Beyond Impeachment:
The Need for a Political Alternative to Clintonism

Thomas Harrison

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 27, Summer 1999]

THOMAS HARRISON is a high school teacher and a member of the editorial board of NEW POLITICS.


THE CURRENT POLITICAL SCENE PRESENTS A STRANGELY BIFURCATED PICTURE. At the top, among the elites, a bitter struggle for power rages, reaching bizarre extremes in the recently concluded impeachment battle. In the world of politicians, pundits and the news media, something like a civil war atmosphere prevails. Meanwhile at the bottom, the mass of ordinary citizens look on in horror and utter bewilderment. Polls showed strong support for the President, but mostly out of revulsion for his attackers. Most Americans probably felt embarrassed to be defending a man whom almost everyone recognizes as an amoral, shifty, self-aggrandizing skunk -- not because he committed adultery and then fibbed about it "under oath," but because he is a monster of egoism who treats people and principles like so much kleenex. Far stronger than any salacious interest in the President's sexual escapades was a widespread, fervent wish that the whole grotesque carnival of lying and sanctimony would soon end. When it did, however, the public was left more confused, disoriented and passive than ever.

Increasingly, what happens in Washington seems to have no connection with the concerns of most Americans, while at the same time, the uncomfortable feeling persists that behind the scenes decisions are being made --concerning the fate of Social Security, for example -- or not being made -- global warming, environmental devastation, world financial instability -- that jeopardize all our futures. At the center of American politics is a yawning abyss. The deepening depoliticization of the citizenry is only hinted at by the continuing decline in voter participation; even those who still vote, many of them, wonder why they bother. And politicians, who only need the votes of about 20 percent of a passive, atomized electorate to win office, can operate in blissful indifference to public opinion. The need for a political alternative is palpable, but the Left is either stampeding toward the Center in fear of a rightwing "coup," or seems paralyzed by a failure of nerve.

Symbols and Substance

THE SYMBOLIC ELEMENTS IN THE IMPEACHMENT MELODRAMA have been frequently noted. Certainly, for the Right Clinton came to symbolize the permissiveness and supposed moral decline of the Sixties. But their holy war against the President masks what was and is really at stake: government regulation, taxes and corporate America's determination to free itself once and for all from any restrictions on its pursuit of power and profits. Thomas Ferguson in The Nation (March 8, 1999), argued that "the high drama of impeachment looks like an extraordinary case of business as usual," this time with the Republicans resorting to highly unusual tactics. Even though his is the most overtly pro-business Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland's, Clinton has been marked for destruction by much of the business community since his first years in office. Proposals for modest increases in taxes on the rich, the Clintons' health care initiative, the global warming treaty, new energy taxes, raising the minimum wage, the attack on the tobacco industry -- no matter how weak some of these gestures were, they convinced corporate types that the President was thoroughly untrustworthy, even dangerous. Ferguson shows that Kenneth Starr, who had represented tobacco firms when he worked for a prominent Washington law firm, was appointed special prosecutor by a panel headed by a judge who is a protégé of Jesse Helms. Despite all the trappings of a religious crusade, the assault on the President has been sponsored by Big Business for very worldly motives.

The repressive puritanism of the religious Right perfectly complements the business-sponsored assault on welfare and entitlements and the demand for deregulation, while in no way threatening corporate hegemony. The zealotry, ineptitude and outright nuttiness of the fundamentalists undoubtedly create frequent embarrassment in boardrooms and among "moderate" Republicans. But they provide badly needed moral legitimation to policies that are all about greed and self-interest and devil-take-the-hindmost, and therefore don't automatically generate broad appeal. Fundamentalist Protestantism and rightwing Catholicism were particularly useful, of course, during the 50-year-long Cold War against "godless" Communism, but their fanatical legions continue to supply essential shock troops for the Republicans -- the capitalist party par excellence.

