The 'Third Way' is No Way

Among the more fascinating but disconcerting developments of the past decade has been the rise of what might be termed the postmodern politician. The 1990s were marked by the ascent of a new breed of political practitioner, personified by Bill Clinton in this country and Tony Blair in Great Britain, practicing a politics devoid of ideology or fundamental belief systems.

Clinton and Blair, the most successful politicians of their generation (as measured by electability), were, and still are, the Bobbsey twins of international politics. This is no accident. There is now a global cast to electioneering in the Western World that complements the new global economy -- a cross-fertilization of ideas, tactics, and strategy from one country to another. Blair's recent election to a second term did not take place in a vacuum; it was the outcome of a campaign based closely on the Clinton successes of 1992 and 1996.

Bill Clinton twice won the presidency by being all things to all people and by abandoning his party's core philosophy of modern liberalism, which after years of unrelenting conservative attack had come to seem a liability in the political marketplace. It was far easier to jettison the liberal inheritance than to attempt to explain, defend, or update it. This was especially true for a southern Democrat from a conservative state who was outside the progressive mainstream of his party from the start. We thus had the spectacle of a Democratic president -- and one who professed to admire FDR at that -- championing the traditional Republican causes of business deregulation, balanced budgets, an end to welfare, volunteerism as a substitute for government, and an economy directed by Wall Street. In the process, the president's party, attempting to adjust to the shifting ground under its feet, lost all sense of mission and purpose.

Tony Blair, whose operatives participated in the Clinton campaigns as note-taking observers, later followed a similar course of action. Dumping the remnants of inherited Fabian socialism, his "New Labour" made peace with the reactionary Thatcherite counterrevolution, disowned its own social-democratic past, and announced that it was now a low-tax party of "enterprise" with no interest in public ownership, corporate regulation, or wealth redistribution. Labour party founder Keir Hardie, a working miner and crusading trade unionist, must have spun in his grave as Britain's new Clintonesque leader, dubbed "Tony Blur" by a mocking press, made it his first post-election order of business to turn the country's monetary policy over to the private banking community -- an action tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. He followed that by lowering corporate taxes and pursuing various privatization schemes, notably in the area of mass transit, while neglecting to rebuild the underfunded and decimated National Health Service that is his own party's most cherished legacy.

Clinton and Blair are the direct opposites of what have been called conviction politicians. In a perceived conservative era, both concluded that their respective parties' center-left principles were not worth fighting for in the political arena. In a period dominated by marketplace values, both actively cultivated influential friends in the big business sector. In a time when organized labor was struggling back from the abyss, neither expressed particular interest in fraternizing or identifying closely with union leaders. And neither allowed philosophical considerations to stand in the way of success at the ballot box.

The transatlantic political twins were especially notable for their tendency to campaign and govern by opinion polls rather than by bringing the public along through persuasion and the power of their bedrock beliefs. In pursuit of a much-celebrated Third Way of governance, they sought to straddle some vast, amorphous (and probably nonexistent) political middle, which Clinton called the "vital center" and Blair the "radical center;" others have called it the dead center. They are each personable, intelligent, articulate, media-savvy individuals who believe in nothing very strongly and have stood for little other than election and re-election.

Regrettably, the Clinton-Blair approach has spawned an ample number of imitators on the political left, most prominently in Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has attempted to drag his Social Democratic party in a rightward Third Way direction by imposing fiscal austerity measures and verbally attacking unemployed workers as slackers. On the conservative end of the spectrum, however, conviction politics remains in vogue. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, the new neo-fascist prime minister, has made no secret of his uncompromising right-wing agenda, and in this country, George W. Bush, who many thought would be a Clintonian triangulator, has moved hard right and done what liberal politicians fear to do: govern according to closely held ideological beliefs.

Frustrated progressive voters and activists worldwide are looking for a similar commitment from their leaders. Tony Blair's failure to provide it last June on his side of the Atlantic resulted in a populist surge by Britain's perennial third party that mirrored the earlier Nader rebellion here. New Labour won handily, but Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats, viewed as being to the left of Labour on issues like public spending and taxation, scored their biggest gains in over half a century, taking 19% of the vote.

As significant as the rising Liberal Democratic tally was the low overall turnout -- the lowest since 1918 -- which also replicated the US election. One-quarter of registered Britons stayed home, a startlingly high percentage for a nation that normally votes in overwhelming numbers, and an ominous portent for Third Way politicians. Recalcitrant "Old Labour" voters indicated why in post-election interviews. Like multitudes of similarly unenthusiastic American Democrats, they looked at their political landscape and found it wanting; the system had offered up "two right-wing parties," as one disillusioned Labour veteran put it, neither of which represented the interests of working people.

The British and American elections of 2000-2001 have exposed the political bankruptcy of the Third Way, which a few short years ago was being hailed as the new progressivism and the wave of the future. Rather than something new, it represents something quite familiar: the accommodation of nominally liberal or social-democratic parties to marketplace values in a time of business dominance. The economic creative-destruction brought about by globalization and the New Economy has thrown progressive politicians everywhere on the defensive, fearful of the ramifications for their national economies and afraid to challenge the worldwide corporate/free-market hegemony. Most have chosen the easy route of embracing the new world economic order or at least going along with it; some have become its shills; a few genuinely believe its spurious claims of a coming nirvana.

Two things will change the equation. One will be a revolt from below, a public revulsion against a world run by corporations. The second will be the emergence of a generation of leadership that understands the new threat to economic democracy and has the political courage to address it. It's only a matter of time, as the growing restiveness of the English-speaking electorates has shown.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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