The Gingreening of America?

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

The Editors

THE 1994 ELECTION offered a striking combination. It was the most ideological election in recent national history — which, in itself, ought to be a positive rather than negative thing — yet at the same time, presented the least substantive choice and probably the greatest level of personal viciousness of all time. The reason, simply enough, is that the entire left side of the ideological “debate” was missing.

It is not surprising that the more coherently right-wing party, which had the further advantage of pretending to run “against Washington,” succeeded in bringing its voter base to the polls. As for the party in power — with nothing to run on except two years of virtual failure to produce any of the reforms it promised, and offering a feeble echo of the right-wing opposition rather than a meaningful argument against it — its voting base was disproportionately represented among the five-eighths of the electorate who did not vote at all. Indeed, this was the first election since 1970 in which more Republicans than Democrats voted.

The result was obvious at state as well as national levels. In New York, for example, research published in the Village Voice shows that 100,000 fewer African Americans voted for Mario Cuomo for governor than had voted for David Dinkins in last year’s mayoral race. They stayed home, and without their votes Cuomo had simply no chance. Add that kind of dynamic to the mass abstentions among white working-class Perot voters on the national level, and the Democrats in November 1994 were road kill.

Many of the articles in this issue of Against the Current explore this dynamic, and the failures of Clintonism that led up to it. In this brief statement we will simply review the key themes. While we believe that the result demonstrates not a fundamental rightward shift in most people’s consciousness but rather a profound alienation from politics-as-usual in all forms, it is important to confront the very real and serious consequences of the Republican sweep.

Newt Gingrich has indeed taken out a Contract on America, a contract which intends to culturally, economically and politically rub out that majority of us who are not avowedly Christian, heterosexual and patriarchal in our loyalties. In place of any serious grappling with the causes of social anger and political alienation, the next two years in U.S. politics promise us a rhetorical God-and-country feeding frenzy. Since Communism is dead the official targets must now be primarily internal: taxes, deficits, gay and lesbian rights, single mothers, welfare recipients and of course crime. The unofficial targets are African Americans, non-white immigrants, unions.

This program carries its own internal contradictions and dangers, particularly because it is aimed against most of us. Pushing it too hard, too fast could create a level of conflict and confrontation that might damage ruling-class confidence in the Republicans as a ruling party. But the Republicans’ potential problems pale in comparison to the Democrats’ immediate ones. After November 1994, the Democratic Party at the national level — not in every state or locality, obviously, but at the level of national legislative power –confronts a moment of extreme crisis, even possible irreversible decline.

Clinton’s prospects of re-election in 1996 are certainly as dim as that of any twentieth century presidency at mid-term, unless the Republicans allow their nominee to be determined by the party’s lunatic religious right fraction. Frankly, this seems quite unlikely: Now that corporate capital sees the Republicans as its most likely governing party, ruling-class power will exert enormous pressure to keep the top spot safe for a right-wing business candidate. The stealth religious-right and the fanatical anti-choice, school-prayer, Christian-America types have their place at state legislature and local levels, where they are in fact accumulating significant power.

The Democrats’ nightmarish prospects are made even worse by Clinton’s immediate response: attempting to “recapture” a mythical “center” by suggesting support for school prayer. Following this self-destructive course will only prove to the population, and to the right wing, that this administration is in full retreat, and will likely result only in consolidating the Republican hold on both houses of Congress.

With the very partial exception of abortion rights, which are slightly more legally entrenched than before Clinton, this administration has produced nothing in the way of meaningful reform; its chances of producing anything that might capture popular imagination in the next two years are non-existent. Meaningful economic stimulus would have made Clinton a popular president, but that is precisely what the dominant (including his own) political and economic ideology precludes.

Unemployment cannot even be allowed to drop below 6% lest interest rates (and with them, the government’s debt) rise. Since two structural constants of the U.S. economy are that (1) real unemployment is about double the official figure and (2) Black unemployment is almost exactly double the national average, this means that African Americans are locked into permanent Depression-level joblessness.

