David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Why the Democratic Base Is Shrinking
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (11/9/00) - Their hands sewed the clothes you're wearing, and the ones in your closet. They picked the vegetables on your plate and cut the meat in your refrigerator. These hands stuffed chips into the motherboard of your computer, washed the dishes after your restaurant meal, and steadied your mom when she went to the bathroom in her convalescent home.

But on Tuesday, there's one thing these hands didn't do. They didn't punch the wrong hole on a presidential ballot in West Palm Beach. In fact, they didn't punch any hole, in Florida or anywhere else.

These hands didn't vote.

Voting is a rare activity in communities of low-income and immigrant workers. "Mainstream national politics basically ignores our needs," says Stacy Kono, youth organizer for Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland, California.

Kono is too kind. Immigrants and low-wage workers do figure into national politics, but not as voters. Nationally, less than half of the eligible population voted in this election, a pool that gets comparatively smaller every decade. And demographically, it gets older, whiter, and its median income goes up.

This is fine for Republicans, traditionally the party of employers and the better-off. But for Democrats, it's been the root of an historic choice over the last eight years of the Clinton administration. And the results are coming home to roost.

The choice is simple: expand the electorate to include the people on the bottom, or move the party to the center to compete for the votes of the smaller pool. And behind a rhetoric of populism, national Democratic Party strategists, like the Democratic Leadership Council, made the second choice.

When President Clinton, coming into office, had to choose between an all-out fight with the insurance industry and giving up on national healthcare (which would have benefited the poor more than anyone), he gave up. In 1996, he did more than surrender. Fighting with a revived Republican Party over a small pool of conservative suburban voters, he decided to outdo it in advocacy on its own issues.

A welfare reform bill pushed the poor off social benefits into the low-wage workforce, often without childcare and at the cost of an even smaller family income. Immigration reform cut immigrants from social benefits, shoving them further into the shadows. In the face of rising police crimes, like the rape of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the shooting of Guinean Amadou Diallo, the administration did nothing for fear of losing its carefully-cultivated anti-crime image.

Administration trade policy closed doors too - an expanding economy of low-wage, temporary contingent jobs replaced millions of stable, high-paid union ones.

It's a truism of American politics that voting percentages are low in poor communities of immigrants and people of color. The DLC targeted those communities, and not for votes.

Even with this record, two key constituencies stuck with Al Gore. African-Americans, even in poor communities, voted large numbers. They recognized George Bush for the southern conservative he is, and rejected the overt racism of candidates like (now) ex-Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri.

And the AFL-CIO mobilized its members to an unprecedented degree to vote for a candidate who, despite opposing unions on some of the decade's most basic economic questions, they still viewed as preferable to the alternative.

In states where union density is still high, like Michigan, that effort proved decisive. But nationally the labor movement now represents only 13% of the workforce, and a growing part of that consists of disenfranchised immigrants. Mobilized union families cannot make up for the exclusion of low income people from the political process. And without new poltical coalitions between African-Americans and immigrants, the vote in African-American communities is not enough either.

A party and its national candidates who cannot, or will not, fight for the issues of low income communities of immigrants and people of color, even at the risk of losing support on the right, can't attract them to the polls. A party which uses them as political scapegoats doesn't even stand a chance.

To end the exclusion, a party would have to do more than just support issues. It would have to spend resources, both political and financial, to bring those potential voters into the electorate.

Democratic national strategists aren't moving in this direction.

An immigration amnesty, for instance, would open the door to legal status, and eventual citizenship (and voting power) for millions of undocumented immigrants. This year the AFL-CIO even came out in support of it. But instead of campaigning to win amnesty, the administration appealed for Latino votes by supporting much more limited immigration reforms. It even backed away from those in fear of attack from the Republican right.

National Democratic and Republican strategists could agree on one thing, however. They both supported expanding contract labor programs for industry, giving employers a vulnerable labor supply while avoiding legalizing the immigrants already here and guaranteeing their workplace rights.

"Industry and its ties with government are too strong," Kono concludes. She points to the racist barriers keeping unorganized immigrant women employed as garment workers, in an industry which traditionally supports Democrats. They're excluded both from mainstream politics and the mainstream workforce, she says. At the same time, Espirit owner Suzie Tompkins raised $400,000 for Hilary Clinton's Senate campaign this year alone.

Kono raises the other key problem. The old Democratic Party strategy of building a coalition crossing class lines is dissolving. While the party still depends on AFL-CIO votes, it can't move to enfranchise millions of people at the bottom without sacrificing the support of funders at the top, who are often even employers of those down below.

And blaming Ralph Nader for pointing out this contradiction is not going to make it disappear.

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