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Spring 2005 Articles

The Geography of Defeat

By James Steele


Questions in Need of Answers

The results of the 2004 general election tell us a great deal about the political balance of the country.  They also illuminate the scale of the tasks associated with a Democratic comeback, and place in bold relief the political, organizational, and ideological challenges ahead.    

How well Kerry did, for instance, among specific groups of voters only highlights how poorly he performed among other demographics. At the same time, the results reveal the emergence of new forces and the potential for reinvigoration of the Democratic coalition.  While the post-election predicament raises questions for which there may be no immediate or precise answers, posing the right questions is far more useful than spin, regurgitating pat answers, or giving in to Republican hubris.  

For example:

 • Why did the unprecedented Democratic mobilization fall short?

• What were the principal flaws of candidate Kerry and the Kerry campaign?  Do they alone explain the Democrats’ defeat?

• Does Bush’s victory negate the notion of an emerging Democratic majority?

• What does the role of religious social conservatives in this election portend for the future of American politics?

• To what degree are religion and race connected to relative non-competitiveness of Democratic presidential candidates in certain regions of our country?

• Where should the Democratic Party go from here?


The Most Important Election in a Generation

The 2004 presidential election was described as “the most important of election in a generation.” Indeed, the candidates, campaigns, political parties, corporations, unions, partisan groups, and nonpartisan activists went at it as if it was.  The voters responded by turning out at the highest rate in 36 years.  At the core of the electorate’s exceptionally intense political emotions lay what could be called hyper-support or hyper-opposition to foreign and domestic policies of President George W. Bush.

Bush’s 51 percent to 48 percent margin over Kerry translated into a 286 to 252 Bush victory in the Electoral College.  He gained an astonishing 11 million more votes than he had in 2000, giving him the highest total of any presidential candidate in American history.  Kerry eclipsed Al Gore’s 2000 total by more than seven million votes — the second highest of any presidential candidate in American history.


Anatomy of the Bush Victory

Republican post-election hubris about a mandate aside, this closely contested election suggests that the road ahead will not be a smooth one for the second Bush Administration.  Because of the anomaly of Bush getting reelected despite low ratings on key foreign and domestic policy issues, the Democrats have good reasons for optimism.  Besides, there is no such thing as a 51 percent mandate.

If one uses four percentage points (the cut off for an acceptable margin of error in opinion polls), any performance above 54 percent among any segment of the electorate represents substantial success.  By this measure, the respective performances of Bush and Kerry underline the degree of difficulty the Democratic coalition not only faced on Election Day, but also confronts as Democratic constituencies seek to derail Bush II’s contemplated political and legislative juggernaut.

Political demographics played themselves out differently in the Republican and Democratic parties.  Take race, for example.  The Republican Party does not have serious internal racial dynamics to manage.  Consequently, it has no campaign burdens to shoulder with respect to diversity, racial equality, or racial sensitivity.  It can simply advance platitudes, accuse the Democrats of taking Blacks for granted, while attempting to take African Americans and Latinos for a ride.  In what could be called deracialized racism, the president and vice-president could get away with campaigning almost exclusively before almost all-white audiences, in almost all-white venues, and not be questioned about it by the media or their opponents.

This approach paid off handsomely. 

Wal-Mart: Template for 21st Century Capitalism?

By Nelson Lichtenstein


 In each historical epoch a prototypical enterprise embodies a new and innovative set of technological advances, organizational structures, and social relationships. They become the “template” economic institutions of their time and place. By template, we mean not just the internal organization of the business, or the character of the market it taps or creates, but the entire range of economic, social, and political transmutations generated by a particularly successful form of business enterprise. These template businesses are emulated because they have perfected for their era the most efficient and profitable relationship between the technology of production, the organization of work, and the new shape of the market. Thus at the end of the 19th century the Pennsylvania Railroad declared itself “the standard of the world.” In the mid-twentieth century, General Motors symbolized sophisticated, bureaucratic management, and technologically proficient mass production. At the dawn of the twenty-first century Wal-Mart has emerged as just the kind of world transforming economic institution Peter Drucker analyzed at the end of World War II. As even a casual glance at the newspapers and television makes overwhelmingly clear, Wal-Mart is an inescapable touchstone for so many of the social, urban, labor, and global issues that confront 21st century Americans. In California, where Wal-Mart’s actual footprint is still tiny, the expectation that this corporation will build scores of giant new “supercenters” has generated one high profile conflict after another.    

