Ross Perot for …? Never Mind

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Steven Ashby

THE ENIGMA OF H. Ross Perot had everyone talking. The Bush and Clinton campaigns were running scared. The political pundits, and the left with them, shook their heads and wondered, how does he get away with it? The billionaire who claims to side with the “little guy,” the ignored working class American; the corporate head who effectively lobbied for government contracts that made him super-wealthy, who now attacks corporate lobbyists and bought-off politicians; the self-avowed people’s candidate so rich he proclaims he can’t be bought; the oligarch who kicked in $200,000 to Nixon’s 1972 campaign and hundreds of thousands of dollars to (mostly Republican) Congressional campaigns and has been a master of the business-politics game for three decades, who runs as a Washington outsider; the anti-candidate who attacks sound-bites but who is a genius at that national political pastime.

Perot’s projected candidacy matched an insurgent, grassroots sentiment with unlimited funds. While firmly capitalist, it nonetheless represented a threat to the established two capitalist parties. Tens of thousands of Americans organized to try to put him on the ballot in all fifty states and to attend his rallies; ten million called his phone bank to register their support or signed his ballot petitions.

Without a party behind him (and no apparent intention of starting one), and without a formal announcement of his candidacy, Ross Perot the “stealth candidate” briefly polled one-third support in the polls, some of which showed him the front runner in the popular vote for president. (Equally significant, however, 44% of registered voters in a June poll, and likely a big majority of the unregistered, were dissatisfied with all three candidates.)

To be sure, this support was disproportionately white. The vast majority of African Americans and Latinos, although only a minority of them vote, continue to support the Democratic Party–though even here, the ABC sentiment, “Anybody but Bush and Clinton,” has some momentum. The Perot candidacy reflected the huge vacuum in American politics left by the absence of a viable left electoral alternative, and of the severe weakness of social movements that could mobilize broad support to attack the failure of American capitalism to reverse working peoples’ declining standard of living.

The failure of the Democrats in the 1980s led huge numbers of the white working class, still a thin majority in the country, to shift their allegiance to the Republicans. The failure of the Republicans in turn to provide decent-paying jobs and a strong economy led millions of white-working-class Americans to turn toward Ross Perot. The failure of the left, and most particularly of the labor movement, to provide social vision and leadership against the capitalist austerity drive, has led us to this sad quandary–considerable and growing white
working-class support for a billionaire computer salesman.

A majority of voters–58% in a recent poll–had endorsed the idea of a third party before Ross Perot came along. But progressive and labor forces remain unwilling to break from the Democratic Party despite that party’s escalating rejection of the “special interests”–meaning labor, women, African Americans, Latinos and gays. Thus a vacuum has been created in American politics. Enter Ross Perot (stage center-right).

Who Is Ross Perot?

Who is Ross Perot? One partial answer is Ronald Reagan reincarnate, at least in the sense that Ross Perot answered no questions directly. The campaign was the thing, not the issues. America (we were told) needs a strong leader, a Lone Ranger to come to the rescue, and he avowed that he was the one. The country is in a malaise, and only Perot-the-savior could make us feel proud to be Americans again.

Perot denounced the media, which rank at the bottom of the popularity polls with lawyers, Congress, and the Mafia, for “playing this interesting game” of asking him to take positions on critical issues. “Night and day, there is saturation bombing, there are Patriot missiles going down air shafts in my office,” said Perot, with reporters “wanting to know my positions on everything from mosquitos to ants.” This election isn’t about issues, he asserted, it’s about the failure of leadership.

Such rhetoric certainly rang a chord. In a poll last May, half the registered voters were unable to say whether Perot was a liberal, conservative or moderate. They weren’t sure what he stands for–though like the Eastern, liberal wing of the Republican Party, failed Democratic
candidate Paul Tsongas, or even Bill Clinton, he is moderately socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and avidly pro-business–but they liked his “character” and his running against the two major parties.

Unlike the plastic and manicured Bush and Clinton, Perot is short, plain-looking, and speaks from the gut in earthy language. Ross Perot appeared to be, as Newsweek reported, “uncommonly candid, uncommonly unpretentious” at a time when people are tired of politicians lying to them. Perot proclaimed that the whole political and economic system is corrupt and requires radical change, that “The overriding thing is…we have serious core problems in our economy,” and people agreed.

While the majority of people now recognize that there are fundamental problems with the way the economy is run, Bush and Clinton offer band-aid solutions. Perot himself offers few–stimulate the economy through encouraging greater domestic capital investment, tax consumption of oil (with a highly regressive fifty cent per gallon gasoline tax) and cut social security benefits for the rich to reduce the deficit, and the benefits will trickle down to the working class. (More likely the social security cuts will “trickle down” first!) But millions supported him because, unlike Bush and Clinton, at least he stated there is a fundamental problem and proclaims that the Federal Government should have a long-range industrial strategy.