But what about the other capitalist party? With the forces of religious obscurantism and sexual repression massing behind the Republican banners, it was tempting to see the Democrats and our embattled President as the champions of freedom. Those who viewed the conflict as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, or even fascism, were mistaken, however. In constitutional terms, what the Republicans tried to do was no more a "coup" than any other impeachment. In a sense they sought to overturn an election, but that is what an impeachment does, in effect -- though even that only partially, since the vice-president takes over. In this limited sense, forcing Nixon from office had the effect of "overturning" the election of 1972. If the Democrats had attempted to impeach Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal, as they should have done, this would have, if successful, "overturned" the 1984 election; what's more, it would have flouted public opinion, which was still largely on Reagan's side. Of course, if the Democrats had not already capitulated to the essentials of Reaganism themselves, they might have realized that a determined prosecution of Reagan and his advisers would have educated public opinion and perhaps turned it around by exposing the White House's lawlessness.

Clinton's Real Crimes

THE OBVIOUS DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE RECENT IMPEACHMENT BID and the two other cases is that Clinton's enemies were only able to adduce essentially trivial charges, while the crimes for which Nixon and Reagan were, or might have been, charged were real and struck at the very heart of democracy. And, of course, had the Republicans succeeded in removing Clinton from office, this would have greatly encouraged the far Right and thus accelerated the growth of authoritarianism, the steady assault on rights and freedoms, and the removal of all fetters on corporate power. But these trends would only have been accelerated, for they have been powerfully fostered by Clinton and the Democratic Party themselves. Clinton's real crimes were never under consideration. And that is why it was important to fight the impeachment by pointing to those crimes and by calling for a left opposition -- not by rallying around Clinton, as many liberal and leftist academics did by signing the statement by Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz. An attempt to create such an alternative concretely was made by Jesse Lemisch and Joanne Landy, who circulated a statement at the American Historical Association convention, and then more widely among academics and intellectuals, calling for Clinton's impeachment for the bombing of Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq -- not for Monica Lewinsky. In this way, many progressives who had signed the Schlesinger-Wilentz statement were reminded of Clinton's serious misdeeds, forced to confront the implications of defending him uncritically, and given a chance to differentiate themselves from the pro-Clinton forces without giving aid and comfort to the Right.

It's also important not to idealize the general public's response to the Clinton impeachment. Most Americans had the good sense to oppose a sexual witch-hunt, true. But how would they have reacted if Clinton were caught having an affair with a male intern? What if Hillary had been carrying on a dalliance with a young White House employee? These considerations -- not to mention the widespread demonization of Monica Lewinsky -- should remind us of the gender and heterosexist biases implicit on both sides of the affair.

Exaggerating the threat from the Right -- talk of a coup d'etat and so forth -- only plays into the hands of Clinton and the Democrats. There certainly is a potential in American society for a violent, ultra-authoritarian current to emerge and seek power. Right now, however, there is no obvious demagogue on the horizon and it will take much more than a few militias and neo-Nazis to create a fascist movement of any significance. Nor do the Republicans have a clear alternative program to Clinton's -- not even in the more limited way in which Reagan stood for an alternative in 1980 in terms of massive military buildup, a major redistribution of wealth through tax policy and a direct assault on the labor movement. Impeachment, as already noted, only showed the Republicans targeting a President who has antagonized Big Business, though in this case they made a gross miscalculation about the political benefits of sexual scandal; it also demonstrated, once more, the Republicans' capacity for fierce, no-holds-barred partisanship -- as opposed to the Democrats' customary decorum and "statesmanship" whenever Republican malfeasance is in question.

The "Reagan Revolution" of the early 1980s was the realization of a kind of corporate utopia -- the final abandonment of even mildly redistributive politics in favor of the politics of investment and trickle-down economics. Democrats, with very few exceptions, embraced the New Order and became part of an anti-liberal consensus at the top, which has since proved as solid and durable as the liberal consensus created by the New Deal. Given the triumph of free market ideology at this level (even though it disguised the reality of military Keynesianism under Reagan), it is almost miraculous that most ordinary Americans retain any sense that wealth may need to be curbed and that the state can still play a progressive role in providing material assistance to the weakest members of society and some minimal security for all. But they do. As far as public opinion is concerned, freedom has not yet been redefined solely in terms of property rights and the absence of regulation.

