Sunday, November 9, 2014

On the Maine 2014 Election: Part 2, Class Consciousness

My decision not to write a post about the Maine gubernatorial election was based on an impressionistic error, albeit one that I shared with most of the chattering classes in the state. While I expected that the bear hunting referendum would drive turnout among people more likely to vote for LePage, I thought that Eliot Cutler's semi-withdrawal and Angus King's 11th-hour endorsement of Michaud would result in enough Cutler voters switching to Michaud for him to eke out a victory.

Unsurprisingly, a Marxist who lives in the richest town in the state and works at one of its elite liberal arts colleges cannot be said to be in touch with the common man. Had I stuck to my guns with a class analysis, however, I would have been better able to predict the outcome.

Both of the major party candidates, LePage and Michaud, are sons of the working class. In almost any other state, this would be unthinkable. Neither of them, however, can be said to represent it in any meaningful way. Both are of Franco-Canadian ancestry, something that is significant in Maine in roughly the way that being Chicano in New Mexico is, of being a member of a majority-minority group that until quite recently was largely disenfranchised.

Michaud started his adult life a mill worker and low-level union functionary. But his legislative career began more than thirty years ago, such that he is effectively a career politician. In a country where one's level of formal education is often confused for one's relationship to the means of production, the fact that he is one of the few members of Congress without a bachelor's degree is taken as an indicator of his proletarian nature. Yet in more than three decades in Augusta and Washington, never has he distinguished himself with any bold stands in defense of working-class interests or rights. One index of his political cowardice is that, though his status as a "confirmed bachelor" was long an open secret in the state (which is like one large small town comprised of many much smaller towns), not only did he never cast a vote in favor of gay rights, he didn't even come out of closet after the voters of this state approved gay marriage in a referendum majority two years ago. It was only after an unknown, likely Republican aligned group started a push poll hinting at his sexuality that he felt compelled to come out--a necessary step which because of its timing and style, unfortunately probably cost him more votes than it gained him. His primary focus in Washington had long been an emphasis on veteran's benefits, a seemingly safe bet for a congressman coming from a largely rural district in the state with the highest proportion of veterans in the northeast. Yet when a long history of mismanagement at the VA finally took down former VA secretary Eric Shinseki, state Republicans successfully tarred him with responsibility. That the mismanagement at the VA spanned two presidential administrations and a time period during which Michaud and his party were mostly in the minority in the House, and thus that it was at least as much the fault of the Republicans as the Democrats does not matter. In an atmosphere of generalized cynicism about government, the party that is more aggressive in its cynicism is better placed to lay blame.

LePage's personal story is even more compelling. He grew up in deep poverty in Lewiston (the second-largest and most impoverished city in the state), one of 17 children, and a frequent victim of a viciously abusive father. He benefited from the patronage of some local businessmen, went on to graduate from a third-tier institution of higher education, and became a manager in a local chain store, then mayor of Waterville (one of the more conservative cities in the state). Like many people who manage to rise above a cruel upbringing, his views of the world seem to be shaped by a combination of Horatio Alger-like faith in his own basic virtue, combined with vicious resentment against anyone still stuck in the circumstances he managed to escape. Four years of having him as governor have been like watching an overgrown child have a very public temper tantrum. The targets of his tantrums have included: the poorest people in the state; immigrants and refugees; state employees (at least, those who aren't related to him); the NAACP (and by extension, the entire, small Black population of the state); the public school teachers and students of the entire state; the unemployed; and people who favor child labor laws. One would think that spitting bile in such a wide range would have weakened his popular support, if one underestimates the degree to which people, watching a schoolyard bully pick on someone weaker than them, can take pleasure from the thought that "at least it's not me." (And even, in some cases, delude themselves that they are not associated with the groups targeted for abuse.)

Eliot Cutler's campaign was premised on little more than class snobbery. Not that he did not, at some point, have reason to believe he might become governor of Maine. The state has a history of electing independent candidates with little more to recommend them than a large, diversified investment portfolio. (See Senator-and-former-Governor Angus King, referenced above.) Having spent most of my adult life in New York City under the regime of Mayor Bloomberg, I have had more than enough of these types of politicians. Their rise seems to stem from an ideology that is the flip side of the old Yankee saying, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" If someone is rich enough, it is easy to convince Americans that they are smart, especially if they went to Harvard and Georgetown, no matter how trite the arguments and policy prescriptions that come out of their mouths. Ask your average Cutler supporter, or even Cutler himself, why we should vote for Eliot, and the response would usually refer to LePage as "embarrassing" (which he is) and Michaud as "inarticulate" (which he is).

What Cutler and his die-hard supporters could not see, through the veil of snobbery, is that these traits of Michaud and LePage were less a product of their working-class, Francophone upbringings than an expression of how the two major parties thought it possible to sell their respective programs to the voters of Maine. LePage's brand is that "he's one of us," and even if you occasionally get a fleck of his spittle or one of your government benefits cut, "at least he tells it like it is." Michaud's inarticulateness stems from the fact that he has nothing to articulate, because he and his party take responsibility and "work across the aisle" for the same basic social austerity as LePage and his. He is also "one of us," just quieter about it. He may make an appearance on the picket line with Fairpoint strikers, but he'll also brag about voting for the Affordable Care Act, the giant giveaway to the insurance companies that Fairpoint management uses as the alibi for the concessions they demand from the union. He may have promised to expand Medicaid, but that won't do anything about the shrinking numbers of doctors in the state who will even accept Medicaid.

What is striking about the Maine election is how comparatively heavy turnout (just shy of 60%, the highest of any state in the 2014 midterm elections), usually thought in most states to favor Democrats, clearly worked to LePage's benefit. The expansion of turnout, which usually signifies a greater-than-usual turnout of working-class voters, can in other states also mean greater-than-average turnout of racially oppressed people (Black and Latino working class people) who tend, for now, to favor the Democrats. This is not the case in the whitest state in the nation. To white working-class people in Maine, both Michaud and LePage made the "one of you" populist appeal. Given the choice between someone who was honest about where he stood, and someone who had trouble stating what he stood for, a large enough margin went for the honest attack.

This is not to alibi white working-class LePage voters: Much of the appeal of LePage's attacks on the most vulnerable in the state is that he frames it in barely coded racial terms. Consider not only his capitalizing on late-breaking Ebola hysteria, but also the election-year demand by his DHHS secretary Mary Mayhew that cities and towns stop making general assistance payments to asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants (misleadingly framed as "ending welfare for illegal immigrants"). Nor is it to blame the working class as a whole. Whether voting for LePage, Michaud, or Cutler, working-class voters in this state had no choice that was in their interests and were voting against their interests. And even in a relatively high turnout election, those who come out to vote tend to be the more prosperous: Compare the 78% voter turnout in my town to 57% in Lewiston.

More interesting in several ways than the state-wide gubernatorial results, however, was the performance of overtly pro-working-class candidates of the Maine Green Independent Party in several local election races. While in most of the state, the MGIP remains a third party, their electoral performance in Portland shows that they are the de facto second-party in the state's largest city, posing a real alternative to single-party, pro-developer rule by the Democrats. (Full disclosure: That is the party in which I am registered at the state level.) If there's a third installment to this series, that will be the topic.

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