I have a relative up in the Rust Belt who owns a small machine tool company and watches Fox News. In recent years, our political discussions have been interesting because he doesn’t quite know what to make of me. We’re both Catholic and pro-life, so that explosive issue is defused. His livelihood depends on U.S. manufacturing, so we’re both against “free” trade and agree that reviving domestic industry should be America’s top economic priority. But, of course, we have huge areas of disagreement over things such as climate change, national health care, and labor unions.
Sometimes, in the course of these conversations, my relative will assert the Fox News truism that Democrats are no longer the party of the little guy. They’ve been taken over by wealthy Wall Street and Hollywood types. In reply, I might quibble about the facts. In reality, people with lower income and education levels are still more Democratic than the general population. In 2006 exit polls, 55 percent of people making less than $100,000 voted Democrat, while 52 percent of people making more than $100,000 voted Republican.
To this he’ll say something like, “That may be true, but look at the leadership.” And to that I can only say, touché.
Statistics to the contrary, the proclaimed hegemony of Volvo-driving, private-school-attending, NPR-listening, latte-sipping liberals has been a powerful weapon for the Right because the old “party of the common person” has, for the past three decades, allowed itself to become identified with a set of cultural preferences (expressed on issues such as abortion and gun control) that is alien to the values and lifestyles of many lower- and moderate-income Americans. Combined with increased Democratic acceptance of free-market economic orthodoxy, this has left Joe the Plumber, Joe Sixpack, and all the other ordinary Joes little reason to examine or doubt the half-truths fed to them by corporate America’s friends on the Right. This is a problem not because it elects Republicans, but because it leaves the lower 80 percent of the American people (by income) without an effective voice for either their economic interests or cultural values.
A year ago I held out some hope that President Obama might turn the tide in this regard. He made an opening to evangelical Christians (represented by Rick Warren’s role in the inauguration) and he brought pro-life Democrats to the table within his own party. Most important, his history as a church-based community organizer indicated that he would understand the importance of building coalitions around mutual self-interest and shared values.
But that hope is fading fast. It suffered another blow in January when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, in part because he was a “regular guy” who drove a Chevy truck. But it’s not a weakness for Volvos that is killing the Obama administration. In fact, cash-for-clunkers was a godsend for America’s truck drivers. The real problem here is that Obama, like all the liberal elite politicians before him, has lain himself prostrate before the gods of the free market with his lame, tepid, and tone-deaf response to the banking crisis and the economic calamity it caused. That, not health care or climate change, has turned out to be the defining issue of Obama’s first term, and so far he has blown it.
The “Tea Party” rebellion is not going away and is likely to grow, for a good reason. Obama is right that the economic crisis requires big government action. But some of the people in the street are right to distrust that big government when they see no evidence that it is aligned with their own interests.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.