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What West Virginia Means

Before the West Virginia primary vote on Tuesday, it was a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton would sweep the state, perhaps by over 70 percent. In the event, she came close to that, with 68 percent of the vote. Now that the vote has happened, Clinton and a corporate media anxious to spin out the ratings-boosting contest as long as possible, are arguing that Obama is in trouble.

It is true that twenty percent of those voting for Clinton in this almost lily-white, low-income, low-education state said they voted for her on the basis of race, which is to say they wouldn’t vote for a black man. Theirs was a vote Clinton has actively pursued. Forty percent of her backers said they would not vote for Obama in the general election if he were the Democratic candidate.

What was not asked or reported, though, is what percentage of her voters would not vote for Clinton either, if she were to become the nominee. I’m guessing it’s a fair number. That is to say, I think that people were voting for Clinton not because they support her, but because they wanted to vote against a black candidate.

You read it here: Hillary Clinton clearly has no more chance to win West Virginia in a general election than does Barack Obama.

So let’s move on to a more salient question: Does Obama’s poor showing in West Virginia mean he is going to lose in other states where many of the voters are white, working class, and don’t have high school diplomas or college degrees?

No. Of course not.

West Virginia is not just Michigan without car companies and pasties. It’s Michigan without Motown and Rap music. It is, that is to say, an almost totally white, incredibly insular, racist state–the kind of place that if you’re a black person traveling through on the Interstate, you’d best stick to the highway rest stops to get your coffee. It has plenty of fine people living inside its boundaries, but it also has people who’d be just as at home in rural Mississippi–except that then they’d have to live–god forbid!–in the vicinity of “colored people” (West Virginia is only 3% African-American–you can walk around even a city like Wheeling all day and not see one).

Certainly Obama will have his work cut out for him winning over working class Americans. Hillary Clinton and her seemingly pump-headed husband Bill (see my April 28 column “Invasion of the Pumpheads”) have been hard at work turning them against him for months now, and Republican John McCain, who knows a thing or two about how racist some voters can be (Bush’s campaign during the 2000 South Carolina primary, successfully spread the vicious lie that McCain’s adopted Indian daughter was the “love child” of an adulterous relationship with a mythical black woman) can be expected to pick up where she left off, probably courtesy of surrogates and 526 campaign groups.

But the reality is that most of the American white working class is not racist. In most states, whites and blacks work together every day, share lunch and after-work beers, and get along fine. Most working-class people know that their real political enemies are the bosses who keep cutting their real wages, shipping their jobs overseas, busting their unions and financing the politicians who help them screw average Americans.

All Obama has to do is make it clear, during the general election campaign, that he understands all this, and is really going to take their side, by restoring labor law to some kind of at least impartiality, so that unions can start to organize the vast unorganized workforce whose members overwhelmingly want a union. All he has to do is say that he will call a halt to unfair trade agreements that encourage American firms to move overseas and sell their crap back to the US instead of making it here. All he has to do is say that he will start taxing the rich again, and corporations, and cut the tax burden on working people.

Racism thrives on irrational fear. Hillary Clinton has been playing to that fear with her evocation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. McCain will play to that fear too. That’s why Obama’s “hope” campaign has made sense, but he needs to go further than just hope. He needs to start making concrete what he will be doing for those working people who are the targets of the insidious fear campaigns.

The voters of West Virginia are probably a lost cause. Too many of them, like the Germans of the early 1930s, have been convinced by the fear-mongers that their enemy is a group of “others”–in this case black people. There’s not much a candidate like Obama can do about that. But the toxin of racism has been in retreat, thankfully, for years, in most of the nation, and Obama’s excellent showings in states like Virginia, Missouri and Wisconsin are solid evidence of that.

The false calculus offered by the Clinton campaign, which argues that no Democratic presidential candidate can win the presidency without winning West Virginia, is based upon races that were won from the middle, leaving working class people with no real reason to vote–the kind of campaign Bill Clinton ran, and that Clinton could be expected to run, should she improbably win the nomination.

What Obama has demonstrated in his primary campaign, is that he can reach beyond the hard-core Democratic Party base, and attract the votes of independents (mostly white people) and even Republicans. He now needs to work to replicate his successes in states like Virginia, Wisconsin and Missouri, to expand his reach to those working class voters who have been leaning Republican or to Clinton.

To do that, he needs to make a much more populist case than he has to date.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Pennsylvania-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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