In defense of bitterness

April 25, 2008

WE'LL cut to the chase and answer the question ABC News anchor Charles Gibson is no doubt dying to ask us: Is Socialist Worker bitter about the state of American society?

Hell yes.

Household income, adjusted for inflation, is lower today than at the start of the decade for everyone but the rich. The mortgage crisis is spreading--"Even renters aren't safe," read a New York Times headline. Official unemployment statistics hide the high percentage of working-age Americans who have disappeared from the job market altogether.

There's the disastrous war on Iraq. Civil liberties shredded. More evidence of looming environmental catastrophe.

And through it all, the ultra-rich seem to do better than ever. As the financial system approached a crisis point last year, hedge fund managers John Paulson, George Soros and James Simons "earned" a combined total of $10.3 billion. Just the three of them, raking in as much as 846,483 Americans working full-time, year-round minimum-wage jobs.

Yes, ordinary people, whether they live in Pennsylvania or not, have these and many more entirely legitimate reasons to be not just bitter, but downright angry at the condition of their lives and the world at the end of George Bush's reign in the White House.

All those reasons were trivialized--and the already low level of the political discussion in Election 2008 dragged down further--by the media uproar following what became known as Barack Obama's "bitter" speech.

At a fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama answered a question about how he could win over white, working-class voters who, Obama said in his answer, "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Obama's opponents--both John McCain and the Republicans, and Democrat Hillary Clinton--seized on the remark to paint Obama as an elitist, looking down his nose at anyone who believes in God, and the mainstream media picked up the cry instantly.

The verdict was that Obama had doomed himself to a serious drubbing by Hillary Clinton in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. But that didn't play out. Obama, as expected, lost to the heavily favored Clinton, but not by the kind of blowout margin she needed to have a realistic chance of overcoming Obama's margin in either the popular vote or delegates to the convention.

The reason, of course, is that working-class voters aren't dupes who can't recognize the obvious class questions involved. "Everybody's bitter for one reason or another," one Pennsylvania man told a reporter from "So they're crucifying him because he spoke the truth? Because he's not saying something that's going to suck up to people and kiss ass?"

IT CERTAINLY is accurate to call Obama part of the political and economic elite of the United States--he's among the most powerful people in American politics already, and his tax returns show he made $4 million off his books last year. But his opponents are just as much a part of that elite, and so are the media blowhards who chewed over the "bitter" story on 24-hour cable news.

Charles Gibson made it clear who's really out of touch at the candidates' debate in mid-April. At one point--after he and co-moderator George Stephanopoulos were done focusing on vital questions like American flag lapel pins--Gibson began hectoring Obama about a proposal to lift the payroll tax cap and require the rich to pay into the Social Security system on their whole annual income, instead of just the first $97,500. This, Gibson insisted, would be a burden on the "heck of a lot of people" who make more.

Heck of a lot? Exactly 5.8 percent of the U.S. adult population makes more than $97,500 a year. Who are they? Corporate executives, bankers, some lawyers--oh, and let's not forget: members of Congress and network television news anchors.

Gibson's comment illustrates who the American political and media establishment really cares about. The election-time appeals for ordinary people to stand up for what they believe in begin and end at the ballot box, with supporting one candidate over another. That's certainly true of McCain and Clinton, as well as Obama--behind his appealing rhetoric about changing U.S. politics, his actual political stands and policy proposals are firmly within the moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Let U.S. workers display a deeper sense of anger about the system--or, worse, a commitment to do something more than vote to try to change it--and you see the same establishment that exploits "bitterness" for its individual and collective advantage suddenly declare, Republican and Democrat alike, that "divisiveness" is a terrible thing and Americans have to pull together.

The truth is that working people in the U.S. have every reason to bitter. We could use a little more bitterness, actually--and more of the collective struggle that bitterness can spark.

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