The 1996 Elections:
Angry Voters with Nowhere to Go

Thomas Harrison

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997]

Thomas Harrison is on the editorial board of New Politics and is associate director of the New York-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy. He is a member of both the New Party and the Labor Party.

EVEN BY THE ABYSMALLY LOW STANDARDS OF AMERICAN ELECTORAL CAMPAIGNS, 1996 must have been one of the most empty and boring exercises ever. It was definitely the most expensive: $800 million was spent on the presidential contest, three times the cost of the 1992 campaign. Otherwise, though, it was business as usual. Once again, millions of Americans voted for their enemies. Trade unionists, African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, gay rights activists voted to re-elect a President who has demonstrated over and over again that he is deeply hostile to their aspirations. More than half the electorate did not vote at all.

It need not have been so. During the past two decades, and especially over the last four years, conditions have ripened for a viable third party. Polls over a 30-year period show a sharp decline in citizens' basic trust in the political system. The slide has been almost continuous; trust is much lower today than even during the Vietnam War and Watergate. Simultaneously, Americans have been increasingly willing to consider something new. Even in 1982, respondents to an ABC/Washington Post poll were evenly divided over the desirability of a third party. In 1992, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated that as many as 55% of the population wanted a third party; two years later, a Times Mirror poll registered 53% in favor of a third party and 43% against. The Perot campaign showed the vast popular support for political independence, even before it was at all clear what Perot stood for. In fact, it was when the Texas billionaire began to reveal his positions that his poll numbers started to level off.

The Myth of the Conservative Revolution

IN TERMS OF POPULAR CONSCIOUSNESS, THERE WAS NO "CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION" under Reagan. All the polls and surveys showed, instead, that most people remained loyal to a New Deal-style welfare state liberalism and to an ethic of egalitarianism and equity, rather than embracing a dog-eat-dog free marketeerism. Voting results are misleading. As the number of non-voters grew, voters tended to be more elite and therefore more conservative than the general population; but, even so, voters were less and less in agreement with the programs of those they elected. In 1980, when GOP voters were asked their opinion on specific items in the Reagan agenda -- increased defense spending, cuts in domestic programs -- most took a liberal line.

In 1994, most of those who voted for the Republicans did so to repudiate Clinton and the Democrats, not because they endorsed the Contract With America, which most had never heard of. Even The New York Times, never prone to minimize the basic conservatism of the American voter, noted that the political mood in 1994 "seemed driven not by particular issues, so much as a nagging sense that both parties are equally paralyzed by the influence of wealthy special interests." The issues most Americans really cared about simply were not, and still are not, part of the political debate at all.

Of course, people's consciousness is always complex and full of contradictions. White male workers, for example, typically have conservative attitudes on matters of culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation, as is well known -- although these attitudes have changed considerably in recent decades and are continuing to change at an accelerating pace. Yet, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on frequently coexist with more progressive opinions. In an era of "downsizing" and shredding the social safety net, the positive moral commitment of the "average" fairly non-political American to business values is swiftly declining, and this presents an opportunity for an anti-corporate left to bring her/him into common struggle with blacks, women, gays, etc., struggles which would foster mutual respect and therefore offer the possibility of overcoming prejudice through participants' recognition of their common humanity.

Right now there does seem to exist what Joel Rogers, a leader of the New Party (NP), has called "vast implicit demand for imposing some standards on corporate behavior, for making values matter in how we run our economy and distribute opportunity and reward. And there is vast demand for a more responsive and effective 'government' -- public authority and institutions more truly by and for the people."

Journalists, politicians and other opinion makers, however, persist in representing popular consciousness as overwhelmingly hostile to a progressive agenda. This is not just myopic. That conservatives and "moderates" have an interest in believing, or claiming, that they are swimming with the tide is obvious. But for liberals in retreat, it has also been necessary to believe that "the great unwashed" have moved to the right en masse. Thus Reagan was "too popular" to attack. To justify their flight from liberalism, to themselves as much as to others, liberals need to believe that the had no choice but to adapt to a great shift in the public mood.

