Monday, April 14, 2008

The Real Elitism of Clinton-McCain


Aliquippa Hospital Workers
Hit the Streets over Mass Firings

Hope And Obama
In Western PA

By Carl Davidson

When I heard Hillary Clinton and John McCain claiming, against Barack Obama's recent observation, that there was no 'bitterness' among working-class voters in Western Pennsylvania, I burst out laughing, 'they've got to be kidding!'

Unfortunately they weren't, and now the cable news punditry and right-wing talk radio has a new diversionary cause of the week to dump on Obama in lieu of serious discussion of policy and programs.

I'm born and bred in Beaver County, Western PA, which, in 1960, was the most blue-collar county in the entire country-steel, strip mines, and everything related to both. My grandfather died in the mill, Jones & Laughlin Steel, crushed by a crane, and another cousin met the same fate a few decades later. My parents are both in the Pennsylvania Bowlers Hall of Fame (and Barack would do well to stick to basketball!). After a long stint in New York City and Chicago, which were irresistible in my youth, I'm now back home, living in Raccoon Township.

Take it from me. There are a lot of bitter voters in these mill towns and the townships outside them. If they don't express it to the coiffured media, they do to each other. It's easy to see why. The towns are mostly empty, ravaged by deindustrialization. And the brown fields where the mills once stood are so poisoned grass won't even grow. After sitting empty for years, the first new structure to go up not too long ago on one near here was a new prison.

Does this mean it's a clear path for Obama? Not at all, it's a rough climb, full of difficulties. But he's doing better than anyone expected. None of the polls are that trustworthy, because some tell the pollsters the 'right' answer, while others, such as new youth voters with only cell phones, are hard to find. Obama's closing on Clinton, now by a five point spread. The more people see him, the more they like him. But both Democrats run neck-to-neck against McCain in November. This is not a 'safe state' for anyone, anytime.

'White male identity politics' is the unpredictable elephant in the room. I've talked with older blue collar voters who claim John Edwards was their runaway favorite, but are now leaning to John McCain, in spite of their hatred for the war. White workers generally split three ways, roughly proportional, between the three candidates.

Younger working-class voters, male and female, white or Black, are not so caught up in it, and they are Obama's ace-in-the-hole. If his campaign can get them to the polls in droves, he can win it. That's the long and short of it, and if you can get here to help, please do so. Everything counts.

The bitterness runs deep, favors no single candidate, and comes in several varieties. Retired steelworkers here had their pensions stolen by speculative capital, winning only part of them back by hitting the streets. There's also another kind of bitterness in Pennsylvania's demographics. It's now one of the oldest population areas in the country. My young nephews and nieces, even with some local college degrees or courses behind them, have a hard time finding work. Many young people have moved away to Florida or California, leaving older relatives behind. Here in Raccoon, they're now shutting down the elementary school, claiming 500 pupils doesn't justify the expense to keep it open. It means an hour on the bus for youngsters from a perfectly good school, and, yes, many parents are bitter.

Aliquippa is the nearest town to me, known as home of Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. In my youth, it was a bustling blue-collar town of 20,000-some 10,000 workers in the mill, a mixture of Serbs, Italians and African-Americans. Now it's down to 6000, mostly poor and Black. They were the hardest hit of all, lacking the rural family homesteads to fall back on. Now joblessness, crime and addiction take a very bitter toll on the families still there, with nowhere to go.

Does this mean it's all bleak? No, not at all, although Hillary Clinton is just dissembling, or worse, to assert that there's no bitterness, only resilience and hope, in these towns. People here like to pull themselves up independently whenever they can, like the Scots-Irish and Germans who predominated here in the 1800s. Their class solidarity means they'll accept a hand-up, and offer one, too. But they don't like hand-outs at all, unless you're at death's door, which is why their anti-'Fat Cat' populism also contains antipathy to some features of liberalism. It's also why Obama gets a standing ovation when he tells college students he'll help, but challenges them to give back, with community service work.

This blue-collar populism runs the political gamut-left, center and right. You can get colorful examples in the hot debates in the interactive pages of the online edition of the largest daily paper, the Beaver County Times. Pick any topic or candidate-you'll get fierce denunciations of the rich man's war for oil, combined with warnings against Hillary' 'socialism', claims that Obama's a secret Muslim, and despair that McCain's a clone of Bush.