These realities — along with the declining real wages of U.S. workers generally — cannot be changed without structural reforms that would directly affect corporate profits. Clinton of course will contemplate no such thing. But even short of anything resembling an assault on capital, the most minor of improvements in social programs and crumbling welfare protections are rendered impossible by Clinton’s commitment to “reducing the deficit.” He is checkmated from one side by his own rightist program and from the other by a more consistently argued Republican demand for “downsizing government.”

That program is itself, to be sure, completely fraudulent. The idea that the deficit will be reduced by tax cuts for the affluent, massive prison construction to house low-level drug offenders, higher military spending and other forms of government subsidy to corporations-of which, not surprisingly, Newt Gingrich’s own district is among the very highest recipients — is as much a joke now as under Reagan. But since the Democrats themselves support corporate welfare of this kind, they are in no position to seriously respond.

On one point, at least, “bipartisan cooperation” reigns. Republican and Democratic congressional leaders teamed up to pass the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in the lameduck session. The administration has lost all political clout and credibility, but this vote was NAFTA revisited: Elections come and go, but what the ruling class really wants, it gets.

Fighting for Our Future

There is no point dredging out the old tired rhetoric denouncing heartless Republican policies. We heard it all during the Reagan-Bush era from Democratic leaders like Teddy Kennedy and Mario Cuomo, refusing even to admit they were liberals, whining about policies they hardly resisted or even initiated themselves. It’s no more edifying now that these hacks have been run over by the bus carrying Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to power.

The fact remains, however, that the debris of this administration remains in the road, occupying space, until someone removes it. Even out of power in Congress and with its executive power basically crippled, the Democratic Party continues to prevent the political self-organization of the potential majority for progressive change.

It does this, most importantly, by retaining the institutional support of the ever weaker leadership of organized labor. The struggle within the labor movement to build a base of support for an new independent party for working people — an effort that is being spearheaded by Labor Party Advocates — has become more vital than ever, along with the kind of grassroots efforts represented by the New Progressive Party in Wisconsin, the Greens in several states, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow and local campaigns.

The so-called conservative tide is not irresistible. The fact that well-rooted progressive independent politics can succeed, when it runs in its own name, has been demonstrated once again by the successful reelection of the socialist congressman Bernie Sanders in Vermont. Although Sanders has been subjected to criticism in the left press-some of it justified, as in the case of his “lesser-evil” vote for Clinton’s hideous crime bill — his re-election constitutes an important symbolic victory for the left nationally, provided that we learn the necessary lessons from it.

The lesson is that it’s time to get the debris out of the road, to create a party that openly puts working class, multi-racial America ahead of corporate profit. That task in part depends on a commitment to serious independent electoral work-but far more upon active social resistance in a very nasty period that is now upon us.

The most important event of this fall came in California, where student strikes exploded in the final stages of the campaign around the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. The proposition itself passed, but as the coverage elsewhere in this issue explains, a movement in defense of basic human rights for immigrants, prepared to take defiant direct action, has come to the forefront. This is the kind of movement that has historically changed the terms of debate and created the options presented to the electorate.

Proposition 187, in fact, illustrates the contradictions that may undercut the right-wing agenda. It has triggered profound outrage among Latinos not only in California but every U.S. city, and indeed throughout the hemisphere. As Mike Davis explained in a British Broadcasting Corporation interview, it threatens the stability and implementation of hemispheric “free trade.” The denunciations of the racism of Proposition 187 by the staunchly pro-U.S. government of Mexico are obviously hypocritical — coming from a regime whose treatment of Guatemalan refugees is even worse but more importantly, must be taken as a reflection of real popular anger, as well as the Mexican elites’ fear of what will happen to their economy and society if the outlet to the north is shut off.

This issue of Against the Current analyzes the roots of the Clinton administration’s failures, the betrayal of its reform promises and the prospects for action by the movements. It is only a beginning, but we believe it can contribute to a discussion on clearing away the dead remains of illusions past and rebuilding a political movement for the real interests of the majority. We dedicate this issue to the California students who, in tile best traditions of the anti-war and civil rights movements in this country, rose up to tell the system: Your law is a crime against humanity, and you can shove it.

ATC 54, January-February 1995