What can activists learn from Romney’s ‘47 percent’?

Mitt Romney speaking to supporters at an early voting rally in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.

For Democrats caught up in the race for U.S. presidential power, Mitt Romney’s description of “the 47 percent” is a great chance to pile on. Here is a super-rich Republican showing his contempt for the working class, many people are thinking — let’s make the most of it!

But sometimes the “caught in the act” statements of politicians are worth more than a quick dismissal. Consider then-candidate Obama’s description of working class people in Pennsylvania, made in the heat of the 2008 campaign. He told people in a San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to explain their economic frustrations.

The two remarks are different. Romney’s is contemptuous, while Obama’s is only condescending. As someone brought up working class, I can tell the difference; I voted for Obama because I’ve been condescended to a lot in my life, and that doesn’t stop me from making reasoned choices. I’ll vote for him again. But my point here is that both remarks reveal the striking lack of agency that is assigned by leaders of political parties to the working class.

What made Obama’s remark condescending was that he made it as a leading Democrat. If the Democratic Party had been fighting for the agency of working class people, then the labor movement would be so strong that we would now be enjoying full employment, universal health care, and low or no college tuition. The financial sector would have been too regulated to throw us into the current recession, and if it somehow had done so anyway, the priority in 2008 and 2009 would have been Main Street, not Wall Street.

In other words, the economic frustrations that Obama linked to certain cultural expressions in small-town Pennsylvania were exacerbated by his own party. His remark became one way to blame the victim, and one more deflection from supporting working class agency.

An alternative for activists: inclusive strategizing

For activists who don’t like either Republican contempt for or Democratic condescension toward the working class, there is a different way to operate: “inclusive strategizing.” This brings together external and internal elements to a campaign that create power by pushing through the murk of classism we’ve been born into. It enables us to build stronger movements and win the class war that the 1 percent has been waging against us. Here’s the first step: Build direct action campaigns and give up the politics of self-expression.

Working class people see campaigns as practical, because they have stated and achievable goals and targets that can yield to the campaigns’ demands. I remember a typical reaction of Philadelphia working class people to most of the activist protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention: “Nuthin’ but fun and games.” Especially emphatic were some African-American working class members of a group that does direct action — including civil disobedience — to make gains for poor people. The ones I listened to were not only dismissive, but angry at the waste — both of the protesters’ energy and the city having to spend extra money.

Working class people often experience middle class people as self-absorbed, claiming space for something that turns out in the end to be only about themselves. Even when a black person confronts a white middle class activist for what appears to be racist behavior, a typical white will explain themselves at great length with long excuses and righteous claims — turning their own hurtful behavior into an occasion for making it all about them.

That pattern offers a lens into looking at activist demonstrations that seem to have no other object than self-expression. The problem is not confined to radical anarchists; polite Quakers also have a tendency to stand in vigils that have no clear relation to achieving change. “What is the point?” a working class person might ask.

Radical activists sometimes argue that going after an achievable goal is a compromise of their vision. Not necessarily. Creativity results in many ways to combine vision and achievability.

The Quebec students’ dazzling electoral victory this month shows one way to combine radical politics with pursuit of an achievable goal. In the spring, the university students made headlines with their campaign against a rise in tuitions. The group leading the direct action campaign — CLASSE — demanded a cancellation of all tuition fees, to be paid for by a tax on banks. The campaign attracted 100,000 members, one in four of Quebec’s students. The students used strikes, occupations and other nonviolent methods. CLASSE framed the campaign as a class issue, and reached out to the labor movement. They allied with other working class campaigns going on at the time, which helped make their vision even more clear.

When the alarmed Quebec government tried to shut down the campaign by passing a bill to limit protest, half a million people marched in clear defiance of the law. Some of the largest trade unions participated.

The victory came on September 4 when Quebec voters threw out the governing party and its (by now) hated plan to raise tuition. Stay tuned.

Puerto Ricans also came up with a creative way around the worry that radical vision doesn’t mix with campaigns, as I showed in my article on the campaign that ended the U.S. Navy’s bombing of the inhabited island of Culebra. The result was a win/win: for the radicals and for the reformist fisherfolk of Culebra.

In the 1970s the then-weak U.S. peace movement tried yet another approach. It launched a campaign to stop the B-1 bomber, which was expected to come to a congressional vote in three years. The simultaneous campaign goal was to lift up peace conversion — the idea of shifting workers’ skills and manufacturing plant capacity from military to civilian use. In that campaign the big emphasis was on how workers and plants intended for the B-1 bomber could instead be making public transportation for Southern California.

That combination of practicality — a real chance at defeating an expensive boondoggle — plus a vision that spoke to the needs of workers attracted support in the labor movement. The result was a win for the campaign. Even though Ronald Reagan later came into the White House and resurrected the system as the B-2, the campaign strengthened the peace movement and showed that labor participation could make a big difference.

Inclusive strategizing also showed up in the 1980s Jobs with Peace Campaign in the United States. The overall intention was to reverse Reagan’s practice of taking money out of civilian needs and putting it into missiles and bombs. Our national campaign ran a series of referenda around the country, eliciting majority votes for our human needs priorities.

In Pennsylvania, we took the mandate from the successful Jobs With Peace referenda and created a vision for decentralized community planning of alternative use for military facilities and the skills of the workers. Our coalition included major participation from labor unions, working class community groups both black and white, environmentalists, faith groups, and even a renegade member of the 1 percent. We ran a civil disobedience mini-campaign at the state legislature to force a bill out of committee and we picketed the state Chamber of Commerce for the first time in history.

To wrap up, I’ll risk one more generalization about working class attitudes: To be worth waging, campaigns don’t need to win.

I don’t need my football team to win every game in order to be a fan. I expect losses. My working class life has had a lot of losses. “Heart” is about licking our wounds, learning from our mistakes and then getting out there and giving it everything we’ve got. Our wins become all the sweeter.

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