In this lively public square, Obama or any candidate would do well to discern the main themes. Don't get me wrong. People here are open and friendly. They don't expect you to agree with them, or vice versa. But they do expect authenticity, so when you get out organizing, speak from the heart, and don't put your head higher than anyone else's, and expect the same in return.

At the top of their list is stopping the war now, since it's preventing any solutions to anything else. Next, do something about health care-single payer is best, but either Obama's or Hillary's plan rather than nothing. Then debt relief and fuel prices, although no miracles are expected here.

Finally there's creating new jobs and new wealth. This is probably most important strategically, but people have been spun so many promises, they're cynical, and Obama was right to point it out. Still he should look deeper here, and more often.

What gets people's attention are 'high road' programs like the Apollo Alliance, new 'green' industrial jobs building the infrastructure of energy independence. All those wind turbines and wave generators and whatnot have to be built somewhere, and what blue collar Pennsylvania, white and Black, knows how to do very well is build things that create high value and new wealth.

This is what gets people's attention, not rebates, handouts and McJobs. Obama's a natural on this subject, and he'd best spend less ad money on how's he's not in thrall to lobbyists, and spend more as an advocate of green industrial policy that would give these mill towns real hope for change.

[Carl Davidson is a peace and justice activist, a 'Solidarity Economy' organizer, and webmaster for 'Progressives for Obama' at]


kenshin said...

hm, you know who else is really bitter? all the people who have lived near a nuclear power plant, esp. native americans, and even poor african-americans, who deal with horrible health problems from the plants only to see the revenue from them go elsewhere and not back to their own communities, as they were promised.

maybe all the other taxpayers who pay for the subsidy for nuke power are also bitter, cuz after all, no private investors support it, it's far too costly!

how abouts the millions of people who'd like a much better health care plan? or the hundreds of thousands of anti-war activists who really do not like to hear backpedaling on this war, and cannot abide by military contractors like blackwater at all--there is no holding them "accountable", only kicking them out!

but you know who's most bitter? me, cuz i really really wanted a true progressive in this election, and i'm not seeing one.

can you please tell obama to denounce nuke power and his friends at exelon, along with those other things? after all, i'm just some bitter voter hangin on to my guns, la la la...he won't care to listen to me!

Anonymous said...

Ask why it is that, while American steel companies are producing and exporting more steel than they have in years, they are not creating new jobs. Certainly not in PA. They are driving the workers they have to 16-hour days, with deadly results. That way they can take advantage of the very weak dollar to export, take advantage of the very weak union to exploit, and take advantage of the very weak media to obscure.

Carl Davidson said...

We never claimed Obama was a 'true progressive', Kenshin, only our best shot this round, and our whole purpose here is to keep the heat on.

I'm in Beaver County, PA on the W VA and Ohio border. I can stand on my roof and see the Shippingport Nuke, the first ever built. My uncle was on a team of carpenters and construction workers that built it. A disproportional chunk of the whole crew, including him, died early, riddled with cancers. None one knows why. We do know all the homes here have special alarms, and all the little roads are marked with 'emergency evacuation' routes, and it ain't because the Ohio river might run too high. We're up in the hills looking over it.

We also hate stripminers around here, and their contempt for our ecosystem. Even the miners who work for them do.

So we share a goal of clean energy from renewable sources, all rooted in the Sun. But we have any number of bad choices getting from here to there.

Carl Davidson said...

One reason, 'Anon,' is the application of information technology in steel production.

Chicago produces as much steel as it ever did, but with one third of the work force. One friend who used to run a lathe, and was permanently laid off, said now, rather than ten guys running lathes, they have one tech worker running a computer that runs ten lathes. Manufacturing isn't just unskilled and semi-skilled anyone, but a lot of blue-collar high tech on the plant floor.

