BY WALT CONTRERAS SHEASBY
"The major crisis facing this country is the class issue. The United States today has the most unfair distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world. ... Since 1973, 80 percent of American workers have seen either a lowering in their real wages or economic stagnation; real wages have declined by 18 percent. Any serious grass-roots third party must make the increased impoverishment of the majority of our people its central focus." That is how Bernie Sanders, who is Vermont's lone representative and the only Independent in the Congress, writing in The Nation of Nov. 6, 1995, assessed the potential for a genuine people's party instead of the muddled centrism that sees Tweedledum as "too far left" and Tweedlee as "too far right."
"This country," he said in an interview, "most certainly does need a third party, but not a centrist party based on personality--whether the personality is Perot's, Bradley's or Powell's. We need a third party to do what the Republicans and Democrats are not doing: represent the needs of the working people and the poor against a wealthy and powerful corporate elite who increasingly dominate our economic and political life. ... Any attempt at creating a real alternative to the two major parties must address the critical issue facing most Americans, that of a rapidly declining standard of living. Both major parties serve the interests of the rich and corporate America quite well. A real third party must stand up for the interests of America's working men and women." (L.A. Times, Sept. 22, 1995)
Bringing together people of color and whites in an electoral climate of divide and conquer and blame the victim is not an easy task. In place of a civic opposition, there is only an eddy of identity politics, consumerisms, and separatisms. Gerald Horne, chair of the African American Studies Department at University of California at Santa Barbara, and a Presidential candidate in the California Peace and Freedom Party primary, argues that, "The decline of the left's central premises--organizing on a class basis across racial and gender lines--has been a disaster that not only helps to explain the present popularity of the Nation of Islam, but also illuminates present global trends." (L.A. Village View, Feb. 25, 1994)
At times Jesse Jackson's Rainbow has called together "representatives of the civilizing movements of our age--union, women's, civil rights, environmental and peace" to map out "a response to the conservative assault on working and poor people." Last summer, arguing that "A third party may be needed for progressives,"Jackson said, "It is time for progressives to argue their case--to rally our supporters by laying out an agenda and running candidates who will support that agenda." (L.A. Times, June, 4, 1995) Jackson called for "a new party that is willing to challenge the corporate party that now campaigns under two names." (The Nation, July 31, 1995)
Although critical of Jackson's leadership and independent political action, Adolph Reed Jr. has also underscored "the absolute centrality of organized labor for sustaining any progressive political activity on a significant scale." His cautions need to be taken seriously: "We must acknowledge that we have to build a movement from scratch in a political climate dominated by frighteningly nasty forces. We don't have time for the luxuries of mystification and self delusion. ... And we certainly can't accept the notion of political realism that concedes the terrain to forces of hatred and oppression. Our only possibility is to go back to the very basics and to focus on trying to build a coherent political movement in specific places from the bottom up. Whatever national objectives we have must proceed from a real social base." (The Progressive, August 1995)
Don't mourn; organize
Keiko Bonk of the Hawaii Green Party, the Chair of the Government County Council on the Big Island, asks, "Why must you do this? It is simply because until you have a majority you can only soothe the victims, you cannot prevent the crime. So you look for allies of the moment among those you fight, while you search for real comrades to join your team. You plan and work to become the majority of whatever political structure you think you have the resources to take over....The purpose of a political party is to gain majority control of democratic institutions. This takes decades, but it must begin now." (Green Horizon, October/November 1995)
This dual determination, that a radical transformation of the electoral system and the formation a new majority party of ordinary working people will require decades of hard work, and that the break into independent political action must begin now, is what characterizes the new politics movement. It is a belief that informs the National Independent Politics Summit representing over 100 progressive organizations, the National Committee for Independent Political Action, a network of organizers formed in 1984, the new Independent Progressive Party being established by the Campaign for a New Tomorrow led by Ron Daniels, the Greens/Green Party USA, and the Green Politics Network, which has initiated the Third Parties '96 conferences, bringing together an even wider array of national and state parties.