But the retreat began long before the so-called Reagan Revolution. The real reason for it is that liberals have grown more proprietary toward the system, more fretful over its loss of credibility and respect from a volatile citizenry. Thus, for most liberal leaders, just as for conservatives, the significance of Watergate was not so much that it was a flagrant abuse of power, but that it was a "national trauma" that profoundly shook millions of Americans' faith in the system. Similarly, Vietnam had been, not a crime, but a "mistake," because it eroded people's confidence in their rulers. Under these conditions, there is much less room for partisanship. Liberals increasingly feel the need to close ranks with conservatives against a feared and mistrusted population, too ignorant to appreciate the perfection -- and fragility -- of our Constitution. Even more than conservatives, they worry that the presidency itself might be discredited; thus, even before the facts of the Iran-Contra scandal had started to emerge, liberals were solemnly warning that "there must be no talk of impeachment."

Everything that liberalism had once been proud to affirm -- faith in the efficacy of public works, intransigent defense of civil liberties, rough and tumble let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may partisanship -- is now seen as dangerously destabilizing. Liberalism's militant past has become a source of confusion and shame. The more courageous continue to pay lip service to the old ideals, but without much conviction.

Thus, two parallel trends have emerged: the growth of "implicit demand" for a progressive politics and a new party on the one hand, and the withering of establishment liberalism, concentrated around the Democratic Party, on the other. The notion that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a real people's party, except for a brief revival in the McGovern era, has been steadily losing credibility since the 1950s. Superficially, Jesse Jackson's campaign lent new credence to this perspective in the 1980s. It coincided, however, with the Democrats' capitulation to Reaganism and the Party's capture by the ideology of the Democratic Leadership Conference: neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign policy. Jackson spoke for a coalition of minorities, labor insurgents and the peace and anti-intervention movements. When it became clear that these constituencies were utterly marginalized within the Party, he might have led them into political independence; instead, the Rainbow, which proved to be merely a vehicle for Jackson's personal ambitions, went nowhere. And so did Jackson, who has floundered alarmingly ever since. That the promise of the Jackson campaign came to nothing is surely one of the factors that has brought the left to such a low point today.

The Silence of the Liberal Lambs

AT THIS YEAR'S DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION, THE SILENCE of the Party's left wing was eloquent testimony to liberalism's current malaise. Not only was there no challenge to Clinton on any issue, but liberals did their best to pretend they weren't even there. Interviewed by Margaret Warner on PBS's News Hour, Robert Borosage, leader of the Campaign for America's Future, steadfastly refused to criticize Clinton, despite repeated prodding from Warner, and absurdly insisted that the Party had become more "progressive" (the use of that last word was a reckless slip for which Warner did not fail to chastise the contrite Borosage). On the same program, meanwhile, Henry Cisneros assured viewers hat Clinton shared the Republicans' hostility to "big government," and Nebraska's Senator Kerrey warned that government could not be an ATM, hinting that after the election other entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid might go the way of Aid For Dependent Children.

During the convention, Tom Hayden argued that it was appropriate for the left to "submerge" itself until after the elections, and then reemerge to continue the fight for the Party's "soul." Evidently, this was the reason people like Borosage maintained such a discrete silence. But the idea that Clinton would be more rather than less likely to respond to pressure from the left after he had received its unconditional support is ridiculous. Instead, liberals who engage in such (self) deception are themselves more likely to minimize their differences with the President for fear of "embarrassing" him or weakening him vis-a-vis the Republicans.

The Reformist Left

FOR THE ORDINARY PROGRESSIVE-MINDED AMERICAN CITIZEN, voting for the Democrats as the "lesser evil" is a ritualized reflex, made inevitable by the absence of any alternative. For others, voting Democratic is part of a politics of "working within" the Democratic Party, based on the dogmatic conviction that nothing else is possible. A look at some of the people associated with Dissent -- a magazine which long ago committed itself to an insider perspective but, for reasons of nostalgia evidently, maintains the quaint fiction of styling itself "socialist" -- shows the deleterious effects of staring too long into the abyss of the Democratic Party.