Except on a few issues -- abortion rights, school prayer, etc. -- Clinton has fully consolidated the Reagan revolution. He has increased military spending, ensuring that the end of the Cold War would bring no basic change to the disastrous misallocation of national resources, pushed through NAFTA, and abolished welfare. His "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays and lesbians in the military, his advocacy of "abstinence education" for welfare recipients, his endorsement of homophobia by supporting the Defense of Marriage Act -- these have done nothing but encourage the "family values" claptrap and sexual hypocrisy that nearly destroyed him. Clinton's foreign policy differs in no essential respects from Reagan's or from any policy the Republicans might pursue if they controlled the White House today. U.S. imperial power, not human rights, is the only thing that counts. A monster like Milosevic is perfectly free to terrorize Kosovar Albanians for years, but he cannot be permitted to defy NATO.

Saving Dead Souls

AND STILL, EMANATING FROM THE PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS IN CONGRESS, from the AFL-CIO leadership and from the editorial pages of the liberal magazines, come the tired old appeals to try once more to "save the Democratic Party's soul." Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Nation, Dec. 7, 1998), for example, calls for a "third force" rather than a third party -- a "values-based electoral organization, customarily operating in nonpartisan elections and inside Democratic Party primaries," a "progressive equivalent of the Christian Coalition." This new coalition would train thousands of people to run for office, organize ballot initiatives, coordinate national issue campaigns, build a network of pundits and talk-show guests -- all to reform the Democratic Party. But we've been down this road over and over again, most recently with Jesse Jackson's campaigns; it's been proven to be a dead end. If, by some miracle, the Left did capture the Party, that would simply mean that the moneyed interests and political hacks who comprise its very essence had been driven out; in other words, the Left would have succeeded in capturing itself. The point is, the Democratic Party is not accessible to progressives in the way the Republican Party has been accessible to the Christian Coalition and other elements of the far Right. The demands of Christian extremists are compatible with a pro-business agenda; things like an anti-imperialist foreign policy, massive cuts in military spending, full employment, a shorter work week, are not. They can be won only in open struggle against the two-party system. For progressives to imitate the Christian Coalition's prolonged boring-from-within strategy, as vanden Heuvel proposes, would be an immense waste. Why not, instead, devote all that time, energy and ingenuity to building something new: an electoral organization without ties to corporate interests, one that is truly free to use elections and public office to crusade for a progressive program?

In fact, many of the liberals and labor officials who now urge a fight to transform the Democratic Party will probably figure that, with the Republicans chastened and discredited, the Democrats have a chance not only to keep the White House in 2000, but to regain control of Congress; they will be easily persuaded to silence themselves and put their program in mothballs for the sake of unity -- just as they did in 1996. Many have already done so. Apparently, the AFL-CIO has decided to drop labor law reform for the time being so as not to "embarrass" the Democrats before the next election. And the labor federation has already more or less endorsed Al Gore two years in advance of the presidential race. Of course, Clinton and Gore are less rather than more likely to respond to pressure from the Left after receiving its unconditional endorsement. Consequently, progressive issues will not be part of the national debate in 2000 unless a third party puts them there.

Third Parties: A Failure of Nerve

AT THE MOMENT, HOWEVER, THE PROSPECTS FOR an independent electoral force in 2000 appear quite dim, mainly because those who are engaged in building such a force still lack the nerve to challenge the Democrats. This cannot be said of the Greens, who have run candidates against both parties, and even recently won an assembly seat from Oakland, California. But while the Greens' initiative and independence are exemplary, they lack support from significant popular and progressive organizations, like labor unions, and this seriously limits their ability to mount the kind of electoral efforts that would create the critical mass for a major third party of the Left.

The New Party is a small-scale version of vanden Heuvel's third force, focusing on nonpartisan local races, supporting liberal Democrats in partisan elections and running issue campaigns, with participation from union and community activists. So far it has rejected a strategy of challenging the Democrats, preferring to act as a pressure group. The recently-formed Working Families Party in New York, with some significant labor backing and the endorsement of many of the state's liberal political figures, is similar. Even more than the New Party, though, the WFP defines itself exclusively as a pressure group, not even the nucleus of a third party. In the 1998 election, it barely won enough votes to receive a line on New York's crowded ballot after endorsing an utterly traditional middle-of-road Democrat, Peter Vallone, for governor.

