News and Features
As Bush and Gore battle for the Northwest, Nader's power grows.
Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's America's Forgotten Majority has been credited with convincing Al Gore last summer to adopt a populist campaign strategy built around "working families" and the mantra, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Republicans immediately accused the Vice President of "class warfare," and Business Week worried that Gore's rhetoric was tapping into a broad "anti-business" public mood. Pundits thought (or hoped) there would be a backlash among "suburban independents," but thus far none is visible.
Though Gore is a highly ambiguous class warrior and has skillfully targeted only the most egregious (and unpopular) corporate powers, this is a bold and welcome turn toward class politics in the United States. And though Ralph Nader and the revitalized political operations of the AFL-CIO undoubtedly deserve some credit too, there's a chance that Teixeira and Rogers have helped do for the Democrats what Kevin Phillips's "Southern strategy" did for the Republicans in 1968 and beyond.
What have they done? Simply pointed out what Michael Zweig calls "America's Best Kept Secret"--that the majority of Americans are "working class," not "middle class," and that failing to realize that simple fact leads to a cascade of illusions, both political and otherwise. This is the larger point that will endure, regardless of how Gore's populist strategy works in November (if, indeed, he sustains it until then). We cannot get our politics right, or our economics and culture, for that matter, until we have a better, more consistent grasp of the vagaries of class in our society. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters and The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, each very different in its concepts and details, lay a strong social-scientific foundation for bringing social class out of the closet and making it a permanent part of our public discourse.
Teixeira and Rogers's contribution lies most completely in their political arithmetic, which emphasizes the importance of class and unionism as well as race and gender. When they extend from that, their sense of what they call core working-class values is thinner and less accurate, in my view, and their policy prescriptions are too narrowly focused on this year's election and contain what would be a crucial strategic error if put into practice. But their arithmetic is clear and compelling, and Zweig complements and strengthens their analysis in the other areas.
The arithmetic begins by dividing voters into a "middle class" and a "working class," based on one clear and simple characteristic--the possession or lack of a bachelor's degree. About 30 percent of voters have one, while the vast majority (the working class) do not. Teixeira and Rogers understand that both income and occupation are also relevant to understanding class dynamics, but information on them is not consistently available in the voting data, and, besides, there is such a strong correlation between college education, occupation and income that it doesn't matter much for their purposes. "Managerial and professional workers," for example, are much more likely to have bachelor's degrees and are paid from 34 percent to 140 percent better than other workers; they, like the "college-educated," with whom they overlap so strongly, are about 30 percent of the labor force.
Teixeira and Rogers next divide voters into the Democratic base (union households, blacks and Hispanics) and, by implication, the Republican base (nonunion whites). In 1996 the Democratic base constituted one-third of voters, while nonunion whites made up the other two-thirds of the electorate; the base voted 66 percent Democratic, while the much larger group of nonunion whites gave Democrats about 40 percent of their vote. This combination was enough for Clinton to win without a majority, but the basic arithmetic condemns Democrats to a hard struggle to get from marginality to deadlock, at best, until they can win at least half of the white, nonunion working-class vote. Thus, the subtitle "Why the White Working Class Still Matters," to which should have been added "Particularly the Nonunion Part."
This calculus gets trickier and trickier, but the payoff is worth it. When Zweig speaks of a "working-class majority" based on occupation, he includes white, black and Hispanic, both union and nonunion. Teixeira and Rogers emphasize this same overwhelming working-class majority, but what they most often refer to as "the Forgotten Majority" is not truly one: Once all blacks, Hispanics and union whites (groups that contain large working-class majorities) have been set aside as part of the Democratic base, this Forgotten Majority--white nonunion workers without a bachelor's degree--is actually only 45 percent. But this does make them the single largest group in the electorate, and, what's more, they are the real swing vote in US politics today. Using 1996 figures, Teixeira and Rogers's map of the electorate looks like this:
This breakdown of the electorate is the single most valuable aspect of America's Forgotten Majority. The nonunion white working class is such an enormous part of the voting populace that, though an important part of the Republican base, it produced more Democratic votes than any other group of voters. Gaining a percentage point among the Forgotten Majority, then, is worth more, numerically, than two or three points among any other voter group. (In a tactic that has helped win them mainstream attention, Teixeira and Rogers laboriously show how the Republican, Reform and Green parties might win the Forgotten Majority, but their main analytical effort is directed at Democrats.)
Teixeira and Rogers are primarily geared to argue against the New Democrat notion of suburban "soccer moms" and "wired workers" as the crucial swing vote in US politics. They show conclusively that this group (the college-educated) is simply too small and not volatile enough to constitute the key "suburban independent." White, nonunion, college-educated men are, in fact, the immovable base of the GOP, nearly as solidly and consistently Republican for the past half-century as black voters have been for the Democrats. White, nonunion, college-educated women represent more appealing ground--indeed, they've been an important part of what's kept the Democrats competitive for the past twenty years--but Teixeira and Rogers see little room for growth there. Conversely, the nonunion white working class is the true "suburban independent," constituting three-fifths of suburban voters. What's more, these voters "were far and away the most volatile segment of the electorate...the real 'swing voter'" of the nineties. They're the ones searching for a new politics because, until the past few years, their median family income was stagnating and their average real wage was declining.
Within this group, Teixeira and Rogers pay special attention to nonunion working-class white men, partly because the Democrats have more room to grow among them than with Forgotten Majority women, and partly because they have been particularly fickle at the polls over the past decade. Even more important, however, is that this particular working-class group--not protected by a union, a bachelor's degree or affirmative action--has lost much ground in wages and benefits over the past quarter-century, while often being culturally and politically lumped into the "white male" power structure with whom they share little but the color of their genitalia.
In fact, nonunion white working-class men constitute a large group that is politically open to having its existence remembered and appealed to. Teixeira and Rogers point out that this group of white men is nearly twice as numerous as the New Democrats' "soccer moms" and that "simply breaking even among these forgotten majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among...college-educated white women."
The Teixeira-Rogers analysis contains bad news for progressive Democrats as well--those who, like me, thought that registering and turning out more blacks, Hispanics and union households could lead to a majority. A great deal of effort has gone into this strategy, and it has by no means been in vain. Blacks, particularly in the South, and Hispanics, particularly in California, are a stronger presence in the electorate, and the difference between the union household vote at 19 percent of voters (as it was in 1994) or at 25 percent (the AFL-CIO goal this year) would have meant the difference between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. But for the Democrats to achieve a ruling majority (the White House plus large majorities in both the House and Senate), a mobilized class-based appeal to the nonunion white working class would be necessary.
