Perot, the Danes and the 'end of politics'
'Is this the end of politics?', asked novelist Anthony Burgess, surveying
the American opinion polls which put Ross Perot ahead of both major party
candidates in the presidential race, and the results of the Danish referendum
which rejected the Maastricht treaty.
Not exactly the end of politics, no. But these are the latest signs of the
end of politics as it has been known since the Second World War. And the
sooner we face up to that, the better our chances of creating a new alternative.
Take Ross Perot, the Texan with plenty of dollars but without a party, who
has overtaken both Republican president George Bush and Democratic Party
hopeful Bill Clinton in the early stages of the race for the White House.
What is that all about?
Perot is a presidential candidate without any publicly declared policies,
a man who appears to stand for nothing, except perhaps the right to make
and keep your own money. Declaring that you have no interest in politics
might once have been considered something of a disadvantage for somebody
running for high political office. But not today. In fact, that is Ross
Perot's selling point.
The Texan billionaire has come to prominence by riding a populist wave of
anti-Washington, anti-politician, anti-politics feeling. In America he has
been dubbed the 'kick the bastards out candidate'. As an individual Perot
is pretty irrelevant, and could disappear as suddenly as he emerged. But
for the moment he symbolises the cynical mood among many American voters.
The logic of Perot's supporters is simple enough. They know that all politicians
lie and break their pledges; so why not have a president who makes no promises
in the first place? They can see that no politician sticks to his avowed
principles: they conclude that it makes most sense to support the man who
has none to betray. If politics is all about scandal, graft and governmental
incompetence, they say, we would be better off without it.
One Perot campaign worker was at pains to explain to the Sunday Times
that his team 'aren't lobotomised fanatics for Perot', and don't think
the little man from Texas is 'the messiah'. Instead, they were supporting
Perot to show their disgust with corrupt US politicians who are 'getting
so blatant and arrogant about it', and their contempt for
a president 'who thinks you can revive an economy by buying 15 pairs of
gym socks' (24 May 1992). A Newsweek poll has shown that 52 per cent
of Americans who claim to support Perot do so because they 'dislike other
candidates'; only 12 per cent of them said they backed his 'stands on issues'
Of course, there is nothing new about corrupt, lying or incompetent American
presidents. Every incumbent of the White House would fall easily enough
into at least one of those categories. For the past half a century, however,
they have usually been able to get away with it, thanks to the combined
power of Cold War politics and a booming economy.
The anti-communist ethos of postwar American politics overshadowed all else.
Just about the only qualification needed to enter government was to be a
staunch and vigilant opponent of the Soviet Union and the Red Menace. A
politician did not have to stand for anything much, so long as he
was firmly against 'un-American activities'. And while the US economy was
literally delivering the goods, it was easier still for the Washington elite.
Now that the Cold War and the postwar boom are both gone forever, US statesmen
stand exposed to critical scrutiny. Instead of railing against the evil
'un-Americanism' of others, the politicians have had to show the public
what their 'Americanism' stands for. So far, they have shown that it stands
for economic slump and political scandals; for presidents who say 'watch
my lips, no new taxes' and then raise them anyway, or who secretly back
an Iraqi dictator one week and publicly brand him 'the new Hitler' the next.
The result of this process is the widespread rejection of politics, and
the rise of Ross Perot.
There may not yet be a direct equivalent of Perot outside of the USA. But
the same trends are evident throughout the West. Everywhere, the end of
the Cold War and the onset of recession has produced circumstances in which
the post-1945 order is unravelling and conventional politics is in disgrace.
The Danish referendum vote to reject the Maastricht proposals on European
integration was a graphic example.
Many commentators have tried to present that Danish referendum result as
a conscious rejection of the provisions of the Maastricht treaty by a growing
political movement opposed to European unity. This is rewriting history.
A look at why Danes voted 'no' reveals that it had nothing to do with any
politically conscious movement, and not all that much to do with the issue
of Europe. It was largely a consequence of an antipolitics mood already
obvious in the decline of support for the old Danish parties of right and
The Danish 'no' vote was a gesture by people who are increasingly alienated
from the established parties and political system, which they feel has left
them without representation or influence. It was a case of disillusioned
and embittered voters lashing out in 'up yours' fashion; against the Danish
political establishment, against the Euro-bureaucracy, against the Germans,
against politics. Maastricht just happened to come along at the right time
to catch the backlash.
The factors which produced the Danish referendum result are also at work
in other European countries. As we examine in full in a special feature
in this issue of Living Marxism, the whole continent is experiencing
governmental breakdowns and national identity crises. The role of Ross Perot
is being played in Europe by emergent parties and splinter groups espousing
various strains of regionalism and right-wing populism, all of which are
opposed to the established political order.
Even apparently stable old Britain is not immune. The general election may
have resulted in another Tory victory, but beneath the surface, the cynical
drift of opinion is clear. Like Perot's supporters in America, the majority
of people polled in Britain said that they were voting negatively, against
the other candidates, rather than positively for the party of their choice.
Here too, politics is increasingly seen as an irrelevant charade that does
not touch upon the reality of people's lives and problems.
None of this really means the end of politics. Rather, it represents the
triumph, at least temporarily, of the politics of low expectations. Supporting
Perot or lashing out against Maastricht is a way of saying that you expect
nothing worthwhile from the politicians, but neither do you really believe
that there is any alternative which would change things for the better.
This mood poses problems for those of us concerned to build support for
such an alternative. So what can be done about it?
We could try to find something positive to latch on to in current trends,
by courting public cynicism and encouraging more bitter gestures. That is
the approach adopted by much of the old left in Europe. In Denmark, the
left ran what amounted to a joint campaign with the far right for a 'no'
vote in the Maastricht referendum. And in Britain, left-wing Labour MPs
like Dennis Skinner have joined the Tory right in championing a backlash
This might help the left to create the illusion of success by appearing
to promote a popular cause. But by abandoning any pretence of standing for
something different, and lining up with reactionaries, the old left is only
strengthening public cynicism about politics and compounding people's low
It is time we accepted that there is nothing positive which we can relate
to in public affairs today. The parties of the postwar left are now exhausted.
And two-fingered gestures like those which the Perot campaign or the Danes
have given to the political establishment do not represent a genuine alternative,
but a narrow, blind reaction against the discredited old order.
The consequence of accepting this fact is that we will have to start from
scratch in creating a new kind of politics. This is the project which Living
Marxism is here to help advance. Our aim is to promote a fresh, critical
approach to the problems of capitalist society, which can demonstrate the
need for fundamental change. Furthering that critique of capitalism will
be a key theme of Towards 2000, the week of discussion which Living Marxism
is sponsoring in London from 24 to 30 July (see centre pages).
Tackling the mood of cynicism and low expectations is a must. But giving
people a positive belief in politics cannot be done simply by changing the
candidates for US president, or by altering the arrangements among the governments
of Europe. It will depend upon convincing people of their own capacity to
improve things, by getting organised behind the politics of anticapitalism.
Such a revolutionary perspective has often been dismissed as unrealistic.
But what other option is there today? All of the more 'realistic' options
we were offered have failed, and we are left with an unappealing choice
between the parties of the past and a Perot. Those who want to do something
about 'kicking the bastards out' for good will need something better than
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992