Tariq Nelson has talked a lot about the auto bailout recently and I will attempt to approach it from a different angle Insha’Allah.
President-elect Barack Obama brought a coalition of diverse groups of people together to win the election. It will be impossible to get all of those groups to come together on every issue during his presidency; but you would think they would wait to disagree until at least Obama has been sworn into office.
However, in its unique way, the crisis in the American auto industry and the requested bailout by Washington has already caused a rift in that coalition that brought Obama to office and exposed major fault-lines on the Democratic Party.
Three of the major groups that brought Obama in are educated white yuppies, union-members (who are of all races), and minorities. Listening to NPR and watching cable news cover this topic it is easy to see this rift although it has not been discussed openly in the media to any degree.
Quite simply, for the most part, yuppies hate American cars. Look at parked cars in Manhattan, gentrified sections of Brooklyn, Adams Morgan in DC, Kenmore Square in Boston, Hyde Park in Chicago, the Central West End in St. Louis, Austin, Madison, Boulder, Berkeley, and any other such place and tell me how many American cars you see on the street? Driving an American car is a fashion no-no in these places that fancy themselves as being hip and creative; but in reality are very conformist and monolithic.
We all know that there was a time between the 1970’s and the early 1990’s that Detroit stopped putting out quality cars; but most auto experts, not just some globos gargling latte who don’t even know how to change a flat tire or check their own oil, will tell you that Detroit has closed the gap and for the most part American cars are on par with Asian competitors. (See this article by Mark Phelan of the Detroit Free-Press).
Yet despite the improved quality of American cars globos are not willing to buy American. It does not go good with the image. Driving a European car appears to be sophisticated and as with anything else European globos will try and imitate car buying habits as Europe is seen as the model. Asian cars are living off of their previous advantage in quality and they are even superior in the image-making category in the world of yuppiedom.
It is not only that they perceive American cars to be inferior and buying American to be jingoistic and uninteresting it is also the fact they have no connection to auto workers and their families. White auto workers in places like St. Louis (which was once the second-largest metro area for auto production behind Detroit) have tended to live in North St. Louis County and St. Charles County if they worked for Ford or GM and South Country or Jefferson County if they worked for Chrysler. African-American auto workers have tended to live in North County, North City and even St. Charles County. Very few globos, who made up the bulk of Obama staff and volunteers in this state, live in these places and many probably have never been to most of these areas. They are as disconnected from blue-collar workers as they are to Congolese refugees. As a matter of fact they may have more empathy for the Congolese and sponsor an orphan or something; but out of work auto workers are just overweight/ religious/suburban/masculine/ domestic beer drinking/ fast food eating/ gun owning American slobs who are to be vilified and laughed at by people like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (two Obama supporters).
However, there are two other elements of the Obama coalition that are more than likely to support this auto bailout. Labor unions are essential to any Democratic success; and as one of the biggest smears on the American auto industry is in attacking the wages that the United Auto Workers have won for their members (a union to which both my father and grandfather belong) and critics, on the left and right, are using this time to attack organized labor. Labor is solidly for the bailout. If the companies go under there could be up to 3 million jobs lost. Does anyone seriously think the sudden loss of 3 million jobs would not have catastrophic consequences on this society? The UAW knows what the answer to this question is and that is why Obama and many Congressional Democrats are supporting the bailout package.
The third group essential to Obama’s victory are African-Americans and Latinos. Both of these groups would be disproportionately damaged if the bailout does not occur. African-Americans make up a sizeable percentage of American auto workers and UAW members. The black middle-class in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Delaware, North St. Louis County and others has been heavily tied to the auto industry. If the industry collapses you could see something in the black community like which occurred in the early to mid 1980’s when AIDS, crack, and the Blood-Crip culture all exploded at virtually the same time.
American cannot afford to let the auto industry fail. Now, am I giving Detroit a free pass? Absolutely not! The corporate leadership in Detroit has failed on many levels and the bureaucracy and creative process in Detroit has been dysfunctional until very recently. The bailout must be given on conditions that the corporate brass does not use it as an ATM and that Detroit meet better fuel economy standards and create more cars running on alternative energy and the like.
The GOP will not support a bailout and it may be a popular position with the public. What GOP lawmakers want is for the Big 3 (GM, Ford and Chrysler) to declare bankruptcy so that they can be de-unionized and reorganized and this would lower the status of auto workers to about the level of Wal-Mart workers. This must not be allowed to happen.
Watching how Obama and the Democratic Congress handles this issue will tell me a lot about how the next 4 years is going to look.