I was talking to an ex-labor leader from Decatur, a man who led his union through a two-and-a-half year lockout imposed by the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., when he suddenly began venting about how social issues threatened the solidarity of the labor movement.
“The right wing knows how to push the buttons of working class on guns, birth control,” he said. “That was part of our early-on education: you guys have got to smarten up -- this is all these macho hunters that had guns. That’s not the whole issue. You’ve got to get bigger, broader and smarter than that, because they’re using that to destroy the solidarity that’s going to be necessary to accomplish anything. That’s how we finally progressed, getting away from just gun control, birth control issues.”
“Do you want to know something?” I said. “It’s no different with the left wing.”
I brought up former congressman Glenn Poshard, as great a friend as the working man has ever had in Washington, and a politician we both admired. When Poshard ran for governor in 1998, his candidacy was poison on the North Side of Chicago, because he was anti-abortion, pro-gun and seen as hostile to gay rights. The lakefront wards voted for George Ryan, who had reinvented himself as a liberal after helping Phyllis Schlafly stomp the Equal Rights Amendment to death. Poshard lost, and was driven from politics. He declined another run for governor in 2002, because he felt he had “divided the party,” and is now president of Southern Illinois University.
“You complain about how rural, working people fill their heads with Rush Limbaugh,” I said. “There are plenty of city people who fill their heads with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Mother Jones and The Nation, and can’t see how guns, gay rights, abortion and contraception divide them from other struggling people they should be working together with.”
Last week, a gay marriage bill was introduced in the General Assembly. The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act doesn’t have a chance to pass, but was introduced to help Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, a lesbian legislator in a tough primary campaign against another lesbian.
Personally, I don’t care whether gays and lesbians get married. I belong to a church with a lesbian pastor. If my pastor and her partner want to get married, bully for them. What bothers me is that sex issues -- not just gay marriage, but abortion and contraception -- have become litmus tests for Democrats and Republicans, and are consuming political air that I would rather see expended on issues such as economic inequality. (I also live in Rep. Cassidy's district, and am more interested in her position on a progressive income tax than on gay marriage.)
Because, really, economic inequality is the number one social issue of our time. The number one threat to the institution of marriage is not that gays can or can’t do it. It’s that marriage is becoming an elite institution, chosen mainly by the educated middle class, which is shrinking every year. According to a 2007 story by the Washington Post
Marriage has declined across all income groups, but it has declined far less among couples who make the most money and have the best education. These couples are also less likely to divorce. Many demographers peg the rise of a class-based marriage gap to the erosion since 1970 of the broad-based economic prosperity that followed World War II.
I give the Occupy movement a lot of credit for this: despite drawing most of its membership from college-educated urbanites, it has stayed focused on economics, and avoided adopting left-wing positions on social issues, which might alienate blue-collar workers whose support it needs.
In the 1960s, before the decade the Post cites as the beginning of the end of our broad-based prosperity, the Democrats and Republicans were divided by pocketbook issues. Now, they’re mainly divided by sex and reproduction issues. Could it be that one reason we’ve lost our shared prosperity is that we’ve been too busy arguing about other things?
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!