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The US presidential election revealed the extent of popular disaffection with the political system. In response, says James Heartfield, the American authorities are undermining democracy under the cover of attacking corrupt special interests

Corrupting democracy

One year ago both the Democratic and Republican parties were rocked by grassroots revolts as voters turned away from traditional politics with a cry of 'Kick the bums out!'. Politicians' links with business and the powerful 'special interest' lobbies seemed to sum up the corruption of congress and government. But if the people do not trust the politicians, it has become clear that the politicians do not trust the people.

During and after the presidential campaign, the widespread resentment against political corruption has been hijacked by the authorities and turned against the voters. In the guise of a campaign against 'special interests', Bill Clinton's incoming administration is distancing itself from popular demands and trying to curb democratic representation in favour of executive power.

The 1992 election revealed the greatest degree of disillusionment with American politicians since the Watergate scandal. Voters were incensed at being lied to over everything from Iraq to taxes, while administration officials chartered private jets to cross the country and congressmen lived the high life by bouncing cheques.

Voter rage rocked both the Republican and Democratic parties. With the launch of Ross Perot's rogue presidential campaign the voters got a candidate whose sole appeal was that he was 'none of the above' - and backed him none the less. Bill Clinton's eventual victory, with just 23 per cent of the available vote, said more about voter disillusionment than support for his programme, even if anyone could remember any one of the 12 points in his plan.

Lying and cheating

Lying and cheating are hardly new to American politics, and in themselves could not explain the degree of hostility to the politicians today. But in the past all of the lying and the cheating was kept under wraps by the politics of the Cold War. Cold War politics created a climate of 'us and them', in which critics of the system could be vilified as un-American, or even fellow travellers of the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, all of the criticisms that could once have been swept under the carpet have come out in the open.

The Cold War provided a diversion from problems at home, as attention focused on the exercise of American power abroad. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, foreign adventures appear less compelling and many Americans have turned their attention inwards. 'Come home America' was the election slogan which seemed to sum up the feeling that politicians had ignored the recession at home in favour of visits overseas. The slump had become impossible to ignore without the cover provided by Cold War politics. When the voters turned to look at the home front, all of the politicians' old excuses had run out.

The new disaffection with traditional politics has focused on the corruption rife in congress and the administration. In fact backhanders from business interests have always been an integral part of government. Indeed, in so far as government defence contracts and building projects meant more jobs, nobody was complaining. But as the gap between the politicians and the concerns of ordinary Americans has widened, so the relationship between business and government has looked more and more like graft.

In response to the growth of voter hostility, politicians have made a lot of noises about anti-corruption drives and accountability. However, the substance of their response has been to try to turn it around so that they become even less accountable to popular pressure. This is well-illustrated by the way in which the Washington establishment is reacting to the charge of corruption by trying to curb the influence of the public.

West Coast 'wackos'

During the presidential campaign, the major parties' knee-jerk reaction to their unpopularity was to blame the voters. Early on in the campaign, the Bush team wrote off California as home to so many 'wackos' - supporters of Al Gore's green politics. George Bush complained of the widespread disillusionment with his handling of the economy that 'when blue collar workers lose their jobs they blame the economy, when white collar workers lose their jobs they blame the president'.

Not just the right were frightened of the public. The liberal section of the Democratic Party, their welfare policies ditched in Clinton's bid for respectability, were also worried about the new mood. They warned Clinton about adapting to the voters. 'There is a giddy enthusiasm', warned the Nation, 'among those who endorsed the neo-liberal strategy as they watch the white, so-called middle class, culturally conservative and suburban voters, previously enamoured of Reagan and Bush, flock to the Democratic fold. But they are strangely silent about, or indifferent to, the kind of America this exclusionist strategy could create in the hard times ahead' (9 November 1992).

Having first blamed the voters for the lack of interest in their party programmes, the more considered response of liberals and conservatives alike was to seek to hijack the anti-corruption mood and redirect it against ordinary people's interests. The culmination of the official anti-corruption drive has been to impose new restrictions upon representation to congress and to increase the president's executive powers over congress.

Clinton announced a stiff code of ethics for his interim administration to curb the influence of special interest lobbies over government. The code includes bans upon administration officials working as lobbyists for five years, or for life if the company is foreign-owned. But it is hard to believe that the code is aimed at business interests. As the New York Times pointed out, Vernon Jordan, chair of Clinton's transitional team, earns $442 000 in fees for sitting on the boards of at least 11 corporate giants.

Whose interests?

In fact, the anti-corruption drive is not aimed at business but at ordinary people's needs. Newsweek was quick to warn the president-elect that his toughest task will be 'to tame the political culture of Washington before it consumes him' (30 November). According to Newsweek, the widespread demand for universal healthcare - a demand that Clinton flirted with during the campaign - is nothing more than the lobbying of an over-rich medical establishment. Other lobbies targeted in Newsweek's hitlist include 'liberal interests' such as education, inner-city development and sex education.

Clinton's own case for health reforms picks up on the anxiety of the 35m Americans who are uninsured. But instead of promising to spend more on health, his reforms aim to curb the excessive cost of healthcare. The blame for the failure of the healthcare system is shifted on to the backs of a special interest - overcharging doctors - and the case is made for a cut in spending on health at a time when many Americans want a big increase.

In the wake of the anti-corruption drive, two governmental reforms have found favour with the powers that be: term-limits for congressmen, and a line-item veto over congressional bills for the president. Both reforms appeal to the popular anti-political sentiment - but end up curbing popular democracy.

Limiting the number of terms a representative can sit in congress chimes with the anti-congress mood. In the November election, referenda in 14 states passed proposals supporting term limits. The reform was popularised by Bush as a way of shifting the blame on to congress for the political stalemate that beset his administration. The argument is that the longer congressmen serve, the greater the influence which special interest lobbies exert upon them.

Against the people

Blaming the so-called special interests that lobby congressmen is just a way of blaming the electorate's poor choice of representatives for America's political and economic crisis. Term limits do not increase the voters' choice of representation, but allow the law rather than the voters to decide whether a congressman should stand a chance of being re-elected.

President Clinton favours the line-item veto as a way of curbing congress. It was Bush who first argued that if he could pick and choose which parts of a bill he wanted to endorse and which parts he wanted to veto, government would be able to take the decisive action required today. It was an argument that appealed to a desire to get things done, while in practice favouring the executive over the representative wing of government. A line-item veto can only further restrict democracy, by allowing the president to rewrite legislation coming from congress.

Bill Clinton's anti-corruption rhetoric is a cynical attempt to ride the popular rage at the old politics. By redefining corruption to mean any sort of demand that is put upon government, he turns popular disillusionment into a weapon against the people.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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