The Ugly Face of American Politics

The Ugly Face of American Politics


There was a huge outcry in France this summer over a move by allies of French President Jacques Chirac to narrow the character and quality of that country’s political competition. Stung by recent shows of electoral strength by the nationalist right and the Green and Trotskyist left, France’s political establishment is preparing to rewrite election rules in order to essentially assure that only traditional major parties of the center-right and center-left can prevail in elections for the domestic and European parliaments. Objections from across the political spectrum echo a similar theme: The changes proposed by the insiders in Paris would “Americanize” that country’s politics.

Casual observers in the United States might object to the notion that there is something wrong with Americanizing the politics of France or any other country. But they should understand that the complaint is grounded in our own experience in the US. For all the frenzy and hype of the cable television commentators and the vast political industry that now operates inside the Washington beltway, our country’s political processes have become so leaden and disengaged that they no longer are deemed worthy of attention by the majority of voters. Almost two-thirds of America’s eligible voters (64 percent in 1994, 66 percent in 1998) no longer participate in Congressional elections, and the most hotly contested presidential election in a generation (the unsettling and unsettled 2000 contest between Democratic Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush) could barely draw half the electorate to the polls.

The range of opinion expressed at the upper levels of American political discourse have been narrowing for more than a decade, as marketing men and women have taken over the levels of power in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Even a misguided war and the threat of its expansion to dramatic new levels of folly, corporate scandals of epic economic consequence and the clear corruption of executive branch decision making musters little in the way of straight talk in a Congress where the calculation of campaign contributions takes precedence at every turn over Constitutional responsibilities and the public interest.

As bad as things may be in American politics, however, there are always those who would make things worse. And, in Georgia’s recent Congressional primaries, they succeeded in doing just that. The defeats of US Representative Cynthia McKinney, perhaps the most radical member of the Democratic caucus, and of US Representative Bob Barr, perhaps the most radical member of the Republican caucus, in their respective party primaries will remove two of the few independent voices from a Congress that already suffers from a deficit of dissenters. As such, an already narrow national debate will, at least at the Congressional level, grow narrower still.

To be sure, both McKinney and Barr have been controversial figures. McKinney has been a fierce critic of the foreign and domestic policies of Democratic and Republican administrations since her election in 1992. Often echoing the Green Party’s critique of the two major parties, she has not hesitated to accuse Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney of racial and ethnic insensitivity, and she has been one of the House’s loudest critics of the “Israel First” approach of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to Middle East affairs.

Like McKinney, Barr has since his election to Congress in the “Republican Revolution” election of 1994, been a thorn in the side of both parties. Though he is a more consistent partisan than McKinney, the intensity of his passions has frightened his own party’s leadership in the House — especially when he has refused to trim his sails to match the dictates of GOP pollsters.

McKinney and Barr have both stretched the limits of the political discourse — the Democrat with her suggestions that the Bush administration might have failed to counter terrorist threats in order to pump up profits for corporations to which members of the administration and their families were closely tied; the Republican with a sex, lies and videotape assault on Bill Clinton’s morals that continued long after even Ken Starr had recognized that the nation’s Puritan ethic was on the wane.

Yet, the willingness of McKinney and Barr to stretch political limits often put them in exactly the right place. That was certainly the case last fall when, barely a month after the September 11terrorist attacks, they were part of the Congressional minority that refused to support the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT. Remember that it was Barr, a man whose civil rights credentials could hardly be called impressive, who sided with members of the Congressional Black Caucus such as McKinney and California’s Maxine Waters to sound the alarm about the threat John Ashcroft’s legislative agenda posed to civil liberties.

When McKinney and Barr pushed at the barriers of our politics — even when they pushed too far — they gave voice in Congress to the conversations that really go on in America. Freed of the stifling constraints of poll-driven centrism, they made a representative democracy more genuinely representative of all the opinions seriously in play in the land. As such, they both developed national constituencies — in July, for instance, McKinney was the only Democratic politician invited to address the Green Party’s national convention, and she continues to be boomed by some in that party as a potential 2004 presidential candidate. But, even as they “went national,” McKinney and Barr won reelection easily and consistently in Georgia.