To the degree that Perot’s economic policies were becoming dimly visible, they closely resembled those of avowed pro-business Democrat Paul Tsongas, except that Perot (like Jerry Brown) opposed North American free trade which Tsongas (like Bush and Clinton) endorses. He projected the image of bringing ruthless corporate efficiency to the federal bureaucracy and of running the country and the economy as a large-scale replica of his own corporate empire at Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a prospect that should be more appealing to corporate managers than to those who work under them.

More like Reagan than the pro-sacrifice-and-proud Tsongas, however, Perot chose the easy road in U.S. politics: denounce Washington, call for new, uncorrupted, strong leadership, and provide only amorphous generalities in lieu of a program. It is a sign of the vacuum of U.S. politics that an electorate that is finally blaming the Reagan presidency and the Bush Administration for the $4 trillion deficit and for working peoples’ steadily declining standard of living turns to a man like Ross Perot, who only broke with Reagan on a right-wing issue. Reagan, said Perot as he separated himself from the president in 1987, is not doing enough to find the allegedly “missing” or “prisoner of war” U.S. servicemen in Southeast Asia.

At the same time, it is interesting that Perot’s message–in contrast to Pat Buchanan on the Republican right or Tom Harkin from the Democrats’ liberal wing–did not appeal to racist bashing of immigrants or Japanese. Perot’s support of women’s right to abortion attracted interest from sections of the pro-choice movement, including the National Organization for Women. It was on the issue of gay rights that the vicious and bigoted underside of Perot’s politics came out, in his statement that he wouldn’t appoint openly homosexual cabinet members.

That position offers a pretty clear perspective on Perot’s attitudes toward fundamental human rights, as did his refusal to institute at EDS any programs for assisting employees with mental or emotional problems: “Let them go to work for my competitors,” was his view.

A Ruling-Class Candidate?

The burst of positive press coverage of Perot’s insurgent campaign last spring led many leftists to wonder whether the enthusiasm of the capitalist press, radio, and television with Perot reflected a positive view of Perot by the wealthy elite. There are strong arguments for such a view beyond the early, approving press coverage. The economy is in the dumps; after hopeful predictions last winter that the 1991 recession was over, the recession deepened in 1992. Despite Bush’s astronomical popularity in the polls in the aftermath of the Gulf War a year ago, his approval rating rapidly plummeted this year to below 30%, a feat replicated in the postwar era only by Richard Nixon as a result of the Watergate scandal and Harry Truman as a result of the economic chaos in the year after World War II.

People are deeply cynical about the ability of either the Democrats or Republicans to lead the country. Iran Contra, the Savings and Loan debacle, Congressional check bouncing, and the treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate Judiciary Committee have left politicians as a whole, and both capitalist parties, in deep and widely felt disrepute. “The politicians are corrupt,” “Congress has no answers to our problems,” “Both parties are the same, nothing will change no matter who wins,” are the widespread, popularly held views today.

This leaves the ruling rich worried. The billionaire-three-times-over Perot, while not a mainstay of the Washington D.C. “inside the Beltway” political elite, is someone who could be trusted–if it became necessary to look outside the existing parties which have served capitalist stability so well–to maintain and defend the capitalist system. Perot, who while running as a “Washington outsider” was closely linked to the Nixon Administration, assuaged corporate doubts by appointing Washington insiders to run his election campaign.

“I don’t have a handler,” said Perot. No, he hired four of them: Hamilton Jordan, who ran Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign and served as his Chief of Staff; Edward J. Rollins, Political Director and 1984 reelection campaign manager for Ronald Reagan, and who the New York Times has called a “master Washington spin doctor;” James Squires, former editor of the Republican Chicago Tribune; and Thomas W. Luce III, Perot business colleague and a recent Republican candidate for Governor in Texas.

While few Democratic and Republican politicians were willing to court permanent exclusion from their respective parties by shifting allegiances to Perot, a small handful of politicians trusted by the ruling rich bolted, such as former Texas Governor and U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally.

Yet it was precisely at the moment that Perot undertook to “professionalize” his campaign apparatus that his grassroots appeal began to suffer. And at that same time, Perot’s uncritical free ride in the media came to an end, just as Bill Clinton’s image began looking better. Soon
Perot himself had pulled the plug.Perot’s pseudo-populist rhetoric ran up against the realities of elite politics: The economic and political crisis in the United States has not yet produced the social upheaval that might compel the ruling rich to throw their support to a Ross Perot in order to misdirect working-class anger.

