Caught Off Base

EYES RIGHT!: Reflections on the November 8th Elections

What do the election returns tell us? First, Republicans did not win so much as Democrats – particularly conservative Democrats – lost. The biggest vote in these elections stayed home. Republicans ran raw-meat conservatives to excite their base, and negative campaigns to drive away others. Too many Democrats ran away from their own voters, already demoralized by reversals in Washington. So Democratic candidates lost to Republican candidates able to attract 20 percent of the eligible vote. When people were excited – as in Florida and Virginia, which had record turnouts – high-profile conservative challengers Jeb Bush and Ollie North were defeated. Conservative Democrats erroneously assume they can inherit the votes of working and poor people without having to earn them. They must learn that perspiration follows inspiration.

The Administration had better rethink its “Democrats for the leisure class” strategy. It is not winning over opponents; it is losing friends. The President shelved investment in favor of deficit reduction to woo Perot voters, but they voted overwhelmingly Republican. He stiffed labor on NAFTA and citizen activists on health care to woo business, but the business lobby bailed out on health care and bought into the conservative movement. Clinton embraced the D.L.C.’s agenda – pushing anti-crime, national service, deficit reduction, “three strikes, you’re out,” “two years and off” welfare – only to be constantly sabotaged by D.L.C. senators. The D.L.C. went with the money rather than pushing campaign finance reform, but the money went to Republicans in big parcels when it was clear they had a chance to take over.

The Administration should focus on how to strengthen its base – unions, African-Americans, Latinos, women, greens, gays and lesbians and the rest of the Rainbow – rather than continue to alienate these voters, and then wonder why they don’t turn out.

This election does reflect a continuing desire to shake things up. Working people are working harder for less money, fewer benefits and less security. They are scared about their kids, worried about their future. They voted for change in 1992, but saw little happen. A Democratic Congress couldn’t produce the one measure that addressed real concerns – national health care reform. Faced with a choice between false promises and no hope, most voters want broader options.

The conservative victory in the election is part of a deeper retrenchment, a reaction to the progress wrought by the liberation movements of the last decades – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the environment. A century ago, a bipartisan deal ended Reconstruction. Blacks were thrown out of office and into apartheid. A conservative Supreme Court ratified the lie of “separate but equal.” Neo-Darwinians suggested blacks were inferior, unable to compete.

Now we see it all again. The two parties turn their backs on those isolated in ghettos and barrios. A conservative Supreme Court reverses course on affirmative action and voting rights. Racialist ideologues invoke pseudoscience to describe blacks as genetically inferior, thus relieving the affluent of any responsibility for the poor. Welfare mothers and immigrants make easy targets for the cheap shots of ambitious pols. Last time, segregation lasted almost 100 years before the civil rights movement brought the country to its senses. This time, the backlash must be fought from day one.

Progressives are mostly spectators in relation to the Clinton strategy, but we can determine what we do on our own. It’s time to stop bemoaning the Administration’s flailings and return to independent action, organizing a broad movement for economic justice for poor and working people, putting forth an agenda that offers real help in a time of trouble, providing hope in dark times. Don’t let the pundits mislead you, or the returns discourage you. Dr. King always warned about the paralysis of analysis; smart people can find hundreds of reasons to explain why things never change. It is time to move.

“Caught off Base,” from the Nov. 28, 1994, issue of The Nation. Reprinted with Permission.

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