New politics, new goals
Third Parties '96 is a coalition of 27 independent parties and 16 other grass-roots organizations working together with the hope of fielding a well-known national presidential coalition slate that could help local third parties achieve ballot access and their local candidates gain wider attention. The organizers of Third Parties '96 view this election cycle as an unusual and critical time, with polls showing that most Americans want a third choice other than Clinton-Dole.
The coordinator of Third Parties '96, Linda Martin, says, "The Democrats, obviously cowed by the right's aggressive attacks and electoral threats, will not defend the poor, the hungry, the disabled, the young and pregnant, the public's right to clean air and water and the nation's endangered natural environment and valuable resources. ... We must be prepared to do it ourselves."
According to John Rensenbrink of Green Politics Network, the goals of Third Parties '96 include:
"First, develop agreement on some basic political issues such as campaign finance reform, full and equal ballot access (including proportional representation), and devolution of power to the grass roots. And, develop as much unanimous agreement as possible on a range of other issues.
"Second, use that agreement to foster more effective electoral campaigns for third parties and coalitions at local and state levels.
"Third, also use it as part of an effort to coax into being a Third Party Alliance.
"Fourth, if the political situation calls for it, campaign with a Presidential Slate in 1996, a slate composed of proven leaders from among the variety of parties and groups composing the Alliance.
"The overall goal," Rensenbrink says, "is to make real an alternative vision and to build power in opposition to the megacorporate complex and its vast stable of politicians." (Green Horizon, October/November 1995)
Linda Martin and John Rensenbrink concede that it is a long-term project: "We realize this cannot be done in a matter of a few years. However, we realize that unless a serious beginning is made, we will always be in the situation of those who so regret not having started earlier on an important project that they continue to put off! Hasn't that been the story of 'the left' for decades?"
Clinton and the rise of the Right
In an interview, Barbara Ehrenreich of Democratic Socialists of America and the New Party was asked about how things have turned out with Clinton: "I didn't have high hopes, but I didn't realize he would turn out to be a growth medium for the Far Right, which he has. They've done very well with him. That I didn't expect." (The Progressive, Jan. 1995)
In a recent article in The Progressive with the headline, "Blue-collar Democrats ditch Clinton," the writer cites Robert Brenner, director of the Center for Social Theory at the University of Southern California: "Unless you have a class-based politics today, unless working people see their interests being represented, the right has an opening. There are a lot of people who feel under attack economically and socially. If a candidate gets to them with an economic message, they will respond. But if that message isn't there, they may well respond to a conservative candidate who promises them lower taxes or an end to what they see as social decay. ... Clinton put the Democrats in a box with the balanced-budget plan, and they still haven't gotten out." (The Progressive, January 1996)
Frances Fox Piven points out that, "Neither President Clinton nor the Democrats have had much to say to ease economic anxieties ... since he and other Democrats are so concerned with business investment, bond market stability, and fat-cat campaign contributions." (The Progressive, February 1995)
It is not only angry workers and the poor who are getting off the Clinton-Gore in '96 bus. Katha Pollitt makes the point for liberal readers of The Nation: "Even if Clinton were the unhappy captive of the Democratic Leadership Council, as many disappointed fans believe, and not one of its founding members, as is actually the case; even if he had those good intentions and instincts and impulses with which those fans are still so eager to credit him--so what? He's not going to start acting differently just because liberals tell him to. It would make a lot more sense to devote all that strategic cunning and policy brilliance to building some kind of movement that's more than an address list and a fax machine." (The Nation, Dec. 18, 1995)
Many civil rights activists believe that the Administration's vacillation and flip-flopping has had the effect of encouraging the far right. Robert Dawidoff, the co-author of Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter in America (St. Martin's Press) has argued for building an alternative: "I used to think, as Clinton thought I would, that I would have to vote for him. But now all the bets are off for me and many other lesbian and gay voters like me. Gay groups should consider alternatives to renominating Clinton." (L.A. Times, June 11, 1995)
Ralph Nader: citizen-side politics
The successful draft of Ralph Nader as a Presidential candidate in the March 26 California Green Party primary has been an inspiration to nearly all progressive activists. Kevin Phillips reported that earlier this month polls in California gave Perot 20% as a third-party candidate, and Ralph Nader drew 11% in a separate match-up with Clinton and Dole (L.A. Times, Dec. 31, 1995). Phillips says of Nader's support: "I don't doubt it could be higher. So it's a very interesting warning shot across Clinton's bow." (Village Voice, Dec. 12, 1995)
As anti-nuclear Attorney Robert Hager, who played a key role in persuading Nader to enter the struggle in order to help build a progressive third party movement, says, "Ralph Nader consistently scores highest in polls testing the opinion of Americans about the integrity of public figures. His name recognition compares well with any other such figure involved in public policy over a long term."
