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“Keystone, Patriotism, And The White Working Class”: That Moment In Which Good Policy And Good Rhetoric Meet

Some time in the next two weeks, President Barack Obama is expected to veto a bill authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The U.S. House passed a measure last week. A similar bill passed the U.S. Senate the week before. Republicans, and even some Democrats, are calling it the “Keystone jobs bill.”

Activists hope Obama will veto the bill out of concern for an already overheated planet — the refining and consumption of Canadian tar-sands oil results in double the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. But that rationale is unlikely. The president is probably going to argue that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority. In crossing an international boundary, the pipeline is executive-branch turf.

But I wonder if this might be an opportunity, at least a rhetorical opportunity best understood in a somewhat different context. That context is the Democratic Party’s dismal performance among white working-class voters, who generally believe the Republican Party represents their interests even though it doesn’t.

Before I continue, please allow me to disclaim that when it comes to the white working class, I have some authority. My dad long-hauled steel. My mom raised four children in a comfortable trailer home while Dad was on the road. They certainly don’t approve of everything the government does — their anti-military views are exceptional — but right or wrong, America is theirs. And thanks to their rearing, America is mine, too.

To say my parents were conflicted over the role of the federal government in their lives is an understatement, but to say they wanted it out of their lives, as Republicans repeatedly claim on their behalf, is a gross overstatement. There’s nothing wrong with government as long as it serves the people whose biggest asset is their labor, which in their world means everyone not born into so much wealth that they don’t need to work.

Why does the white working class even matter to Democrats? Doesn’t the demographic tide favor them? Yes, but as Andrew Levison has argued, the Democrats still need white working-class voters. Without them, the party will scarcely attain the majoritarian momentum it needs to advance a truly progressive agenda. To be blunt, without them, demographics for the Democratic Party isn’t destiny. It’s doom.

The question is how to reach them. Democratic strategists cyclically scratch their heads in disbelief at white working-class voters acting in contrast to their interests. But such behavior shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, voting is the result of emotion at least as much as it is the result of tactical decision making. And this is where I think the president’s expected veto of the Keystone bill is connected to the white working class. If there’s one thing white working-class voters respond to, it is emotional appeals to their deep and abiding sense of patriotism (the Republicans long ago mastered the art of such appeals). But Obama has an opportunity to shift the rhetorical landscape in favor of the Democrats by vetoing the Keystone bill in the name of country.

I’m not just favoring good rhetoric over good policy: This is a moment in which good policy and good rhetoric meet.

First, the pipeline isn’t going to help many Americans. Indeed, the Republicans never let a moment go by without reminding us that Obama’s own Department of State estimates that thousands of jobs will emerge from the $8 billion construction of the pipeline. But a majority of those jobs are seasonal. Once the project is completed, about 35 jobs will endure, according to the very same government estimate.

Second, the pipeline is going to help many Canadians. The Keystone is one of five proposed pipelines needed to profit from billions being invested in the extraction of tar-sands crude. This handful of pipelines tops the list of Canada’s national priorities. According to Mark Dowie, in The Washington Spectator, if even one of the pipelines is stymied, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s dream of creating a petro-state will die. So pressure is mounting. Harper, Canada’s oil companies, and their very wealthy investors around the world want to see the Keystone built. In the United States, it will create a flurry of temporary activity, but the long-term rewards will be entirely enjoyed by Canadians.

That matters to white working-class voters. That’s something that can’t be squared with Republican claims that Keystone is simply a jobs bill.

All right. Let’s accept the premise — Keystone is a jobs bill. If so, it’s bad one. As I said, lots of temporary jobs, a few permanent jobs and nothing left for the greater good. All future dividends from billions presently invested will flow north of the border. Indeed, it’s Americans who will suffer detriment in the event of a leak. (Leaks are rare, but when they happen, they are catastrophic to communities, property and natural resources.) A better jobs plan can be found in the president’s fiscal year budget. It calls for federal expenditures on the construction and upkeep of the country’s (literally) crumbling infrastructure. How does Obama hope to pay for all these roads, bridges, tunnels and waterways? By levying a tax on the offshore accounts of the very wealthy.

The president wants to tax the money of a very small minority of Americans who don’t want to pay U.S. taxes. He wants to raise revenues to fund the construction, and reconstruction, of the country’s infrastructure. If expenditures reach as high as $1 trillion, as Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has proposed, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of seasonal and permanent jobs, with something to show for all the effort—a lasting investment. (Sanders’ proposal would also probably include a hike in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t gone up since the mid-1990s.) Conversely, the Republicans blindly oppose all tax increases, even on those without enough sense of patriotism to want to pay their due in taxes while everyone else does.

If that appears to be the making of a wedge issue, that’s because it is, and the Democrats need to exploit it. The Keystone reveals a rift between rich Americans who don’t pay taxes and working-class Americans who do; between rich Americans who don’t want to rebuild America, for Americans, and working-class Americans who do.

The bottom line: Courting white working-class voters will take more than appealing to their economic interests. It isn’t enough to do the right thing, and this is where I part ways with others on this subject. I tend to believe the Democrats don’t do enough to drive a wedge between white working-class voters and the Republican Party elites who claim to represent them. The GOP’s hold on the working-class imagination is strong, thanks to years and years of race baiting and fearmongering. So when the rare opportunity arises in which Democrats can illuminate the clear contrasts between the interests of the very, very rich and everyone else, it shouldn’t be wasted.


By: John Stoehr, Managing Editor of The Washington Spectator; The National Memo, February 17, 2015

February 18, 2015 - Posted by | Congress, Keystone XL, Patriotism | , , , , , , , ,

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