Labor Advocate Online

Workers and Electoral Politics—Part One

The American Political System Reviewed

by Bill Onasch

When I recently promised to write an article about the election once we knew the identity of the winner some asked me why wait? After all, I had always maintained that it wouldn't make much difference to the working class which of the Ivy Leaguers won. We could look forward to the same basic policies of globalization, privatization, threats to Social Security, inaction on health care, and reliance on the most oppressive labor laws in the industrialized world, regardless of whether the donkey or the elephant was squatting in the White House.

I haven't changed that view. But while the personal victor of the election doesn't much matter the process tells us a lot about what is happening in society. That's why we need to pay attention to elections and try to analyze the results. Knowing the mood of the working class, the issues that concern them, is vital to planning future nonelectoral actions. This time around the process went into overtime and many didn't start taking an active interest until the bizarre Florida affair. Millions got their first real grasp of the process as they waited a month to figure out who won—and why and how he won.

Looking at Some Numbers
Let's get some numbers out of the way. By now, of course, everyone knows Bush won the slimmest of majorities in the Electoral College to claim the White House. Most also know that Gore had a tiny plurality in popular votes, each rounding out to about 48 percent. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got about three percent of the popular vote. A dozen or more other candidates shared the remaining one percent. (Included among the sub-digit also-rans was Pat Buchanan, fueled by the 12 million dollars the Reform Party had left over after founder H. Ross Perot became bored and wandered off.)

In congress the Democrats and Republicans each have fifty seats in the Senate; the Republicans have a 221-212 advantage in the House (there are also two “independents” and two vacant seats). Visions of gridlock dance in many heads.

On election night we were told that voting was “very heavy.” It turns out that about 51 percent of those eligible actually voted. This can be called “heavy” only in comparison to the 1996 turnout, which was 49 percent. 

Clearly, once again, a majority of the working class sat this one out. Voter participation among capitalists, large and small; the self-employed; lower management;  professionals and techies; and retirees from these groups, is much greater proportionally than turnout among blue and pink collar workers. 

Unionized workers tended to vote more than the unorganized; union households provided 25 percent of the total vote. Gore got the lion's share—about 58 percent—of the union household vote, Nader about six percent. Vote totals for nonwhites were even more lop-sided, with Gore garnering more than 80 percent, Nader about five percent. 

Despite being part of the present Establishment Gore's appeal appeared to  resound most among those who are unhappy about the present state of America, and/or apprehensive about the future. Gore's base was effective mobilizations by unions, civil rights, feminist, retiree, and environmental organizations. 

So who voted for Bush? Most who turned out tend to think America is doing pretty good and their main concern is to stay the course. In the absence of big differences over issues they choose the candidate that they most trust, or feel most comfortable with. Many started out leaning toward Gore but, the more they saw and heard Gore, the more shifted to Bush.

There is also a substantial number of workers and farmers who vote along religious lines and saw Bush as more friendly on issues such as denying women the right to choose, opposing sex education in schools, and blocking civil rights for gays and lesbians. They are complemented—with some overlap—by those who see fighting gun control as the single most important issue for America.

Neither major candidate made any significant changes in their program during the course of the campaign. But voter perception underwent some dramatic changes. According to Gallup,  among voters who thought education was a top priority Gore went from a lead in March of 48-41 to trailing at the end 50-41. On the key question of the health of the national economy—something you would think Gore could have really exploited—he plunged from a slender 46-45 early lead to a miserable 54-38 reversal. Gore even lost ground on his strongest appeal—Social Security and Medicare—starting out with a 49-40, ending with a narrow 45-43, lead. When speaking to the winners in the New Economy Gore just didn't know when to shut up. It was his election to lose and he lost it.

Or did he?

The U.S. Electoral System
Nation-wide, even without Florida chads, Gore got better than a half-million more votes than Bush. That, and a dollar, would get him a ride on a Metro bus. Contrary to most people's prior assumptions, U.S. Presidents are not elected by a majority of voters but rather by a curious institution known as the Electoral College.

Of course we all knew about the Electoral College. Most viewed it as a quaint relic that simply ratified the voter's will. But the voter's will in selecting a President is no where mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Article II prescribes, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. . .” Up until 1860—the election that led to the Civil War—a number of states chose electors through their legislature, with no popular vote at all. The Florida legislature was ready to pick itself as the selector of their Electors in this election, going for Bush, and they might have gotten away with it.

The Electoral College is one of those “checks and balances,” negotiated by the “Founding Fathers,” and maintained to this day by those who know best for us. These restrictive practices were initially necessary to try to balance the interests of two classes attempting to share power—the capitalists and the slave-owners. But, since there can be only one dominant class in a society, the compromises eventually broke down and their differences were settled by a bloody civil war. However, the victorious employing class has kept many of these venerable restraints intact to check an even greater potential threat—the working class majority.

