The View from Main Street, Class in America, and Religion’s Role in the Election

  • submit to reddit

As Bush and Kerry barnstorm in the swing states, many voters will make up their minds on an issue important to working Americans — jobs. What are the realities of the current jobs recovery, which some say is meaningless because of lower wages? NOW returns to Jefferson, Wisconsin — a state where the candidates are dead even in the polls — for a look at how a small-town’s way of life is being shaken by job loss. Jefferson, already reeling from a year-long strike over wages and benefits at the local Tyson Foods plant, now is grappling with the arrival of another corporate behemoth: Wal-Mart.

Bill Moyers sits down with Michael Zweig for a look at policy changes, he says, are designed to serve big business and the corporate elites at the expense of America’s working class. Are changes in labor laws, tax law enforcement, and the war in Iraq all offensives in a class war on working Americans? Zweig is Professor of Economics at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of THE WORKING CLASS MAJORITY: AMERICA’S BEST KEPT SECRET and editor of WHAT’S CLASS GOT TO DO WITH IT? AMERICAN SOCIETY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.

Just days left until the election, and it’s expected to get ugly. There are tens of millions to be spent on campaign ads and the candidates’ message wizards are working overtime. For what’s being said and what it means, David Brancaccio turns to NOW analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Both candidates have said their relationship with God is personal, but more and more, faith is making its way onto the stump. How is religion being employed by the campaigns as the election closes in? Bill Moyers gets in-depth perspective on this and the week’s news from returning NOW analyst and author Kevin Phillips.


MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

You’ve heard the old saying, “going for the jugular.” Well, that’s just what’s happening as this presidential campaign roars into its final week.

Take a look at this photograph by Rick Kintzel. That’s a Bush supporter, Dan Sweeney, grabbing a Kerry supporter, Bill Perry, outside a movie theater in Pennsylvania where they got into a fight. Seems the theater had cancelled the showing of a controversial film about John Kerry that his supporters didn’t want shown and Bush’s supporters didn’t want to miss. The altercation reportedly ended in a draw, which could be where this election ends on November 2.

BRANCACCIO: Speaking of a nation divided, even FORBES magazine, no enemy of the accumulation of capital, acknowledges there are two nations polarized by incomes: “Executive pay continues to leap. Even chief executives dismissed in disgrace receive huge severance packages.”

The middle and working classes, on the other hand, are borrowing more and saving less. One reason: “the average real wage is falling,” and that’s “unusual for this stage of the business cycle.”

You can see what is happening in the experience of one small town in Wisconsin. Correspondent Sylvia Chase and producer William Brangham went there for this report.

PATTI LORBECKI: In a small town one of the best things is that you can walk down the street, you can know who your neighbors are, you can call them by first name.

KURT BUBOLZ: The whole town is, pretty much, just a few blocks off of Main Street. It’s not that big.

SYLVIA CHASE: On a glorious autumn morning, Jefferson, Wisconsin presents a pretty picture— the classic Midwest small town. On closer inspection, though, the canvas is tearing.

DAVE LORBECKI, GROCERY STORE OWNER: The backbone of Wisconsin is small business. It really is. But big business is coming in and big corporate businesses and they’re wiping out these small businesses.

ELMER WALDMANN, DOWNTOWN SHOP OWNER: We had a meat market down the street, I think that was the first thing to leave. Then we had a– like a dollar store or somethin’ here on the corner, well that went out. And plus a whole bunch a little ones went out, you know.

BOB FLEMING, RETIRED AUTO WORKER: What’s factories now? I mean, where are they? There’s no more around. What’s in town here. At one time, there were, you know, probably, six, eight factories in town here.

KURT BUBOLZ, WHO HAS LOST HIS JOB AT THE LOCAL SAUSAGE FACTORY: People with the same skills that I have, looking for the same type of work. And– and those jobs aren’t available any more for the guy who goes to high school, graduates, and just wants to work, you know.

SYLVIA CHASE: But Jefferson is more than the familiar story of factory jobs gone and small business bellying up. It’s the economic narrative of our time: jobs leave town, maybe new ones take their place, but the new jobs don’t pay.

The fact is that in 48 of the 50 states, new jobs pay substantially less than old ones— nationally 21-percent less— in Wisconsin, 19-percent less.

Your grandfather probably had a solid job, your father did, and you thought you had, but what happened?

KURT BUBOLZ: Well, corporate America got involved, I guess.

SYLVIA CHASE: We met Kurt Bubolz a year ago when we were here documenting a dramatic event. He and 450 others were on strike at the local sausage factory. The plant’s been an economic mainstay in Jefferson for over 125 years.

Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat processor bought it in 2001 and soon demanded wage and benefit cuts. The union hung tough, but there were plenty of people eager to work for non-union wages. The strike broke down last winter.

KURT BUBOLZ: It was a big testing ground, I think, between just the will of the American people and the will of corporations, and corporation won. They succeeded in keeping their business running the entire time, and they showed the rest of the industry what you could pay your workers and get away with.

SYLVIA CHASE: Tyson is now paying new workers nine dollars per hour, $2.10 less than the old starting wage.

More than half of the old sausage workers are gone now. Debi Fleming is one of them. She’s downtown at Tan-a-Latte— gourmet coffee up front, tanning rooms in back. She’s earning a fraction of what she used to.

So you went from how much an hour?


SYLVIA CHASE: $13.10 an hour?


SYLVIA CHASE: In a full-time job.


SYLVIA CHASE: And now you’re part-time and–

DEBI FLEMING: I make– not even half. Not even half of what I used to make.

