Imagine The Possibilities

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Samuel Farber

TWO ELECTIONS were held in this country in early November.The first election witnessed the replacement of the head of General Motors. In this case, there was not even the pretense of democracy; a handful of very rich capitalists made the key decisions that we will all have to live with. GM’s workers and the consumers of the products manufactured by that corporation had absolutely no say in the matter.

The 1992 general election took place a couple of days later. As it has been said over and over again, the bad state of the economy and the end of the Cold War made it possible for Bill Clinton to win. However, an equally and perhaps more important outcome of the election was that nineteen percent of the electorate decided to “waste” their votes by supporting a third candidate in what turned out to be the largest third party vote since 1912.

To be sure, this was not a left-wing vote and the “Perotistas” were almost all white (only 7% of African Americans voted for Perot). If we look, however, at how Perot’s vote was distributed among the various income groups, we see a rather interesting picture:

Sectors of the Population % voting for Perot
All voters 19%
Family income
 -under $15,000 18%
 -$15,000 – 29,999 20%
 -$30,000 – 49,999 21%
 -$50,000 – 74,999 18%
 -$75,000 and over 16%

These figures show that Perot drew support among all income groups in almost equal proportions; the evenness of his vote was much greater than that of the two other candidates. This should not be surprising since billionaire “Boss Perot” was generally perceived as the most “impartial” and “classless” candidate in spite of the regressive nature of his drastic tax increase proposals to eliminate the deficit such as his proposed fifty cent tax per gallon of gasoline.

The point is that Perot ran as a folksy, no-nonsense, tell-the-truth politician. He was (however untrustworthy in real life) the candidate of trust, and in that capacity appealed to many powerless, mostly white Americans to the extent that, contrary to stereotypes, many of them gave up popular sitcoms in order to watch Perot’s long televised lectures on economics.

Perot’s protest vote reveals an underlying and ever growing susceptibility to populism in American politics. This proto-populism–in Perot’s case, marked not by a radical but rather a classless and economic-nationalist appeal–has been manifested in strong anti-politician sentiments, long-term declines in voting rates (reversed to a limited degree in this election in part because of Perot’s presence), decline in voter identification with the two major parties, and in the very misguided but widespread support for the recent proposals for term limitations, which are a bonanza for well established business lobbyists who will provide the legislative continuity and power now held by the likes of veteran Assembly Speaker Willy Brown of California.

The proto-populist tendency is a result of the relative decline of the U.S. empire, a growing pessimism about the “American economic dream” and the economic prospects of future generations, the “third worldization” of the public school, criminal justice and health care systems as well as the infrastructural decay of roads, bridges and, notwithstanding recent inventions such as the fax machine, an overall decline in what used to be strong traditions of prompt and efficient services in the public and private sectors.

In sum, the political culture is formed by life in a country where the quality of material life has been slowly but continuously eroding for two or three decades and from which deterioration only the rich have been able to protect themselves through high-priced luxury personal services ranging from security guards to limousines and messengers.

The cumulative effect of the various “gates” (from the Gulf of Tonkin through Watergate to Iraqgate) has fed the populist current and has also greatly undermined the American political innocence and naivete that was such a prominent and strongly reinforcing pillar of the political system. In 1960, when U-2 spy pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR, Eisenhower initially denied it but was shortly after caught in a flagrant lie. At the time,a predominant popular reaction was: “Wow, the President of the USA lied. I can’t believe it!” How many people would react in that fashion thirty two years later in 1992?

A Fragile Party System

This populist undercurrent, in a positive sense, was already part of the force behind Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and especially in the support he was able to draw from those sections of white workers looking for change. By the 1988 general election, notwithstanding the still existing Cold War and apparent prosperity, an appeal to populist sentiment might have made it possible for Dukakis to win, were it not for his quite incompetent campaign and, more important, his failure to embrace the populist mantle before the very end (which allowed him to win about a dozen states).

Perot also grasped something that most liberals and progressives, in their fanatic attachment to Democratic Party “lesser evilism,” have failed to confront: the growing decay and fragility of the political party system. This process is being propelled by a variety of such factors as the growing role of Political Action Com<->mittee (PAC) money in congressional and other electoral races, the decline in the power of municipal machines such as the original Daley machine in Chicago, changes in the internal power structure in Congress, the predominance of presidential primaries and the increasing weight of TV political advertising and direct mail to the detriment of more traditional party electoral activity like canvassing and rallies.

What Perot tried to do in 1992 was, in one particular respect but a larger scale, reminiscent of what Jimmy Carter did in 1975-6, when Carter as a relatively unknown politician bypassed the old and weakened party structures through the sheer investment of money into major media advertising, and propelled himself into major primary victories.

If a racial minorities-labor-women’s coalition had imitated Perot and launched an independent Rainbow-type candidacy. It is not far fetched to suppose that this would have greatly disorganized the election and might have even created a constitutional crisis through a deadlock in the Electoral College. At the very least, this would have resulted in the election of a President with a small percentage of the popular vote, thus bringing into the agenda the need to change the American electoral system consisting of winner take all and single member constituencies. In turn, this system has been one of the major obstacles to the creation of labor and other progressive third parties in this country.

Lessons for the Left

The progressive constituencies missed this potential opportunity to make major advances in destabilizing the U.S. two-party system. Instead, Jesse Jackson and his supporters were completely marginalized. Since African-American voters had no other party to go to but to the Democrats, Clinton’s strategy of appealing to the Reagan Democrats was viable and made more sense than Jackson’s. Jackson has for some time emphasized the registering of new voters among African Americans and other disenfranchised citizens as the key to building support for a supposedly progressive Democratic Party. But without a highly visible Jackson, Clinton still managed to obtain 82% of the African-American vote.

The fact that approximately 11% fewer African Americans registered, compared with the higher Jackson inspired rates of 1988, is hardly enough of a blow to offset the added vote of white Reagan Democrats. True, many Reagan Democrats, confronted with a bad economy, might have voted for Clinton even if he had put forward a more pro-minority and left-wing message. Still, it is clear that given the fact that African-Americans were not threatening to leave the Democratic Party, an appeal toward the right was electorally worth it to Clinton.

Some of the Democratic Party “lesser evilists” on the left will argue that Perot could afford to run a relatively successful independent campaign because he could spare some $60 million. True, but it is also the case that Perot had no previously established organizational base or organized network of support to campaign for him. That certainly would not be the case for a progressive campaign supported by labor unions, African-American and women’s organizations and progressive churches, to name but a few.

While Perot’s $60 million is indeed an extraordinarily large amount of money, let us not lose sight of the fact that what labor and progressive movements spend in electoral campaigns supporting highly unreliable Democrats is not exactly chicken feed. For example, in the 1982 midterm election campaign, 251 labor PACs donated $32 million to all the various candidates.

Perot’s successful maverick-capitalist appeal to a “radical middle,” which is both to the right and to the left of Clinton and the Democratic Party, points to the recently growing fragmentation and fluidity of American politics that could also be exploited by a bold and intelligent broad left. Let us remember the slogan of the United Farm Workers’ Union “Si Se Puede” (“Yes, One Can”).

January-February 1993, ATC 42