Popular democracy was not high on the agenda of either would-be ruling class. The absence of voting rights was not the only glaring omission from the original Constitution. What we know as the Bill of Rights were added only as amendments to our Constitution. The unwashed masses that the FFs didn't like or trust threatened to block ratification of the Constitution without them. Our rights were won only through the insistence of determined—and armed—farmers and workers, mainly veterans of the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, who took the writings of Jefferson and Paine seriously.

While the Bill of Rights gave us important civil liberties there was not much guarantee, much less encouragement, for popular participation in selecting public officials. During most of our country's history voting was limited pretty much to white male property holders. Direct election of U.S. senators was not required until 1913. The right of women to vote didn't become guaranteed until 1920. Racist legal barriers to Black voters were not eliminated until the 1960s. And draft age youth had to wait until the 1970s to vote.

The aim of the U.S. Establishment is to provide a facade of democratic participation while the real decisions get hammered out behind closed doors. Two parties—but no more than two parties—are encouraged to compete for elective offices. Moderation is cherished, extremism avoided. Appeals to class warfare are considered out of bounds. Within this context of moderation lively debate is promoted over secondary issues. Character vilification of opponents is acceptable within limits. Winners take all, losers graciously concede. May the best man (or in recent years occasionally the best woman) win. Such are the attributes of American political stability.

But sometimes social reality intrudes in this cozy set up. Despite all talk about unprecedented prosperity America is becoming increasingly polarized. Some have prospered under the “New Economy.” There are even many workers diligently tracking their stock portfolios.

But there are millions of workers who have either been downsized out of jobs or fear the possibility. Millions more were moved off welfare rolls—into the bleak world of the working poor. The working class as a whole is earning less in real wages than they were 25 years ago. Forty-three million have no health insurance. There are more Black youth in jail than there are in college.

The fact of the matter is that there isn't much of a middle in American society. You either identify with the greedy accumulation of the New Economy or worry about trying to hang on to what you have. As the upcoming stock market “correction” fully unfolds there will be many more disillusioned with the New Economy but they will hardly be looking for some peaceful middle ground.

There's no doubt that the ruling rich would have been satisfied with either Gore or Bush at the helm. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and others, have testified that Gore was always on the cutting edge within the Clinton administration on issues such as destroying the social safety net, privatization, and promoting policies of globalization. He earned his untold millions in hard and soft contributions from corporate sources.

But Gore ran into a string of bad luck. Social polarization, and the determination of the labor, feminist, civil rights, and environmental movement leaderships to maintain their commitment to the two party system, thrust Gore into the unsought and uncomfortable role of “populist.” Instead of crowing about the success of Free Trade, taking pride in unparalleled growth of the stock market, and promising more reinventing government services and workers out of existence, as he would like to have done, poor Gore had to talk about saving Social Security and Medicare, and promise to make the right appointments to the Supreme Court. While he could get plenty of money from the rich he had to hustle votes through the mass organizations of the working class.

So social polarization made itself felt in distorted ways. Gore's base was a frightening scenario for those who rule America. He obtained his plurality of popular votes by winning big in urban working class areas, capturing the bigger states, such as California and New York, by huge margins. This could be seen as an example for future working class electoral efforts outside two party control.

Fortunately for the Establishment the good old Electoral College came through once more, serving as a firewall between the ruling elite and the uppity masses. One rancher's vote in Wyoming can trump a whole working class family in California. If a bosses candidate can carry the Great Plains and the South by narrow margins it doesn't matter what happens in New York, Michigan, and Illinois. It's a reassuring lesson for any tempted to stray from the middle ground—you can't fight City Hall and you can't fight the Electoral College.

But, unfortunately for the power elite, even their firewall protection became somewhat tainted because of the bizarre voting scandal in Florida. Tens of millions believe Gore was cheated out of that state, and with it the whole election. Unions and others organized protests calling to “count every vote.” Most African-Americans believe many Black voters were disenfranchised in Florida, and perhaps other places as well. When the final official tally of electoral votes was announced in a joint session of congress, the Black Caucus walked out of the chamber in protest.

It should be noted that the Chair of that joint session, who cut off unruly disrupters from the floor and guided the process in an expeditious and decorous manner was Al Gore. Gore thought he was cheated. He did what any good American is supposed to do—he sued. But when the Supreme Court shot him down he called off the war and urged his troops to demobilize and to await further instructions in four years. Gore never criticized the electoral system before the election nor has he to this day. He would never endorse such radical proposals being expounded by some that the highest office in the land be directly elected on the basis of one person, one vote. Gore remains hopeful of making a comeback in a system that has served him as well as he served it.

But not all will be so forgiving. The present generations of voters will never view elections the same way again. There will almost certainly be discussions about not only reforming the electoral system but also pursuing political agendas outside the electoral arena. We'll have more to say in future installments coming soon.

Next up: Part Two—the Nader Factor

January 7, 2001

>>Part Two, The Nader Factor

>> Part Three, Three Major Strategies