SYLVIA CHASE: Debi’s story is not unusual. As new jobs are created, part-time jobs represent what economists are calling a disproportionately high share.

Debi’s husband, Mike has 21 years invested in the plant. He’s back at work— still fearful for the future.

Your wages are frozen for–

MIKE FLEMING: The next four years.

SYLVIA CHASE: The next four years.


SYLVIA CHASE: Wages frozen at $13.10 an hour— the rate that Debi and Mike each earned before the strike. Together they brought home about $54,000 a year. Now, with Debi part time at the coffee bar, it’s closer to $35,000. Their sense of defeat is echoed in bitterness at Mike’s union meetings.

UNION MEMBER #1: We were trying to protect everybody out there on the street, not just ourselves. The ones that walked across the line. The ones that are coming after that too. We were out there for them also. So that we could make a living wage and have some benefits. You see where it got us.

UNION MEMBER #2: Why is always middle class working America who’s gotta takes the cut? My taxes don’t go down. Gasoline doesn’t go down. If my grandkids want to go to college and I want to help them?

SYLVIA CHASE: That’s on the minds of a lot of people here in Wisconsin— like Mike Fleming. The comfort was carved out of his life in a single generation. He remembers how his dad, bob raised a family on General Motors wages.

MIKE FLEMING: Us kids, we always got everything we needed. You know, growing up. We were well provided for. So you knew– you know, he was being paid at a decent wage.

SYLVIA CHASE: When Bob Fleming retired in August, he was making $33 an hour under the United Auto Workers contract. $68,000 a year, before overtime.

A lot of work.

BOB FLEMING: A lot of work.

SYLVIA CHASE: A secure job.

BOB FLEMING: Yup. With good benefits. —


BOB FLEMING: Great benefits.

SYLVIA CHASE: Those jobs are not making it into the 21st century; families are being raised on poverty-level wages, and in Jefferson County, unskilled workers are lucky to have a job at all. In just the last four years, Wisconsin has lost 83,000 jobs in manufacturing.

A local printing plant closed…600 jobs gone. Same with this cardboard box factory… 90 more jobs. And just a few months ago, this Jefferson furniture factory, once employing a thousand… Closed up for good.

PATTI LORBECKI: Jefferson today has a bad taste in its mouth.

SYLVIA CHASE: Small business operators like Patti and Dave Lorbecki at the Piggly Wiggly market are taking a painful dose of economic medicine themselves. During the strike, they donated groceries, coffee and donuts — took Tyson products of their shelves and never put them back — it was a matter of principle — they believed Tyson, based ‘way down in Arkansas was imposing a lower standard of living on Jefferson, Wisconsin.

PATTI LORBECKI: The strike changed a lot of people’s lives I think in this community. Not only the strikers who were directly affected but those of us in businesses here in Jefferson who are also affected by the strike. We’re still trying to recover from the loss that we took throughout the course of the whole last year.

PATTI LORBECKI: (to customer) And you change is 10 dollars and 15 cents—

SYLVIA CHASE: The Lorbecki’s estimate their loss at 20 to 25 percent of annual sales. And there is another Arkansas traveler bearing down on them: Wal-Mart. Wisconsin has become saturated with them— Jefferson has 10 stores little more than a 20-minute drive away. Yet, Wal-Mart intends to put down roots in this Jefferson cornfield — a 150,000 square-foot supercenter, groceries included.

DAVE LORBECKI (at Wal-Mart meeting): My question is do we really need another super Wal-Mart center every 10 miles apart?

SYLVIA CHASE: A town meeting grew tense when opponents charged that the discount giant hurts local business.

SPEAKER 1: A company that all the care about is the profit the bottom dollar, making their own people rich.

SPEAKER 2: Why would we want an emblem of urban sprawl here in this small community.

SYLVIA CHASE: There are studies that conclude that two supermarkets will close for every new supercenter that opens.

That when Wal-Mart’s open, some small communities have lost up to 47% of their retail trade after 10 years.

JOHN BISIO: Wal-Mart provides a very competitive wage and benefits package—

SYLVIA CHASE: John Bisio, a company executive from Arkansas dismissed criticisms of Wal-Mart as a campaign of disinformation. The company sent us other studies concluding that new Wal-Mart’s do not hurt communities but add to local employment and payrolls.

JOHN BISIO: Nationally our average hourly wage is about ten dollars, it’s $9.96 an hour.

FEMALE VOICE: There are no big industries banging on our door to come here. Nineteen and 20 dollar industrial jobs are not coming to Jefferson. Wal-Mart would like to be here.

SYLVIA CHASE: A lot of people in Jefferson are enthusiastic about taking advantage of those low Wal-Mart prices and cannot understand how Jefferson could turn its back on those new jobs.

JOYCE KIRKVOLD: We need jobs here very badly. And I know that they aren’t fantastically paying jobs, but they are – there’ll be over 300 jobs for the community.

SYLVIA CHASE: Joyce Kirkvold and her friends collected a couple thousand signatures on their pro-Wal-Mart petition. She says she cannot find what she needs on Main Street and that Jefferson mustn’t stay locked in the past. At the same time, she doesn’t believe Wal-Mart will hurt Main Street.

JOYCE KIRKVOLD: The people in small towns are very loyal. And they’ll continue shopping at those merchants if the merchants offer them a fair value for their price.

PATTI LORBECKI: If you’re at Wal-Mart and you’re pickin’ up whatever you need at Wal-Mart and you need a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, I would stake my life on it that you’re not gonna drive across town and come to our store to pick up those two things. And even losing sales like that is gonna be detrimental for us.