The recent Los Angeles uprising does represent the decay of capitalist America and its inability to provide jobs, let alone decent-paying jobs, to many of its people. L.A. represents the inability of capitalism, a century and a third after the demise of slavery, to create a society of racial justice and economic equality. But the Los Angeles rebellion, in itself, as a single social explosion does not threaten the wealth or power of the capitalist elite, nor portend for them a need for radical political options.

Ross Perot’s ascendant candidacy, then, provided a useful steam valve to win many of the disaffected back to the capitalist electoral process. But the ruling class by no means supported Perot, whose interventions into the “old boys club” (a seat on General Motors Board of Directors in 1984-86, an attempt to save duPont Glore Forgan, the nation’s third largest brokerage firm, in 1970) were dismal failures.

Business Politics As Usual

A 25 June, 1992 poll reported on public television’s “National Business Report” demonstrated that, as they have for decades, the corporate elite are strongly backing the Republican Party. NBR polled 364 CEO’s and presidents and owners of businesses across the country, finding that 66% of the corporate elite with companies whose annual sales exceed $100 million supported George Bush, 20% supported Ross Perot and only 5% supported Bill Clinton.

Fortune magazine, in its own survey of top corporate executives, found that 78% supported Bush with only 11% for Perot. They support Bush’s program of deregulation, lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, free trade with Canada and Mexico (and, they hope, eventually all of Latin America), and the exercise of American post-Cold War global power through imperialist interventions such as in the Gulf. While Perot drew some support from the corporate elite, they remain by and large (as they have been for fifty years) fundamentally Republican. George Bush is their longtime servant and first choice.

Interestingly, however, despite placing greater faith in President Bush, 64% of business leaders in the NBR poll (and 45% of CEOs of corporations with over $100 million in sales) believed Ross Perot could best reduce the national deficit, with only 21% looking to Bush and 3% to Clinton. Thus Perot was useful from a “pressure” standpoint.

A majority of medium-sized business owners–those with sales in the $1-25 million range–supported Perot in the NBR poll: 54% went with Perot, 30% with Bush, and again a dismal 6% for Bill Clinton. Medium-sized business heads felt Perot is more in touch with their entrepreneurial needs, while Bush represents the multinationals and Wall Street elite. Smaller businesspeople are far more vulnerable to the deepening recession than their big business compatriots. (To some extent the elite’s differences on Bush and Perot may also reflect differences over free trade, which Bush supports and Perot opposes; only 19% of the business elite oppose free trade.)

Traditionally–and again in 1992–few sectors of the corporate elite (mainly investment banking, real estate, and insurance) back the Democrats, despite the latters’ firm subservience to corporate needs. Toward winning greater financial support from the corporate elite, and toward appealing to the suburban white voters who vote in much higher percentages than other sectors of the country, the Democrats have moved steadily to the right through the 1980s. In 1992 the Clinton-Gore team reflects the culmination of the victory of a conservative faction of the Democratic Party led by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

While DLC members Rep. Dick Gephardt and Senator Al Gore failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1988, their man Clinton took it this year, and he naturally chose a co-thinker as his running mate. The 1992 Democratic Party platform encapsulates that rightward shift. And, should the economy turn slightly upward by the fall, the DLC program will likely for the fourth time in as many presidential elections assist Bush and the Republicans to yet another victory.

Perot may have received an easy ride from the television and radio talk shows and the press in the spring, but by this summer the press, led by the New York Times, were tearing him up. The TV political pundits and newspapers columnists ganged up on him. It was an easy prediction that by November not a single major daily newspaper in the country would endorse Ross Perot for President.

The Specter of Authoritarianism

While the Perot campaign folded early, its significance should not be overlooked. It indicates a deeply dangerous potential threat in U.S. political culture, though not best understood in simplistic categories.

Some on the left argue that Perot represents a “fascist” impulse. Such talk is amplified by his political reputation and his record as a CEO who is authoritarian, self-righteous, abrasive, paranoid, and demagogic. Perot demanded fifteen-hour days of his EDS staff, ran the company in a military-like fashion, and fired those who deviated from his notion of the “correct” lifestyle. He looked for his employees to be straight, male, faithful to their spouses, suit and tied, without facial hair, and preferably having a military background.

Employees were forced to sign loyalty oaths requiring those who left the company to stay out of the computer business for three years, and those who left within two years were penalized by “training costs” fines of thousands of dollars. “If you’re in his way, he’ll run over you,” say many former business associates and employees. The press had recently begun to expose Perot’s affinity for hiring spies to investigate and allegedly blackmail business and political opponents, and his enthusiasm for Oliver North’s operations in the White House. From 1982 to 1985 Perot sat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, gratifying his penchant for covert action.

His “electronic town hall” proposal smacks not of grassroots democracy, but of plebiscitary rule without political debate or popular control of the structures of power. He has reportedly suggested (and later denied saying) that police should cordon off minority neighborhoods and conduct house-to-house searches to combat drugs and crime.

