Thursday, December 30, 2004

More Election Thoughts

And as 2004 comes to a sorry end, a young man's thoughts turn to -- what else -- November 2006 and November 2008. It's December 30th , some say a week past the darkest day of the year. As far as I'm concerned, however, the darkest day of next year will fall on January 20.

Some decent articles have appeared lately on the elections -- past and future. First, by David Moberg in the Nation about labor's contribution to the last election and what the Democratic party -- and the labor movement -- can learn for the next.

Reading this, you wonder why the number one priority for every Democrat and progressive in this country isn't rebuilding the labor movement.
Union members turned out in greater numbers than average: They are 8 percent of eligible voters but were 14 percent of voters in the presidential election, and another 10 percent of voters came from a household with a union member.

They also voted disproportionately for Kerry. A postelection poll by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO found that union members voted for Kerry over Bush by 65 percent to 33 percent. In the battleground states, where labor's effort was most intense, Hart found that AFL-CIO members voted for Kerry 68 percent to 31 percent. Other exit and postelection polls showed a slightly smaller majority--ranging from 61 to 63 percent--of union members voting for Kerry nationally.


It's been hard for unions struggling to maintain their numbers to expand their clout at the ballot box. Although union membership has declined as a percentage of the workforce, the number of union-household voters did increase this year. At the same time, overall turnout was up, and the union-household share of the electorate slipped 2 percent from 2002. Unions also boosted members' support for Kerry a couple of points above Gore's vote. There will always be conservative union members who vote Republican, but the diverse nature of membership gives unions a better chance than many progressive groups to sway swing voters.

Because unions can use dues money only for political work among members, the challenge for labor--and the Democrats--is straightforward: "We don't have enough union members," says AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. If unions represented the same share of the workforce that they did twenty years ago, Kerry would almost certainly have won.


The results of labor's strong economic message were dramatic, nevertheless, with union members supporting Kerry even when they were part of demographic groups that were generally stalwart Bush backers. While white men overall favored Bush by eighteen points, white male union members favored Kerry by twenty-one points. Gun owners in the general public favored Bush by twenty points; unionist gun owners favored Kerry by twelve points. Kerry lost seniors overall narrowly, but won by a margin of forty-one points among seniors in unions. Weekly churchgoers gave Bush a margin of twenty-one points, but if they were union members, regular churchgoers voted for Kerry by twelve points. Economic issues, argues UNITE HERE (textile workers, hotel and restaurant employees) political director Chris Chafe, "can bring out your values messages. Healthcare is a moral issue for us. Social Security and retirement with dignity are moral issues with us." It's a morality, wedded to self-interest, that resonates far beyond labor's ranks.
So what are the problems facing labor and Democrats?

Many union members are rightly cynical about how seriously top Democratic politicians are committed to the economic issues that unions emphasize, especially trade and corporate power.
And then there was the war:
Perhaps because it was tied to Kerry's muddled position, however, the labor movement did not vigorously oppose the war during the campaign. Some unions didn't mention Iraq; the AFL-CIO produced one leaflet criticizing spending $200 billion on Iraq while needs are unmet at home. At least labor did not actively support the war (in sharp contrast with the Vietnam War), and several big unions, including AFSCME, SEIU and CWA, advocated withdrawing US troops now. Yet in the end, even though union members were primed to make their presidential decision in terms of a troubled economy and a misguided war, only 51 percent who ranked the war as the first or second most
So what is to be done, according to Moberg?
Political work must be ongoing, not intermittent spurts around election time. The education work must also be more thoughtful than a series of election-year leaflets, not only promoting deeper understanding of the core economic issues but also critically analyzing America's role in the world. There must be more effort to get members to reach out to each other in their workplaces and communities: The flood of union staff and members from blue to battleground states showed great solidarity, but it's ultimately no subsitute for home-grown networks. Most of all, there's an urgent need to make the right to organize freely at work the new civil rights movement--and to reform internally to make such organizing possible.
Michael Gecan of the Industrial Areas Foundation had some provocative thoughts in the Washington Post. He criticized Democrats' use of celebreties like Bruce Springsteen to rally the troops. I don't necessarily agree with that observation. I went to the Kerry-Springsteen rally in Columbus a couple of days before the election. I think a good rally now and then can be energizing for the soul. And we needed all the energy we could get. I take his other thoughts much more seriously:
Scores of thousands of people, many of them paid (how else do you squander $200 million?), knocked on millions of doors during this campaign. The Democratic-leaning canvassers left information, repeated a canned sales pitch and moved along. They did not engage the people in real conversation. They did not listen to their concerns. They did not recruit real volunteers to work on their own blocks. They did not take the time to find out which pastor or rabbi was a leader in an area and which congregations people attended. They were progressive salespeople with a high quota of contacts and no time to relate, who disappeared from people's towns and lives the very moment, on election night, that they learned the sale had not been made.

It was as if they had never been there. And in a way, they never were. These two tendencies -- celebrity worship and quick-hit canvassing -- betray the central problem at the heart of the Democratic Party's political culture. The party has no time or patience for the complex work needed to listen to Americans, to understand their range of views and positions, and to engage them on their deepest interests. Even worse, many in the hierarchy of the Democratic Party have contempt for ordinary Americans -- for their red faces and moderate churches and mixed, often moderate, views.

No amount of money can solve this problem. No think tank has the answers. No rising senatorial star can save the day. And no Hollywood hero can substitute for the fundamental changes the Democrats need to make to contend for the large, pivotal middle of the American electorate.
Personally, I didn't do nearly enough talking with (or listening to) those whose political opinions differed from mine. But when I did, I found it enormously educational. Not that it changed my mind (and I'm not sure I changed any of theirs), but it did make me much more aware of where they're coming from, where they get their opinions and what they're based on. And that's the kind of information we need in order to develop the responses that will resonate with those who now get most of their political information from talk radio or their churches. Somehow talk radio was talking to them more effectively than we were. We've got a few years not to learn to talk -- and listen -- more effectively. Let's not waste them.