Who Gets To Choose?

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

The Editors

EIGHTY-TWO PERCENT of people surveyed by a recent Harris Poll respond that “the government works for the few and not the majority of people.”  More than 80% think the economy is “inherently unfair,” 70% that business has too much power over public life, and 95% that corporations should sacrifice some profits to benefit workers and communities.  As Elizabeth Chamberlain of the “Cleveland Free Times” comments in her report on the Labor Party founding convention, “You’d have to ask people if they believe in gravity to get as high a poll number as that.”

These are choices, however, that the U.S. electorate cannot register in the November 5 presidential election, except by voting for Green candidate Ralph Nader (or perhaps the Hollis-Chester Socialist Party ticket, or the candidates of other small socialist organizations).  In practice, around half of those holding the sentiments recorded by Harris will throw their votes away by staying home-while most of the rest waste theirs by voting for Bill Clinton, Bob Dole or Ross Perot.

Nowhere will this be more true than in the sectors of organized labor and the African-American community.  The AFL- CIO, with its $35 million campaign in attack ads and voter mobilization drives aimed at ousting Newt Gingrich and the freshman Republicans, is working with fanatical energy to convince its membership and the public that there is no choice but to reelect Clinton.  Indeed, the union federation gave its earliest endorsement ever to this president-whom Kevin Phillips, in 1993, designated the most anti-labor U.S. president of the twentieth century.

It is highly refreshing that a distinct current has appeared inside the labor movement-even, at this stage, a minority and not yet prepared to run its own candidates-to found the fledgling Labor Party.  This formation and its future development must be at the center of activism for all those who support working-class independent political action-yet it has no impact on the present electoral situation, nor does it make such a claim.

Yet if the AFL-CIO leaders see no choices, some folks do. Consider, for example, big corporate and finance capital.  Not only do they have their pick of two loyal parties, but their status as the ruling class is beyond challenge by the outcome of any election.  Indeed, even the most important public economic decisions-about government budgets and debts, interest rates, social spending-are dictated fundamentally not by politicians, but by the so-called “investment community,” consisting of the super-rich and financial managers who can move, say, a rock-bottom minimum of $10 million around the global economy at the push of a button.

As for capital’s Republican and Democratic parties, the furious rhetorical gulf between them is bridged by a remarkable consensus of substance that includes the following elements:

Abolition of the federal welfare entitlement, to be replaced by “workfare” programs administered by budget-slashing state governments.  An incredible fact of the Congressional welfare “reform” debate was that the same Daniel Patrick Moynihan whose pioneering attacks on “dysfunctional” Black families thirty years ago helped set in motion the racist counter-reform known as neo-conservatism, now occupies the left wing of opinion in the Democratic Party.

Indeed now-Senator Moynihan, whose politics have remained in place while the political spectrum has gone rightward, is one of the few politicians to openly acknowledge that the new law will significantly increase child malnutrition and social misery.

Speedy imposition of the death penalty, and numerous police-state measures, under terms of an “omnibus anti-crime bill” so repellent that the American Civil Liberties Union and National Rifle Association, of all people, joined forces to oppose it. This bill ensures the execution of death-row prisoners without adequate appeals or opportunity to present new evidence.

Freedom for capital to replace unionized jobs with the cheapest possible labor under the banner of “globalization,” “competitiveness” and “free trade.”

An attack on immigrants and their children, including attempts to deprive them of education and health care.

A zealous commitment to protect our nation from-poverty?  racism?  No, gay marriage.

Yet there are differences between the parties.  In part these are matters of program, which can perhaps be labeled by summarizing the Clinton Democrats as “Republican Lite.”  Under a Democratic regime, the clear-cutting of social programs and labor rights proceeds more slowly, with a sugar-coating of cooperation and “shared sacrifice.”  Other things being equal, most of corporate capital naturally prefers the Republican alternative.

More important, however, than the secondary differences over economic program, or the Republicans’ open hatred of women’s social and sexual equality, are the two parties’ respective ability to assure stable government in the corporate interest.

In 1996 Clinton’s Democratic Party has established itself as worthy of ruling-class confidence.  Under Clinton, the Democratic Party has become “unified,” meaning that meaningful internal opposition from the left has been dissipated.  Erstwhile insurgencies such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition are now thoroughly tame party loyalists, along with once-flaming liberals, the labor leadership and-to whatever extent they might matter-the party’s tail of “democratic socialists.”

In fact, these forces are so grateful for whatever tiny measure (or even illusion) of influence they gain from their affiliation to the party-in-power that they will hardly wage an actual fight for anything-whether it’s defense of affirmative action, labor law reform or anything else. With the partial and important exception of the women’s movement’s ongoing defense of abortion rights (without which Clinton might well have pandered to the right wing and signed the atrocious “partial birth abortion” bill), the social movements inside the Democratic Party simply rely on Clinton to hold the line against Republican reaction.

