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Lessons of November.

The architects of the Democratic Leadership Council finally got unfettered control of the Party and their chance to govern. Well, they tested it on November 8, and here we are.

Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer characterized the DLC's bizarre notion of tough-minded pragmatism, as embodied in President Piggly Wiggly, most succinctly: "Alternate weakly progressive rhetoric with weakly reactionary rhetoric - the don't-ask-don't-tell idiocy on same-sexers in the military on the one hand, the revolting Quayle-like family values crap on the other - and do little of substance. And then wonder why you lose elections." This approach is breathtakingly illogical on its face. For all their smug claims to realism, its proponents are apparently impervious to the lessons of their own experience.

Their commitment to a politics without conviction is almost cultish: Success or failure equally confirms their faith. After losing both houses of Congress, they drew the amazing lesson that they need to move further to the right. That is, they need to do more of what precipitated defeat in the first place.

Ironically, the party's Left - centered in black voters - helped pave the way for the DLC back in 1988 by checking out of the electorate, opting instead to tilt at windmills with a Jesse Jackson who could never win the nomination. It was much easier than it should have been for the Party's eventual nominee to avoid taking a firm and aggressive stand on an egalitarian agenda; he could instead just wait and cut a personal deal with Jackson after the fact.

Likewise, almost everything the Clinton Administration has done since getting elected reflects its rejection of the Democratic Party's egalitarian wing. Consider, on the one hand, its half-hearted support of an inadequate economic-stimulus package, its contemptuous out-of-hand dismissal of single-payer health-care proposals as politically unfeasible (unlike the still-born albatross they ultimately produced), offering Lani Guinier as a sacrifice to Orrin Hatch and company without a fight and dissing her scholarship in the process. For those who might see the problem as simple spinelessness, consider, on the other hand, what the Administration has dug in its heels to fight for - NAFTA, GATT, the horribly racist and draconian crime bill, and its equally racist and draconi welfare-reform package.

Since November 8 this pattern has only gotten worse. Right after the elections Piggly Wiggly hyped his hideous welfare-reform plan by noting that it has many of the features of the Republicans' vile plan. Next he came out, all on his own, for prayer in the schools, and then, to put our money where his mouth is, he announced a $25 billion windfall to the Pentagon's budget. And he's proposed eliminating public housing for the poor, privatizing the air-traffic control system, and making the Federal Housing Administration (the main public-housing program for the nonpoor) operate like a private firm. To ice the cake of conciliation, Hillary announced that she thinks abortion is the wrong choice.

The DLC crowd's problem isn't myopia or opportunism, though there is no shortage of sheer opportunists in its ranks. They're operating in a way that's consistent with a larger agenda, which is to purify the Democratic Party by cleansing it of its association with blacks and leftists. They'll take electoral losses in the short term to help produce a properly conservative party and electorate.

Lurking just beneath the surface is race. Clinton disclosed the DLC's racial strategy even during the 1992 campaign, and it's a very familiar tale to those who recall the old Southern politics. His appeal to black voters consisted almost entirely of photo-ops at black churches. His response to the Los Angeles uprising was indistinguishable from Bush's. When pressed by events to make a firm statement against racism, he replied that we can't have it because "we don't have an American to waste." (Lest this seem hypocritical, consider that Rickey Ray Rector, the brain-damaged African-American Clinton sent to the electric chair during the 1992 primaries, wasn't executed uselessly; he was a sort of passive Clinton campaign worker.) This implicitly eugenicist view seemed to leave as an open question what would happen if the Labor Department, say, did a report indicating that we do have a few million to waste after all. The Bell Curve could be read, in fact, as a response to that challenge.

During the campaign and since, Clinton has used black citizens mainly as scapegoats or props in his appeals to conservative whites who'll never vote for him anyway. That's what the crime bill and the welfare package are all about. This DLC Administration is part of a pattern at least 150 years old. White politicans have, for a long time, cynically used blackness as a foil, making whiteness a basis for common identity. There's nothing like race to unite disenfranchised whites with a wealthy elite. Dismissing Joycelyn Elders is only Clinton's latest foray into that kind of scapegoating.

