Obama: Mr 99%?

The US president needs to recognise the resentments that have sparked the 99% movement.

Just a bunch of "kids and kooks" or the early and messy stirrings of a deeper shift in US politics? That's the question pre-occupying US politicians and assorted commentators from left to right as the one month old occupation of Wall Street spreads to a growing number of cities.

They call themselves the "99 per cent" -- representing, they say, everyone apart from the super-rich and powerful. On the left the nacsent movement has been lionised by Naomi Klein as "the most important thing in the world" with self-conscious comparisons made to the recent uprisings in Tunisa and Egypt, as well as the "indignados" in Madrid and those on the streets in Athens. In contrast, high-brow centre-right commentators view it as inchoate, unimaginative, and amateurish: all slogan, no proposal. Grow up, put on a suit and do some hard policy work is their message.

Meanwhile the Tea Party, scornful though they are of the notion that government should do more to tackle the problems of the 99 per cent, take the protestors a bit more seriously even if they they don't like to say so. Until now Tea Party activists have enjoyed a near monopoloy on grass-roots energy and righteous anger, so they are eyeballing the new competition carefully. They've been prompted to spawn their own counter-movement "the 53 per cent", representing the interests as they see it of the half of the population who are federal tax payers. (Memo to Liberal Democrats seeking to remove ever more low-earners from the UK tax-system: working people who've been taken out of the tax-system are viewed as non-contributors by the populist right). Other voices lament the fact that the cultural chasm between the 99 per cent-ers and the Tea Party is so large that it will not permit common cause to be made on one or two specific issues where there is some populist shared ground.

But perhaps most interesting is that some important establishement and centrist voices are choosing not to dimiss the protestors, which they surely would have done only a few years ago. Hence the likes of the New York Times and the Financial Times have adopted sympathetic, if questioning, stances (indeed the FT even felt moved to invoke the spirit of The Diggers -- which surely must be a first -- in a recent op-ed).

This measured response is prompted in part by the increasingly widespread reconigtion of the scale of mainstream resentment at the explosive growth in rewards going to the richest 1per cent -- and this at a time of continued public outrage about the cost of the last bank bailout (as the next one moves into view). But it's also rooted in a new appreciation of what has been happening to the living standards of most of the other 99 per cent, and a deepening sense of anxiety about what could happen if these trends persist.

There is now indisputable evidence that the US economy isn't working for what are termed middle-class families. The income of the typical American family has seen only aneamic growth for a generation. But from 2000 - 2010 these these trends worsen: the median income of families with children in the US has fallen by more than 11per cent, with a fair chunk of that fall happening before the onset of the recession, though it has deepened since (indeed 11per cent will be an understatement as incomes fell again sharply in 2011). As the chart below shows, this has cut across all racial groups -- always an important factor in US politics -- though some far more than others, with African-American families seeing a staggering 18 per cent drop in their incomes.

 

[Source: US Census Bureau]

Until recently one of the main virtues of the US economy -- often held up in mitigation against these long-term wage trends -- has been its powerful record jobs. Yet employment levels have been crashing over recent years, which will act as a further drag on future wage growth. The "American jobs machine" hasn't just run out of steam; it has broken down.

These challenges leave the Obama administration with little choice but to run against the economic system that it oversees. The President now regularly opines about the bad deal that the middle-class are getting: "a lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren't rewarded and a lot of folks who aren't doing the right thing are rewarded". In another echo of our own politics, Vice President Joe Biden proclaims that "the bargain has been breached."

Yet for all this rhetorical effort the Democratic leadership is nonetheless torn between different strategies for responding to this new vibrancy on the left. On the one hand, the case against embracing the new currents animating US politics is deeply institutionalised: it's been a long time since the Democratic Party successfully mobilised populist political sentiment -- and there are strong grounds for questioning its willingness to do so now, a point Robert Reich has recently made. Moreover, Obama will clearly want to fight from the centre in 2012, doing everything he can to push the Republicans to the right. He is very unlikely to think that standing shoulder to shoulder with unruly street protestors will help this cause. And for all his tough talk about Wall Street, he will also be looking for his own big money donations.

Against this is the obvious appeal of finding a way of tapping into some raw political energy, rekindling idealism and identifying some plausible enemies -- all of which Obama needs -- and which together add up to some of the key driving forces in politics. Clearly this doesn't mean signing up to all the myriad ideas emerging from the 99 per cent movement, but it does mean recognising more directly the resentments and insecurities that have sparked this new force. If handled deftly this approach could also strike a chord with the anxious American middle-classes.

As all sides look to 2012 it is clear that the anger that has surged across US society, well beyond those occupying Wall Street or attending Tea Party meetings, is a highly unpredictable and potent force, especially for an incumbent President. If Obama fails to find a way of riding and successfully steering it, then it is set to turn against him.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war