According to the media, recent elections in France, Greece and Germany show that voters have a “throw the bums out” mentality. As the Los Angeles Times described it
, “in recessions, voters tend to punish the party in charge.” But the real election lesson is quite different. Voters are rebelling against austerity, and giving pro-austerity candidates/parties the heave-ho. This would mean great gains for Democrats against pro-austerity Republicans – if voters saw the parties this way. But due to Obama’s focus on deficit-reduction and failure to effectively market his stimulus package, many voters do not. Europe’s lesson is that Obama should far more aggressively promote public investment, job creation, and other economically populist – and popular – measures. If he and the Democrats do this, their success in 2008 could be repeated in 2012.
The European uprising against banker-imposed austerity should lead us to ask: why are there not ongoing mass protests in this country against a Republican House that opposes public investment, student loans, and virtually every government program outside of the military? Or if not protests on the streets, at least at the ballot box?
The answer is that in Europe, the lines between political parties are widely understood. Here, the Democrats are so connected to Wall Street and the 1% that many voters see the Party as equally unwilling to battle for their interests.
This is not working-class voters going with Republicans over social issues. Rather, it’s Obama and the Democrats’ failure to win their support by powerfully promoting growth over austerity.
And when you read that the national Democratic Party is doing little to help
the recall of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin – in a race that should clearly define where the two parties stand on economic policy – it’s no wonder that many voters doubt which side the Democratic Party is really on.
Obama’s Partial Populism
Obama understands Europe’s lessons better than his fellow Democrats. He has returned to his populist campaign themes of 2008, highlighting the federal bailout of the auto industry, renewing lower cost student loans, and investing in public infrastructure.
But he has not criticized the austerity program of the Federal Reserve, or otherwise galvanized struggling voters around an economic program as he did his gay and lesbian base when he backed gay marriage.
When you read about young people leaving college with massive debt
no prior generation has ever faced, both political parties are to blame. The very informed know that Democrats have been far better on student loans and educational funding, but those impacted are looking for dramatic solutions NOW.
Obama is not offering such solutions. So some students see him as part of the problem. He’ll get young people’s votes for his stands on other issues, but the Democrats are missing a chance to capitalize on a very hot button issue.
If Europe’s lesson were anti-incumbency, Republicans would lose the House in November. But because many voters see both parties as equally complicit in austerity, Republican House leadership is expected to survive.
The Democrats’ failure to clearly identify as the party of the 99% goes beyond national politics.
In California, a Democratic-controlled legislature cannot get foreclosure bills passed because key Democrats in the Central Valley and Los Angeles are opposed. Some are Latino Democrats taking big bucks from banking and real estate industries, despite Latino families being disproportionately impacted by foreclosures.
California is the bluest of states with perhaps the nation’s most progressive voters. Yet even here, Democrats refuse to seize the mantle of the 99% leaving voters blaming both parties for the state’s many crises.
Obama and other national and state Democrats have not promoted policies firmly identifying them with the 99%. And Europe shows that it is their ongoing identification with austerity, not their incumbency, which poses their greatest risks in November.
Europe’s lesson about voters rejecting austerity policies was also reflected in recent South American elections in Argentina, Peru, Brazil and elsewhere. Candidates disavowing the politics of austerity repeatedly prevailed, often winning by far bigger than expected margins.
If Obama goes all out for growth and against austerity, he could bring Democrats a near repeat of the sweeping gains won in 2008. Otherwise, the President will prevail against the weak Mitt Romney while pro-austerity Republicans maintain House control and the power to weaken his agenda.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.