Soon after Barack Obama won a second term with surprising ease, Pulitzer-Prize-winning artist Clay Bennett depicted a wealthy, white-haired man staring grimly at his television screen while around and behind him four servants, white and black, go about their jobs with big smiles on their faces.
For many Americans on the left, the outcome of the 2012 election brought more relief than satisfaction. They had supported and some had campaigned for Barack Obama and other Democrats because they were horrified by the prospect of a nation ruled and ruined by Mitt Romney and his GOP. But a president whom four years ago they had hoped would begin a new era of far-reaching reform now seemed just another lesser evil, albeit one who had managed to thrash a right-wing coalition whose economic ideology harked back to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge.
Bennett’s cartoon, however, suggests that something more significant had occurred. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 and 1940 had a Democrat campaigned so explicitly in defense of the interests and values of the hardworking majority against the amoral designs of the rich and corporate few.
His ads blamed Romney for making big profits by laying off wage-earners, while the president gave speeches attacking “you’re-on-your-own” economics and the years of inequality that have resulted from it. Democratic candidates for the Senate in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Massachusetts who echoed these arguments—and added a strong pro-union message—won their races against well-funded opponents as well.
Of course, other big issues also helped Obama succeed and his party boost its majority in the Senate. Each of those Senate candidates strongly backed reproductive rights and marriage equality. Still, a clear-eyed resentment of class privilege yoked to right-wing causes played an essential part in their victories.
How can American leftists, in their fractious yet feisty state, build on this rhetorical triumph? By doing whatever we can to force the Democrats to convert their rhetoric into policies. The Occupy movement may have declined, but, as Todd Gitlin argues in this issue, it should inspire “a persistent, independent movement capable of winning tangible…reforms that change lives and encourage newcomers to join.” The list of winnable acts could include a truly progressive tax system, establishing the right to join a union as a civil right, and securing affordable health coverage for all who live in the country, whether or not they are citizens. The 2012 election demonstrated that a party cannot win if it is viewed as the defender of the 1 percent. Now, we have a chance to draw on that wisdom to nudge the United States toward becoming a more egalitarian society.