Teixeira and Rogers are somewhat less convincing in arguing against a gender-gap strategy targeted on nonunion white working-class women, who by themselves make up more than a quarter of all voters. It's hard to rule out efforts that would bring nonunion working-class white women into a broad coalition with blacks, Hispanics and union households. But how could Democrats do that without a class-based appeal that would attract Forgotten Majority men as well as Forgotten Majority women?
Affirmative action and the right to choose, both of which are usually cast in terms most appealing to college-educated women, have probably gained Democrats just about all they can among working-class women. Thus, Teixeira and Rogers argue, "the best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base as well." These include issues like universal healthcare, starting with children; saving the Social Security guarantee without cutting benefits or increasing payroll taxes while adding a government subsidy to encourage wage workers to save (and invest); increasing the earned-income and childcare tax credits and expanding family and medical leave; and reducing school class size while increasing construction and teacher salaries. Also important are tight labor markets and strengthened worker rights, things that could make organizing a union less formidable while tending to increase wages and job security in the meantime.
This, of course, is pretty much the Gore-Lieberman program, as prefigured in Clinton's last two State of the Union speeches, though Teixeira and Rogers would do it all at a much greater magnitude. Where they disagree with Clinton-Gore-Lieberman--on affirmative action--they are wrong. But here's where Michael Zweig's broader economic-class analysis can lend a hand.
Zweig argues for a class-based politics as well and is equally compelling in pointing out the limitations of racial and gender-identity politics. But he wants to complicate and supplement identity politics, not eliminate it. Zweig is very clear that any working-class agenda that implicitly denies the continuing importance of racial and sexual injustice is doomed to fail for the most traditional of reasons: It divides the working class precisely along lines where it is most easily divisible. Though Zweig is open to the possibility of a class-based affirmative action supplementing the existing, racially based kind, he's opposed to any further relaxation of the current affirmative action regime--which has already taken a beating nationally in both jurisprudence and legislation.
Teixeira and Rogers make a huge mistake, in my opinion, when they advocate the replacement of race-based affirmative action with a class-based version. (They say nothing about gender-based affirmative action, which affects a majority of voters, but presumably it would disappear as well.) Their intention is to unify people around class interests, but the predictable impact would be exactly the opposite. Few issues in US politics play so differently at the symbolic level versus the level of actual details. There are many legitimate issues to discuss about particular programs in higher education and for specific work categories like police, fire and construction, but the issue of fairness in the details is never as simple as the widespread but false assumption that there exists some kind of sweeping government-ordered quota system based on nationally legislated group rights. President Clinton's phrase "mend it, don't end it" defended affirmative action (and thereby the continuing problem of racism and sexism) at the symbolic level while legitimizing discussion of the details. Challenging that Clintonian consensus by reopening the symbolic debate is not a winning political strategy, precisely because it forces people to choose between their race or gender interests and those of their class. If your goal is to split the Democratic base from the Forgotten Majority, this is exactly how to do it.
The larger point is one that Zweig makes particularly well. Class in America deserves special attention right now because it has been so thoroughly neglected for so long; but a class-based politics needs to be built on and around the achievements of the civil rights and women's movements, not counterposed to and made competitive with them. The whole point of "universalistic, transracial" political programs is to convince white working-class men that they can advance their interests better by adding key government assistance to all workers, not by subtracting it from blacks and women. The progress of working-class blacks and women, on the other hand, is currently stymied by the absence of a class politics that can complement (and maybe even revitalize) the fight for racial and sexual equality.
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. He sees labor unions playing a central role in such a movement and is particularly enthusiastic about the AFL-CIO's "organizing for change, changing to organize" strategy.
A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace. In this schema, there are three classes: a "capitalist class," defined by ownership and control of giant profit-making enterprises; a "working class," defined by a lack of power at work and in society at large; and a "middle class" of managers, professionals and small-business owners who have a degree of autonomy and influence at work that makes them different from the working class but nowhere near as powerful as the capitalists.
If this sounds like classic Marxism (capital, labor and the petty bourgeoisie), don't let that distract you. Zweig never mentions "relations of production" or any of the other key Marxian concepts that have been transformed into mind-numbing sectarian jargon over the past half-century. The Working-Class Majority is, in fact, a refreshing restatement of the classical Marxist view, but it is updated by its delicate analysis of occupations in the United States today and by its post-cold war refusal to call for the elimination of the capitalist class. Rather, Zweig charts a politics based on the understanding that over the past two or three decades the capitalist class has again achieved the kind of overweening power, both nationally and internationally, that was once at least partially checked by strong labor movements and progressive governments. Unchecked, the capitalist class, often despite its best intentions, will systematically make life worse for workers and eventually even undermine capitalism's splendid (but ultimately unsustainable) ability to create wealth.
No one has claimed that Al Gore's campaign theme "They're for the powerful, we're for the people" was influenced by Zweig's analysis, but Gore's rhetorical emphasis on the power of "the few" is consistent with the kind of politics Zweig is after. In the end, the current Democratic policy package, though a minimalist version, moves exactly in the direction Zweig and Teixeira and Rogers want. The difference is that their complementary class analyses offer a much more expansive sense of possibility for US politics and, taken together, a wider range of options, in both thought and action, for achieving that possibility. They are also part of a larger trend in academic thought (much of it organized around the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University) struggling toward a fresh framework for consistently remembering the working-class majority.
Both books suffer from their lack of attention to the professional middle class (which includes all three of them, as well as me and most of the readers of this review), the real cultural power we have as a class and the differences between us and the working class. Teixeira and Rogers's "core working-class values," with their emphasis on "individual achievement," sound suspiciously middle class to me, and this both oversimplifies and distorts their analysis. Likewise, Zweig's principled refusal to discuss incomes grossly underestimates the power of money in a capitalist society. "Rich" and "poor" are key terms in the vernacular sense of class because everybody realizes that the size of your income makes a huge difference in the kind of life and prospects you have.
