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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The Democrats' Class War


For all the hype about generational and gender wars in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, we have a class war on our hands. And incredibly, corporate America's preferred candidate is winning the poorer "us" versus the wealthier "them" — a potentially decisive trend with the contest now moving to working-class bastions like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In most states, polls show Hillary Clinton is beating Barack Obama among voters making $50,000 a year or less — many of whom say the economy is their top concern. Yes, the New York senator who appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine as Big Business's candidate is winning economically insecure, lower-income communities over the Illinois senator who grew up as an organizer helping those communities combat unemployment. This absurd phenomenon is a product of both message and bias.

Obama has let Clinton characterize the 1990s as a nirvana, rather than a time that sowed the seeds of our current troubles. He barely criticizes the Clinton administration for championing job-killing trade agreements. He does not question that same administration's role in deregulating the financial industry and thereby intensifying today's boom-bust catastrophes. And he rarely points out what McClatchy Newspapers reported this week: that Clinton spent most of her career at a law firm "where she represented big companies and served on corporate boards," including Wal-Mart's.

Obama hasn't touched any of this for two reasons.

First, his campaign relies on corporate donations. Though Obama certainly is less industry-owned than Clinton, the Washington Post noted last spring that he was the top recipient of Wall Street contributions. That cash is hush money, contingent on candidates silencing their populist rhetoric.

But while this pressure to keep quiet affects all politicians, it is especially intense against black leaders.

"If Obama started talking like John Edwards and tapped into working-class, blue-collar proletarian rage, suddenly all of those white voters who are viewing him within the lens of transcendence would start seeing him differently," says Charles Ellison of the University of Denver's Center for African American Policy.

That's because once Obama parroted Edwards' attacks on greed and inequality, he would "be stigmatized as a candidate mobilizing race," says Manning Marable, a Columbia University history professor.

That is, the media would immediately portray him as another Jesse Jackson — a figure whose progressivism has been (unfairly) depicted as racial politics anathema to white swing voters.

Remember, this is always how power-challenging African-Americans are marginalized. The establishment cites a black leader's race- and class-unifying populism as supposed proof of his or her radical, race-centric views. An extreme example of this came from the FBI, which labeled Martin Luther King Jr. "the most dangerous man in America" for talking about poverty. More typical is the attitude exemplified by Joe Klein's 2006 Time magazine column. He called progressive Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., "an African American of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped" and "one of the ancient band of left-liberals who grew up in the angry hothouse of inner-city, racial-preference politics."

The Clintons are only too happy to navigate this ugly cultural topography. After a rare Obama attack on Hillary Clinton for supporting policies that eliminated jobs, Bill Clinton quickly likened Obama's campaign to Jackson's, and the Clinton campaign told the Associated Press Obama was "the black candidate." These were deliberate statements telling Obama that if he talks about class, they'll talk about race.

And so, as Marable says, Obama's pitch includes "no mention of the class struggle or class conflict." It is "hope" instead of an economic case, bromide instead of critique. The result is an oxymoronic dynamic.

Obama, the person who fought blue-collar joblessness in the shadows of shuttered factories, is winning wealthy enclaves. But Clinton, the person whose globalization policies helped shutter those factories, is winning blue-collar strongholds.

Obama, who was schooled by the same organizing networks as Cesar Chavez, is being endorsed by hedge fund managers. But Clinton, business's favorite, is being endorsed by the United Farm Workers — the union that Chavez created.

Obama, the candidate from Chicago's impoverished South Side, is finding support on Connecticut's gilded south coast. But Hillary Clinton, the candidate representing Big Money, is finding support from those with relatively little money.

As the campaign heads to the struggling Rust Belt under banners promising "change," this bizarre class war may end up guaranteeing no real transformation at all.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," will be released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at



14 Comments | Post Comment
I wonder if the "poorer of us" is supporting Hillary because of name recognition and the sense of having "knowledge" by knowing the name -- and nothing else. I think the "wealthier them" are the folks who have a better understanding of history and the importance of Barack's message in terms of reconciliation, consensus building, "Getting to Yes" -- the "us" and "we" beyond our own neighborhood. Barbara Bartschi
Portland, Oregon
Comment: #1
Posted by: Barbara Bartschi
Fri Feb 8, 2008 10:07 AM
Interesting column, but that assumes that Obama would champion the same people Edwards did if he could. I don't think so. He has done little to appeal to working class folks. His plan to engage in reconciliation and consensus building is not conducive to the fight against corporate interests and for economic justice. I wonder if all those young folks know about the era of the social contract: employers embraced civil society--no permanent layoffs, provision of health insurance, paid more of their share in taxes and supported the local community. Corporate America shredded that agreement and the culmination was the election of Ronald Reagan. All through the 80's, the labor movement did not understand what hit them. Some unions still haven't adjusted.
As a result, there is no negotiating with corporate interests. There is only appeasement.
Obviously, Clinton is no better. But, at least I know what I'm getting.
David, it would be great if Obama talked about his roots as an organizer. He doesn't. The notion of reconciliation does not come out of the Alinsky style organizing that was done in South Chicago. Community organizing requires massing power to confront the powers that be. We have numbers, they have money. Numbers can beat money if done well.
I voted for Edwards on 2/5. The difference between the two candidates is so small, I'm not sure it matters.
Comment: #2
Posted by: LeeNYC
Fri Feb 8, 2008 10:29 AM
LeeNYC is quite right about Obama low-balling his community organizing days in favor of what Barbara Bartschi celebrates in a leap of unjustified faith: "Barack's message in terms of reconciliation, consensus building..."
Even Jack Kennedy and his inner circle understood -- grudgingly, and self-congratulatingly -- the utility of the civil rights movement in pushing the New Frontier to the left -- after the 1964 election.