Writing in praise of opportunism (literally) in The New Republic (Sept. 16-23, 1996), Dissent editor Michael Walzer confesses: "My sense of betrayal [over Clinton's signing of the welfare bill] was an act of moral self-indulgence -- a way of blaming the president for doing what presidents do, what they should do [my emphasis]." The "real failure," he points out, was not Clinton's but the left's, which isn't strong enough to influence the Administration. Throughout, Walzer treats Clinton as someone who just responds to "public opinion," left or right, whichever is stronger (that public opinion is now overwhelmingly conservative is, of course, assumed) rather than corporate power and ideology.

In the same issue, Sean Wilentz actually seems encouraged by the liberals' passivity and "unruffled demeanor" at the Convention; it shows that they have begun to abandon their "rage for moral purity." He quotes Barney Frank -- a cynical operator whom Wilentz dubs a "liberal paragon" -- with evident approval: "Liberals realize that throwing a tantrum over the welfare bill isn't going to help any poor people." By keeping their mouths shut, Wilentz notes sagely, liberals were "winning points." And in The New York Times (Aug. 25, 1996), Paul Berman praises Clinton's "maneuverability," his ability "when the Republicans veer right, to veer one inch to their left." He's a "genuinely clever politician, the first on the Democratic side in a long time" -- in short, a winner! All Berman can say about the welfare bill is that it was "unfortunate"; no "rage for moral purity" there!

Walzer, Wilentz and Berman want the left to grow up -- to stop throwing tantrums and instead realize that getting the ear of the powerful is what counts. Writing in Dissent (Fall, 1996), Harold Meyerson treats Clinton like the good Czar whose ear, unfortunately, has been monopolized by bad advisers (Robert Rubin) instead of good advisers (Robert Reich and Donna Shalala). Grassroots mobilization, even mobilization within the Democratic Party to pressure Clinton, is easily ruled out because that's not what really interests them. Indeed, for all their talk of democracy, they fear the grassroots much more than they fear the powerful. (This is not the place to explore the highly interesting political history of the Dissent tendency and its roots in the academic climate of anti-populist reaction during the 1950s; interested readers are referred to an insightful article by Sheldon Wolin in the November 1985 Atlantic. Irving Howe and company also came in for some sharply critical analysis in the pages of this magazine during the 1960s.)

Not that Walzer et al really expect to acquire access and influence. In a brilliant and scathing attack on "lesser-evilism" published, as it happens, in the same issue of Dissent, Christopher Hitchens characterizes the politics of this tendency as "masochism": "we" are weak, isolated and don't really deserve to be listened to. In fact, as Berman might say, it's a testimony to Clinton's skill that he ignores us. What may have begun as a tactic 40 or 50 years ago has become a rationalization for conservatism and defeatism. As Nietzsche warned about such cases, the abyss has stared into them.

BUT IF TENURED "RADICALS" HAVE GIVEN UP, ORDINARY PEOPLE CANNOT afford to. The crisis of American society only deepens and the extreme right is gathering strength. The right has nothing like majority support, but it operates in what is essentially a political vacuum. The few organized alternatives to the rightwing agenda -- labor, environmental organizations, NOW, the NAACP -- are hamstrung by their commitment to the Democratic Party, which is itself not accountable to any organized base but to the corporate world. The propaganda onslaught in favor of "freeing" business has been enormously successful in capturing the political discourse, but this is largely an elite phenomenon. Most people do not actually believe that business just wants to provide the good life for everyone, but they have a hard time believing that anything can be done to curb the corporations; consequently they are resigned, fatalistic. Anti-business, egalitarian politics, the politics of solidarity and cooperation, have no credibility because those who might promote them and promise to put them into practice can't -- because they are trapped inside a pro-business political party. So the notion, as Walzer argues, that the left is to blame for Clinton's conservatism is true, but not in the sense that he means it; the weakness of the left is precisely a result of its subordination to the Democratic Party.