Neither of these books adequately links its social-scientific terms and statistics with the common conception of class in America. It's also a bit embarrassing to praise two books for calling attention to a "working class" they define so differently. But each, in richly textured detail, systematically destroys the debilitating vernacular notion that almost everybody (all those who are neither "rich" nor "poor") is "middle class." This notion is so spectacularly false that precise definitions don't matter. What's important to understand is that there is a college-educated professional and managerial "middle class," and we have been doing quite well for the past two decades, whether we're white, black or other; and there is a much larger "working class" (of various races, genders, incomes and occupations, union and largely nonunion) that has been struggling and, for the most part, losing ground for most of that time. The problem with lumping all of us together into a ubiquitous "middle class" is that they tend to disappear, and we tend to think that their experience, interests and values are just like ours.
The connotations of "middle class" in the US vernacular almost always include "college educated" and "comfortable standard of living." Thus, the totemic "soccer mom" is regularly envisioned as a computer support specialist married to a systems analyst (two of our fastest-growing occupations), with a minivan and a family income approaching $100,000. She's actually much more likely to be a clerical worker married to a retail salesman (two occupations growing even faster), with a family income of $42,000 and a six-year-old Chevy Cavalier. A politics that does not recognize and speak to the real soccer moms is doomed to confusion and failure. One that consistently does, on the other hand, has many more possibilities for progressive change than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophies.
It took twelve years for the FDA to approve mifepristone--also known as
RU-486--and most of that time had less to do with medicine than with the
politics of abortion. Still, the late-September decision was a
tremendous victory for American women. In approving RU-486, the FDA
showed that science and good sense can still carry the day, even in an
The long delay may even backfire against the drug's opponents. In 1988,
when mifepristone was legalized in France, it was a medical novelty as
well as a political flashpoint. Today, it's been accepted in thirteen
countries, including most of Western Europe; it's been taken by more
than a half-million women and studied, it sometimes seems, by almost as
many researchers. By the end of the approval process, the important
medical professional organizations--the AMA, the American Medical
Women's Association, the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists--had given mifepristone their blessing; impressive
percentages of Ob-Gyns and family practitioners said they would consider
prescribing it; thousands of US women had taken it in clinical trials
and given it high marks, with 97 percent in one study saying they would
recommend it to a friend. Against this background of information and
experience, the antichoicers' attempt to raise fears about the drug's
safety sounds desperate and insincere.
In a normal country, RU-486 would simply be another abortion method, its
use a matter of personal preference (in France it's the choice of 20
percent of women who have abortions, while in Britain only 6 percent opt
for it). But in the United States, where abortion clinics are besieged
by fanatics and providers wear bulletproof vests, mifepristone's main
significance lies in its potential to widen access to abortion,
especially in those 86 percent of US counties that possess no abortion
clinic, by making it private--doctors unable or unwilling to perform
surgical abortions could prescribe it, and women could take it at home.
It is unlikely, however, that Mifeprex, as the drug will be known when
it comes on the market, will prove to be the magic bullet that ends the
war on abortion by depriving antichoice activists of identifiable
targets. The nation has been retreating from Roe v. Wade for a
quarter-century, and a good portion of the patchwork of state and local
regulations intended to discourage surgical abortion will apply to
Mifeprex as well: parental notification and consent laws (thirty-two
states), waiting periods (nineteen states), biased counseling and
cumbersome reporting and zoning requirements. States in which
antichoicers control the legislatures will surely rush to encumber
Mifeprex with hassles, and small-town and rural physicians in particular
may find it hard to prescribe Mifeprex without alerting antichoice
activists. Doctors are a cautious bunch, and the anticipated flood of
new providers may turn out to be a trickle, at least at first. Abortion
rights activists should also brace themselves for a backlash from their
hard-core foes: Just after the FDA's decision was announced, a Catholic
priest crashed his car into an Illinois abortion clinic and hacked at
the building with an ax.
But in the long run, Mifeprex will make abortion more acceptable. In
poll after poll Americans have said that when it comes to terminating a
pregnancy, the earlier the better. Mifeprex, which has been approved for
the first forty-nine days after a woman's last menstrual period--when
the embryo's size varies from a pencil point to a grain of rice--may
well prove not to arouse the same kinds of anxieties and moral qualms as
surgical abortion. Then, too, Americans are used to taking pills. That,
of course, is what the antichoicers are afraid of.
Democrats weren't the only ones who benefited from knowing wealthy Asians.
What an odd presidential race! So long as George W. Bush keeps his mouth shut and remains in seclusion he floats up in the polls. His best strategy would be to bag the debates, take Laura on an extended vacation and come back a couple of days before the election. Meanwhile, Gore reinvents himself on an almost daily basis. Nothing has been more comical than his "populist" posturings about the Republicans being the ticket of Big Oil and himself and Lieberman being the champions of the little people.
This is the man whose education and Tennessee homestead came to him in part via the patronage of Armand Hammer, one of the great oil bandits of the twentieth century, in whose Occidental oil company the Gore family still has investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.
At the LA convention the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was on the 42nd floor of the Arco building, and the symbolism was apt. In 1992 Arco (recently merged with BP Amoco) loaned the Clinton/Gore inaugural committee $100,000. In that same year it gave the DNC $268,000. In the 1993-94 election cycle it gave the DNC $274,000. In the 1995-96 cycle it ponied up $496,000 and has kept up the same tempo ever since.
Was there a quid for the quo? You bet there was. Early in Clinton-time, the President overturned the longstanding ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil. Why that ban? When Congress OK'd the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the seventies, the legislation triumphed by a single vote only after solemn pledges were made that the North Slope oil would always be reserved for domestic markets, available to hold prices down. Congress had on its mind precisely such emergencies as this year's hike in prices and consequent suffering of poor people, soon to be trembling with cold for lack of cheap home-heating oil.
With the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Arco was also, at the start of the Clinton era, in the process of building refineries in China. Hence Clinton's overturn of the export ban was an immense boon to the company, whose CEO at the time, Lodwrick Cook, was given a White House birthday party in 1994. The birthday presents to the favorite oil company of the Clinton/Gore era have continued ever since.
While the Democrats and mainstream Greens fulminate about Bush and Cheney's threat to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nary a word has been mentioned about one of the biggest giveaways in the nation's history, the opening of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Back at the start of the nineties Arco's Prudhoe Bay reserves on Alaska's North Slope were dwindling. Now Arco will be foremost among the oil companies exploiting a potential $36 billion worth of crude oil.