But Nader does not want another campaign in which the rank and file voter is a passive consumer. In hanging out his shingle as a candidate, he virtually repeated the famous disclaimer of Eugene V. Debs: "I would not lead you into the Promised Land even if I could, for if someone could lead you in, they could lead you out again."
Nader says, "What's needed is a citizen-side politics. The civic vacuum of electoral politics comes from the people's low expectation of politicians and even lower expectations of their own role in the pre-election period. Voters are supposed to listen to the candidates' speeches, look at their TV spots, size up their personality or character in a hunch and then go to the polls and choose among candidates whom the power structure itself usually views as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. (The Nation, July 20, 1992)
The focus of his politics remains corporate crime. "The looting of pension funds, the bank debacle, occupational hazards, consumer frauds--these are all taboo campaign issues." (L.A. Times, Nov. 25, 1994) Nader has been critical of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, but his target is much broader: it is the new unchecked power of global capitalism. "Basically," Nader stresses, "Clinton follows the power of the global corporations, who are his masters." (The Progressive, May 1995)
The end of corporate liberalism
At issue, really, is the rightward-shift of many political parties that once restrained and regulated their national corporate managers in the name of an over-arching corporate social liberalism dubbed the Welfare State, or the Social Contract, or the Full Employment Economy.
This shift to a New Paradigm, as rightist James Pinkerton calls it, of unbridled exploitation (so-called Free Markets), has affected virtually every liberal, labor, social democratic, and ex-communist party in the world since the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but it was occurring long before that. During the long boom, regulated and pump-primed and socially progressive Western economies were useful as corporations moved into a postwar globalism vexed and harassed by cold war rivalries.
As Antony Crosland told the British Labour Party in 1956, "The voters, now convinced that full employment, generous welfare services and social stability can quite well be preserved, will certainly not relinquish them. Any government which tampered with the basic structure of the full-employment Welfare State would meet with a sharp reverse at the polls."
However, by the end of the long wave of postwar expansion in the early 1970s, with the onset of stagflation and a declining rate of profit, the Keynesian demand-side stimulation was being replaced by a Friedmanesque anti-inflationary zeal to match the employers' offensive against labor.