History shows that in periods of economic crisis, mobilizing white workers and small business people against entrenched government and economic elites, under the right leader in the guise of the national savior, can be turned into an authentic fascist movement. David Cole, director of the University of Michigan automotive studies center and an observer of Perot’s tenure on the GM board, told Time that “If Perot were elected President, he’d be about the closest thing we’ve had in a century to a dictator.”

In reality, however, Perot is no Mussolini or Hitler, and America in 1992 is not 1930s Italy or Germany. The economic crisis has not reached catastrophic proportions, especially from the view of the ruling class, and no fascist movement is deemed necessary in order to compete with and squash a powerful workers’ movement or a non-existent left threat. Perot is authoritarian, but then so are most CEOs. And the country has survived four years of a former CIA director as president without moving toward fascism.

“Fascism” shouldn’t be thrown around as an epithet, losing all meaning along the way. To do so misses the point and the real threat. The attempt at a real fascist candidacy this year was David Duke, who flopped completely. Perot was not a break from capitalist politics, but only from its existing party organizations; not a threat from outside the bourgeoisie, organizing a violent mass movement which needed to be incorporated, but a dissident member of the corporate elite employing pseudo-populist messages to exploit mass discontent.

The Perot phenomenon arises from the slow disintegration of party politics in the United States; the virtual collapse of the labor movement as a force for resistance; the atmosphere created by a long economic recession and the failure of two years of promised recovery–all of which created the possibility for the emergence of a figure claiming to give “leadership” “without” politics.

Perot would, he said, use his own money to “buy back” for the people what the politicians had stolen, their control over their own lives and their country. It is the falsest of all false promises. In the end, Perot himself proved not to be politically serious. How far he might have gone remains, for now, untested.

New Opportunities for the Left?

The political situation in the United States today provides impetus for leftists to be both profoundly optimistic and deeply pessimistic. It is difficult now to remember the despair of the left a year and a half ago as yellow ribbons and American flags sprang up across the country in a nationalist frenzy as the nation rallied around the President’s imperialist adventure in the Gulf.

Since then the economic situation has deteriorated, and the mood has swung against politicians, the two parties, and President Bush. Americans are clamoring for a national health care system that would make health care a right, not a privilege. The all-white, male Senate Judiciary Committee’s brutal, chauvinist handling of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment gave new energy to the women’s movement, and 750,000 people  marched for reproductive rights in Washington D.C.

The end of the Cold War has achieved what the left has failed to win: overwhelming popular support now exists for slashing the $290 billion military budget. The Los Angeles uprising led to a national discussion of the plight of African Americans and our decaying inner cities, and of the need to reindustrialize the country to provide decent-paying jobs for all.

Yet the economic and political crisis has not been mirrored by a resurgence of massive social and labor movements. The annual number of strikes continues to be at record post-war lows. The United Auto Workers leadership, along with the AFL-CIO upper crust, again demonstrated its bankruptcy by capitulating to the Caterpillar Company and ordering striking workers back into the plants without a contract. No national movement for jobs and racial justice arose in the aftermath of the L.A. uprising, and African-American leaders lined up behind the Clinton campaign.

The schism between the potential for resistance, and the reality of popular despair and inactivity, is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Revolutionary socialists have long argued that attempting to “capture” the capitalist Democratic Party is not the solution, but a central part of the historic problem of the American left, labor, and progressive movements. Militant workers and movement activists looking to the “lesser-evil” Democrats, we’ve argued, is a dead-end strategy that has stymied the growth of real social change and a mass, workers’ political party.

So will the lessons of Perot’s independent candidacy in any way aid the American left? The Perot campaign (along with the Jerry Brown campaign) allows for a discussion of the possibility of initiating a real independent political party, one that represents the interests of working people.

It is time to “break the deadlock of American democracy” (as Time phrases it) by breaking with the Democrats, to form a third party. A party that not only runs working class, people of color, and women candidates, but organizes daily in our neighborhoods to fight for jobs, unions, and democratic rights for women and people of color, and against police brutality and imperialist war. A party that combats the rising racist attacks on welfare by arguing for a
program that makes welfare unnecessary. A party that fights for war expenditures to be used to rebuild America at union wages in union jobs.

If nearly 60% of Americans favor a new party, and if tens of millions supported Ross Perot without getting caught up in “evil versus lesser-evil” debates, then perhaps the lack of historic leadership from progressives and the left, not only the conservative ideas held by many ordinary people, is holding back the tide of history. If the left and progressive movements had broken with the Democrats fifty, or twenty-five, or ten years ago, the country and the left wouldn’t be in the dismal state we are in today, standing on the sidelines while a Texas billionaire energized workers’ discontent.

September-October 1992, ATC 40