Not since the 1964 election, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson defeated conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, has the difference between the candidates at the top of the national tickets of the two major parties been so stark.
Hillary Clinton, with a substantial lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders, appears headed to lead the Democratic ticket. We in 1199SEIU have worked hard for her nomination, but we also have the utmost respect for Sanders and welcome his contributions to the nomination process.
With Ted Cruz dropping out of the race, billionaire Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. But both Trump and Cruz as president would do horrendous damage to our nation. They both seek to spread hate and division, shred the Constitution and replace it with authoritarianism and other elements of a police state.
How did the contest for the Republican nomination for president come down to a choice between two extremists? Neither Trump nor Cruz were the favored candidates of the Republican hierarchy. But they are the product of the seeds the party began sowing in 2008 after the election of our nation’s first African-American president. At that time, the GOP leadership announced that its goal was to ensure that President Obama would be a one-term president. To that end, they blocked legislation, held up appointments and defunded government agencies.
This Republican obstruction, coupled with widening economic inequality and an economy that had been brought to its knees by the captains of finance, stoked anger and deepened the hostility of voters to government and its representatives.
Today, both Trump’s and Cruz’s prescriptions for “Making America Great Again” amount to further disempowering and impoverishing working people. Cruz has never met an anti-labor bill he doesn’t love. And his flat tax proposal would do away with many essential government services. Trump, who is fond of declaring his love for the less educated, believes wages are too high and that the federal minimum of $7.25 is just fine. He does not believe that workers at his casinos or hotels have the right to unionize.
The Trump and Cruz prescriptions also include large doses of racism, bigotry, misogyny and authoritarianism. Trump, for example, has failed to disavow the white supremacists and the fascist-minded who have attached themselves to his campaign.
For working people, this election is not just about electing Democrats over Republicans. It is about halting and defeating an incipient authoritarian movement. Such a fight requires the broadest possible progressive coalition. At the center of our work must be a strategy to vastly increase our political power and influence. We must begin to remove obstacles to the voting rights our ancestors fought so hard to acquire. Specifically, in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect people of color. That reversed nearly 50 years of ballot protection.
Freed from the VRA restriction, states—primarily those with Republican leadership—rushed to pass restrictive regulations that surely would have failed to pass preclearance, including voter ID laws, cuts to early voting and the elimination of same-day voter registration. The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision had further undermined democracy by ruling to allow unlimited independent—or not in consultation with the candidate—campaign spending by corporations and other groups.
A coalition that can turn back the ultra-right as well as win political power must include more than our traditional allies. Rather, it must include a greater percentage of those white workers that the media are so quick to cede to Trump. A recent study by Working America, the 3 million-member community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, found that just as many poor white workers are open to our message as they are to Trump’s.
The study reported, “A far greater number of prospective voters are more deeply concerned about the economy and about their fates, and the future of their families, in a time of rapid change. This ability to connect with more and better information, and to gain a different perspective on the systemic reasons for economic, political and social inequality, is a major antidote to the dog-whistle politics of bigotry.”
We are the antidote. Let’s work tirelessly to expand our electoral coalition and to connect our grassroots social and economic justice work with an electoral strategy that defends and extends our gains and holds our elected officials accountable. We have just six months to do so.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.