Gore's "populism" is comical, yet one more facet of a larger mendacity. What suppressed psychic tumult drives him to those stretchers that litter his career, the lies large and small about his life and achievements? You'd think that a man exposed to as much public derision as was Gore after claiming he and Tipper were the model for the couple in Love Story, or after saying he'd invented the Internet, would by now be more prudent in his vauntings. But no. Just as a klepto's fingers inevitably stray toward the cash register, so too does Gore persist in his fabrications.
Recently he's claimed to have been at the center of the action when the strategic oil reserve, in Texas and Louisiana, was established. In fact, the reserve's tanks were filling in 1977, when Gore was barely in Congress, a very junior member of the relevant energy committee. The legislation creating the reserve had been passed in 1975. At around the same time as this pretense, the VP claimed to have heard his mother crooning "Look for the union label" over his cradle. It rapidly emerged that this jingle was made up by an ad man in the seventies, when Al was in his late 20s.
As a clue to why Al misremembers and exaggerates, the lullaby story has its relevance as a sad little essay in wish fulfillment. Gore's mother, Pauline, was a tough character, far more interested in advancing Albert Sr.'s career than in warbling over Gore's cot. Both parents were demanding. Gore is brittle, often the mark of the overly well-behaved, perfect child. Who can forget the panicked performance when his image of moral rectitude shattered at the impact of the fundraising scandals associated with the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles?
"He was an easy child; he always wanted to please us," Pauline once said of him. The child's desire to please, to get the attention of often-absent parents, is probably what sparked Gore's penchant for tall tales about himself.
Gore's official CV is sprinkled with "epiphanies" and claims to having achieved a higher level of moral awareness. In interviews, in his book Earth in the Balance and, famously, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, Gore has shamelessly milked the accident in which his 6-year-old son was badly hurt after being struck by a car. Gore described how, amid his anguish beside the boy's hospital bed, he peered into his own soul and reproached himself for being an absentee dad. He narrated his entry into family therapy. But Tipper and the children didn't see more of him as a consequence. Despite that dark night of the soul beside Al III's bed, Gore plunged even deeper into Senate business and spent his hours of leisure away from the family, writing Earth in the Balance while holed up in his parents' old penthouse in the Fairfax Hotel. Soon after, he accepted Clinton's invitation to run for Vice President.
Gore's a fibber through and through, just like Bill. A sad experience in the closing weeks of the campaign is to encounter liberals desperately trying delude themselves that there is some political decency or promise in the Democratic ticket. There isn't. Why talk about the lesser of two evils, when Gore is easily as bad as Bush and in many ways worse? The "lesser of two evils" is by definition a matter of restricted choice, like a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine. But in this election there are other choices, starting with Nader and the Greens. It isn't just a matter of facing seawater or piss.
It has become fashionable of late to deny the relative importance of politics, on the one hand, and the fact of any important differences between Democrats and Republicans, on the other. Elections, therefore, are said to be merely another form of entertainment--on a par with, say, professional wrestling, but only marginally more consequential. ("Show business for ugly people" is the common phrase, cited recently by Dee Dee Meyers in the Washington Post.) This is not to say that people do not recognize the reality of conflicts between the two sides. But these are sliced and diced almost exclusively in terms of personality rather than genuine political difference. The result is that the only election events that engage the masses--primarily conventions and debates--are reviewed in the media no differently than if they were opening-night performances on Broadway. (Pay attention to the commentary following the upcoming Bush/Gore debates. Just for fun, count how many times network and print pundits talk about each candidate's "comfort level" and style of presentation compared with the number of times they attempt to delineate a significant substantive disagreement.)
Still, one can hardly deny the truth of many of the assumptions that underlie these twin notions. Much of what pretends to be "politics" today is undertaken exclusively for show. Politicians lie, posture and pretend to care about things in public they happily give away in private. They always have, of course, but the rise of cable TV and the subsequent explosion of the punditocracy leads them to embrace show-business production values that leave less and less public space for genuine discourse and debate. Moreover, owing to the legalized system of bribery that has sprung up, thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions that equate spending with free speech, the Democrats are only slightly less beholden to multinational corporations than are the Republicans. Throw in the triangulating tendencies of the Clinton/Gore Administration--the self-conscious and ultimately successful strategy of eliminating your side's political weakness by adopting portions of the other side's positions--and you have what looks to be a pretty convincing case for despair. Who cares who wins a presidential election between two nearly identical candidates to govern a system that has ceased to matter except to all but a few crazies who watch cable TV 24/7?
For many on the left, the response to this quandary has been to support Ralph Nader's protest candidacy. He has no hope of winning, of course, but a vote for Nader is at least a vote for an honest man of progressive principle. Should these votes throw the election to Bush rather than Gore, well, tough luck. It would serve the Democrats right. And anyway, who cares? "The White House," as Nader says, "is a corporate prison." It hardly makes any difference who the prisoner is.
The problem with this perspective is that it views the political forest at so great a distance that it misses almost every one of its proverbial trees. While both major candidates use much the same rhetoric to offer feel-good appeals to centrist and undecided voters, beneath this veneer lie important political and philosophical distinctions with crucial implications for social, economic, environmental and even foreign policy. Examined carefully, the similarities between the two political parties do not hold a candle to their deep-seated differences. And because of the remarkable power of the office of the presidency, these differences in politics and philosophy have the potential to affect our society--particularly the most vulnerable among us--in matters that just about all of us would consider critical, if we only paused long enough to consider them.
An examination of the Clinton record illustrates the fallacy of the "pox on both their houses" worldview. As President, Bill Clinton has done more to deflate the postimperial status of his office--and blur the differences between himself and his opponents--than any President in the past century. Yet he has still been able to use his constitutional powers to catalyze broad changes in our society and to prevent others from taking place.
Consider the President's veto power. Had Clinton lost in 1992 or 1996, today the following would most likely be the law of the land:
§ the abolition of all taxes on estates larger than $675,000.
§ the reform of our bankruptcy laws to the detriment of the poor and middle classes on behalf of their corporate creditors.
§ the outlawing of so-called "partial birth" abortions.
§ a Tom DeLay-sponsored moratorium on all new government regulations, particularly those enforcing clean air, clean water and the rights of both union and nonunion workers.
§ an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act encouraging corporations to bypass collective bargaining in favor of so-called "labor-management cooperative efforts."
§ a bill restricting the Secretary of the Interior's power to protect environmentally sensitive land, including wetlands and other fragile ecosystems, from destruction by private commercial interests.