SYLVIA CHASE: It has been said that Wal-Mart makes its own weather. Well, when the weather turns stormy, little Main Street guys fear being blown away. Shop owners were reluctant to speak on the record, but there’s hardly a place of business whose goods and services aren’t duplicated at Wal-Mart. Remember Elmer Waldmann?

ELMER WALDMANN: You know, we just lost our Converse account because we couldn’t afford to buy what they wanted us to buy. You know so it’s a problem. Company that we bought stuff from say “Well if you don’t buy $3,000 a month, you know we can’t serve you, ya know.” So they’re going top just all the biggies.

SYLVIA CHASE: You mean biggies like—.

ELMER WALDMANN: Well I would guess like Wal-mart, Kmart, ShopCo, any of those I think. Kohl’s—

SYLVIA CHASE: Elmer Waldmann is Jefferson’s unofficial historian — in the back room his old computer is brimming with photos and clippings from the 19th century up to 1940. But he greets the future with a sigh of resignation.

ELMER WALDMANN: I think the handwritings on the wall, you know I think our city wants Wal-Mart to come– but I– it’s gonna hurt a lot of us, it’s probably gonna do a lot of damage to us. I don’t know if we’ll be able to survive through it.

DAVE LORBECKI: It really scares me.

SYLVIA CHASE: Scares you?

DAVE LORBECKI: Because where is the future for our children? What are they gonna do? So you know I have my children who have jobs right now. But the thing is where are my grandchildren gonna have. You know that’s what I’m looking at basically.

BOB FLEMING: Look at the prices of houses. Houses run, what, $100 to $150,000? How do you pay for that at nine dollars an hour?

SYLVIA CHASE: And are you worried about your future or your–

BOB FLEMING: Am I? No. Uh-uh.

SYLVIA CHASE: How about your son?

BOB FLEMING: He’s got a lot to worry about. And Jon’s even got a lot more.

SYLVIA CHASE: Bob Fleming is talking about his grandson, Jonny, who is likely to be the first son to break with a family tradition. Instead of going to the factory, he wants to go to college.

JONNY FLEMING: Because I don’t want some big company to come in, take over a little factory and start shoving us around like Tyson did — that’s something I don’t wanna see happen to my future family.

MIKE FLEMING: And I told him, “Jon, there’s nothing out there for jobs. You can look at the papers all you want. You gotta get an education. You gotta get it now while you have a chance.”

SYLVIA CHASE: But Jonny is already working at one of America’s booming, low wage industries— fast food.

Three generations of Flemings. Three job pictures:

Grandpa Bob, $33 per hour

Son Mike, $13.10 per hour, wages frozen for four years.

Grandson, Jonny, $5.90 per hour.

Male college graduates are expected to earn as much as 50% more than men with just high school diplomas, but for the moment, Jonny needs to keep working at Burger King to pay off his car loan and save for college.

JONNY: I wanna at least just work a year. And then try to go to college, if I can.

SYLVIA CHASE: Jonny does not see Jefferson in his future. For others, it seems like the right place to stay, whatever happens.

I guess these people are willing to sacrifice the grocery store, the hardware store, the jewelry store to have a Wal-Mart where they get good, cheap stuff.

PATTI LORBECKI: I guess my answer would be, “No.” I’m– I’m not willing to do that. And– I– I wish people could look into a crystal ball and maybe see ten years from now what– what’s gonna happen.

SYLVIA CHASE: Elmer Waldmann believes he already knows. He measures Jefferson’s future in each swing of the wrecking ball.

ELMER WALDMANN: And they tore the Opera House down. And then they tore those buildings down and made a parking lot out of it. So you know there goes some more places. So– you know it’s just an erosion of businesses that there’s not many left. When you’re a historian and you remember those things it’s– quite a loss, you know

SYLVIA CHASE: And when you are a thirty-one years old and jobless, you are “living” history. Kurt Bubolz believes he’s watching his hometown fade away.

KURT BUBOLZ: You know, you can make it on $8.50, maybe right now, you’re barely scraping by. But every year, we see things go up. You know, the heat bills are rising, the gas bills are rising. You know, right now, we’ve got this huge gas crunch. You know, we’ve got gas going, you know, $2.00 a gallon, maybe even more. People in this town, you hear ’em talk about just how tight it’s getting. And eventually, there’s not gonna be enough there.

MOYERS: When you visit a place like Jefferson, Wisconsin you are on the front lines of America’s class war. Working people are losing this war, as privileged elites arrange the rules to perpetuate their own advantage.

Take the Wal-Mart empire as a case in point: the research group Good Jobs first found that the world’s largest retailer with nearly $9 billion in profits has received more than one billion dollars in tax breaks, free land, cash grants and other subsidies from state and local governments. Its low-wage employees often turn to food stamps, emergency rooms, and other publicly funded programs just to scrape by.

The study estimates the average payout to a Wal-Mart retail store at $2.8 million. Surely one reason those small businesses on Main Street in Jefferson can’t compete with the colossus from Arkansas.

Now let’s go back to that column we mentioned earlier — the one from FORBES magazine — acknowledging that America is splitting into two nations, one rich, the other poor. The writer says this polarizing of income presents an opportunity for investors. He advises them to move their money to companies that run yacht basins, clean and maintain the vacation homes of the wealthy and even house-sitting, au pair and pet-care services.

Warren Buffett was right. America’s savviest investor, a billionaire many times over, has said that “if class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning.”