Wal-Mart is today the largest profit making enterprise in the world, with sales of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars, and 1.4 million employees. As of the end of 2003 it had 4,688 stores worldwide, about 80 percent of them in the United States.   Wal-Mart is the single largest U.S. importer from China and the largest private employer in both the United States and Mexico. If this corporation were an independent country it would have been China’s eighth largest trading partner, ahead of Russia and Britain.

In selling general merchandise and groceries, it has no real rivals. Indeed, Wal-Mart perfectly embodies the process of “creative destruction” identified by the early twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter as the engine by which one mode of capitalist production and distribution is replaced by another. And it is precisely Wal-Mart’s enormous social, economic, and cultural weight that makes Wal-Mart not just an organizing imperative for American labor, but a subject of increasingly intense political and social scrutiny. For no company of Wal-Mart’s size and influence is a “private enterprise.”  

Life inside America’s Largest Dysfunctional Family: Working for Wal-Mart


By Ellen Israel Rosen


This article focuses on the structure of Wal-Mart’s store operations, its technology, culture and management structure, official policies, and covert practices.  These shape the experiences of Wal-Mart’s workforce. Wal-Mart is now notorious for wage abuse, sex discrimination, and anti-unionism. They impact all Wal-Mart’s sales associates, from managers to clerks, and women in particular who comprise 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees, most at non-supervisory levels. The findings that follow are based on extensive interviews with current and former Wal-Mart workers, from store managers to hourly sales clerks.



Why Pick on Wal-Mart?

Other large retailers engage in many of the same practices, legal and illegal. Yet Wal-Mart’s rapid growth, size, and power have made it the leader of a new global industry. With a market power unequalled by any of its competitors, Wal-Mart has reshaped America’s and the world’s retail industry. Where Wal-Mart leads others follow.

Wal-Mart is run autocratically—from the top down. The CEO and his closest associates in Bentonville, Arkansas, make decisions and give orders to a hierarchy of subordinates in about 3,500 highly standardized U.S. Wal-Mart stores. Messages flow from corporate headquarters directly to the store managers, and down through the ranks to sales associates.

At all levels, Wal-Mart personnel are subject to intense pressures. These pressures create incentives encouraging Wal-Mart’s managers to engage in practices that shade off into the illegal, and may become illegal when pressures intensify. 

Business analysts see Wal-Mart’s productivity as resulting from its sophisticated logistics and new information technology. Yet, even before computers, Wal-Mart sought to centralize authority and operations, sending out managers to visit each store and report to headquarters. New technology speeds communication, making it easier for corporate headquarters to transmit directives more rapidly, more often, and more effectively.


Patriarchy at the Check-Out Counter


By Brad Seligman




In June 2001, six women filed a class action employment discrimination law suit against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. in federal court in San Francisco.  They charged that Wal-Mart discriminated against women in pay and promotions to management. Over the next several years, their lawyers were permitted unique access to Wal-Mart databases, documents, and witnesses as part of the formal investigation process known as “discovery.”  More than 1.3 million documents were produced by Wal-Mart, over 200 witnesses had their deposition taken, and plaintiffs’ experts were given access to Wal-Mart’s payroll and personnel electronic databases going back to 1996. In addition, the lawyers interviewed hundreds of women across the country about their experiences at Wal-Mart.

            At the close of this enormous effort, the plaintiffs filed a motion requesting that the case be certified as a class action, to include all women who have worked in Wal-Mart Stores in the United States at any time since December 26, 1998. Without class certification, the case would be limited to the claims of six women.  If certified, however, the case to be tried would encompass the claims of the more than 1.6 million women who have worked at Wal-Mart since December 26, 1998. If plaintiffs win at trial, this means that the damages to be awarded (lost earnings and punitive damages), as well as the scope of any court ordered injunction, would include all of these women, and all of Wal-Mart’s operations in the United States.            While the size of any jury award or settlement cannot be estimated at this time, a successful outcome would likely dwarf the largest civil rights recoveries to date (roughly $500 million).   

            The plaintiffs argued that class certification was warranted by the strong statistical pattern of unequal pay and promotions, and the uniformity of Wal-Mart procedures, practices, and culture throughout its more than 3,600 stores. Wal-Mart claimed that each store was “different,” that there were at best only a few “bad apples” among its managers, and that it had a right to individual trials against each of the more than 1.6 million class members.