So what changed this year? In the case of both McKinney and Barr, they fell victim to the structural pressures exerted mainly from Washington by political strategists in both parties who struggle mightily to neuter our political process and the rich and rigorous national debates that should arise from it.

In McKinney’s case, much has been made of the funding of his primary challenger, former Georgia State Court Judge Denise Majette, by pro-Israel campaign contributors. After McKinney’s defeat, the candidate’s father, a veteran civil rights activist and Georgia legislator, bluntly declared that his daughter’s reelection had been thwarted by “J-E-W-S.” But, as in the June Alabama Democratic primary that saw the defeat of U.S. representative Earl Hilliard, another critic of U.S. policies regarding Israel, the story of McKinney’s defeat in a more complex and concerning one.

Majette took advantage of a corrupt campaign finance system that allows a candidate who is unable to garner support at the grassroots in her home district to collect money nationally. And a good deal of Majette’s national money did indeed come from supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hardline policies — just as a portion of McKinney’s money came from supporters of Palestinian rights. But Majette’s fund raising success — she dramatically out-raised McKinney as the election approached — also benefited from the determination of Democratic Leadership Council types, good-old-boy southern conservatives such as U.S. Senator Zell Miller, D-Ga., and the business interests they represent to cleanse the Democratic party of outspoken critics of corporate abuses and free trade policies such as McKinney and Hilliard.

Majette, who like McKinney is an African-American woman, also took advantage of political processes designed by southern segregationist politicians to insure that all white voters could coalesce to defeat progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. Georgia law allows Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries, and they did so in droves in the McKinney-Majette race. While African-American Democrats turned out in tepid numbers, the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that “a swarm of Republicans” took Democratic primary ballots. “The Republicans made a difference (in defeating McKinney),” explained the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the longtime Southern Christian Leadership Council leader who now heads the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group. “They provided the margin (for Majette), which is unethical.” Lowery is right; had Georgia primary voting been limited to party members — as is the case in most American states — McKinney might well have won. That one of the House’s most outspoken supporters of civil rights may have gone down to defeat because of a political system rigged decades ago to undermine African-American political advancement is less ironic than it is a measure of the poor job progressives in Georgia and nationally have done when it comes to eliminating the structural vestiges of segregationist politics. As in the disputed Florida presidential vote of 2000, the old segregationist laws are consistently turned to the advantage of corporate and conservative interests that have mastered their use and abuse. To their credit, Lowery and other civil rights activists in Georgia are advancing legislation to limit so-called crossover voting. But their uphill battle will only succeed if they renew the grassroots political energy that put McKinney in Congress a decade ago but failed her reelection effort this year.

Interestingly, Barr claims that he was defeated in his Republican primary because Democrats crossed over to defeat him. In Barr’s case, however, his defeat was predictable from the start. He was a victim of the most corrupt of all political games in America: Congressional redistricting. Every ten years, after the new Census figures are released, state politicians redraw Congressional district lines to gain partisan advantage. It is a process into which political players at the federal and state levels pour tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of strategic plotting. And it is where political parties in both parties eliminate dissenting voices. That was the case with Barr, whose district was drawn out of existence. When he sought to follow a portion of his voters into a new district, Barr found himself out positioned on turf designed to favor a more mainstream conservative Republican, Representative John Linder. Even if Barr was the more dynamic contender, Linder ran with the implicit blessing of a party establishment that was frustrated by its inability to control an often renegade Republican. “Linder is an inside politician. Barr is an outside politician,” explained Merle Black, the Emory University political scientist who is one of the wisest commentators on southern politics. And nothing does more to assure the victories of insiders over outsiders than redistricting schemes hatched behind closed doors by party insiders.

Combine redistricting with free-flowing campaigning money and political structures designed to be abused and you have a recipe for the triumph of the connected over the controversial.

In the Georgia primaries that defeated Barr and McKinney, Republican and Democratic insiders took full advantage of political structures and processes designed to favor their interests, and their ousted two of the House’ few dissenters. In so doing, they made the Congress a little less representative of the real debates that are going on in the land, and continued the ugly “Americanization” of American politics.

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