That's why new manufacturing industries have to be combined with new high schools. Austin Polytechical in Chicago, a regular high school in a low-income Black area, is a positive example.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the very perceptive article. Well done. As likely the first in our very GOP township (Marshall, right outside of Beaver Co) to sport an Obama sticker on our car, I figure I can add my 2 cents.
I lean to Obama, but have a few problems not related to his progressive impurity. If you've been voting against the GOP since the Nixon Era as I have, you've seen more than one of the ideologically pure get trapped, wrapped and trashed in their own righteous rainment by the right-wingers. His imperfections in that regard don't worry me. To plagarize a little, sometimes you gotta fight with what you have not what you'd like to have.
Pragmatically, I'm concerned about his ability to overcome the racial issue. They're still out there. In 2000, some of my good friends backing Nader tsk-tsked me for not voting for him for pragmatic reasons. There's almost nothing Nader says I disagree with, but what is, is.
I also have trouble with the personality cult that seems to have attached itself to Obama.
I'll probaby go with him anyhow, despite these reservations. But the very harsh reality of the mess left by GW Bush will require a great deal of pragmatism mixed in with the optimism.
As for the Nuke, I've worked in there a number of times. It did seem to me they made substantial effort to minimize problems, but who knows the bottom line. I also worked in more than a dozen steel plants up and down the valleys, as well as the chemical plants and other supportive and by-product industries involved with steel. I can't believe they weren't worse for surrounding environments and workers than Shippingport. I'd also say that the Bruce Mansfield coal facility next to the nuke has poisoned more people (so far) than Shippingport.
Whatever the effects, It's certain that no nuke should ever be located in populated areas and near major cities. Flat dumb.

pgerdine said...

I agree with Carl on this point, that while Obama may not be the perfect progressive choice, he's a heck of a lot better than the alternatives. Maybe if he took John Edwards as his running mate, that might satisfy some with qualms about his ideological purity? Are you listening, kenshin?
And while I admire Ralph Nader & reject the notion that somehow he alone was responsible for Gore's "loss" in 2000, especially in Florida, I don't really see him as a viable altenative in 2008. With all due respect, & he deserves a lot of it, in my book. Now, if Hillary is the Democratic candidate, which looks unlikely now, I may well pull the level for Ralph, come November.

Anonymous said...

Why all this vitriol for
Clinton? It should be aimed at GWB. She does not deserve this.

Anonymous said...

My extended family on both sides is from Western PA - Altoona and Hadley - and Obama's got it right. As quality jobs and real community left, fundamentalist churches (and politicians) arrived.

I love seeing my family, but it's truly depressing to visit places like Altoona. It's one long, dreary set of strip malls, auto dealerships and service industry jobs, and full of so many people who are struggling just to keep what they have, let alone pursuing their talents or potential.

Carl Davidson said...

Thanks, all...

All of us are concerned about he racial issue, 'Anon,' All I can add is that a lot has changed over the years, and the younger generation is way more open to him. Still, when it rears its head, take a stand and nip it in the bud as best as you can. I do my best with the Beaver County Times online letters and commentary pages every day, plus everyone I talk too. A neighbor down the road was putting up his Obama yard sign today, along with a hand-lettered one of his own--'Vote Out All Incumbents, so I stopped to chat and offer some support.

Vitrol vs Clinton? I thought I was rather mild. She has my vote if she's the one to go against McCain, but she might get a few more if she stopped working FOR McCain at the moment, and we have to call her on it.

I don't blame Nader. First, Gore won the election, and got his votes stolen by Jeb Bush. That's the truth of the matter. But I don't think Nader, McKinney or other third parties are going to matter much this round. In any case, if people insist on voting for third parties in 2008, I tell them just to bring 10 young antiwar voters to the polls with them. That'll more than even things out.

Alan8 said...

What people are overlooking is that Obama is on the same corporate payroll as Bush, McCain, and Clinton.

Obama WON'T pull out of NAFTA or the WTO agreements that export our jobs. He HAS voted for NAFTA-like trade agreements.

Obama WON'T give us a single-payer health care system. That would threaten the profits of the insurance corporations that have given him "contributions".

Obama is trying to pull a "Clinton" on us: Show voters you understand the problems to get elected, then do nothing to threaten corporate profits once in office.

I've contributed to Ralph Nader, and will vote for him in the fall. If you vote for a corporate candidate, YOU'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

Carl Davidson said...

I don't think it's an oversight, 'Alan8.' We're well aware of how Obama gets paid--He's put his tax returns online, and they're rather different from the megabucks of the Clintons and McCains.

But that probably wasn't your main point anyway, since in addition to breaking all records in small contributors, some wealthy people back him, too, at least enough for you to vote Nader.

To which I say, fine, but don't vote alone. Practice some small 'd' democracy and bring LOTS of new antiwar voters to the polls with you, whether they fully agree with you or not. They'll figure out what to do.

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