The Democrats’ Wasteland

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Peter Drucker

BILL CLINTON’s emergence as the probable Democratic presidential nominee–barring one more too-juicy scandal–shows just how far U.S. politics has moved to the right. The man looks like the designer-made epitome of the New World Order Candidate.

ATC’s previous “Letter from the Editors” (ATC 37) summarized Clinton’s well-known pro-business, anti-labor record as Arkansas governor, and how his tax proposals mimic George Bush’s right down to a capital gains tax cut.

Clinton’s “toughness on crime”–one among several campaign themes drenched in subliminal racism–extends as far as military boot camps for first offenders, and approving the execution of a murderer suffering from irreversible self-inflicted brain damage. His campaigners turned up in Washington for the April 5 March for Women’s Lives, yet he has pushed for every anti-abortion law short of an outright ban.

He opposes any single-payer plan for national health insurance. On the foreign policy front he has given awards to Nicaraguan contra leaders and apparently looked the other way while his aides helped fund the contras (as detailed in several Nation columns by Alexander Cockburn, among other places).

A Republicans’ Democrat

The trademark of the Clinton campaign has been his call to “rise above the old, tired divisions” between rich and poor, left and right, even–he says it himself–Republican and Democrat.

The Democratic version of this end-of-ideology ideology differs from the Republican version only in adding doses of populist and economic nationalist verbiage to the basic recipe of austerity. Let’s make the market not only “free” but “fair,” Clinton and his fellow Democrats say, then a united America will show those Japanese who’s boss.

As a candidate-marketing strategy this is fair-to-middlin’; as an economic program it’s pathetic. The editors’ letter in ATC 37 pointed out that “unfair trade” has little to do with Japan’s economic ascendance and even less to do with the United States’ decline. What’s more, a market “fair” to working or poor people is as easy to find as a square circle.

Liberalism Dies With a Whimper

Clinton’s only apparent rival at this point, Jerry Brown, gets his economics from the same quacks’ dispensary. To be sure, the considerable show of support for Brown in the primaries, an expression of deep popular anger and alienation, is the healthiest phenomenon of a miserable political campaign. While drawing from the same reservoir of disgust as the Buchanan vote, the vote for Brown isn’t an expression of racial bigotry or “America First” chauvinism.

Brown has won support from liberal quarters–and from those on the left who are desparate to support some Democrat–by refusing, at this late stage of a long political career, to take big corporate donations. He also has a Green aura due to a decent environmental record.

But Brown’s economic proposals reveal that capital doesn’t need to buy him, because he’s already a true believer. His flat-rate tax proposal would be a multi-billion-dollar bonanza for the rich, and burden the struggling poor with a regressive sales (“value added”) tax.

How have liberal and left-leaning Democrats been so completely marginalized in 1992? Three principal reasons probably account for it:

The system was rigged. The national Democratic Party bureaucrats wanted a “moderate,” Southern candidate to win big and win early, and they set the ground rules so that they would get what they wanted. Although in 1988 Jesse Jackson upset these calculations, in 1992 “Super Tuesday” was tailor-made for a Bill Clinton. The Illinois and Michigan primaries the following week were perfectly timed to translate his Southern momentum, and the resulting surge of campaign contributions, into a Northern breakthrough.

The indispensability of Big Money–characteristic of no other major advanced capitalist democracy–was enough to do in Tsongas. And, as in no other major advanced capitalist society, with Big Money came access to the media. One informal New Republic poll revealed that every political reporter contacted personally favored Clinton.

No one spoke for the Rainbow. In 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson could hang on until the convention because a core African-American base would choose him every time over the Democratic establishment. But with no African-American Democrat and no clearly Rainbow-identified candidate visible in the primaries, African-American voters retreated to pre-Rainbow voting patterns.

A third of Jackson’s voters have stayed home on primary day. Most African Americans who voted on Super Tuesday or in Illinois and Michigan went with Clinton, much as they went with Jimmy Carter in 1976; they sure as hell weren’t going to vote for Tsongas.

Labor Caved In. An AFL-CIO endorsement would probably have kept Harkin (the closest thing to a liberal) in the race for substantially longer. The bad press that labor got for its “special interest” endorsement of Mondale in 1984 gave it an excuse for not putting its full weight into the balance.

As a result, after fifty-five years of slavish devotion to the Democrats the AFL-CIO is left with a right-to-work Arkansas governor as its “alternative” to Bush. Worse: prominent labor officials, including prominent “progressive” labor officials, backed Clinton from the beginning on the grounds that he’s electable. This is desperation carried to the point of lunacy, wanting so badly to elect something that you support your own avowed enemy.

From Left Out to–What?

So capital has got the kind of Democratic candidate it likes best, the kind who poses no threat to the powers that be. There is, however, a price. Clinton’s ability to co-opt any social movements is minimal. The Bush-Clinton race will leave tens of millions of people, voters or non-voters, unenlisted, uninterested, and more alienated from the whole U.S. political system than before Jesse Jackson came on the political scene.

The free-floating rage that the 1992 campaign has brought to the surface of politics will remain disconnected from either capitalist party, waiting for a movement to latch onto.

So far in 1992 Pat Buchanan has done a better job than any Democrat in the race in giving part of this constituency (a white part) somewhere to go. The left must do a better job than it has so far of offering its own alternative. Not inside the Democratic Party; that game was played by Jesse Jackson all the way to its dispiriting end. The place to begin is in the fightbacks that will be needed against Bush or Clinton.

May-June 1992, ATC 38