'Cultural war' against 'commie-libs'
George Bush and the Republicans have launched a desperate bid to brand poll-topping Bill Clinton as a leftist. Which is ironic, observe James Heartfield and Graham Bishop, since the Democrats themselves are now appealing to Reaganite prejudice
Whatever happens in America - hurricane Andrew, the debate over Iraq or Bosnia - the conclusion always seems to be the same: George Bush is a weak president. The perception that the Bush administration has lost its way is all-embracing.
November's presidential elections present a major challenge not just for Bush, but for his party. For more than 20 years, elections have been marked by the fragmenting of the Democratic Party and the ascendancy of the Republican Party. Now, however, the Republican base is crumbling.
Richard Nixon first pulled together the constituency which has kept a Republican in the White House in all but one of the elections since. Nixon appealed to white suburbanites, Californians and southerners who identified their own relative success with America's ascendancy in the Cold War era. The two things they feared were the black inner cities they had fled and America's Soviet enemies abroad. All the Republicans had to say to win was that the Democrats were soft on crime or communism.
Today that Republican constituency has been paralysed by the twin pressures of the end of the Cold War and the recession. The recession has left America's middle class feeling the pinch badly. The end of the Cold War and the loss of unquestioned global leadership has robbed the US right of its coherence, and undermined American pride in the country's international status. Foreign adventures strike many Americans as a commitment with little return while the economy is stagnant. 'Saddam Hussein's still got his job, have you got yours?', read the bumper stickers.
The weakness of the Republican constituency has been expressed in many ways in the run-up to the election. First there was the right-wing challenge to Bush from Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan. Buchanan's unexpectedly strong challenge for the party's presidential nomination put Bush under real pressure. Most importantly Buchanan defined the perception of Bush as a backslider who had ignored his own promises to middle America. 'Read my lips', chanted the Buchanan supporters, parodying the president's broken promise on taxes, 'No second term!'.
Domestic cold war
Then there was Ross Perot. Perot appealed to a middle class constituency that wanted to see America back on its feet. The Perot phenomenon went as fast as it came, expressing nothing more than a discontent with the old arguments. But in the process Perot peeled votes off Bush, and, when he withdrew, Bill Clinton picked up enough of those votes to put himself 20 points ahead in the polls.
With their backs to the wall the Republicans are making a desperate bid to discredit the Democrats. The Republican right has launched what amounts to a domestic cold war, painting Clinton as the biggest danger to America since Joseph Stalin.
Eleven and a half million Americans listen to radio talkshow host Rush Limbaugh, whose daily broadcast is produced by Bush communications adviser Roger Ailes. Limbaugh's shows are one long rant against the 'commie-libs' - his term for Clinton and the Democrats. It is a phrase which captures the tone of the Republicans' last-gasp campaign.
At the party convention, the Republican right held sway over the platform. Buchanan's first-night speech launched a new crusade to cohere the politics of race and reaction - 'the cultural war':
'There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton [Hillary and Bill] are on the other side and Bush is on our side.'
Texas senator Phil Gramm emphasised that the cultural war was a war against the commie-libs of the Democratic Party: 'In all the world, only in Cuba and North Korea and in the Democratic Party in America do we still have organised political groups who still believe that the answer to every problem is more government.'
The Republicans have responded to the low polls in the only way they know - by upping the stakes. In previous elections won by Reagan and Bush, slating the Democrats for being liberals has worked. Today, when both America and the Republicans are in more desperate straits, they have raised the stakes much further by branding the Democrats as 'commie-libs' and Cuban allies.
The Republicans' cold war against Clinton may manage to consolidate their own fragmented core. But it is far from certain that the hysterical prejudice of the party right will win back wider support. Some aspects of the platform, such as opposition to legalised abortion, are proven vote-losers. It is also stretching credibility to accuse Clinton of being a 'leftist' at the moment when his party is modelling itself on the politics of the Republican majority more than ever before.
Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that the Democrats are fifth columnists for communism. Bill Clinton's biggest commitment to state expenditure is the creation of a National Police Corps. If he did manage to beat Bush in November, it would probably make less difference to America than any change of president in the past.
The Clinton campaign has carefully crafted its policies to evoke the images of a traditional Democrat agenda while in practice echoing the substance of Reaganite Republicanism. Catchphrases like 'New Covenant' evoke the Democrats' New Deal of the 1930s, while Clinton has dug out his earliest photo-opportunity: himself as a teenager shaking John F Kennedy's hand.
Clinton's New Covenant is far from a return to the liberal spending commitments of Roosevelt or Kennedy. In his newly published Putting People First, Clinton is at pains to emphasise that nobody is getting a free ride. Training programmes will be expanded to 'break the cycle of dependency' but 'after two years, [we will] require those who can work to go to work either in the private sector or in community service'. As well as threatening the introduction of forced labour schemes, Clinton promises firm action against fathers who desert children to welfare dependency. From criticising welfare dependency to upholding family values, these are familiar themes for Republican supporters.
'No more freebies'
By distinguishing between real need and the undeserving welfare dependents, the Democrats appeal both to the fear of recession among middle Americans and to the prejudice that secured the old Republican majority. White suburbanites identify welfare dependency with blacks and the inner cities. They resent taxes because they imagine that they are paying to buy crack for black 'welfare queens'. Clinton's tough talk appeals to those sentiments.
Writing in the New Democrat Daniel Yankelovitch explains Clinton's New Covenant: 'If the society gives you a benefit, you must pay it back in some appropriate form. This means no more "freebies", no more rip-offs and no more unfairness to the middle class.' Middle class is here a euphemism for white America, just as 'welfare' is a code word for black.
In black and white
The underlying racial message of Clinton's campaign is not restricted to welfare spending. Clinton has opposed racial division, but at the same time attacked black militants for creating it. His attack on black rap star Sister Souljah over her support for black rioters in Los Angeles followed a similar line to Bush and Dan Quayle, in reposing the issues as ones of black crime and violence rather than poverty and racism.
Clinton's chosen photo-opportunity on the eve of the Maryland, Georgia and Colorado primaries was in front of a formation of prisoners in chains, most of whom were black, at the Stone Mountain Correctional Facility. Jerry Brown, Clinton's liberal challenger for the Democratic nomination, interpreted the imagery well enough: 'Two white men and 40 black prisoners, what's he saying? He's saying "we got 'em under control folks, don't worry".'
Despite the Republicans' attempt to portray the Democrats as high-spending commie-libs there is less dividing the two parties than ever before. They have always been alternative parties of American capitalism, but today's Democrats are even to the right of yesterday's Republicans.
Homer and hearth
In the circumstances of this circus, it is no wonder that many Americans are fed up with politics. Anti-political movements like the Ross Perot candidacy are only the symptoms of a growing cynicism about the common programme offered by the two parties against a background of national crisis. The celebration of home and hearth as against a hostile world provides little comfort to a middle America in the depth of another recession. When Bush said that he wanted family values in America to be like The Waltons rather than The Simpsons, Homer and family replied that they were just like the Waltons: waiting for the end of the Depression.
Whoever manages to scrape together enough votes to win in November, however, one thing is certain. The growing all-party consensus on issues like black crime and welfare, and the declaration of the 'cultural war', ensures that race will remain the most potent issue in America up to and beyond the election.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992