There are a couple of lessons to take from November. Despite the over-heated announcements of a Republican millennium, the GOP won only about 52 percent of the vote nationally, and with a very few exceptions Democratic incumbents won re-election. Turnouts were generally low, not least because Democrats didn't offer people anything and ran away from aggressive mobilization of their real bases among black, labor, and liberal voters. The "they-don't-have-anyplace-else-to-go" line leaves out that "they" don't have to go anywhere; they can just stay home.

These are lessons we can build upon. We can mobilize the unmobilized and appeal aggressively to those constituencies who are inclined to support social justice and economic democracy. Without taking that course, the Democratic Party will collapse into a center-right fusionist wing of the GOP, a sort of Clinton/Giuliani axis. Worse, progressive interests will be left with no voice and no leverage at all in national politics. And the specter of slow, or even not so slow, genocide in inner cities seems steadily more thinkable.

It is time, therefore, to issue a call to Paul Wellstone, David Bonior, Bobby Scott, Ron Dellums, Tom Harkin, Richard Gephardt, John Conyers, Christopher Dodd, Edward Kennedy, and whatever other liberals and progressives remain in visible and powerful positions in the party to initiate planning for an insurgency against Clinton and the DLC line for 1996. Such an effort may or may not succeed in denying him renomination. If it succeeds, it could lead to a cleansing of a different sort, in which the faux Republicans go where they belong. Even if it fails, it could provide a foundation for building an alternative outside the party, for which there would certainly be a need.

This enterprise could meld with efforts currently going toward creating a Labor Party, for which there has long been a need. Now more than ever, the Democratic Party is an inadequate substitute. Organized labor, for all its problems, remains the most solid and independent source of institutional support for progressive political agendas. And the possibility of creating a coherent political force rooted in but extending beyond the labor movement is exciting, not least because it would mean establishing a movement with access to the resources needed to sustain an organizational apparatus at national and local levels. (Those interested in learning more about or joining in this effort should contact Labor Party Advocates, P.O. Box 53177, Washington, D.C. 20009.)

It is equally important, though, not to succumb to a politics of wish-fulfillment. We need to construct an organized opposition, not get sidetracked by the cheap melodrama of another quixotic charade behind Jesse Jackson, or any other disconnected individual.

After being sold out for Jackson's personal ambitions three times now, it's time for progressives to face facts. Jackson has no interest in building a movement. His personality-centered politics is the exact opposite of a movement; he wants to be a Great Man, the Maximal Leader who brokers the putative interests of a constituency that has no capacity for action apart from him. Nor is he really capable of mobilizing black Americans simply by his presence, as he and his publicists claim; he has traded on the white paternalism and gullibility that presume that black people all think with one mind and need to have someone who sort of looks like them tell them what to do. The New Party unfortunately seems hampered by this view that product endorsements by black political celebrities are necessary to win black citizens' support for progressive agendas.)

Black Americans respond to direct appeals to their concrete interests, just like everyone else. Reliance on intermediaries actually undermines mobilization by tying it to the status of an individual rather than a program. For example, in hesitating to follow the brooding Jackson's cues, black activists lost valuable time, especially in the South, in responding to Clinton's efforts to sweep up black support in early 1992.

There is no substitute for building a movement from the ground up and concentrating our efforts where we have resources. And we have to be honest about the circumstances that face us. It's true enough that the massive nonvoting last November points to widespread alienation from the options offered; that does not imply, however, that the nonvoters are frustrated leftists. As likely as not, they are relatively inattentive to politics and have no clear critique. It would be a mistake to peg our strategy only on reaching out to those who are truly alienated from politics. We should first find ways to concentrate our strengths.

In this regard, our relative weakness in national political debate argues against any left-inspired third party presidential candidacy. That's putting the cart before the horse. We don't have the organizational capacity necessary to counteract being dismissed and stigmatized in the mainstream media, and we don't have a broad or deep enough base of committed left voters to make an electoral dent or to make sure our message is transmitted clearly enough to be a tool for subsequent organizing.

