Claiming a Working-Class Mandate

The U.S. voting public faced a stark decision on November 6, 2012.  On the one hand, they weighed the benefits of a program of tax cuts for the 1%, social welfare spending cuts for the broad majority, a disingenuous obsession with deficits, racial and cultural demagoguery, and a pandering to the interests of corporate and finance capital.  On the other, they considered the possibilities of a fairer distribution of taxation, greater reinvestment in the nation’s physical and social infrastructure, an embracing of the nation’s changing demographics, and a more active federal social welfare agenda.  At present, the political right refuses to acknowledge the mandate that President Barack Obama’s re-election signifies, or recognize how Democratic gains in the Senate affirmed it.  But the people who stood for hours in long lines to vote, or otherwise surmounted efforts to suppress the vote on the bases of race and class, sent a resounding message.  Yet, the mandate does not reside chiefly in the White House.  To the contrary, no policy mandate exists apart from the public’s will to invoke and enforce it.  Rather, then, it rests largely among the electorate – and it is a decisively working-class mandate.

Liberal post-election euphoria should not cloud our memories of how the president’s mandate was powerfully forged in the recent public employee struggles that exploded in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, in the Occupy campaigns that proliferated across the nation (and which continue, by the way, in diffuse forms), in the defection by members of the Progressive and Congressional Black caucuses from the Democratic fold during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, and in the self-proclamations of the 99%.  This is a mandate that laboring people, and their allies, will have to visibly and vocally claim.  Accomplishing this will entail, among many other things, mobilizing for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act; organizing for the passage of the American Jobs Act; protecting women’s reproductive control over their bodies; documenting and exposing structural poverty and the disinvestment in working-class cities, communities, neighborhoods and schools (especially those populated by people of color); politicizing mass incarceration as an issue of both working-class and racial justice; battling the ongoing attempts to racially profile and shrink the U.S. electorate at the same historical moment that the numbers of (predominantly working-class) people of color have reached a majority in this country; and training new organizers and political theorists to defeat the white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism, austerity, and virulently anti-working class politics of the Tea Party right.  Finally, claiming a working-class mandate necessitates going beyond the imagination of both a president who squandered much of his first term placating the narrow constituency of the right rather than consolidating his own diverse base, and a Democratic Party that has itself repeatedly lurched to the right over the past three decades.


  • Christopher Phelps November 18, 2012

    Clarence, I’m a huge admirer of your work from way back, but this post seems a bit roseate for the actual prospects. From my vantage economic neoliberalism remains hegemonic. While the election had a welcome outcome, given the alternative, I don’t see it as a “working-class mandate” in any clear sense, particularly given that Obama isn’t a social democrat. Obama kept his major financial sector donors. Geithner remains at the Treasury, likely to be replaced by someone just as amenable to Wall Street. The Employee Free Choice Act that you mention is dead and will not be resurrected. What I find sketched fairly well in your piece is a working-class *agenda,* but I don’t think the election will be interpreted as enabling it because, for the most part, Obama did not stand strongly for it. If any of it will materialize, it will have to come from below, from the kinds of movements you mention in the opening to your first paragraph. I lean more toward Cornel West’s skepticism about the Obama economic policy.

    • Clarence Lang
      Clarence Lang November 21, 2012

      Many thanks for your response, Christopher, and I do take your criticisms. I certainly wasn’t intending to suggest that this recent election means that the Obama administration has become the locus of a progressive working-class politics. To the contrary, my goal was to de-center Obama in the ongoing conversation about a post-election mandate. To be sure, there was a stark contrast between the Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden tickets, which turned this election into a referendum on the general trajectory of social welfare policy in the U.S. So, I believe that a mandate was declared, but it does not belong to Obama, per se. Indeed, the current discussion about the “fiscal cliff” illustrates how both the DNC and RNC have accepted terms of debate centered on debt and deficits (though certainly the RNC is far more committed to a politics of austerity, and nakedly so). Still, I’m much more interested in the sorts of possibilities that 2012 has created for working-class politics far outside the realm of electoral politics. This is what most intrigues and encourages me in these grim times. The vaunted “rising American electorate” that mobilized around the ballot did so primarily in defense of themselves rather than in defense of Obama (e.g., the spirited black and Latino turnout had much more to do with legal racial profiling in Arizona, for example, and efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, than it did with Obama’s actual record). If this (re)election is to mean anything, it will be because of continued mobilization and organization, both at the voting booth and (more importantly) on the ground beyond it. Again, thank you for the insightful critique.

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