§ a $270 billion cut in Medicare funding, coupled with a $240 billion tax windfall to be enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthiest Americans.
Despite the various constitutional restrictions on his power, a US President retains an awesome ability to make things happen just by saying so. The constitutional mechanism for this is the executive order, and historically, these actions have been known to transform millions of people's lives with a stroke of the presidential pen. FDR all but saved the pre-Pearl Harbor British war effort against the Nazis with his "Destroyer Deal," and Harry Truman desegregated the military virtually overnight, both on their own say-so, alone. Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, acting for his brother, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate all facilities, including bus terminals, railroad stations and airports, instituting federal lawsuits when localities resisted. Bill Clinton outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking security clearances--something all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower refused to do. (As a result, "if you are a lesbian, you are no longer automatically a spy," notes Barney Frank, in a piece of good news for Mary Cheney.) Clinton also acted unilaterally to protect millions of acres of federal land from development. Just this year, he created the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Giant Sequoia, Agua Fria and California Coastal national monuments. He is expected to ban new road construction on approximately 40 million acres, roughly a fifth of all of the Forest Service's 192 million acres.
On the other side of the ledger, a President can also cause immeasurable harm purely on his own authority. Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam on the basis of an executive order, though he augmented it with the dishonestly obtained Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ronald Reagan signed executive orders that sold public lands to private industry, allowed increased CIA spying on citizens, expanded the government's censorship and secrecy powers over its employees, instituted random drug-testing for all federal employees, reprogrammed foreign aid to send it to the murderous government of El Salvador and created a new government office for the express purpose of making an end run around Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Then there are the courts [see last week's special issue of The Nation, "The Supreme Court and the Election"]. The President nominates not only Supreme Court judges whenever a vacancy arises but also every one of the 852 judges on the federal bench. Few, if any, of the 374 judges Clinton has appointed have been cutting-edge, left-of-center scholars, but just about all of them are well to the left of the reactionary bunch nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I don't like to judge the world this way myself, but since a lot of people do, here are some relevant numbers: 48 percent of Clinton's judicial nominees have been women or minorities, compared with just 28 percent for Bush and a mere 14 percent for Reagan. And Clinton's Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--whom the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein calls "the Thurgood Marshall of feminism"--and Stephen Breyer, have been on the progressive side of virtually every Court decision since their appointments.
The President also makes as many as 3,000 political appointments to the federal government, not including temporary appointments. More often than not, Bill Clinton's political appointments have been as safe and mainstream as those for the courts. He has ducked innumerable fights, most egregiously after he appointed his friend, voting-rights pioneer Lani Guinier, to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Even so, the Administration included any number of leading progressives in positions of genuine power and influence, and these people have been able to use these positions to increase the degree of social justice under which millions of Americans live their lives. Such appointments are important in ways that never make the nightly news reports and hence slip under the radar of all but the most politically obsessed. For instance, Robert Reich told me that during his four-year term as Labor Secretary, he issued hundreds if not thousands of rules on how to implement laws and was generally given considerable discretion in how he chose to do so. Reich was able, on his own authority, to force employers to make their pension-fund contributions within forty-five days, he recalls, "as many had been using them as revolving credit funds." Under Reich, the department also cracked down on sweatshops, and through OSHA, on unsafe plants where workers had been getting their arms mangled and their heads crushed. While Reich lost the main battle to Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin to wage an Administration-led crusade against corporate welfare, he succeeded in opening up the discussion and hence in encouraging progressive groups to challenge corporate giveaways, sometimes successfully. Reich's replacement, Alexis Herman, is one of the most progressive members of the current Administration. Like Reich, she has made behind-the-scenes efforts and frequently consulted with John Sweeney in ways that have helped give unions the time and tools they need to start winning strikes again. Suffice it to say that insuring a fair fight for labor unions on strike was not high on the agenda of past Republican administrations.
Even the President's purely symbolic acts can have powerful, though hardly obvious, effects on the life of the nation. While his commission on race may be fairly judged a failure, for instance, Clinton's willingness to confront the issue of affirmative action head-on in his speeches and town meetings almost certainly saved the program--no longer is it the far right's favorite target for whipping up social resentment against liberals, minorities and other alleged deviants. His choice of Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to Africa and as an adviser on many domestic issues has also had meaningful if unmeasurable effects on the cause of racial inclusion. And the Clinton/Gore embrace of the gay community has created massive ripples in what were, until recently, stagnant waters. Ronald Reagan, perhaps the twentieth century's most effective hypocrite, privately invited gay men to sleep together under the White House roof, yet it took him 2,258 days in office to utter the word "AIDS" in public. In welcoming gays and lesbians at the White House with open arms, Clinton advanced their acceptance into mainstream society to a degree that was unthinkable when he was first elected. The openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias, national treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, calls gays and lesbians "an explicit part of the Democratic vision, a welcome member of the team." And surely it makes a difference in the character and flavor of our public life that the President has picked progressive heroes like John Kenneth Galbraith and George McGovern for the nation's highest official honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recent Republican choices have included Milton Friedman and Whittaker Chambers.
Finally, the cliché that "the President proposes and Congress disposes" is dead-on, although it underestimates the office's power of persuasion. Some members of Congress may not like the Microsoft antitrust suit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. And they may resist re-raising the federal minimum wage or doubling the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but they must deal with these issues if a President insists on raising them. Under Reagan and Bush, these proposals languished. Under Clinton, the GOP Congress has been forced to act repeatedly--against the wishes of its own constituency--to help increase the purchasing power of the working poor.
Though he appears to have modified his views in recent weeks, Ralph Nader has spent much of the year traversing the country, insisting that the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush is nothing more than a pick between "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Unfortunately, on a number of key issues, Nader has a strong argument. Gore, like Clinton, is first and foremost a pragmatic politician who will betray progressive hopes whenever it suits his larger purposes. The corporate-friendly Vice President has been nowhere near as strong as he claims on environmental issues. ("On the issue of the environment, I've never given up. I've never backed down, and I never will," he lies.) Like Clinton, Gore will continue to back wasteful increases in military spending and the expansion of the failed bipartisan drug war in Colombia. On civil liberties, he will most likely prove just as insensitive, sacrificing important privacy rights to fight exaggerated threats from terrorism and drug trafficking. On trade and globalization issues, a Democratic President can turn out to be even worse than a Republican one. A Democrat carries sufficient clout to pass most agreements against both public opinion and the public interest but lacks the power to force Republicans to accept the kinds of restrictions that genuinely protect the environment and workers' rights. The result in the Clinton presidency has been a series of business-dictated agreements that make it easier for corporations to pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies. A Democratic defeat might--emphasis on the word "might"--result in a more unified opposition party that would successfully demand powerful protections for workers and communities as the price of expanding free trade and investment agreements.