The change was announced at a 1976 British Labour Conference by James Callaghan: "We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and even insofar as it did ever exist, it only worked on each occasion by injecting a larger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step." (New Left Review, May/June 1995)
The actual relationship of price trends and employment trends turned out to be much more uncertain and complicated, but there was no denying the ideological impact of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962) and other conservative attacks on Keynesianism. Economist Robert A. Levine notes that, "Too many economists, including previous followers of Keynes and Heller, have justified the abandonment of growth-oriented fiscal policies by bowing to the principles of an economic conservativism that is really a return to the world of the 1920s. The 1980s and '90s have seen a revival of pre-Keynesian economics, avowing that government cannot push the creation of jobs." (L.A. Times, June 24, 1995)
The abandonment of Keynesian macro-economic policies and corporate-liberal politics coincided with the end of the long profits boom and the onset of a decline in the profit rate. This decline compelled business offensives against labor's bargaining power, privatization of state owned enterprises and deregulation, cuts in the social wage and welfare, and ultimately tax measures to redistribute income upward. Robert Brenner points out that between 1966-1973, the rate of return on fixed capital investments in manufacturing fell by 25% in the leading six capitalist economies, and by 35% in the United States. By the early-mid 1980s, it had fallen by a further 33% in the leading six and by a further 40% in the United States. And there has been no recovery since. (Against the Current, May/June 1995)
In the U.S., social programs instituted and funded by previous Democratic and Republican administrations since FDR and the New Deal were on the cutting block. Only Pentagon spending remains as the last sacred cow of Keynesian pump-priming of aggregate demand and job creation.
Decay of the Democratic Party
Richard N. Goodwin, an architect of both Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society, has acknowledged the transformation: "The collapse of the Democratic Party--an institution now without ideology or animating belief, a party without a cause and therefore without meaningful existence--should be cause for mourning. ... In the 27 years since 1968, the country and its afflictions have taken a very different form, but the Democratic acolytes of liberalism have failed to change, have, indeed, become captive to the lusts of the same large economic interests they once gloried in fighting or at least tempering." Goodwin welcomes "the prospect of a new political movement outside the present party structure" hoping that it "will be led by progressive and populous forces." (L.A. Times, Jan. 13, 1995)
Manhattan Institute historian Fred Siegel has also written about the twilight of the Democratic Party: "Clinton's promise in the campaign was that in his person, he would resolve the longstanding contradictions in the party. In the end, they're not resolvable." (L.A. Times, June 14, 1993)
Testimony to that effect was provided by U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice-president, Jeffrey H. Joseph, who confessed that, in lobbying the Clinton Administration, big business "didn't win everything we wanted, by any means, but the unions got nothing they really wanted." (L.A. Village View, April 14, 1995)
As Jerry Brown said, "Labor contributed $20 million to the Democratic Presidential campaign and achieved 0 for 5 (NAFTA, GATT, strike protection, minimum wage increase and labor law reform." (Labor Party Advocate, February 1995)
Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming book entitled Revolutionary Organizing in the Age of Reaction, sums up the record of the Democratic Party's conscious shift to the right: "On every major structural development of world capitalism--the imposition of a world market dominated by the United States, Germany and Japan; the ruthless role of the I.M.F., GATT and NAFTA ... the movement toward a worldwide low-wage and high unemployment economy; the failure to restrict corporations through non-negotiable ecologically driven mandates; the abandonment of low-income communities of color; the end of unions as we know them, replaced by dictatorial structures of `labor-management cooperation'; the racialization of and criminalization of poverty; the scapegoating of immigrants--the Clinton team is virtually indistinquishable from Reagan/Bush." (The Nation, June 13, 1994)
Recently millionaire Republican Mike Huffington complained, "Clinton stands for welfare reform and so do we. He says we have to solve the Medicare problem and so do we. But he's using more effective words than the Republicans (L.A. Times, Jan. 2, 1996)
In fact, the Clinton administration has initiated the kind of deficit slashing and De-inventing Government cutbacks that would have met overwhelming opposition if pushed by a G.O.P. White House. As conservative Republican economist Murray Weidenbaum put it, "If it was only Richard Nixon who could go to China, perhaps only Bill Clinton can bite a similarly tough domestic bullet." (L.A. Times, Jan. 17, 1993)."
In one way or another, the same ideological shift occurred in most political parties espousing a form of corporate social liberalism designed to lift all boats, or as Andrew Glyn puts it, a "deficit financed expansion in which the unemployed, wage earners and capitalists all gained. (New Left Review, May/June 1995)
Next month: How to fight back
Walter Sheasby is with the Green Party in Sierra Madre, Calif.