It Can't Happen Here?

Imagine that our next Presidential election were to offer two candidates: George Bush and Patrick Buchanan, mainstream conservative against hard right, immigrant bashing challenger. We are often assured that it can't happen here: France faced the dilemma of Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen because it has electoral arrangements that give too much power to minority candidates. Comforting as such a story may be, it is misleading. Fascism here is not likely around the corner, but American political discourse offers too much demonization of minorities and too little debate about policy alternatives. Smugness about our current electoral arrangements and the values of mainstream parties contributes to the degradation of our politics.

Political science 101 teaches us that in the US and British political systems, with winner take all ("first past the post") electoral arrangements, successful politicians necessarily converge on the center. Minority candidates are not guaranteed proportional representation in legislatures, and the requirement of a mere plurality in an election deprives minorities of the opportunity to barter votes in a runoff.

Twentieth century history seems to confirm this "law." Despite a traumatic depression, the US electorate converged on a New Deal that regulated and supplemented capitalist markets but never sought to institute even democratic forms of socialism. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower assumed power in the '50s, he accepted the New Deal as fait accompli. Barry Goldwater's push to sell TVA and abolish Social Security made him anathema even to many mainstream Republicans.

A "vital center" promised to end poverty and boom and bust cycles not through confiscatory taxation or government ownership but through a regulatory structure, steady, government- assured, growth, and a broad based safety net. The boldest advocates of this posture promised an "end of ideology."

Such a picture appears quaint today. Working class incomes have stagnated for a quarter of a century. Patrick Buchanan's 2000 campaign may seem a mere footnote, but electoral participation has plunged dramatically since 1960. Nonvoting is most concentrated among the poor, making it hard to argue that nonvoters are too complacent to vote. Overt race and immigrant bashing is seldom a staple of our campaigns, but talk radio is full of crudely racist invectives.

Taking a broad view of politics in the West, one might say that the vital center has collapsed into bland resignation. George Bush, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, and Lionel Jospin have all argued more or less eloquently that the modern world is inescapably one global market and that "global competition" requires shelving or backpedaling on domestic reforms that in varying degrees extended health care, minimum wages, labor rights, and environmental protection to all.

Journalist Serge Halimi and sociologist Loïc Wacquant pointed out in a recent edition of the London-based Guardian that "Jospin had promised to defend the public sector from privatisation. He turned into the biggest privatiser in French history and was preparing to put the public railways and postal service on the block in the name of competition. Jospin had promised to renegotiate the European stability pact, which commits its members to orthodox fiscal and monetary policies. He signed it unchanged within a week of taking office. Jospin had promised to defend wages and full-time jobs. Instead, the 35-hour week law turned out to be a labour flexibility machine, forcing thousands to work at night and weekends. Jospin even became the first leftwing prime minister in French history to reduce income tax rates for the rich. Two years ago, he declared: 'I don't believe that one can administer the economy any more ... Everyone accepts [the rule] of the market.'"

Here in the United States, even before the center had unreflectively embraced corporate globalism, a series of internal flaws buried behind layers of consensus had rendered it weak. New Deal-era protections such as social security and unemployment compensation early afforded white males had been grudgingly and selectively extended to women and African Americans. All too often programs for the cultural underclass took the form of means-tested handouts rather than fully sanctioned rights and entitlements for all. Means-tested programs failed to empower cultural minorities and embittered many working-class whites. A liberalism already fractured by open wounds over race and gender was an easy breeding ground for race and immigrant bashing once the side effects of global capitalism came down on the working class.

Le Pen's views are despicable, but he is no uniquely villainous voice. The growing success of analogous movements throughout the West is symptomatic of the failures of mainstream liberal politics. That politics has failed to assure that working class and poor citizens share fully and fairly in the genuine fruits of global markets. And it has assumed that either economic growth or special protections for its most vulnerable minorities can ease or even erase the social issues that long predate but are still heavily implicated in modern market societies.

Unfortunately, too much of the liberal community still hopes to confine Le Pen and his likes by excluding them from debate. Rather, now is the time to rethink electoral arrangements that exclude minorities and political practices and ideals that are blind to the inevitable exclusions in even our most cherished "universal values." The effort to assure a politics of civility through exclusion of those we fear is wrong and has failed in its own terms. I agree with the views recently expressed by British Labour peer David Lipsey in the Guardian: " We have a system that relies on apathy to continue to return candidates of two or three parties. The system entrenches the monopoly suppliers from the big parties, and makes it hard for new entrants to break through. But it builds up over time a logjam of frustrated political ideas which can eventually burst." Politics must often reach eventual closure where full knowledge and consensus is impossible. But the prospect of acceptance is more likely and the cruelty implicit in political choices less severe where defeated minorities are not treated as unworthy of a voice.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

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