And while we certainly should think creatively about communications technology, it's a mistake to think that we can rely on high-tech strategies for mobilizing support in the way the Right has. We don't have access to either the funds or the goodwill of the mainstream culture industry required to compete on that turf. In building support around an alternative vision and program there is no technical fix, no substitute for direct, face-to-face organizing. We need to target resources to support local organizing campaigns, and that is another argument for a strategy centered in the progressive elements of the labor movement.

We need to focus on building and strengthening locally based coalitions of labor unions, human-service agencies, advocacy groups, civil-rights organizations, and unattached progressives. Aggregating the organized is perhaps the best way to reach the unorganized, especially because we're fighting against a particularly strong tide of political reaction. In this situation, the most effective way to get a progressive message out is through existing social and institutional networks. Members of unions and other organizations, as well as functionaries in social-service agencies and advocacy groups, operate in worlds that extend beyond those who actively identify with the Left. They also represent real constituents not just in their organizations but also in their neighborhoods and among family and friends. They and their organizations have the capacity to mobilize people for all kinds of social action.

We need to think practically about how to connect with the real population that lies between ourselves - the same few hundred politically attentive, committed people everywhere who show up on all our phone trees and turn up for every demonstration - and amorphous, romanticized abstractions like the black community, workers, and women. Abstract social categories don't vote or exert political force in any other way. Specific groups of black people, workers, and women act to advance specific agendas and in the process can affect the other people they know.

The key is for us to work within our own political and social networks to challenge the ways in which the Right frames the boundaries of the thinkable. What that means most of all is that we need to challenge the view that government is by definition ineffective or is no longer the arena within which to pursue social justice and economic democracy.

In fact, challenging that view also is a concrete basis for forming and focusing local coalitions, as well as for linking local, national, and international issues and agendas. At the national level, moreover, we can draw on the resources and efforts of groups like NOW, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (which are coming together to launch a joint counterattack to the nasty assault on welfare), Public Citizen, the Economic Policy Institute, the AFL-CIO, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The connections abound. Fiscal and international economic policy, as exemplified most strikingly in GATT and NAFTA, encourages local capital flight. Maintenance of the bloated military budget not only redistributes revenue from domestic human needs; it also reinforces capital's mobility by fueling the U.S. role as the Pinkertons of the new global corporate order. The sources of capital flight lie, to a degree largely unrecognized, within the Federal budget and tax policy and regulation of financial markets.

Similarly, the welfare and crime hysteria are part of an ideological offensive aimed simultaneously at discrediting the idea of public provision for social needs of any sort and at driving down the social wage through dismantling the infrastructure of public services. We can get together around fighting against that offensive, and for an affirmative vision of government that stresses egalitarian public priorities at Federal, state, and local levels.

I must emphasize that this effort does not offer a way to sidestep a head-on confrontation with racism and sexism. Too often progressives have looked for some neat way to circumvent these issues - usually through appeals to an abstract notion of class unity. The indirect approach doesn't work, as the power of the racialized crime and welfare canards ought to demonstrate.

It cannot work because it doesn't take into account the extent to which the images of Government action and racial minorities are linked in public consciousness. The Right, borrowing a page from its predecessors in the Jim Crow South, has succeeded in manipulating white racism to undercut support for any public initiatives by identifying the public sector with aid to minorities. This then fuels suspicions of Government waste, incompetence, and corruption. We can only win the allies we need by directly challenging the racial and gender privilege and prejudice that make whites and men susceptible to the right-wing populist appeals. We have to guard against the growing danger, as exemplified by Michael Lind in The New Republic, from forces that insist that pursuit of a re-distributionist class politics requires nativism and explicit rejection of racial equality.

Racial hierarchy confers real material and psychic benefits on whites across classes; gender hierarchy confers real material and psychic benefits on men across classes. The alleged distinction between concerns of a "social Left" and an "economic Left" breaks down. The two are inseparable. We need to attack social and economic injustice in all forms if we are to have any chance of success worthy of the name.
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Title Annotation:November, 1994 Republican election sweep and liberals
Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Words:2519
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