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November 6, 2003

Dean and the working class

In JFK Airport, en route to Salt Lake City: Two decisions regarding the Dean presidential campaign appear imminent. Gov. Dean is likely to refuse federal funding (thus gaining the freedom to spend unlimited private money); and he is expected to receive the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, pronounced "see you"). These events are symptomatic of the collapse of a set of institutions that, 20 years ago, amplified the political voice of ordinary people. In those days, federal funding for presidential campaigns was adequate to replace private money, so there were no big donors in presidential politics. Everyone counted the same under the presidential campaign finance system. As for major unions, they had a powerful influence on the institutional Democratic party and supported candidates with whom they had lasting relationships—politicians who had risen through the political ranks mainly because of organized labor. Today, SEIU evidently thinks that it cannot afford to support the man who best fits that description, Dick Gephardt, because his chances of winning the presidency are too low. Instead, they are backing someone who owes them nothing, who has never had much to do with them, but who has harnessed mostly white-collar support through clever use of the Internet and a strong anti-War stance. Evidently, they think Gov. Dean has the best chance of winning and they want to have some leverage over him.

Two immediate results are likely: the demise of the whole public financing system (since neither party will use it), and the defeat of Rep. Gephardt, who is now blocked from receiving the AFL-CIO's collective endorsement.

Many people believe that the Dean campaign represents a new form of citizen influence. But we have to ask whom this new system benefits. Dean supporters have a political ideology and an identity as active citizens. Polls show that most Americans lack both of these characteristics. Dean supporters also have the means to contribute to his campaign, and they are early adapters of the latest technologies (blogs and Meetup.com this year; something else in 2008). In contrast, unions like SEIU traditionally gave people political ideologies and identities, collected modest dues to produce substantial political donations, and used tools (such as phone banks) that were familiar to blue-collar workers. I don't hold Gov. Dean's success against him, but I think it spells deep trouble for working-class politics in America.

November 6, 2003 10:10 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


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