Obama Woos and Wins the “Forgotten Middle-Class”

by Randy Shaw on October 21, 2008

“As we look at America … we hear the quiet voices in the tumult and the shouting … the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans … They give drive to the spirit of America … life to the American dream … steel to the backbone of America … good people who pay their taxes and they know this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it’s a good place for all of us to live in … You can see why I believe so deeply in the American dream … help me make that dream come true for millions to whom it’s an impossible dream today.” Who issued this powerful, populist appeal? Who also said, “the dark long night for America is about to end … The time has come for us to leave the valley of despair and to climb the mountain … ” The answer will surprise you, and helps explain why Barack Obama is not only winning, but also transforming the nation’s political landscape.

At the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach in 1968, Richard Nixon gave a speech that charted the course of the nation’s politics for the next four decades. Echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s vowed to represent the interests of “the common man” during the Great Depression, Nixon committed himself and the Republican Party to become the voice of the nation’s “forgotten” middle-class.

Fulfilling the American Dream

Although many attribute Republican electoral success since 1968 to cultural, racial and religious issues, millions of middle-class voters have seen the GOP as best representing their economic interests. Richard Nixon tapped into this feeling to win the White House in 1968, and the notion that Republicans were for the middle-class while Democrats were “elitists” prevailed through the 2004 election.

Barack Obama has changed this script. He is the candidate most likely to invoke the American Dream, and he is the nominee that highlights how millions increasingly lack the opportunity to achieve this Dream.

John McCain, in contrast, went through three presidential debates without evening mentioning the term “middle-class.” He then thought he struck political gold when Barack Obama told Joe the Plumber that we should “spread the wealth” in America.

McCain is so out of touch that he does not realize that middle-class voters are tired of escalating CEO salaries, and favor policies to reallocate wealth rather than target it to the elite. Since he and Sarah Palin began their attack on Obama’s plan to redistribute wealth, their poll numbers have further declined.

Richard Nixon would be awestruck by McCain’s strategic incompetence, marveling at the Republican Party’s alienation from the constituency that enabled it to set the national agenda for much of the past forty years.

Offering a Broader Vision

In promising to represent “forgotten” Americans, Nixon also offered the middle-class a broad vision of social transformation. Ronald Reagan also offered working people a “big picture” view of the future, and, like Nixon, won two presidential elections.

In contrast, Democrats from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to Michael Dukakis in 1988 to Al Gore in 2000 offered a laundry list of programs lacking a unifying theme. While one-time policy wonk Nixon finally understood that winning the presidency required him to elevate his game, neither Humphrey nor other losing Democrats understood how to offer a transformative vision to win the loyalty of the nation’s huge middle-class voting bloc.

Barack Obama has changed this script as well. He began his campaign talking in broad terms of social transformation, and has continued to frame his ideas around a big picture. Obama also has a list of policy proposals, but they are framed within his “forgotten middle-class” vision, and have won wider acceptance among the nation’s largest economic voting group.

John McCain failed to learn the lessons of Nixon and Reagan’s success, and thought that offering voters his personal biography could substitute for a lack of either policies or vision. Just how wrong his strategy is will become clear on November 4.

Are Dems Now Voice for Middle-Class?

Driving at night on the East Coast last week, I found at least five AM stations with right-wing talk shows. The hosts were beside themselves with anger, openly expressing disbelief that Barack Obama could be so far ahead in the polls.

What struck me most was their belief that the “socialist” Obama had deceived the middle-class into winning their support. Having themselves deceived the middle-class for four decades, the Republican hosts had trouble accepting that they had lost the loyalty of this key constituency.

Some blamed John McCain for not offering himself as a fighter for the middle-class. Others blamed the media, or Obama’s “lies.”

But the bottom line is this: Republicans won the votes of those whose economic interests their policies undermined for nearly forty years, and it looks like those days are—at least in the short term—about to end.

By speaking for the middle-class and offering a broad vision for the nation’s future, Barack Obama has turned the clock back to the days when the Democrats were clearly seen as the chief allies of working people. This is an historic accomplishment, and gives Obama and the Democrats the opportunity to deliver for the middle-class in such a way that forestalls their shift to the Republicans for the foreseeable future.

Randy Shaw is the author of the newly released, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Filed under: Archive