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Working In These Times

Friday, Nov 6, 2009, 8:36 am

As Dems Dither on Crisis, Right Appeals to Racism

BY Roger Bybee

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The recovery must be here. After all, what more proof is needed than the fact that Goldman Sachs is setting aside $16 billion for bonuses for 2009?

Of course, conditions are not quite so swell at the bottom of the economic pyramid, as unemployment moves past the dreaded 10% level and wage cuts spread throughout the workforce. "[P]ay cuts, sometimes the result of downgrades in rank or shortened workweeks, are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression," reports Louis Uchitelle, author of The Disposable American.

Moreover, this trend follows directly after an extended period in which American workers' real wages stood at 18 percent less in 2007 than they were in 1973. And foreclosures are at 10 times their daily rate during the Depression, according to Nomi Prins, author of It Takes a Pillage: Bailouts, Bonuses and Backroom Deals.

Democrats are not offering solid solutions to these huge, systemic problems, even as Wednesday's defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia indicate that Democrats need to get moving on jobs.

"They need to pay attention to it," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. "Voters spoke, and I think the message they sent was they care about the economy and they care about jobs. I don't think there's any reason to panic here. We have to get healthcare done, and then we have to turn our attention to the economy and jobs."

Some Dems in Congress realize the need for another stimulus, public works programs, and some bold job-creation strategies, but there is a mounting danger that any progressive innovations for job creation will be frustrated by Obama's coterie of Wall Street economic advisors and deficit-fixated Blue Dogs—many of whom come from districts wracked by high unemployment. (This of course suggests the importance of grassroots pressure at the local level by labor and the unemployed against Blue Dog policies.)

The stakes are high: if the Democrats remain paralyzed in the face of unemployment that may keep rising despite some signs of increased activity, they stand to be punished in the 2010 mid-term election. A Democratic setback in the 2010, with the potential loss of dozens of House seats, would further close off any progressive, pro-labor policy moves.

The Right's response to the economic crisis? Publicly, it's a call for another massive injection of precisely the same trickle-down economics and financial de-regulation that created the deep economic hole that America finds itself in. Yet Democrats have failed to consistently drive home the disastrous impact of these policies, which include a dramatic upward shift of wealth and income.

But on the down-low, the Right is responding to the plight of economic meltdown' victims with a combination of stonewalling unemployment compensation and artfully-crafted new appeals to racism.

Senate Republicans, true to form, showed that they are impervious to human suffering among the inferior classes and held up an unemployment compensation extension pointlessly for four weeks, which unfortunately generated little attention in the media.

The bill extends unemployment benefits for an additional 14 weeks across the country, and in some states with the highest unemployment the extension goes to 20 weeks," reported Ryan Grim. A perplexed and angry Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she "simply couldn't understand what constituency Republicans thought they were benefiting by holding up unemployment benefits." Who are they representing?" she wondered.

Of course, Republicans are representing their traditional "constituency," the most backward sector of Corporate America. And that sector, represented by the Chamber of Commerce and allies, has launched a new TV ad atttacking healthcare that is a subtiminal but unmistakable appeal to racism.

The TV ad, titled "Millions," argues that healthcare reform will ""wipe out even more jobs" in an already-devastated economy for working people. But the ad is wrapped around a visual mini-drama that is reminiscent of Jesse Helms' notorious 1984 Senate campaign ad against African-American Harvey Gantt that blamed whites' job losses on affirmative action rather than the job-destroying policies of Ronald Reagan and Helms.

A pair of white hands is shown crumpling up a job application because it was supposedly fruitless to compete against all those African-Americans monopolizing all the great jobs. As journalist Sam Stein aptly depicts it, the core of the new ad, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and its henchmen, is this:

 The scenario of a distraught boss forced to fire an employee is illustrated by a white worker being summoned to the office as a black co-worker looks on." The black worker is notably younger than his middle-aged white co-worker who, any viewer would assume, is about to be laid off because of the black worker's racially-"privileged" status.

During the 2008 campaign, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (then secretary-treasurer) forecefully and movingly urged white workers to resist efforts to divide them along racial lines against Barack Obama's candidacy..

In response to the new Chamber ad, AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale accurately explained the strategy: "This is the same old right wing dog whistle politics...They're trying to use race and class to scare working people about a health care bill."

I would go even further than that. The racial division the ad seeks to ignite has been lurking just beneath the surface of the Right's tea-bagger movement and attacks on the Obama plan (e.g., Glenn Beck's charge that healthcare reform is being sought as a form of "reparations" to blacks.)

Following the same politics of resentment deployed so skillfully by George Wallace and then Richard Nixon, the new Chamber ad is a scary reminder that the Right may increasingly engage in racial scapegoating to mobilize its hard-core activists and to divert citizens' fury away from the economic crisis brought on by Corporate America.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

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