Michael Zweig has no doubt about it. Michael Zweig says America is all about class, as in working class, middle class, capitalist class…and class war. Michael Zweig teaches at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, where he founded the Center for Study of Working Class Life. Four years ago he wrote this book, THE WORKING CLASS MAJORITY: AMERICA’S BEST-KEPT SECRET. Now he’s editor of a new book of essays called ‘WHAT’S CLASS GOT TO DO WITH IT: AMERICAN SOCIETY IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Welcome to NOW.

It’s my experience that when you bring up class or I bring up class and when we talk about class, that immediately the editorial page of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, think tanks funded by corporations in Washington, the talk radio hosts, cable television, they immediately say class war, class war. These guys want to fight a class war. Well?

ZWEIG: And I would say yes, indeed. You know, there is a class war going on in this country. And it isn’t the middle class that’s fighting that war against workers. It’s really the people who are the captains of industry, the corporate elite in this country.

MOYERS: So what do you mean when you say class war?

ZWEIG: Well, the change in the overtime legislation. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 provides time and a half for overtime. The Bush Administration just passed a regulation that takes that time and a half for overtime away from six or 8 million people in the United States. Class warfare. They have reduced staff in the IRS for auditing. So where are they going to put the auditors? Instead of going after the corporate tax loopholes, they’re going after the poor and the earned income tax credit. And saying, ah, these poor people, but those are earners. Those are working class people. It’s class warfare.

One other thing. You’ve got a war in Iraq. Class warfare in the United States. Who’s fighting that war? The economic draft is taking working class men and women.

MOYERS: The economic draft? You mean—

ZWEIG: The fact that if you come out of a working class family, or many working class families in the United States — not all but a very large fraction — there’s no educational opportunities. Tuition is too expensive. You have a situation where you can’t get medical care. So, join the Army. They’ll pay your tuition. Join the Marines. You’ll get medical care. Your family will get medical care.

MOYERS: And you say that’s a class act?

ZWEIG: Absolutely it’s a class act.

MOYERS: So Iraq is a class war?

ZWEIG: It is indeed a class war. It’s a war on the America working class. As a matter of fact—

MOYERS: A war with American workers, right? Not necessarily on them?

ZWEIG: Well, now, let’s take a look. Why is it that we went to Iraq and overturned the Saddam Hussein regime, got rid of their laws, except one law: 1987, Saddam Hussein initiated a law in Iraq that forbids public sector workers from being in unions. We kept that law on the books.

MOYERS: After the war last year—

ZWEIG: It’s still in effect. Public sector workers in Iraq are not allowed to be in unions.

MOYERS: How do you explain this?

ZWEIG: Well, I explain it because the interests of the people who are fighting this war are not the interests of working people, neither here nor in Iraq. And the power that is being displayed by the people who are in charge of this policy, the people who are running the country, is a policy that’s designed to benefit the interests of the corporate elite of that capitalist class.

And I don’t say just the rich, you know, because it isn’t just the rich. When Dick Cheney had his meetings with you know, the Energy Task Force, you can be sure that everybody in the room was rich. But they weren’t asked there because they were rich. They were asked there because they were the captains of industry in the energy sector, and they were going to be the people who were going to decide what was going to happen.

Now, of course they’re rich, but that’s not the point. You can win the Powerball and have $380 million and they’re not going to invite you to sit in that room and figure out about energy policy just because you’re rich.

MOYERS: What about this, I read a story from THE NEW YORK SUN, a conservative paper in town, quote, “The war on poverty has been won.” Here’s a story from Quote, “The percentage of households with incomes over $50,000 has climbed from 24.9 percent to 44.1 percent last year.” And finally, here’s a release from a conservative think tank. Quote, “More Americans have health insurance than ever before.”

I mean, conservatives are saying that the glass is half full and getting better. And you’re saying it’s half empty and getting worse.

ZWEIG: Well, that depends who you are, you know. And it depends on what time period you take, you know. If you look in the late 1990s, there was an improvement in living conditions. Because that was when the labor markets were very tight.

MOYERS: And you make that clear in your first book, four years ago.

ZWEIG: Yea, but what you have is a tremendous increases in productivity or substantial increases in productivity and declines in real wages. Except for the last three years of the 1990s. So workers are producing more. But they’re making less. And so what you end up with is greater and greater inequality. So our incomes of— you said family income, there, right. So family incomes may be rising but that’s because more people are working in the family.

MOYERS: What about this—

ZWEIG: And that makes people worse off, not better off.

MOYERS: When one talks about the wages that Wal-Mart pays, when one talks about strikes—

ZWEIG: Right.

MOYERS: When one talks about strikes, immediately the argument is, but wait a minute, you’re consumers. We’re doing what’s right for the consumer. Don’t you think many Americans think of themselves more as consumers these days than they do as workers. And therefore, when Wal-Mart pays lower wages for relatively few people, then the majority of consumers who shop there get a bargain.

ZWEIG: Well, Wal-Mart is the biggest employer in the United States. So it’s not so relatively few. You know used to be the UAW said we want auto workers to be paid enough they can afford to buy the cars that they make. Now Wal-Mart is saying we’re going to pay workers low enough so that they have to buy in the store that they work in. You know it’s—

MOYERS: Smart business.

ZWEIG: It’s smart business but it’s pretty bad for the people who work there. And that’s the whole point is that those people need a union. And to the point of do we see ourselves as a consumers, we’ve been encouraged to see ourselves as consumers and that’s part of where this whole idea that we’re all in the middle class comes from is that we can wear knock-off clothes to what you can get in the fancy shops you can get it at K Mart.

