The Classy Election of 2012
November 21, 2012 · By Steve Cobble
Big ideas can change voting patterns.
An Occupy Wall Street sign said it best: "They only call it class warfare when we fight back."
Over four long decades, American working families and poor people have seen wages stagnate, social services slashed, and our unions attacked. Since the Great Recession hollowed out housing prices, millions of Main Street Americans have watched their life savings wither. U.S. inequality is festering.
Meanwhile, life over on Wall Street just keeps getting rosier and those 1 percenters seem oblivious to the pain they've caused.
"People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right," Massachusetts Senator-Elect Elizabeth Warren said last summer at the Democratic National Convention. "The system is rigged. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them."
Most working families have known about this rigging for years. The 1 percent leverages its money power to keep politicians in line. As the bank bailout showed, the banks are "too big to fail," and Wall Street has too much control over Congress for our lawmakers to change that.
The tide may have turned. In 2011, working people and students in Wisconsin held massive protests against a top-down attack on their rights. They narrowly lost a battle to remove Republican Governor Scott Walker from office, but Romney lost Wisconsin on Election Day. Not only that, he lost Janesville, his running mate Paul Ryan's hometown. At the same time, progressive Rep. Tammy Baldwin won a Senate seat.
In Ohio, union-driven mass-mobilization in 2011 garnered less nationwide attention than in Wisconsin. But the Buckeye State passed a statewide ballot referendum with over 60 percent of the vote that protected collective bargaining. And Sen. Sherrod Brown, a stalwart progressive, won a tough re-election race in Ohio.
Normally, the need to amass campaign war chests naturally makes presidential and Senate candidates tone down rhetoric that might offend their deep-pocketed supporters. But this year the visceral anger that so many voters felt towards the 1 percent escaped the normal, "acceptable" bounds.
Even conservative Republicans broke the unwritten rules of electoral politics, with overtly class-conscious attacks. When Rick Perry balked at Mitt Romney's bizarre $10,000 bet during a GOP primary debate and attacked the candidate for "vulture capitalism," he helped lay the groundwork for making class a campaign issue in 2012. So did Newt Gingrich, when he ripped into Romney for being one of those "rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company."
The Super PAC allied with Obama, Priorities USA Action, followed these attacks with a series of ads hammering the Republican nominee based on the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded.
Those class-conscious attacks worked. By late September, Romney's negative rating was up to 48.7 percent. Even a reluctant class warrior like Barack Obama was effectively using class anger at the cozy relationship between Wall Street and Washington to electoral advantage — especially in the Rust Belt's swing states.
Class played an even bigger role in Senate races. Populist candidates Warren in Massachusetts, Brown in Ohio, and Baldwin in Wisconsin all overcame hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads by openly standing up for working families. They promised to grow the economy from "the middle class out and the bottom up," as Warren put it.
Like Brown and Baldwin, she promised to protect Medicare and Social Security, rein in Wall Street, and reduce the influence of big money in politics.
I'd say they all beat their Republican opponents by out-classing them.
The Occupy Wall Street movement made the gulf between the rich and poor in America a matter of public, rather than academic, concern. The 2012 elections proved that big ideas can change voting patterns.
Wall Street, take note: Main Street has spoken.