The Republicans won two governorships yesterday, one expected in Virginia, one unexpected in New Jersey. The media which is the message is filled with commercials hailing the GOP Sweep,proclaiming a Great Day for the Grand Old Party,the return of the conservatives, trouble for the Obama administration, etc. While I would hope to get back to these elections in greater depth in the future, let me make a few quick points.
Electins are campaigns of mobilization. U.S. politics is characterized by very low turnout by global standards, both among the rich and poor countries. Turnout is greatest in presidential elections and then drops down to off year congressional state and local elections, with the sort of elections which took place yesterday usually at the bottom. U.S. politics is also characterized by the huge lack of participation on the part of low income people, its "dirty little secret," as one political scientist once called it, which stunts the growth of political democracy even while U.S. politicians use the word more than politicians anywhere else in the world.
There are many reasons for this, but it remains true. Obama's great victory last years was to a considerable extent the result of labor and peoples movements bringing millions of new voters to the polls and energizing old ones, overcoming the income/class handicap that favors upper income and "conservative political forces in U.S. politics. This enabled Obama to very narrowly carry Virginia, an anti-union shop "right to work" state and former segregationist state where labor is relatively weak and those who continue the states "white supremacy" traditions have long been solidly in the Republican party. A poor campaign by Democratic candidates failed to bring out the constituencies which narrowly won the state for President Obama, and, without a strong labor movement to croounter organize against it, Republicans won a solid but unsurprising victory
New Jersey, where I have long lived, is a different story. Here, labor mobilization for Jon Corzine was strong and effective, but Corzine was caught in a political trap of his own making. Faced with an enormous fiscal crisis that in New Jersey has its roots both in the general crisis affecting the nation but also in a special circumstance--Governor Christine Todd Whitman's reduction of state income taxes by 30 percent in the 1990s, thus producing a spectacular deficity--Corzine pursued the kind of fiscal conservative austerity budget policy that has led parties and coalitions which depend on lower income voters for their support to defeat through the world, even if angry voters often end up shooting themselves in the foot by election rightwing politicians who pursue more aggressive anti-progressive policies. In New Jersey, labor was there, but the traditional Democratic oonrganizations weren't, protecting their local patronage and expecting Corzine's huge personal wealth and media campaign to win the election for him. Also, the new forces that the Obama campaign mobilized were not there either. Corzine, in my opinion, made a serious error by spending so much of his money in negative ads against his opponent, Christie, since his problem was to explain both his policies and connecting them with a more hopeful future, represented by state federal cooperation with the Obama administration. Obama did that well in his participation the elections, but Corzine failed to do so. Two negatives don't make a positive. the failure to mobilize the new forces brought into politics by the Obama campaign meant that the election was put in the hands of "independents" who in New Jersey are "social liberals"(meaning no interest in the religious right) and "economic conservatives"(meaning keep my property taxes low and my communities happily isolated from the larger society)
This election should encourage the Obama administration to intensify its efforts to advance a progressive program that will translate into economic gains for the working people who elected him.
New Jersey now has a governor who is talking Reagan-Bush talk--reducing regulation, "reigning in government, reducing spending reducing "taxes," and thus bringing back jobs. These are the policies which longterm produced the economic crisis and offer to make things dramatically worse, if they are not contained by the Democratic majority in the legislature. New Jersey like New York City is heavily directly dependent on "one industry" Wall Street. That industry, finance capital, holds a major key to whether the Obama administration will be able to carry forward the economic and political healing process after thirty years of back to the future "free market" or more accurately jungle capitalism.
If the administration can begin at the national level policies that compel the banks to re-invest capital in jobs, housing, health care, infrasctucture, and enact health care and labor legislation that both raise and bring about greater equality in incomes and real living standards, as against the policies of the Reagan-Bush era, which produced lower overall incomes and greater inequality (covered up by the flood of cheap consumer goods from abroad, which cannot continue) it can turn yesterday's election into a step backward that will enable it to take large steps forward in 2010 and beyond