But the point—let’s take this example. You had a strike a few years ago in an auto parts plant. And it was strike about forced overtime. Forced overtime is something that goes on all over the United States. And these workers were saying, we don’t want to work 70 hours a week.

We want to have a shorter work week. And we want you to employ more people. Well, that’s something that would resonate with workers all over the United States. Because forced overtime, long hours, extra hours working is a big problem in the United States and so is unemployment. You got over work on the one hand and unemployment on the other hand.

That’s a problem that workers face all over the United States. Was the story presented as a working class fight for shorter hours and more jobs? No. It was presented as those auto workers are going to interrupt the supply of your SUVs. So if you want to get a light truck, you better go out and get it now. Because in two weeks, if that damn strike goes on, we’re gonna have a problem gettin’ the car. And it was turned around into a story about consumer interest rather than a story about what those workers were doing not only for themselves but for workers all over the United States.

MOYERS: Isn’t that the core of the argument? Isn’t that why it’s hard to make, a Marxist analysis in a business society? Don’t you think most Americans have— for most Americans the argument is settled. This is a business society. This is a consumer society. And we make our peace with that.

ZWEIG: Well, you know you don’t have to say this is a business society and therefore they can do anything they want. You can say this is a business society and we’re gonna see what kind of boundaries we can put on the rapaciousness and the greed of the people who want to run the country into the ground for their own short-term benefit. And that is not anything that says, oh, we need to, you know, overthrow capitalism.

But if you’ve got a system of economic organization that says, that champions simple I want more for me, and I’m in this for myself, and you’ll take care of yourself, my responsibility is only to make sure that I get the most. Your responsibility is only to make sure that you get the most, and out of our competition will come the greatest good for the greatest number. It doesn’t work that way. And the impetus to do good for yourself, to take care of yourself, that’s a legitimate thing. But that has to be bounded. Otherwise, it just turns into unbridled greed. And what’s the boundary? The boundary is to take care of yourself so that you can be a constructive member of a larger community and help that community through your service to it, beyond just looking out for yourself.

MOYERS: So if there are limits to self interest, how are those limits arrived at and agreed upon?

ZWEIG: Well, that’s a political process. And it means a political force that will champion those limits. And here we come again to this question of class. What class represents me, myself and I, and the hell with everybody else? Who’s promoting that? And what class interest does it serve? It doesn’t serve the interests of working people. It serves the interests of their employers.

And working people as workers, as working people, need to pursue their interests by bounding what the power of capitalists and for us as professionals and middle class people in small business owners, university professors, we also have an interest in this. Because I teach at a public university, and that university is very much in trouble, as public higher education is all over the country, with funding cuts, with cuts in tuition assistance for our students. Well, that is a burden on me. I have larger classes, I have less help, I can do less of what I love to do, which is to teach and to help students and to do my own research.

Well, why am I in this situation? Why is the university in this situation? Because who do we serve? We serve working people. And working people are expendable in this country. Working people don’t have the power to defend their own interests, and therefore, their institutions. Every one: public school, universities, public hospitals, all of that are under attack.

And anybody who works in those institutions, who are middle class people, professional people, need to have an organized working class presence in the political and social scene in this country to save their own professional lives.

MOYERS: Why is there no discussion of this?

ZWEIG: Well, I think that people are being given an agenda that— of issues, and being given a way to understand things that doesn’t connect with them. These discussions of class are not part of the usual conversation in American political life. And I think they’re not because to talk about class in the way that we’re talking about it here, to challenge the corporate elite, to challenge the capitalist class and call them out and say, “look, we are going to put boundaries and limits on your authority and your power.” They’re not going to fund that.

MOYERS: Is it—

ZWEIG: That’s where the money comes from for the, you know, so much for the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party, from those very large corporate donors. And it’s in the nature of the structure of the political process in this country.

MOYERS: Isn’t it possible that a lot of Americans, ordinary working Americans, consciously or unconsciously reject the analysis that the glass is half empty and could get worse, and accept the capitalist, business, sunny, optimistic American view that says the glass is half full and going to get better? Could that explain why there is no real conflict in a political campaign?

ZWEIG: Well, I don’t think so. Because I think when the glass is half empty and there’s an obvious leak in it and the liquid keeps pouring out from the bottom of the whole, people aren’t going to be saying this is going to get better. People know that their economic circumstances are troubling to them.

Organization is disintegrating in this country. Organization among working people is what is being chopped apart. Organization among the corporate elites, they’re doing quite fine.

MOYERS: Capital is very well organized, right?

ZWEIG: They’re very well organized. And they know that they are in a tricky and a difficult position if there is a challenge to that power. There are people who are running the country. And they need to have a leash put on them. And there’s only one place— you know you have this story, who will bell the cat? You know, there’s only one outfit, there’s only one source of power in the United States that’s strong enough to do that job. And that’s the majority of the people in the United States that’s the working class.

MOYERS: But you say it’s America’s best kept secret.

ZWEIG: Well, that’s why we’re here talking about it, to try to take the cover off of that, you know. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. You remember that?


ZWEIG: Well, here we are.

MOYERS: The book is WHAT’S CLASS GOT TO DO WITH IT: AMERICAN SOCIETY IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Thank you Michael Zweig, for being with us on NOW.

ZWEIG: It’s been a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.

