It is possible, I suppose, that the pundits are right and the public didn't really mean it when it elected a liberal Democrat president and gave Democrats even larger majorities in both houses of Congress. Maybe America really wants the same nice, reassuring, centrist thing as always.
But it is also possible that, for once, the public weighed the big issues and gave a clear verdict on the great economic questions of the last few decades. It is likely that we really do want universal health care and some measure of wealth-spreading, and even would like to see it become easier to organize a union in the workplace, however misguided such ideas may seem to the nation's institutions of higher carping.
That was the sense I got when I met last week with officers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their mood was optimistic -- as well it should be, since labor unions spent some $450 million during the 2008 races, orchestrated massive voter outreach, and saw their candidates triumph.
What is coming, they believe, is not triangulation redux. This was, SEIU President Andy Stern told me, "a clear election not on small things." Mr. Obama "talked about what people wanted to hear about," as opposed to the culture wars. "We've redefined the center," Mr. Stern said. "Universal health care is now centrist."
Near the top of labor's agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act, a.k.a. "card check," the legislation that will make it easier for workers to form a union by signing cards instead of by secret ballot in the workplace. Mr. Obama was a co-sponsor of last year's version of the card-check bill and has vowed to sign it when it is finally passed by the incoming Congress.
Business interests, on the other hand, spent many millions in 2008 trying to make card check a liability for Democratic senate candidates. The strategy failed, and now they are gearing up in Washington for the coming confrontation, which one Chamber of Commerce official has already dubbed "Armageddon."
During the campaign, you will recall, the debate over card check was supposed to be about principle, about democracy, about the sacredness of the secret ballot. However, as I pointed out a few months ago, union-certification elections often don't meet the most basic democratic requirements. Supervisors routinely hold captive-audience meetings with workers in preparation for elections; management commonly threatens to close up shop if the union wins; antiunion employees are frequently rewarded and pro-union employees are sometimes fired.
So it may not surprise you to learn that democracy isn't really the main concern of card-check's opponents. It's unions themselves. Changing the rules will make it easier to organize them.
And more unions, in turn, means higher wages, better benefits, more say for workers in business decisions, and all that other awful stuff. If Wal-Mart employees get a union, it's a pretty fair bet they won't have to work after they've punched out.
Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don't, and business doesn't want that to change. Consider the remarks made by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott at an analyst meeting on Oct. 28, when he was asked about the possible coming of card check: "We like driving the car and we're not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us."
And hear the lamentations of the billionaires. "This is the demise of a civilization," moaned Bernie Marcus, cofounder and former CEO of The Home Depot, during an Oct. 17 conference call about card check. "This is how a civilization disappears. I'm sitting here as an elder statesman, and I'm watching this happen, and I don't believe it."
Mr. Marcus sketched out the doomsday scenario for his listeners, with unions going after what he called the "low hanging fruit" and proceeding to organize workers in industry after industry. He had taken it upon himself to notify the nation's CEOs of the danger, but they were not yet grabbing their guns. "This is as important as anything that's ever happened to these companies. And they're not reacting, and they're not fighting. The old time fighters are gone."
But in the class war, as in the real deal, there are always ways of motivating the yellow. "If a retailer has not gotten involved with this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to Norm Coleman and these other guys," Mr. Marcus said, apparently referring to Republican senators facing tough re-election fights, then those retailers "should be shot; should be thrown out of their goddamn jobs."
Mr. Marcus may snarl, but he doesn't bark. His is the voice of a business class rediscovering its ancestral zeal for combat. Liberals should take heed. If they thought the "Harry and Louise" campaign that sank Hillary Clinton's health-care reform was dirty, they should know they ain't seen nothing yet.
Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com
Also in Opinion Journal:
Rick Wagoner: Why GM Deserves Support
Martin Feldstein: How to Help People Whose Home Values Are Underwater