If the trade/globalization issue were the Vietnam War or World War II, it would be easier to argue that dumping the Democrats is a risk worth taking. As important as trade policy is, however, it remains an uncomfortable stretch to insist that it somehow trumps everything else put together. For while Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, is certain to disappoint anyone naïve enough to believe that he will always "fight for the people against the powerful," as he continually promises, the policies of his presidency would be preferable to Bush's in almost every conceivable way. The Texas governor has sought to minimize the two candidates' political differences by giving his conservatism what he terms "a compassionate face." But the unhappy fact is that, despite his rhetoric, Bush, together with Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Trent Lott, is the de facto leader of a party and a movement that seeks to reverse decades of social progress as it simultaneously emasculates the federal government's ability to defend the interests of its poor and middle-class citizens. He could not oppose these policies and maintain his power base even if he wanted to--and there is no evidence that he does.
Even on issues where Gore's record is at its weakest, the potential costs of a Bush presidency are enormous. Take campaign finance. We all know of Gore's many transgressions in the mad chase for corporate dollars in the 1996 campaign. His foolishly legalistic "no controlling legal authority" explanations for his unseemly actions have made him something of a national joke on the subject. But owing to this very embarrassment, Gore now professes to have been reborn on this issue. He wants to ban soft money, force outside groups to disclose what issue advertisements they have bought before an election and require broadcasters to give candidates free airtime to answer those outside ads. Gore promises that the McCain/Feingold reform bill, consistently filibustered by Senate Republicans, will be the first law he sends to Congress as President.
Now, even if Gore succeeds in forcing the next Congress to pass McCain/Feingold--an enormous "if"--he is still clearly not willing to go far enough. Until this country institutes a system of public finance like the one currently in operation in Maine, corporations will continue to use their financial power to strangle any number of badly needed reforms. But any way one views the problem, Bush is almost certain to be worse. He opposed John McCain's plan during the Republican primaries because, he explained, the current system works to Republican advantage. Why give it up? Even Bush is not that stupid. As of last spring, business was outspending labor 15 to 1 in this election cycle. Should the Republicans win, that will be the end of campaign finance reform for another four years.
Another area where Gore and company look like Republicans from afar is on foreign policy. A New Democrat through and through, Gore (together with Joe Lieberman) has been on the hawkish side of virtually every intra-Democratic Party argument. Like his gutless boss, but without the excuse of being a "draft dodger," he supports the showering of the military with mountains of unneeded funds as well as a truly idiotic missile defense program that can only do untold harm to the nation's security along with its budget. Gore favors the immoral starvation policies directed at the Cuban and Iraqi people, and the further militarization of our ruinous drug policies, here and in Colombia. Too bad, therefore, that on every one of these issues, Bush is considerably worse.
An almost total novice (and frequent nitwit) when it comes to foreign affairs, Bush is dependent on his father's national security advisers, including Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice. All remain intellectually imprisoned inside a manichean cold war paradigm that was already out of date when they first came into power in the early eighties. Bush's team believes in an aggressive US foreign policy backed by a strong military, but it couldn't care less about promoting human rights, labor rights or environmental protection. (Dick Cheney's vote against freedom for Nelson Mandela is entirely consistent with this worldview.) Bush's advisers do not understand, much less embrace, the emerging view of foreign policy professionals that issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, Third World debt reduction, the global AIDS epidemic, increasing depopulation of ocean fisheries and biochemical threats to the world's agriculture qualify as foreign policy issues. "Global social work" is what Armitage calls these causes. Though not as isolationist-minded as the GOP Congress, this crew has little more use for the United Nations than does Jesse Helms. What's more, in Cheney, Bush has signed off on a politician who publicly endorsed the thuggish extraconstitutional adventurism undertaken by Oliver North during the Iran/contra scandal.
On missile defense, perhaps Gore's most appalling cave-in to right-wing hysteria, the Vice President cravenly favors "developing the technology for a national missile defense system to protect against ballistic-missile attacks from rogue states." But Bush says he would deploy a much more extensive defense right away, whether it works or not. ("Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people," he told the GOP convention.) As former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb has observed, "With President Gore, it would be very limited, and it would go a long way toward accommodating the Russian desires. Bush is willing to do the whole nine yards," and damn the consequences for the budget, the ABM treaty, the arms race and US relations with allies and potential adversaries.
On most issues, the differences are even more pronounced. Take the question of the courts. Critics of the Democrats often point out that some of the more liberal Justices on the Supreme Court have historically been appointed by Republicans. That would be comforting if Gore were running against Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford. George W. Bush's judicial heroes, however, are not Earl Warren or John Paul Stevens. They are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and there is no reason to think his appointments would be any less reactionary. The conservatives currently enjoy a 5-to-4 majority on most decisions and have been winning their arguments by a single vote in recent years to an unprecedented degree. Because the next President is likely to pick at least two and possibly three new Justices, this slim conservative majority will become a decades-long right-wing hegemony should Bush win the election. The "strict constructionists" favored by Bush would most likely overturn Roe v. Wade and destroy women's right to a safe and legal abortion. (The Constitution does not mention abortion, after all.) They would strike down federal protections against discrimination for disabled people, for people of varying sexual orientation and for people benefiting from almost any form of affirmative action. Privacy rights would also be considerably truncated, while the rights of corporate and commercial speech would be expanded--thereby dooming any future campaign finance reform. Laws on gun control and tobacco regulation would be weakened, as would laws that allow such agencies as the EPA and OSHA to protect workers, consumers and local communities from corporate rapacity. The entire body of US law, according to Cass Sunstein, would be pushed closer to its pre-New Deal status, implying "significant and possibly historic changes in the meaning of the Constitution." And given the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, there wouldn't be a thing Congress or the President could do about it.
In a Bush presidency, minority rights would suffer from far more than just Court decisions. Like his father, "W" appears motivated less by animus than by cowardice. But even the most compassionate conservative Republican has no incentive to upset his core Christian constituency by extending--or even accepting--many of the gains of the past decade for gays and lesbians. (Barney Frank quips that the gay "Log Cabin" Republican group, with whom Bush declined even to meet, is so named "because they're all Uncle Toms.")