BRANCACCIO: If you are not in a battleground state, you may not fully appreciate just how relentless the presidential campaign is getting. The SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE got a hold of a log of all the presidential campaign ads on just one TV station in one battleground state, Nevada. There were 54 of them in a single day. Those flipping on the news on KOLO-TV in Reno after a hard day of work would have seen at 5:16 pm an ad funded by the Democratic party featuring President Bush’s leadership style. At 5:25, there was a Republican party ad on homeland security, followed a minute later by a Swift Boat Veterans ad against Senator Kerry. At 5:39 pm, an anti-Bush ad from what’s called “the real economy” group, followed by that one again criticizing the President’s leadership. There were two more in just that one hour of local news on channel 8 in Reno.

A bit of certainty is useful in this uncertain election season and here it is: with 11 more days to go, there are many more ads to run and a good portion of them are going to be full of it. Here to help us wade through it is our favorite analyst of media and politics Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, it’s good to see you.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: thank you. It’s good to be here.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: We need some help here. We have this storm surge of political communication, and I– I need you as a guide, and– give me some tools here to– get through it. We’re gonna start with a couple of ads that really have a lot of emotional content. They’re both linked to 9/11. One, from the Bush supporting Progress for America Voter Fund features a real teenager named Ashley, who alas lost her mother on 9/11. Followed by one from the Kerry campaign featuring Kristen Breitweiser from New Jersey, who lost her husband on 9/11.

FEMALE VOICE: Our President took Ashley in his arms and just embraced her. And it was at that moment that we saw Ashley’s eyes fill up with tears.

FEMALE VOICE: He’s the most powerful man in the world. And all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe, that I’m okay.

MALE VOICE: What I saw was what I want to see in the heart and the soul of the man who sits in the highest elected office in our country.

FEMALE VOICE: My husband Ron was killed on September 11. I’ve spent the last three years trying to find out what happened to make sure it never happens again. I fought for the 9-11 Commission, something George W. Bush, the man my husband Ron and I voted for, didn’t think was necessary.

And during the Commission hearings, we learned the truth. We are no safer today. I want to look in my daughter’s eyes and know that she is safe. And that is why I am voting for John Kerry.

JOHN KERRY: I’m John Kerry. And I approve of this message.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Heavy, visceral stuff, can you apply logic to political communication like that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What these ads are doing is important and interesting. Because the inference from the first ad, the ad on behalf of President Bush, that was supportive of President Bush, would say that, “If you feel secure, then you are secure. And if you trust him, you can trust that he will do what’s best to make us secure.” “And we don’t, as a result, need to have the argument about all of the specifics.”

The problem, of course, occurs if you ask the question this way, what can a President do to increase the security threshold? What has this President done? And has he done everything that is necessary?

In the context of this ad, what the viewer is likely to be thinking is, “Yes, President Bush did the right thing, embraced this young woman. And what a wonderful President. And I trust his heart.” That’s the inference they’re inviting. But if Senator Kerry were there, wouldn’t he have hugged Ashley? Would have he– wouldn’t have he made her feel secure? And wouldn’t people think that they trusted his heart also to do everything that he could to secure the nation.

In the volley of emotions, we’re less likely to ask the question, “compared to what?” Then, if we turn to the second ad with Kristen Breitweiser in it, again we have a victim of September 11th, an extremely emotional ad. And it asks essentially the same kind of question. How would you know whether or not you felt safe?

Ashley feels safe as Breitweiser doesn’t feel safe. But what’s the difference? The difference is in the second ad, you have one of the woman who led in trying to secure the 9-11 Commission. And what she argues in the ad is, that the President didn’t want it initially, didn’t cooperate with it initially and that she doesn’t feel safer.

Now again, we’ve never had the big debate about what can government do? What is government doing? What’s the difference between what you can do here, what we can do abroad? And to the extent that we don’t have that, we’ve displaced a serious engagement on this issue with evocative, emotional images and assertions.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Another pair of ads, the first one’s still on the subject of 9-11. It draws from a NEW YORK TIMES magazine interview with Senator Kerry. It’s put out by the Republican National Committee. And it asserts that Senator Kerry is not taking this terrorism stuff all that seriously.

MALE VOICE: John Kerry says, “We have to get back to the place where terrorists are a nuisance, like gambling and prostitution.” Terrorists, a nuisance? Terrorists have declared war on America, brutally murdering Americans. Against terrorism, is John Kerry too weak?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So, you’re sitting at home watching the TV. You see that about nine times, how do we parse it?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In this ad, you’re hearing the evocative music. You’re seeing evocative pictures. And the rule to remember is that when you see print on a screen and then you hear the announcer say something else, one of those things probably isn’t true. Usually, the print on the screen is inviting a false inference or what’s being said is. In this case, it’s the print on the screen.

The print on the screen suggests that Senator Kerry said terrorism is a nuisance or should be treated as a nuisance. But what’s being said is much more accurate in the context of the original quote. He’d like to return to a day in which we could treat terrorism as if it were a nuisance.

Now, I would bet most people who see that ad, even one or two or three or four times think that the ad says, that Senator Kerry said that terror is a nuisance like prostitution, like gambling rather than that, “We’d like to return to a day in which we could treat it that way.” One of the ways that ads deceive is to distract you in one channel of communication while they put misinformation into the other channel. They put correct information in this case in the channel that you hear, the incorrect information up on the screen.

And then when you create an ad watch and you say, “Wait a minute, that’s not true.” They say, “Oh, well wait a minute. Didn’t you hear what we said. What we said was accurate.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now, the Kerry campaign looked also to the NEW YORK TIMES Magazine the next week when they had a big piece about President Bush. And they pulled out an important word. Let’s take a look.