            On June 22, 2004, Federal Judge Martin Jenkins issued his 84-page ruling certifying the class. The scope of  the class is unprecedented—it is by many orders of magnitude the largest civil rights class action ever certified (No prior civil rights class action exceeded 200,000 class members).  It is the first time Wal-Mart has ever faced a nationwide class action.  The judge acknowledged the “historic” nature of the motion, but rejected Wal-Mart’s assertion that the sheer size of the class precluded a class action:


God Goes Corporate

By Linda Kintz


God and the free market, the dual fundamentalisms of U.S. popular culture, have come to resonate spiritually and emotionally with large numbers of people whose economic security has been undermined by the corporate order. A quarter century of right-wing organizing and concerted media manipulation has “re-enchanted” the corporate economy, reconnected it to deep-rooted American mythologies about the West, about manhood, and about the heroic, self-reliant individual.  

For many, the “common sense” that bolsters these fundamentalisms coexists, in very confusing ways for many people, with an opposite narrative—a critical one that also has the economy at its core but which analyzes the story of the United States as empire, tracing its violence, its institutions, and its utopian, democratic impulses that have been betrayed. The narrative that is the subject of this essay, however, is that of radical conservatism, which draws on the passionate emotional intensity available by way of religion and media, to retell that story of empire, a story that finds its coherence in an America that is the shining, innocent city on a hill, its Constitution divinely inspired, and its institutions, in particular property and the market, unquestionable because they are integral parts of God’s natural law.  For both market and religious fundamentalisms this latter story depends on a belief in literalism that has long been a characteristic of American culture—the claim that such meanings are self-evident, “pure” in their truths, and do not require interpretation, contextualization, or “nuance.” And as claims of complexity and critical analysis are coded as forms of elitist contempt for the common man, literalism all too quickly turns into absolutism.

            Since the idea of a divine sanction for the market appeals so strongly to many whose security has been decimated by the corporate economy, I want to trace some aspects of its rhetoric and images to show how radical conservatism constructs this notion by appealing to deep emotion and spirituality. The hidden paradox here is that the Right, while claiming that Judeo-Christianity is inherent in the very nature of the cosmos and of human nature, in fact spends inordinate time, money, and grassroots work to construct that naturalness and to make sure it is thought, felt, and as real in the daily lives of people. Their success in doing so has eliminated the space of critical analysis for many Americans.

Just as the Enlightenment is said to have disenchanted a world that was until then explained in terms of religion, the contemporary alliance between market and God has, for many, re-enchanted the world, especially through its powerful use of media resources to spiritualize the economy.   As a result, for many Americans, the invented image of George W.—brought to life through the media—is interpreted as a true representation of an authentic man of morality and character.  And while living in Midland, Texas, Bush learned this mythology well.


Saving the Right to Organize: Substitute the 13th Amendment for the Wagner Act


By Mark Dudzic


Modern labor movements must be able to do two things: to organize expansively and to bargain effectively. Before the mid-1970’s, these core capabilities were taken for granted in the United States.  In fact, the rights to organize and bargain formed the very basis of the post-World War II social contract. But unlike in other industrialized nations, these rights remained under attack and were never fully institutionalized. Today, these rights are virtually nonexistent.

            At its peak in 1953, nearly 36 percent of U.S. workers were unionized. Today the percentage of organized workers is below 13 percent.  In the private sector, it has fallen below nine percent.  Bargaining power—that complex equation determined by union density, leverage and will—has declined precipitously with few notable exceptions.  The number of workers on strike has experienced a seven-fold decline between 1974 and 2001[1].  During that same period, average inflation adjusted wages have declined by over eight  percent[2] while income and wealth have been steadily redistributed upward at unprecedented rates[3].  Some activists joke that collective bargaining has been replaced by collective begging.

In less than a generation, the American labor movement has gone from a vital institution at the very core of a pluralistic society to a marginalized anomaly hanging on for its very life.  This counter-revolution was accomplished without a single substantial change in the labor laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining.  Nor has it required the overt government repression of unions that characterized many authoritarian regimes’ attacks on the labor movement during this period (Brazil in the 1970’s, Argentina and South Korea in the 1980’s, and contemporary China). Rather, it has been the victim of a concerted employer attack utilizing existing laws and regulations, and abetted by almost unrestricted employer access and control over the appointments and agendas of the courts and regulatory apparatus that govern labor relations. 



[1] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Work Stoppages Involving 1,000 Workers or More, 1947-2001” 2002


[2] U.S Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “National Employment, Hours and Earnings Data” at www.bls.gov


[3] Mishel, L. et. al., The State of Working America 2000-2001, Ithaca, 2001


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