Meanwhile, to argue that there is no significant difference between the two candidates on racial matters is to argue that blacks, Latinos and others are the victims of a grand hoax to which white leftists are somehow immune, since minority support for both Clinton and Gore has been rock solid. Speaking at The Nation's forum on the eve of the Democratic convention in LA, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. explained that while "some of us are making decisions from the perspective of philosophy and the luxury of our comfortableness, and how we are personally situated in the economy...there are other members of our coalition, who are not here, who have everything at stake." To take one small example of the issues in question, California State Senator Tom Hayden observes that a Gore presidency could lead to effective Justice Department measures to curb crimes committed on a systematic basis by law enforcement officers, while George W. Bush has complained of the Justice Department's "overaggressive" police brutality investigations. This is, notes Hayden, "the kind of difference you just can't responsibly forget."
Consider also the twin scourges of gun violence and tobacco peddling to minors. Gore supports a plan that would force gun owners to take a course and get a photo license, just as they must now to drive a car. Using language and imagery borrowed from the NRA, Bush likens such a plan to a Big Brother-like first step to taking all guns away from law-abiding citizens. Gore wants to close a loophole that exempts buyers at gun shows from required background checks. Bush does not. Gore says he would like to ban so-called Saturday night special handguns, limit purchasers to one gun a month and re-impose the Brady Law's waiting period for gun purchases. Bush would do none of this. In the event of a Bush victory, NRA leaders have said they may seek a national law permitting concealed weapons similar to the one the governor signed in Texas. Charlton Heston and company would also go after a Texas-style "lawsuit protection" bill for gun makers. Both are inconceivable under a Gore presidency.
Regarding tobacco, Gore vowed in his convention speech to "crack down on the marketing of tobacco to our children." And indeed, since the $250 billion settlement pursued by the states with the industry, the Justice Department has been pursuing a racketeering lawsuit, seeking to recoup hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on treating sick smokers. Bush, heavily funded by tobacco companies, failed to support his state's participation in its antitobacco lawsuit, which eventually added $17 billion to the Texas treasury. As Ralph Reed proudly bragged in National Review, Bush "filed a brief to deny a group of trial lawyers a multibillion-dollar payoff as part of the state's tobacco settlement," even after the companies conceded.
On environmental issues, for all of Gore's well-documented failings, the two candidates speak and act as if they come from different planets. Again, Gore is both an environmentalist and a political pragmatist. Judged by the demanding standards that Gore himself laid out in his book Earth in the Balance, he is a sham and a sellout. To take just one example, the Clinton/Gore Administration opened up Alaska's precious National Petroleum Reserve, selling the first oil-drilling leases in May 1999. Compared with George Bush, however, Gore is Mother Nature herself. If elected, he will arguably be the most environmentally sensitive and sophisticated politician ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Gore strongly supported EPA Administrator Carol Browner's improved clean-air regulations. The Clinton/Gore Administration reduced logging on federal lands by 80 percent from 1990 levels, and the Forest Service is now taking public comment on plans to keep 60 million acres of roadless national forests undeveloped. It has created nine new national monuments, including what is now the largest national monument outside of Alaska. A Gore administration would likely take favorable action on any number of environmental initiatives that will face the next President. These include: a proposed ban on development of a fifth of the Forest Service's 192 million acres; the implementation of a new set of extensive regulations on diesel pollution; the regulation of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are understood to pose a significant threat to pregnant women and children who consume them; a ban on dangerous pesticides; and long-overdue compensation for US workers whose health has been harmed by dangerous government-certified work on nuclear weapons.
George Bush, it is safe to predict, would ignore those aspects of environmental protection that he did not reverse. The former oilman has one of the worst environmental records of any governor in the entire fifty states. Every year since Bush took office, Texas has been the most polluted state in the nation. Houston recently accomplished what many believed to be impossible: It passed Los Angeles to achieve the honorific of being the city with the worst air quality in the nation. This is no accident. In 1997 Bush replaced state regulations with a self-policing plan, drawn up by the polluters themselves, that called for strictly voluntary compliance with the standards of the 1971 Clean Air Act for companies that had been grandfathered into the old system. The results were predictable. Of the 160 biggest, a grand total of three have actually cut their emissions. Bush's policies with regard to auto emissions evince a similar pro-pollution bias. Not until the EPA threatened to withhold millions in highway funding did Bush even begin to try to control emissions. In 1999 federal regulators demanded that emissions be cut in Houston by 90 percent or the state would lose billions in highway funds. Things had been allowed to deteriorate so seriously that if every car were taken off the road in Houston, the city would still fail to meet federal safe-ozone levels. The two oilmen at the top of the Republican ticket also have no use whatsoever for the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce the threat of global warming, which Al Gore championed inside the Clinton Administration. Bush has said he does not support the treaty, and in 1996 Dick Cheney led a group of fifty-four oil executives in attacking the proposed Kyoto agreement because it advocated "the forced reduction of fossil fuel use." (Well, yes, that's the point.)
And what of the future of organized labor? Without a vibrant, powerful labor movement, there is simply no hope for the revival of the US left. Again, absent an upsurge in the numbers of pro-labor representatives, Gore is likely to disappoint on issues of labor rights, trade and globalization, just as Clinton did. Making progress will take more muscle than labor has so far been able to amass. But on a panoply of other questions, from the Court's rulings on labor law and the composition of the National Labor Relations Board to the Labor Department's role in strike support (and/or opposition), a Gore presidency would be far better for unions. Gore has called organizing a "fundamental American right that should never be blocked, stopped, and never, ever taken away." Bush, in contrast, governs a "right to work" state and even opposed raising the federal minimum wage, to which the Republican Congress recently acquiesced. Backed by business billions, he (quite logically) supports so-called paycheck-protection laws, designed to silence labor's voice in the political process. Does anyone believe that it truly makes no difference for working people who wins the next election?
And here we finally reach the differences between the two parties that strike this writer, anyway, as by far the most compelling. I refer to what Senator Paul Wellstone calls "bread and butter, workday family economic issues." The problem is not just how much money Bush wants to give to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Rather, it is that the Republican Party, at this moment in history, is politically and ideologically dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of social solidarity in this country. Bush and company threaten to work toward the ultimate privatization not only of Social Security, Medicare and public education but nearly all of the sustained, generous and democratically grounded social programs the US political system has enacted since the dawn of the New Deal. These are the signal socioeconomic achievements of the left, going back more than seven decades. And they need to be defended if the word "left" is to have any meaning in America at all.