The only group that has both a significant organizational base and shows some signs of moving toward electoral independence is the Labor Party. The Party has about 10,000 individual members and its affiliated and endorsing unions " including the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, United Mine Workers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, California Nurses Association, and American Federation of Government Employees -- represent around one million workers. At its second national convention in Pittsburgh last November, the Labor Party voted to reverse its previous opposition to electoral action and voted, in principle, to run candidates at some point in the near future. But will it? At the convention, criteria were imposed for electoral campaigns that make them extremely unlikely: candidates must have the prior support of "a significant portion of the area's union membership" and can be vetoed by the Party's Interim National Council (INC). There has been considerable sentiment among the rank and file in favor of running Labor Party candidates for office, and there is good reason to believe that the national leadership's endorsement of it was actually meant to appease the pressure from below while effectively thwarting an electoral strategy by erecting insurmountable obstacles to its practical implementation. Even within the affiliated unions, many officials are afraid of rupturing their ties to Democratic politicians. The INC's strategy seems to be to draw in other, bigger unions by being careful not to directly challenge their leaders' alliances with Democrats.

But the fact is, the Labor Party has not grown much in the two years since it was founded, and it is almost invisible as far as most Americans are concerned. Running candidates for office would seem to be the only way to heighten the Party's profile and thus begin to attract masses of new members and supporters, including currently unaffiliated unions. Contesting elections, even if initial vote totals were relatively small and even if it resulted in sometimes electing Republicans, would demonstrate that the Party is serious in rejecting the two-party system and has a long-range goal of winning political power. The Labor Party is not yet the Labor Party, but only the organizing committee for such a party. As such, however, it should field candidates now, not with the expectation of winning immediately but in order to show the way. Labor Party candidates could bring the Party's program -- including single-payer health insurance, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a job at a living wage, stopping the privatization of Social Security -- to millions.

Eventually as the Labor Party spreads the message of independent political action, it may need to coalesce with other progressive movements -- environmentalists, women's and civil rights groups, anti-interventionists and gay rights activists -- in creating a new party framework. A third party based in such groups may not call itself a labor party, but the LP should make itself available for such a development, as well as for independent candidacies like that of Ralph Nader and the Greens in 1996. So far, it has not. At the Pittsburgh convention, a motion was made from the floor by representatives of the New York City local of the Communications Workers who are involved in the WFP to permit endorsement of candidates who "support the Labor Party program." Opposed by the INC, it was defeated; and while this makes cross-endorsement of Democrats impossible, it also rules out endorsing Greens or any other independent candidates that might emerge in 2000.

A serious progressive party will need to take on the military budget in a big way. Amazingly, the subject is not even mentioned in the Labor party's program. As long as a colossal portion of the nation's wealth is diverted to arms, the kinds of social programs and public works that would make it possible to wage war on poverty, racism and crime simply cannot be realistically envisioned. And proposals for massive reductions in military spending would have to address questions of foreign policy: nuclear arms, intervention, NATO, foreign bases, and so on -- in other words, the whole rationale for empire and militarism. This subject, too, goes unmentioned in the LP's program. A progressive party that is taken seriously by voters will need to explain how global peace and security can only be brought about by promoting democracy and humane economic development throughout the world.

Any "political party" that merely tries to apply pressure on the Democrats from outside is doomed to failure. As long as progressives, workers and minorities remain a captive electorate for the Democratic Party, it will have no incentive to cater to any constituencies other than those to its right. Just as the formation of the British Labor Party at the turn of the century pushed the Liberals leftward, forcing them to sponsor Britain's first major series of social legislation in order to retain the loyalty of working-class voters -- so too the birth of a progressive third party in the United States will almost certainly reverse the rightward direction in which American politics have been moving. This, not futile efforts to transform the Democrats into a "people's party," is what will bring about a true political realignment. The building of such a party will require the breaking of decades-old political habits, and this will certainly not happen overnight. But it will never happen if we do not begin now.

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