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Dobbs says he's fighting for the little guy
A bigot tries on populist clothing

Review by Christian Wright | January 19, 2007 | Page 13

Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back, Viking, 2006, 288 pages, $24.95.

LOU DOBBS first began to distinguish himself from other media pundits in my mind during the spring of 2006. During slow hours at the restaurant where I worked, my coworkers and I would watch CNN on the bar's TV, where Lou Dobbs Tonight often appeared.

At the time, the immigrant rights movement was really taking off with massive demonstrations in April and May. As I was participating in some of the most inspiring protests of my life, Dobbs seemed to be the most consistent voice of establishment reaction.

So it came as a great shock to me when I saw Lou Dobbs promoting his new book, War on the Middle Class, on the Daily Show. On the show, Jon Stewart jokingly referred to him as "Karl Marx" and complimented him for his insightful class consciousness.

Since then, similar comparisons of the "maverick" Dobbs have been made with Dennis Kucinich. More disturbingly, overtures have been made to him by members of the Green Party who see him as a potential ally in the struggle to break open the two-party system.

While Dobbs' criticisms of Corporate America, both political parties, the attacks on workers' living standards and the destruction of U.S. manufacturing jobs enable him to gain a hearing among some, Dobbs' racist and nationalist solutions to these problems place him squarely on the far right of the political spectrum.

It should be the job of progressives to expose this fact.

Feeding off his ambiguity, Dobbs takes great delight in the inability of his political rivals to accurately define him. In a recent article, Dobbs described himself as a "populist," in his words, "nothing more than 'a supporter of the rights and the power of the people.'"

Yet this label alone does not preclude one from socially reactionary politics, since racism and xenophobia have bedeviled populists throughout history.

Focusing much of this anger against immigrants, Dobbs repeats inaccurate assumptions. He claims that undocumented workers are a "burden" on social programs such as health care and education; that undocumented workers do not pay taxes; that undocumented workers "drag down" the wages of native-born workers; and that amnesty for the undocumented will negatively affect the economic standing of most native-born Americans.

None of these are true. Undocumented workers do pay taxes, every time they buy gasoline, food or drink, clothes, pay a toll or get their paychecks.

And since they are unable to ever apply for a tax return, it is actually the undocumented who are subsidizing the social programs of everyone else. Rather than "dragging down" wages, immigrants have actually been leading the struggle to unionize America's newest and fastest-growing economic sectors: service, hospitality and construction.

"What I considered the strongest, albeit imperfect, solution to immigration reform...calls for the addition of 10,000 border patrol agents and 1,250 new customs and border protection officers; authorizes $5 billion over five years for surveillance technology and checkpoints; and requires all illegal immigrants currently in the United States to depart, and then to reapply for entrance through proper legal channels," writes Dobbs.

In addition to these punitive legislative initiatives, Dobbs compliments the actions of vigilante groups such as the Minutemen. He even singles out for praise the Minutemen's harassment of day laborers as one way to "fight back."

Such "solutions" are predicated upon a racist devaluation of the lives and contributions of Latino and immigrant labor. The expulsion of 10 to 15 million undocumented workers would generate a humanitarian and legal catastrophe, with families torn apart as due process is trampled beneath the Gestapo-ization of law enforcement.

One chapter of War on the Middle Class calls less for more money to be spent on education and more for merit-based teacher evaluations and standardized testing. This chapter on education shares a common presumption with the immigration section--that, rather than fighting for more, the best middle- and working-class people can hope for is to try and squeeze as much as they can out of the few crumbs that fall their way.

Disparaging of class struggle, Dobbs attacks unions for their ineffectiveness. But his criticism has nothing to do with any hope for making unions stronger to take on worker's concerns.

Dobbs aim is to substitute the principles of solidarity with the promotion of racial infighting within the working class--a recipe for further atomization of our power, not strength.

In a country like the United States, with a multi-ethnic and multinational working class, no white or native-born person who wishes to confront and defeat the power of the elite will ever have a shot at doing so unless he or she puts the fight against racism at the front and center of efforts to build class unity.

The "populism" of Lou Dobbs is a populism of fools: neither a comprehensive critique of class society nor a proposal for a way forward that all workers can get behind. For anyone interested in looking for a way forward for labor, antiracist and immigrant rights' movements, I recommend picking up Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis' far more accurate and useful No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border.

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