learly, Edwards got that, as demonstrated by his more than three years' work culminating in an increase in the national minimum wage. Were he to be appointed Attorney General, he could magnify the organizing power of social change movements now litigating and mobilizing against the iniquitious effects of Reagan, the two Bushes, and the Republican-lite Clintons. Since his withdrawal with assurances he said he'd gotten from both C&O that each would make poverty central to her/his campaign, I hear only lip service from either of them (although Christopher Hayes in The Nation for February 18th claims Obama was revered by Chicago-area progressives for his activism)

All progressive social change movements should combine soon to reinforce Edwards' carrying of the torch for social change by supporting each others' bottom lines, and taking that to the Convention, in substance similar to the Democratic Agenda efforts in the late 1970's. Such a progressive agenda would force C&O to raise their sights to a broad vision of social, political, economic and environmental justice instead of sniping at each other.

A compassionate conservationist, WatermelonGrower, Berkeley California
Comment: #3
Posted by: WatermelonGrower
Fri Feb 8, 2008 12:01 PM
We will have elections between corporate candidates until we have totally public funded campaigns. The problem is the Catch 22. We can't get the corporatocracy out of power until we have publically funded campaigns and we can't have publically funded campaigns until we get the corporatocracy out of power.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Lincoln Fan
Fri Feb 8, 2008 4:27 PM
David, this is a good article. I have been watching the debates and the speeches. Obama does talk about his community service and it's in his ads. I am all for this man, I like hime, I have faith in him. I had faith in Bill Clinton also, but his policies are coming back to haunt all of us. This election year i seems a little unreal. It's so reversed. I cannot support Hillary. I am a 65 year old retiree and watch C-Span and the congress. So I do my own investigating on the candidates. I am a peacefuf person and this war has really gotten to my psycie and I think Obama is the only one that will not get us into another one.
Comment: #5
Posted by: TexasGrandma
Sat Feb 9, 2008 5:59 AM
Thanks for being independent minded and giving a balanced and objective analysis and not letting your own likes or dislikes shape your writings. It is refreshing to read a young man so finely perched on the edge of public opinion.Do you have any disclaimers to make before analyzing the national political scene? Was Senator Obama's election to the US Senate funded by the poor of Chicago?I don't think so. But I am sure you have diligently researched that.
Comment: #6
Posted by: andyod
Sat Feb 9, 2008 6:12 AM
Interesting analysis with much merit. How does one address the fact that Obama has a broader donor base with a greater number of small donors than both Clinton (and Edwards)? In fact, Obama's ability to stay financially competitive at this point in the primary schedule is totally dependent upon the non-corporate contributions.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Chris Owens
Sat Feb 9, 2008 10:25 PM
I take issue with the narrative of this opinion. To label Hillary work as "a corporate lawyer" is to dismiss much of her work with the disadvantaged. She was still in high school when she set up a baby-sitting service for migrant workers. And that was just the beginning of her long hard work to change the lives of the poor, from working for the Children's Defend Fund, to working with the World Bank to help with the micro-loans to women. Although it's true that she was given a seat on the board of directors at Wal-Mart, it was a time when corporations were looking to open their boards with more women and minorities. One has to look at a photo (NYT) of Hillary with the board to get an idea of the barriers she broke and the world she entered. It's also true that she did not push to change the anti-union policy at Wal-Mart, one would have to be naive to think that even if she voiced such opinions, she would have accomplished anything, hence she pushed for better working conditions for the women. The reality is that one has to be pragmatic and work within the system. I supported Edwards, gave him small donations, but hope does not do the job. Look where all that idealism went. Too bad you don't see beyond the corporate work she has done and appreciate her accomplishments for the betterment of families. Also although you are 100 percent right that the exit of jobs was exacerbated by the Clinton trade policies, yet the number of poor people went down dramatically in the 90s. It wasn't nirvana, but it was better than the years under Reagan, H.W. Bush and G.W.Bush. I've examined the work of the two candidates to create change, and Hillary wins hands down. I looked at the two candidates who can move the system to make it work, and Hillary wins hands down. I cannot support Obama because he is another common politician, like Hillary, but without the background and accomplishment to do the job. I hope HRC gets the nomination. It's her time and she deserves it more than Obama.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Prabhata
Sat Feb 9, 2008 11:30 PM
The next "president" has alredy been chosen. Do we really believe that the current regime is going to jeopardize their crimminal gains with a fair election? Remember Stalin's "Show Trials"? This is a "Show Election". Calculated Deception and Betrayal are in full motion. The Constitutiton has been called a "_______ piece of paper"; Habeas Corpus suspended; Domestic Spending frozen; Nuclear Attack on Iran planned for Purim (March).... PNAC is in Full Spectrum Dominance mode. Globalization is creating humanitarian/economic catastrophe-- and some "candidate" is going to talk us through all this? "Change"? as in 'the more things change, the more they remain the same'. AIPAC rules.
Comment: #9
Posted by: wilson
Sun Feb 10, 2008 1:04 AM
1. The only item Mr. Sirota omitted is the success of the Clintons in jumping through hoops for the media--bigger market shares for the plutocrats to silenced on "net neutrality."

2. This old man still remembers a Senator by the name of Fred Harris who championed programs for the underclasses. Seems to me what happened to former Senator Edwards' campaign is quite similar to the fate of Fred Harris.
Comment: #10
Posted by: JW Alsip
Sun Feb 10, 2008 7:24 AM
"Obama, who was schooled by the same organizing networks as Cesar Chavez, is being endorsed by hedge fund managers. But Clinton, business's favorite, is being endorsed by the United Farm Workers - the union that Chavez created.'-
Having organized with the UFW in the mid-1990s, I can say that they have unfortunately become part of the Democratic establishment. The Kennedy's worked with Chavez and gave important attention to the farm workers' cause, however, they have now endorsed Obama's. Name recognition has been Clinton's strength, but vision, leadership, and the opportunity for fundamental change is Obama. Like many others in the Democratic Establishment "leaders" these early endorsers of Clinton, probably shouldn't have bought all of their stock in her corporation, Clinton, Inc. They now know it was a bad investment. The Clinton market is crashing and they can't cash out. They have an opportunity to "reinvest" in the general.
Comment: #11
Posted by: jrw34
Mon Feb 11, 2008 10:09 AM
I am disappointed in David Sirota. Obama did not grow up on the southside of Chicago. His background is closer to Hillary's than it is to Al Sharpton's. That said, there is so little difference on most issues between the two of them that it hardly bears mentioning. Like others who have spoken here, I supported Edwards. He pushed both Obama and Clinton further to the left than they ever would have dared to go without him. He is the person who understands the death grip that corporations have on all of us. Why wasn't Sirota championing him for bringing the issues of poverty and class to the forefront? I have little desire to see either Clinton or Obama get the nomination, because I think it spells victory for McCain. He apeals to older voters, white men, and independents. The Republican Right will hold their noses and vote for him, too. Looks like a win to me - unless Gore decides to save us from ourselves. So, while Democrats shoot themselves in the foot - yet again - over which of their corporated backed candidates is purer, the woman of substance or the man of charm, it will not matter a bit in the end.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Nora
Tue Feb 12, 2008 10:04 AM
Re: WatermelonGrower
I think there's a subtle mis-reading of Obama's message of consensus. It is Hillary and Bill whose idea of reaching across the aisle was caving to the Republicans, and they were disturbingly comfortable doing that. For all her "fight" and certainly a decent progressive voting record, I have never seen the Clintons fight for a progressive cause against political will.

Obama's particular gift, on the other hand, is bridging a gap we've endured for almost 30 years: Lower income Republicans voting against their economic interests. Obama has the ability to persuade just those people that health care reform, taxing corporations that ship jobs overseas, a New Deal-type approach to rebuilding infrastructure, etc., is in their own best interests. Hillary has had ample time in the public eye to develop those skills, and she just doesn't have them. Rightly or wrongly, the Clinton bagge prohibits that kind of persuasion. And in order to achieve any kind of progressive reform, we need those people to call/write/email/fax their Republican congresspeople to voice their support of these policies.

This is what Obama means by consensus.

I am not naive about corporate connections from any of the candidates -- if a "pure" candidate could truly effect that kind of change, Kucinich would be our nominee. That being said, Obama is uniquely qualified to get these policies through Congress, with the thanks of the American people. Hillary is incapable of achieving that.
Comment: #13
Posted by: Marilyn
Sun Feb 17, 2008 6:51 AM
The policies are very similar between Obama and Clinton. It's a question of who can get those ideas into legislation that will pass. The blue collar worker is more comfortable with the Clinton brand name and remembers the years when the economy was so strong that everyone was lifted up. No one can deny that. However, it was an active move on the Clinton Administration's part to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, a regulation in place since FDR, that directly led to the financial crisis we're in right now. That is indisputable. The Telecom bill was an assault against democracy. I have always wondered why Obama didn't make more of these blue collar issues -- this article has illuminated that for me. That being said, if he doesn't make a whole-hearted case to the blue collar worker, he is in trouble. Most of his money come from small contributors like me. He needs to make his case, which he has begun to do. Hillary as a senator, has entrenched herself deeper with corporate interests and is Bush-lite when it comes to foreign policy. She may have been a decent administrator-president at some other time; but she's the wrong candidate now.
Comment: #14
Posted by: Marilyn
Sun Feb 17, 2008 7:11 AM
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