MALE VOICE: The truth is coming out. George Bush has finally admitted that he intends to privatize Social Security in his second term. “I’m going to come out strong after my swearing in,” Bush said, “With privatizing of Social Security.” The real Bush agenda, cutting Social Security.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, the key word there privatization clearly. But context is important.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It’s very important. And I have a rule in listening to ads. When someone says that a person said something and it just doesn’t sound as if the person would have said it, doubt it.

So, do you really believe that Senator Kerry said terrorism is a nuisance? I don’t think so. Do you really think that President Bush and the Republicans who avoid the word privatize as if it were the plague said to an audience that he wanted to privatize Social Security? I bet he said he favored private investment accounts. I bet he meant not that he wanted to use them for the whole of the payroll tax but part of the payroll tax. Because that’s been his consistent position since 2000. Now part of the problem is, he actually hasn’t told us what the plan is.

And as a result, he’s subject to a Kerry critique that picks one of three options laid out by the President’s Moynihan Commission and simply ascribes it to the President and then raises what I think is a legitimate question which is how are you going to pay for it? Of course, we don’t know what it is yet. Because the President hasn’t laid out the specifics.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now, I got some proof now that this campaign has reached a fever pitch, accent on the fever. Here’s one from the Kerry campaign that I suppose we should give it points for quickly turning around a breaking news story.

FEMALE VOICE: Flu shots save lives. Three years ago medical experts warned George Bush that a dangerous shortage loomed. Instead of fixing the problem, production of the vaccine was sent to a factory overseas.

The vaccines were contaminated. A George Bush mess. It’s time for a new direction.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So, which are your rules for parsing these ads apply?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Does the President personally make every one of those decisions? Do people personally come to the President and say, “Crisis.” Is he personally now responsible? At the– one of the things that’s interesting about addressing this is you’ve got people frightened right now, frightened that, for example, women going through chemotherapy with– a compromised immune system won’t get their flu shots, elderly people frightened.

When people are frightened, they’re least likely to be analytical in asking who’s really responsible. But I would add this. If the President of the United States had said 3 1/2 years ago, “We’re going to solve this problem Congress. I want you to address this, bureaucracy that I control. You do this,” we might have flu vaccines today.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Republicans now, also on the subject of health care. This one about John Kerry’s intention to bring health care coverage to more Americans.

MALE VOICE: John Kerry and liberals in Congress have a health care plan. It includes the IRS, Treasury Department and several massive new government agencies. Your doctor, in here somewhere but not in charge. One more reason we can’t risk the liberals in Congress and John Kerry.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Whoa, scary flow chart this time about health care.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: One of the problems with the ad is that it’s really indicting the Clinton health care reform effort of ’93-’94.

The Kerry plan worked very hard to insure that it wasn’t vulnerable to those charges specifically. It works through existing insurance plans, hence, no specter of large government involvement. Of course, when government’s paying for something there is some involvement. Secondly, you’ve still got access to your doctor. And third, the rationing charge, well there’s rationing under managed care too. But there doesn’t be any reason to believe there’s going to be any more under this plan.

But what’s working in the ad is that large flow chart in which you see ominous government. When government’s helping you do something, you don’t think of it in terms of flow charts with boxes all over the place. You think of it as individual people helping you. When it’s not helping you, you think of it looking like that.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, Kathleen– we got very fresh figures this week about how much the candidates have raised, it’s about $300 million each.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: I mean, that’s an extraordinary amount of money– Kerry more than $300 million– Bush more than $300 million. It doesn’t even count what the parties have raised– what the affiliated groups have raised. So, it leads to a lot of ads, but after all– does the bombardment over time– does it really have an effect, or do we essentially glaze over after a while?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We know that when a message is repeated a lot, people begin to believe the message. They even believe it when there’s evidence that suggests that it’s not true, because you hear the correction once, but you hear the message repeated and repeated and repeated. We also know that when you’re disposed to believe something, such as “Democrats favor big government,” or “Republicans cut social programs,” it’s easier to deceive the public by playing on that presupposition to drive out an erroneous conclusion.

And, we saw some of that in the ads here. And, so even as both sides advertise, and you’d think blunt each other’s effect, the highly repetitious messages get through.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: All right. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks so much.


BILL MOYERS: It’s been a big week for God and politics. Take a look at this clip from CNN. You’ll hear the television preacher, Pat Robertson. He’s the patriarch of the religious right and a spiritual guru to George W. Bush. He’s talking here about a conversation he had with the President just before the invasion of Iraq.

PAT ROBERTSON: He was just sitting there like– like, “I’m– I’m on top of the world.”

And I warned him about this war. I had deep misgivings about this war, deep misgivings. And– I was trying to say, “Mr. President, you’d better prepare the American people for casualties.” “Oh no, we’re not going to have any casualties.”

BILL MOYERS: Pat Robertson also said the President was like a contented Christian with four aces. An analysis from our own high priest of skepticism, Kevin Phillips.