This subordination means that the right has a clear field on which to advance. In response to its assaults, the Democrats have cast themselves as defenders of the status quo against "radicals" and "extremists," while at the same time helping the right dismantle those few parts of the status quo that help working people and the poor. As American society is looted by big business and becomes more violent and insecure, millions will increasingly turn toward politicians like Buchanan who scapegoat minorities, immigrants and gays and demagogically denounce the status quo. The Democrats, in response, will move further to the right in order to stay in power, but they will be less and less able to convince people that they can solve society's problems. In the short run, Clinton in the late 1990s, like Carter in the late 1970s, is almost certainly preparing the ground for another great surge forward by the Republicans. As Barbara Ehrenreich commented, his administration has been a "growth medium" for the right (Nation, Nov. 25, 1996). It has also been, she adds, a "powerful sedative" for the left. Protest has withered since 1992; what we've had has been strangely empty, or deeply disoriented. Hundreds of thousands of black men rallied to a call for "atonement" (more masochism) by a raving, anti-Semitic authoritarian. Thousands of others joined Children's Defense Fund's Marian Wright Edelman's virtually non-political demonstration "for children." The eerie silence at the 1996 Democratic Convention has already been noted.

No Lesser Evil

THERE REALLY IS NO LESSER EVIL, THEN, because continued support to the Democrats allows the country to move further to the right: vote for the "lesser" evil and you are certain to get the greater evil. One could invoke analogies like the difference between a gun and slow poison, but in the election just past, it was actually hard to detect any significant differences between the two deadly options. In an article arguing in favor of voting for Ralph Nader (Nation, Oct. 14, 1996), Marc Cooper and Micah Sifry made an extensive list of the things on which Clinton and Dole agreed: government assistance for the poor should no longer be a federal guarantee, military spending should be increased, Medicare and Medicaid should be cut, civil liberties should be sacrificed to fight "terrorism," gays should be denied equal rights with heterosexuals, a paltry $5.15 minimum wage is enough, etc., etc.

Even when the Democrats do propose reforms, their bondage to big business (Hitchens calls Clinton both "patron" and "serf" of the corporations) ends up discrediting the very idea of reform and reinforcing the popular belief that there is no alternative to Gingrichism. This was demonstrated in the health care debacle, which also showed the ineffectuality of the Party's more liberal lights. Ellen Willis (The Village Voice, Oct. 11, 1994) noted how supporters of single-payer plans played the role of "respectable utopian dreamers," refusing to threaten to vote against the Administration's proposal and not even seriously taking their case to the public. The Clinton bill was essentially a gift to the insurance industry. It was argued on the basis of cost containment, rather than the idea that medical care is a public good that should be publicly financed -- thus framing the whole debate in the language of the free marketeers. Had there been a movement for national health insurance that did not rely on Kennedy, Wellstone and Gephardt, it would probably, at the very least, have forced Congress to pass Clinton's plan as a compromise, instead of allowing it to be portrayed as far-out.

The fact that no prominent Democrat talks of significantly cutting the defense budget (Clinton actually increased it) is by itself fatal to any prospects for reform. Half of discretionary spending still goes to the military, and this is a direct reason for so much poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, functional illiteracy and ignorance.

Steps Toward Independence

VOTER INSURGENCY TODAY IS PROBABLY DEEPER than anything this country has seen since the 1920s. But at the moment, it has nowhere to go. Much of it will inevitably go to the right unless a serious vehicle for progressive politics is created soon, one that contends for power -- that is, runs candidates for office at every level -- against the Democrats as well as the Republicans. Fortunately, some progressives are finally attempting to build independent political alternatives to the Democrats. The New Party, founded in 1992, and the Labor Party, launched at a national convention this past summer, are the most promising initiatives in more than 50 years. Unfortunately, these attempts have been badly undermined by compromises over, precisely, the issue of independence itself. For now, they are only semi-independent semi-alternatives.