In striking contrast to the unified Democrats, the Republican Party at the present moment has failed to house-train its own militant reactionary social right wing. The Republican Convention’s made-for-television show was carefully scripted to hide the enormous power of the religious right.  Some of the latter’s more fanatic elements were miffed by the absence of a prime-time assault on abortion rights-but there was no effort to impose discipline on them.

In recruiting Jack Kemp as the vice-presidential candidate, Bob Dole signaled both his dependence on the religious right and a commitment to run on a tax-cutting program, in order to revive the Reagan Revolution (which so greatly benefited the country the first time).  Dole, like George Bush, used to ridicule this economic drivel.

Designating a pro-choice New York representative Susan Molinari to deliver the convention keynote speech, without mentioning abortion, represented at most a veneer of “tolerance.”  If anything, it’s the pro-choice Republicans like Molinari and Colin Powell, willing to serve as the TV props, who “knew their place” in the convention.

But is this the most favorable balance of forces for the ruling class in the Republican Party?  Probably not. It’s fine for the Christian Coalition, for example, to run stealth candidates to take over school boards in working- class communities.  If kids there get fraudulent “creation science” shoved down their throats, this hardly matters to the elites, whose children attend private schools or public schools in affluent communities.

It’s a different matter when the religious right threatens to turn the party at the national level into a militant anti-abortion, fanatically homophobic Christian-America sect. That kind of a party would be fairly useless to a capitalist class that wants to control two parties capable of governing.

No Need for Newt

Nor did Newt Gingrich and the freshman Republicans inspire confidence when they forced two shutdowns of the federal bureaucracy in their ideologically driven budget confrontations with the Clinton White House.  It wasn’t only that corporate and finance capital had no need for such a maneuver; further, and even more important, the public response to the government shutdowns showed that Newt and his friends had misread their 1994 electoral triumph as a popular mandate for a dramatic right turn.

To be sure, the 20% of Republican convention delegates who are certified millionaires were there for good reasons.  The Republicans would pursue, more aggressively than the Democrats, the destruction of the National Labor Relations Board, re-legalization of company unions in the guise of “teams,” rapid elimination of what remains of occupational safety and health protection, maybe even getting rid of the minimum wage, and other delights.

Capital would welcome such gifts-which is exactly why the Republican party is the traditional preferential option for the capitalist class.  But it doesn’t “need” them: The Democratic/Republican bipartisan consensus has already put in place plenty of tools for the erosion of unions and gutting of any worker rights that stand in the way of maximum profit.

Under these circumstances, the reelection of Bill Clinton seems quite likely, as well as a considerable shrinkage of the Republican Congressional majorities.  Such an outcome would be entirely congenial to corporate elites, inasmuch as it would consolidate the social and economic reactionary trends that have grown since the Carter and Reagan years, without pushing them so far as to provoke dangerous unrest.

With Clinton in office-and in the absence of a profound new insurgency from African-American communities or workers-corporate power has no reason to fear that its freedom to exploit, to blackmail, to pollute, to roam freely in search of the greatest profit margins, will be curbed.  And that, of course, is what counts.

A good symbol of how much the two sides in the Clinton-Dole race have in common can, perhaps, be illustrated by the Detroit newspaper strike, now over a year old. True, many of the two thousand “Detroit News” and “Detroit Free Press” strikers, and certainly their union leaders, place much of their hopes in a Clinton reelection and the chance of a sympathetic NLRB ruling.  Yet the use of “permanent replacement workers” and nazi-like Vance “security” goons by the scab papers shows that employers don’t really need new laws to carry out union-busting assaults.

It’s also noteworthy that the editorially right-wing “Detroit News” will undoubtedly endorse Dole, and favors all forms of anti-labor legislation, while the liberal “Detroit Free Press “will endorse Clinton and has editorially opposed corporations’ right to break strikes with permanent replacements.

These differences don’t make the slightest difference to these papers and their parent media giants, Gannett and Knight-Ridder-except perhaps to show that the “Detroit News” is more honest and the “Free Press” more hypocritical in their joint thuggery.

The Nader Alternative

For those on the left, the single expression of populist and progressive opposition on a national scale will be the Ralph Nader campaign, which is discussed in our coverage elsewhere in this issue of “Against the Current”.  Its longer-term impact remains to be seen, and will depend in great measure on the perspectives and commitment of the activists who are organizing for it.

Furthermore, Nader’s early reluctance to go beyond economic issues of “corporate greed,” notably his refusal to speak out clearly on crucial social issues-reproductive rights, gay/lesbian/bisexual rights and defense of immigrants in particular-represents a serious weakness, which must be addressed if this campaign is to realize its progressive potential.

Yet Nader’s willingness, as a prominent advocate of consumer and worker protection, to defy the two-party system is an important service to those on the left seeking to break the political logjam.  In immediate terms, if nothing else, Nader’s support will be some public measure of how much of the progressive-minded public is prepared to make an open statement of contempt for the fraudulent pretense of choice offered by the two corporate parties.

ATC 64, September-October 1996