Look the White House denies that Bush ever said what Pat Robertson claims he said. And I guess we’ll never know the truth. But what does a furor like this, 11 days before the election, say about where this campaign is?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think one of the most important things is that we’re developing a religious subtext in the campaign that’s probably long overdue, considering the importance of religion to George W. Bush in particular, but the campaign in general, with the problems that Kerry has had with the Catholic bishops. This is an interesting question because it pits the Bush White House and the President against the word of one of his major supporters in the Protestant evangelical community. And it also focuses the question of are the evangelicals getting unhappy with what happened in Iraq? And maybe they are.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you heard Pat Robertson say he was– had doubts about the war in the beginning, and he’s expressing them right here on the eve of the election.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, that’s the amazing thing. I don’t recollect that he expressed those doubts at any point in the spring of last year. And anytime since then. Why at this point? Maybe it has to do with what’s happening in Iraq. But maybe it has to do with some questions about the evangelicals in general and whether they don’t have certain types of unhappiness with George W. Bush. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all the war. There have been all these allegations. For example, when he was in the Texas Air National Guard, some people have hypothesized drugs as a problem. That came up again this all, with allegations– you know, not substantiated, but they’re there– about whether he might have used drugs at Camp David when his father was President.

I don’t know. Is this starting to resonate with some of these people? It would really go against the whole notion of his born again status in the last 15, 20 years.

BILL MOYERS: But you wouldn’t know it by looking at– the surveys. The new Pew Research Poll says that 70 percent of the white evangelicals say that they’re going to vote for George Bush.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think it’s the most fascinating development in American politics. Because I was getting involved in the Republican side in the ’60s when essentially a lot of this vote was thinking about leaving the Democrats and then slowly did. And the movement of the Evangelicals and fundamentalists, especially the Southern Baptist Convention, that’s the big cheese in the– supermarket there. They have moved enormously.

And as a result, you now have a situation where the white– Evangelical and fundamentalist vote in the South is so lopsidedly Republican. And people say this is because of race. I think it’s just as much because of religion at this point.

That’s why all this has become so important, because it’s so important to the election. And frankly, it’s so important to the future of American policy in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: How come?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Because the whole Middle East– where, we’re involved as a nation more than any other part of the world in terms of foreign policy. Pivots for religious people on its role as the Holy Land. The Biblical nations. And the extent to which religion may be playing a part in the formulation of American policy in the Middle East is another enormously important subtext of the campaign that’s only just beginning to be noticed.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about the 46 percent of American Christians who are said to believe in Armageddon and the End Times, that we’re living in the time just before Jesus comes, and that there’s going to be what they call the Rapture. There’s a Rapture index that you can Google and see how close we are to that– to that moment. And these people see Baghdad as the new Babylon. They see this in– as a biblical scenario.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: That’s the frightening aspect. If– if you’re a true believer– I mean, believe in Armageddon and the End Times– and my guess is that in the Republican coalition, which has the more intensely religious people, that probably 50 to 55 percent of the Republican voters for Bush in 2000 believe in this scenario. They would regard a movement into Iraq not as the road to chaotic manslaughter, but as the road to redemption and the Book of Revelations, the Rapture.

This would make it a good thing, that it was chaotic. It would help usher in the end times. People who are not that intensely religious don’t think in those terms, but it would explain why George W. Bush never made any reference to oil. Oil would get in the way. The religious people would say, oh, it’s just about oil. It’s not really about what really matters. And they wouldn’t have cared that the weapons of mass destruction didn’t show up. It’s time all of this became a major debate in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: But have you ever seen a period in which religion at the last minute became such a powerful force in an American election?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: In the late 20th century, the answer is no. And I think why this could be important is there has been an enormous imbalance in the press in terms of dealing on the front page with whether this or that bishop was willing to give communion to John Kerry and John Kerry’s disagreements with the Catholic Church. Well, all of a sudden now, what’s becoming major, major news is just exactly how close is George W. Bush to the Pat Robertsons, to the Bob Joneses, to the Jerry Falwells, to a whole bunch of others that are part of the Dominionist Movement who were involved with his inaugural and gave– and invocations and things like that? He deserves the same scrutiny in terms of his connections with the hierarchy of religions that he has a tie to that John Kerry deserves in his relationships with the bishops.

I think it’s long overdue to talk about what George W. Bush believes. He is the one that has put the United States in the war. He is the one that is sitting on stem cell research. He is the one who’s smiling on creationism in schools. John Kerry doesn’t have an official position to have done any of this. George W. Bush has. He has done it. It should be a central issue.

BILL MOYERS: But when we see a liberal Democrat like Kerry going to church and going hunting, looking for God and guns, aren’t we conceding that the conservatives have actually won these cultural wars?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I wouldn’t say that. The idea that people don’t hunt is silly. The odds that you can just take a National Rifle Association viewpoint and throw it out the window completely– I totally agree with the– I guess, the liberal position on assault weapons. But I certainly don’t agree that you can just dismiss all hunters and laugh at the culture of the people of Pennsylvania and Ohio. And I think it’s a good thing that John Kerry showed that he’s not just sympathetic with it but he’s involved with some of the — I don’t see anything wrong with that.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that in the last few days, the two candidates have become increasingly shrill and attacking each other very, very relentlessly?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think part of it is they don’t like each other particularly. Another part is that some negatives work. There’s a lot of truth to that in politics.

But unfortunately, I think it’s part of something that’s true on both sides. Neither one, for different reasons, really wants to lay out an intelligent, detailed world view of either the economy, geopolitics or what’s going on in the Middle East. It’s easier to get into negatives.

And George W. Bush’s case, I frankly don’t think he understands a lot of this terribly well. In John Kerry’s case, I think he understands it. But I’m not certain he wants to talk about it. But one way or another, the shrillness has been a substitute for substance.

BILL MOYERS: We’ll leave it right there for now and look forward to talking to you again next week.

That’s it for now. David Brancaccio and I will be back next week, just four days before we go to the election. Thanks for joining us. Good night.

This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.

  • submit to reddit