latinos responding to right wing attacks on immigrants; African Americans reacting to voter suppression and to racist disrespect of the President; gays resisting bigotry and denial of civil equality; young people responding to undermining of their interests as students and workers.

While those forces aligned with "corporate Keynesians" as a strategic imperative, there is compelling evidence that an emerging progressive majority is not bound by the limitations of coalition with elements of the ruling class and is open to demands of greater magnitude.

A striking example of the readiness of a majority to breach the limits of the Obama-led coalition was the remarkable "Budget for All" referendum launched by an alliance of more than sixty labor, peace, civil rights and community organizations in Massachusetts.It took weeks of intense effort to arrive at a consensus on the content of the proposal, especially on how to formulate a succinct referendum that reflected the many concerns of participating organizations -- including labor unions that were initially hesitant about cuts in military spending.

The non-binding referendum was advanced as an alternative to the regressive "Grand Bargain" to supposedly avert the mythical "fiscal cliff." The proposal echoed HR 733, the Congressional Progressive Caucus's anti-austerity bill. The Massachusetts resolution called for no cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' benefits housing, food assistance and other social programs; job creation through investing in manufacturing, green energy, housing, schools, transportation and other public services; new revenues to be raised by ending tax loopholes, offshore tax havens and taxing incomes over $250,000; redirection of military spending to human needs and ending the Afghanistan war now.

A small, but highly motivated group of canvassers managed in often sweltering summer heat to get the referendum on the ballot in 91 cities and towns representing 1,300,000 voters. The results were astounding. Despite few funds for publicity and outreach, over 623,000 voted for the proposal, 209,000 against. "Budget for All" won big (mostly 75 percent and higher) in every city or town where it was on the ballot. It won big in towns that gave 31 percent of its vote to incumbent Senator Scott Brown; its smallest margin of victory was 53 percent in Dover, the exclusive redoubt of the one percent. It won massively in Boston's working class wards and in middle class suburbs; it won overwhelmingly in African American and Latino communities; it won over 90 percent of the Asian vote.

The coalition that forged "Budget for All" has remained intact and is determined to create an ongoing collaborative organization. It is reaching out to the hundreds of thousands who voted for the referendum, urging them to tell the Obama administration that they will not tolerate accommodations with the right wing. It has already held a demonstration at the office of Senator John Kerry; it is planning town meetings with every Congressman (five Massachusetts representatives had endorsed the proposal); it will organize large demonstrative actions to generate a public clamor against a destructive "Grand Bargain." and build support for the alternative Progressive Caucus legislation.

The"Budget for All" referendum owes its success to the qualitative growth of an emerging progressive majority of voters in 2012 determined to push back against growing inequality and related injustices. New awareness has emerged about corporations, social class and economic injustice. The burgeoning Occupy Wall St. movement contributed mightily to that rising consciousness that was manifested in the outcome of an election that delivered a blow to the far right and that brought more progressive politicians, especially women, into office. At this crucial moment on the eve of a 2nd Obama administration, there is ample evidence of a vast constituency not only poised to pressure political forces given to vacillation, but to take the entire political discourse to a higher more transforming level. That is both a source of encouragement and a challenge to left and progressive forces to help nurture and consolidate that majority.

Mark Solomon is a past co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS).