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 www.credoaction.com/sirota.