New Party leader Joel Rogers (Dissent, Spring 1996) has said that by creating an independent organization the NP is mounting a "credible threat of exit" from the Democratic Party. But they want to do this in a way that somehow "does no harm" to the Democrats -- by putting up candidates only in Democratic primaries and nonpartisan races, and only where NP candidates have a very good chance of winning. The Party is fighting in court to remove legal obstacles that exist in some states to "fusion," nominating the candidates of one party on the ballot line of another; this would permit NP voters to register their independence in the voting booth without endangering the election of Democrats. Rogers argues that right now corporations have veto power over any attempt to transform the Democratic Party, but he does not want to abandon the strategy of reform from within -- perhaps it will become feasible after the NP has built up enough support to make its exit threat "credible." Above all, he insists that the two strategies of building a third party and trying to change the Democratic Party are not incompatible. The fear of electing Republicans is certainly understandable. The trouble is, however, there is no way of building a real third party without "harming" the Democrats -- unless, that is, you are only interested in creating another pressure group. Rogers' two strategies are incompatible. And in fact, it is only a really independent progressive party that can exert any real pressure on the Democrats from the left. Competition is the only truly "credible threat."

Fusion is, of course, a democratic right; Ralph Nader has pointed out, too, that it could be used by progressive parties to support each other. But the NP's fusion strategy stands in stark contradiction to the radicalism and independence of the party's self-conception. Here and there liberal Democrats may welcome the NP's endorsement (many have spurned it, however), but they cannot reciprocate by endorsing what the NP supposedly stands for -- independence. Of course, those who are taking the first tentative steps away from the Democrats fear being divided from their liberal friends and allies in Congress, state government, City Hall, etc. -- or being blamed for their defeat. But these "friendships" needs closer scrutiny.

Trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists, gay rights activists, rely heavily on key supporters in government, most of whom are unreliable, though, mainly because they are not really accountable to them. Democrats, even the most liberal, are accountable to their party, which is fundamentally accountable to corporate power. They may denounce Clinton, denounce big business, but when push comes to shove -- and certainly on election day -- they rally around the president and the party of big business and urge everybody else to do so.

Moreover, progressives' focus on winning favors from "friends" in power is a major factor inhibiting the formation of alliances with each other. The lines are mostly vertical, rarely horizontal. The most logical and effective kind of alliance among unions and social movements would be a political party, but this is the very thing our liberal Democratic "friends" do not want us to venture because they perceive it as a threat to themselves. And in fact, to the extent that an independent party were truly independent and did pose a threat to these Democrats, activists would be much more effective in wringing concessions from them. Our "friends" would become much "friendlier," in other words, if they knew they had to work hard to win the support of progressives, instead of assuming that they could just go on record with a few good votes.

Running candidates in Democratic primaries is a disaster for the New Party. How can this do anything but reinforce loyalty to the Democratic Party, to the established prejudice that the Democrats are the only alternative? The NP needs to start running candidates under its own banner, and not just for low-visibility local office or in nonpartisan contests. Putting this off only means postponing the job of challenging the defeatism of popular consciousness and the deadlock of American politics.

The NP emphasizes, rightly, the importance of building a party from the grassroots up. But a grassroots strategy should not become an excuse for political timidity. If a policy of running candidates mainly for school boards, city councils and county office is a substitute for bidding for higher office, then it's simply another compromise on the issue of political independence -- because higher offices are invariably partisan. Even the idea that focusing on local office first is better for party-building doesn't make much sense. For better or worse, most people don't pay much attention to politics at this level. If the NP wants to build on present consciousness, to reach voters where they are now, it cannot postpone making itself known where most people's attention is already directed, and especially at the level of national government. Otherwise, it will remain more or less invisible.

