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
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
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
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.
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
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
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