Kerry’s Comment and the Democrats’ Class Problem

At some point during the 2004 presidential (s)election, the satirical newspaper "The Onion" did a funny piece in which John Kerry gave a campaign speech to blue-collar workers from the deck of a rolling yacht. The sailing vessel was docked in the parking lot of a Midwestern factory. The wealthy Eastern aristocrat Kerry donned a spiffy ship captain’s jacket as he held forth on the need for enhanced workplace safety, higher wages, and stronger union protections. His effort to spark populist anger at rich and insensitive Republican plutocrats was undermined by his own obviously distant and elevated class status and aristocratic insensitivity.

Such was "The Onion’s" ridiculous but dead-on take on the internal class absurdity of the Democratic Party, which sells itself as the partisan wing of the ordinary working masses – Joe and Jane Six Pack – even as it regularly embraces the agenda of the rich and powerful and puts forth a regular succession of candidates from and for the privileged few. That absurdity both feeds and reflects the broader difficulty that the U.S. has acknowledging the existence and political exploitation of class divisions inside the imperial homeland.

The "Onion" spoof and indeed the performance of John “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry’s 2004 campaign provide some relevant context for a small opportunity Kerry just gave to the war-party-in-power on the near-eve of potentially pivotal mid-term Congressional elections. “You know, education …if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make the effort to be smart,” Kerry told a college-student audience Tuesday, “you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq” (“Kerry Draws Republican Fire,” Reuters, October 31, 2006). Unfortunately, Kerry carelessly neglected to add the following line from his prepared comments: “Just ask President Bush.”

No, Kerry did not mean to say that U.S. soldiers deserve to be in Iraq because they are stupid or uneducated or lazy – because they didn’t work hard in college. He knows very well that relatively few of the nation’s mainly poor and working-class troops have ever attended colleges or universities and that many of them enlisted in the military with the hope of attaining college tuition assistance. Of course Kerry was referring to George W. Bush as the person who didn’t “make the effort to be smart” therefore got “stuck in Iraq.” The charge by Team Bush and John McCain that Kerry took a “shameful” slap at the soldiers ordered into Bush's war is transparent, politically motivated deception. It reflects standard operating procedure for a Republican Party that tarred the triple amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland as insufficiently patriotic.

But even if Kerry had included those deleted four words (“just ask President Bush”), his word choice would still have left more than a little to be desired in ways that reflect an all-too common elitist Democratic disregard for – and clumsiness about – class divisions in the U.S., the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society. That indifference and inelegance creates dangerous new opportunities for the more truly vicious and corporate-plutocratic business party (the G.O.P.) to ironically wrap itself in the deceptive flag of populist rebellion.

It is, after all, the lower and working-classes that supply most of the troops who have in fact been murderously “stuck” in an imperial war ordered by military plutocrats like Cheney and Bush, both of whom managed (unlike Kerry) to keep their refined upper-class butts out of Vietnam. In a literal physical sense, it is wrong to say that "Fortunate Son" Bush got “stuck in Iraq” or for that matter that Lyndon Baines Johnson got “stuck in Vietnam.” Bush and his hyper-plutocratic party may have gotten politically “stuck” by the current imperial quagmire. But the Americans who get most truly and literlly mired in the resulting crossfire do not come from the same socioeconomic cohort as top Republicans or top Democrats. They’ve been “stuck” into bloody Iraq by members of the ruling class that sits atop America's steep and interrelated socioeconomic, political, cultural and educational pyramids.

And before their deployment overseas, the nation’s predominantly lower- and working-class soldiers were stuck in authoritatian and inadequate schools and a heavily thought-controlled and dumbed-down, corporate-dominated culture that left them unprepared to counter the vicious propaganda of their military superiors. It’s not the occupation troops’ fault that (as a Zogby survey showed last February)most of them have believed they are in Mesopotamia to avenge Saddam Hussein's (fictitious) role in the 9/11 jetliner attacks and because Saddam (supposedly) worked with al Qaeda.  Since the American armed forces naturally use every possible motivating angle to push troops into the murderous and maddening work of imperial "forward global force projection,” these and other racially tinged beliefs have been relentlessly forced on captive U.S. soldier audiences from the beginning of the occupation.

Nobody in a serious “opposition” party of the working-majority should be saying anything that helps the war party-in-power blur the class difference between who ordered an illegal occupation and those who are chosen and propagandized to die in the enforcement of that occupation. Kerry’s comment is not the only example this year of his off-the-cuff insensitivity to this critical difference. Last June, the Massachusetts Senator (who would have been the wealthiest U.S. president since the same state’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy) said something revealing to a CNN reporter questioning him about the Republicans’ charge that Democrats want to “cut and run” from Iraq. The Republicans’ policy, he said, is one of “Lie and Die.” As I pointed out in a ZNet commentary at the time, this clever rhyme failed to distinguish adequately between administration forces who lied America into the war and the primarily civilian Iraqi and American working-class identity of the people – with the former group (the ostensibly “liberated” Iraqis) making up the preponderant majority of the victims, of course – who died as a result of the deceptively sold oil occupation of Iraq. It would have been better to call Bush’s policy one of “Lie and Kill,” including the soldier victims of class inequality and the "poverty draft" inside the U.S. along with the far more numerous Iraqi victims of empire abroad . Seemingly small word choices can speak volumes.

As filthy-rich former Yale Skulls and Bonesmen Bush and Kerry bicker over what Kerry really meant Tuesday, it becomes easy to forget something about the attitudes of the working-class soldiers “stuck in Iraq.” The same Zogby poll that reported occupation soldiers’ “avenging 9/11” belief found that “ an overwhelming majority [72 percent] of American troops serving in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year, and more than one in four say the troops should leave immediately.” Those are highly educated on-the-ground opinions that leaders of both dominant corporate-imperial parties will avoid only at considerable risk to their interrelated projects of Empire and Inequality at home and abroad.


Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer and speaker based in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).

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