The Labor Party (LP), on the other hand, has renounced (for the time being) running candidates at all -- which makes it even more questionable than with the NP whether its leaders want a pressure group or a real party. The Labor Party proposes "non-candidate," "non-electoral" political action; but what is that? How can the LP's potential base understand a "party" that doesn't have enough confidence in its program to seek power? Unfortunately, as with the NP, the priority seems to be the leadership's reluctance to antagonize powerful friends -- Democratic politicians and pro-Democratic union officials -- rather than building a base for independent politics. The LP declares that it will run candidates only when it is able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of workers and massive financial resources. But that day will keep receding ever further into the future until the party starts mobilizing workers and others for power through the ballot box.

The Labor Party's program, like that New Party's, stresses social control of the economy and empowering ordinary citizens. But it is marred by inconsistencies and narrow compromises that seem to reflect the parochialism of some of the unions involved; these problems of program drastically weaken the party's ability to appeal beyond its own ranks. The plank on reproductive rights was watered down by pressure from the heavily Catholic farm workers union, and it does not include the word "abortion." This may have been good for party unity, but it damages the party's ability to reach out to feminists and women generally. There are proposals for public works, job training, child care and other programs that are absolutely crucial if any serious challenge is to be mounted against poverty, racism and urban decay. Yet nothing is said about cutting the defense budget, the obvious place from which the resources for such a challenge must be derived.

A Missed Opportunity

SO, IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN WHETHER THE NEW PARTY AND LABOR PARTY will move toward real independence or not. Indefinite survival as a kind of half-way house seems unlikely. On the other hand, the parties' current strategies effectively bar the road to independence. It doesn't help that both groups missed a great opportunity to capitalize on the massive voter disenchantment with the 1996 elections. At the very least, they should have endorsed and worked for Ralph Nader, who ran an honorable but weak campaign, weak mainly because he had so little organized support apart from the Green Party.

An independent presidential ticket, headed by Nader or someone else, might have begun the process of channeling anti-Clinton progressive sentiment away from the Democratic Party. A broad united front, not only with the Labor Party, New Party and Greens, but also with a host of activist groups -- civil rights, peace, civil liberties, gay rights -- would have received national attention and could have laid the groundwork for a much broader third party than any of the existing parties. One can speculate about whether there was an objective basis for an effort of this magnitude -- I think there was -- and it certainly would have required enormous pressure and relentless campaigning to break the mass-membership advocacy organizations from their traditional reliance on the Democrats; but there was clearly no will to initiate it among those who could have done so: the NP endorsed Clinton and the LP abstained in order to avoid endorsing candidates at all.

The tactic of "waiting out" the 1996 elections was a terrible mistake. Elections are moments when critical issues are brought forward, important choices are made and consciousness is shaped. The absence of an alternative strengthens people's tendency to believe, however reluctantly, that the Democrats are the only alternative to the right. It makes the eventual creation of a real alternative just that much more difficult. The argument that there aren't yet enough of us, that if we strike out now from the Democratic swamp we will face defeat and further isolation, is partly unanswerable; no one has a crystal ball and victory is never guaranteed. On the other hand, one doesn't need a crystal ball to foresee the bleak prospects before us if a progressive political party is not created. And we have some numbers now, more than we've had in many decades: a solid core of people committed, with various degrees of consistency and intensity, to independent politics. The question is what those numbers are for: to move toward independence and thereby attract greater numbers, or to remain half in, half out, until the old pressure tactics once again prove futile and our numbers are thoroughly demoralized?

Jesse Jackson, writing in the Nation (Sept. 23, 1996), argued that only those with "a sense of immunity" to the threat posed by the Republican right to "the most vulnerable in our society" could even consider not voting for Clinton; refusing to support the Democrats, he insisted, was a "callous luxury that people of conscience cannot afford." I would argue that Jackson has it reversed. The most vulnerable are nothing but the victims of the two-party system. Had Dole won, their suffering would have worsened; with Clinton in the White House their suffering will also worsen. Their hope, the hope of most Americans, lies in a new politics that ends our enslavement to lesser-evilism. It is up to people of conscience to seize the initiative. We cannot afford to wait.

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