The numbers alone would be worrisome enough. The Bush tax plan offers 100 times more tax relief to the richest 1 percent of Americans than to most middle-income families, and 1,000 times more relief than to low-income families. Added together, Bush's tax cuts could cost at least $1.3 trillion over nine years. Gore's far more frugal plan of targeted tax cuts is aimed at these middle- and lower-income people, allowing them to pay for health, education and job-training needs.
Bush also wants to begin draining funds from the public education system through a system of vouchers. Gore has vowed to fight this. "I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers," he promises. Given the power of the NEA inside the Democratic Party (for better or worse), he will have no choice but to keep that promise. The Bush budget calls for an increase of $48 billion in public education funding over the next decade; the Gore plan, $170 billion.
For Social Security, our most important instrument of collective, intergenerational solidarity and the single most effective antipoverty program in US history, a Bush presidency could mean the beginning of the end. He proposes to allow workers to place a portion of their payroll tax into a private retirement account for the purposes of private investment, thereby creating an enormous windfall for the securities industry. This diversion would cost the system an estimated trillion dollars in its first decade, but it makes no provisions for the losses to workers that might be incurred during a sustained downturn in the market. As Bush has ruled out raising payroll taxes and would not dare cut benefits without the (politically unimaginable) fig leaf of Democratic cooperation, the system itself will be at risk. Gore, like Clinton, proposes to use today's surpluses to pay off government debt, and then to deploy the savings in the government's interest payments down the road for Social Security.
Regarding healthcare for those who need it most--seniors, children and families tied to HMOs--the case for political equivalence is nonexistent. Medicare is second only to Social Security as an instrument of camaraderie in our public lives. Bush does not explicitly say he wants to repeal it, but as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, he "wants to create strong incentives to push the elderly into HMOs and away from" Medicare. "And he takes a small but significant step toward shipping Medicare off to the states by making his short-term prescription-drug plan a federally supported but state-run program." Gore plans to buttress the system with about one of every six dollars in budget surpluses over the next fifteen years, along with $250 billion for prescription drugs. Unlike Bush, he backs a patients' bill of rights that would allow patients to sue insurance plans when they make costly--or deadly--mistakes. For the uninsured, Gore hopes to expand the Clinton Administration's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover more poor children and, for the first time, their working parents.
It is on the subject of children's healthcare that the Man from Compassion is at his most hypocritical. In Texas Bush fought tooth and nail to limit his state's participation in CHIP, which combines a generous federal payment with a much less costly state obligation, because "in times of plenty, the government must not overcommit." But such prudence was nowhere evident when it came time to offer up $1.8 billion in state money for tax cuts and another $45 million in new tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. As a result, Texas is one of the few states that showed a net increase in the number of uninsured children, placing it number forty-five in the nation in this "compassionate" category.
Finally, it is a mistake to view the presidency as merely an executive office somewhere on the southern tip of the Metroliner corridor. It's the most potent political symbol in America, and it empowers others to act with greater force and authority than they would otherwise enjoy. The fortunes of left movements in the United States, as historians Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pointed out in these pages six years ago, have always been closely linked with those of liberals in general, and liberal Presidents in particular--from the Progressive Era to the Popular Front radicalism of the thirties through the civil rights and antiwar and feminist activism of the sixties and early seventies. "In each of these periods," they wrote, "the left found legitimacy as part of a continuum of reform-to-radical sentiment, contributing to the widespread belief of the day that social change was both possible and positive."
Nearly twenty years ago, I was in the audience of a speech the British socialist Tony Benn was giving at the London School of Economics, where I was a visiting student. Ronald Reagan had been elected President a few days earlier, and this confused first-semester junior asked Benn his opinion on why voters found politicians of the genuine left, like himself and Ted Kennedy, so frightening but loved right-wing radicals like Thatcher and Reagan. The former Lord Wedgwood refused even to entertain the question, so deeply offended was he by my implicit comparison of himself, an authentic homme de gauche, to Kennedy, whom he believed to be nothing more than a mealy-mouthed front man for capital. "You Americans," he grumbled, "are always going around the world complaining about 'one-party states.' America itself is a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, you have two of them."
Benn's retort remains the cleverest real-time response any politician has ever uttered in my presence. Too bad it was also almost entirely wrong. Would a President Ted Kennedy have hired drug runners to conduct an illegal war against the Nicaraguan government? Would he have brushed off massacres in El Salvador, defended genocide in Guatemala and invaded Grenada? Would he have busted the air-traffic controllers' union and declared war on organized labor? Would he have attempted to destroy the progressive income tax? Would he have supported tax exemptions for Bob Jones University? Would he have appointed a string of reactionaries to the Supreme Court? Would he have unleashed an insane nuclear and conventional arms race with the Soviet Union? Are these somehow trivial issues? Even the more conservative Jimmy Carter would have governed with an infinitely higher quotient of wisdom and mercy than his successor, had America's center-left majority demonstrated the patience to stick with him. The Democratic Party is certainly more conservative than it was a generation ago, but Republicans have been speeding rightward with the velocity of a Bob Feller fastball.
Unfortunately, progressives have an unhappy history in recent times of failing to make important distinctions between candidates to their right. In 1968 many sat on their hands and allowed the criminal Richard Nixon to defeat Hubert Humphrey. Eight years earlier Arthur Schlesinger Jr. felt he had to write a book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? No such book should be necessary this year. Despite Al Gore and the Democrats' countless flaws as progressive political vessels, the differences between the two primary presidential candidates remain as substantial as those in any close election in modern American history. And while this election may not offer an ideal choice, it recalls the famous response attributed to George Burns. Asked how he felt about celebrating yet another birthday, the ancient comic responded, "Well, it sure beats the alternative.
I still think third-party politics is mostly a crock, but then, so is two-party politics.
Tonight is the finale for insiders and outsiders in Los Angeles this
week: In a few hours, Al Gore will be giving his acceptance speech at
the Staples Center.
Less than a hour after George Bush concluded his party's
have-a-nice-election convention with a vapid but beyond-the-expectations
acceptance speech, a source deep within the Gore camp called me
Democrats gather in Los Angeles facing large questions not just about
their success in November but also about the direction of their party.
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