Class divisions, the other American dilemma

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In An American Dilemma, published in 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal examined U.S. race relations, and concluded that the American "creed" would eventually vanquish widespread racism, and allow black and white Americans to live in greater harmony.

The election of a mixed-race U.S. president in 2008 did not mean the end of American racism. However, the victory of Barack Obama did confirm the guarded optimism of the conclusions Mrydal reached in his classic work of social science. A majority of those voting signalled it was all right for a non-white family to occupy the White House. Some 64 years after Myrdal documented the extent of systemic racism throughout the U.S., this definitely constituted progress.

Today's America faces a situation which is also a test of democracy, and of the American creed: how to overcome economic injustices due to the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands? This other dilemma is not new. It was in fact identified by the great African-American intellectual Ralph Ellison in his 1944 review of Myrdal's work as how to reconcile "the practical morality of American capitalism with the ideal morality of the American Creed."

Ellison wrote that social class divisions in the U.S. competed with race for political attention. In recent years, social divides have gotten dramatically wider, and in the last decades, the practical morality of American capitalism has been transformed by a corporate oligarchy. Yet the subordination of a large number of Americans to an obsolete economic system is not addressed, except in code, by the two American political parties.

The ideal morality of the U.S.creed has been submerged by economic power. The electoral practices of liberal democracy are totally dependent on fundraising and massive campaign spending. When money and economic power overwhelm the American political process, how does the democratic creed get to play the leading role?

The electoral contest between Obama and Romney, the Democratic incumbent and his Republican challenger takes place in the context of a startling deterioration of economic and social conditions for many Americans, following the meltdown of the housing market. The statistical portrait is bleak. According to the Centre for American Progress: "The percentage of families with no or negative wealth rose to 32.5 per cent in 2010 -- up from 19.2 per cent in 2007."

The Obama administration's inability to reduce unemployment favours the challenger, though voting studies suggest what defeats an incumbent is an increase in unemployment. The Obama campaign has framed the re-election of the president as the need for more time to complete the economic task, and to avoid the less jobs threat represented by a Republican victory. 

What enrages would-be-supporters of the president is the inability of the Democrats to proclaim and pursue progressive economic policies. For one analyst, the Democrats today are to the right of Richard Nixon. From another perspective, the Romney five-point employment plan differs little from what the Obama administration defends.

The main reason offered for voting Obama/Biden in November is that they are not Romney/Ryan. Looking at what House Budget Chair and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan and his party proposed in $900 billion in budget cuts for "discretionary" spending (on essential government programs such as food stamps), the "we may not be great, but look at how bad the other guys are" argument carries weight. 

The problem is that "we are not them" does not address the need to rethink the economy from the perspective of democracy and justice. 

Progress on race relations in the U.S. resulted from political action. Legislation, public spending, and the important commitments of American public institutions (including the courts) to racial justice all mattered. But, change emerged from the struggle for equality by the racial minority. Without the (Negro, Black, African-American) civil rights movement there would have been little or no progress on race.

The superiority of the American economic system, even as it fails growing numbers of citizens, is no longer taken as a given in the U.S. The growing inability of American capitalism to provide a decent living for many Americans gave rise to the Occupy movement. Unsurprisingly, there is no recipe for taking economic protests, turning them into democratic movements, and transforming electoral politics. All know empowerment requires organization, commitment and access to public opinion. Encouragingly, lots of people around the world have been questioning American capitalism for considerable time.

As Ralph Ellison said in 1944 about racial injustice, change is not a matter of individual free will, it requires the creation of a democracy. In the run-up to the presidential election, the democratic short-comings of the process need to be highlighted by those who want to see the control of wealth and money over politics end.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Glenn Halog/Flickr

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