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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

No return to Reagan

(December 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Clinton has delivered on none of his promises, while working class living standards continue to fall. The result is widespread bitterness and cynicism toward the entire political system’

‘It’s the Russian Revolution in reverse.’ That’s how Republican strategist Bill Kristol described the results of the November US elections. He was gloating about the Republican Party’s sweep over the Democrats, which put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. Not one Republican member of Congress nor a single Republican state governor was defeated. Voters’ determination to ‘throw the bums out’ was aimed solely at Democrats, who were trounced.

As the Economist editorialised, ‘Pick whatever metaphor you like-earthquake, tidal wave, bloodbath. For the Democrats the disaster could hardly have been more devastating.’ Gone is house speaker Thomas Foley – the first holder of that office to be defeated since 1862. And gone are Democratic governors in 11 states – including New York’s Mario Cuomo, a rising star in the Democratic Party just a few years ago. The only significant Republican loss in the election was the failure of Oliver North, the right wing fanatic of Contragate fame, to unseat the enormously unpopular Democratic senator Charles Robb of Virginia in a close vote.

In most respects, conservatism carried the day. By some estimates, more than one in every four voters was a self-described Christian conservative. Politicians opposed to abortion now command a majority in Congress. And though pro-gay measures were passed in both Oregon and Idaho, the most watched referendum was a broad anti-immigrant initiative in California, which passed by a three to two margin. The new law, called Proposition 187, denies illegal immigrants access to any welfare services, public schooling, and non-emergency medical services. The day after it passed governor Pete Wilson announced that all prenatal care should be immediately stopped to any pregnant woman who hasn’t got proper documentation, while all children who can’t prove they are in the US legally should be expelled from schools in January.

Most media commentators have heralded this electoral lurch to the right as a return to Reaganism, ‘This time smarter, meaner and better organised’, according to the liberal magazine The Nation. To be sure, the voices of the new Republican majority are even more strident than they were a decade ago.

Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the likely speaker of the House of Representatives – who calls the Democrats ‘left wing elitists’ – plans to propose a constitutional amendment to reintroduce prayer into schools. Bill Archer of Texas announced that he plans to move quickly to cut taxes for the rich.

In September Gingrich introduced a ‘Contract with America’, the ten point programme which is now the Republicans’ rallying cry.

The contract raises the stakes on the same conservative themes trumpeted by the Clinton administration, especially welfare and crime. Like Clinton, the Republicans want to cut poor women and children off welfare after two years, but in addition they want to end any government support to mothers under the age of 18 and to give their children up for adoption.

Republicans also plan to outdo Clinton on crime – a tough feat, considering that Clinton’s crime bill passed earlier this year multiplies sixfold the amount spent by government on police and prisons.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to interpret last month’s election results as a return to the era of Reaganism – or as the public’s yearning to do so. The biggest vote getter in November was the vote of no confidence in either political party. More than six out of ten voters – disproportionately working class people – are so alienated from the political system that they stayed home on election day.

Even among those who voted, the prevailing view was complete disgust with the Democratic Party as the party in power. When asked in a post-election Time/CNN opinion poll what factor was most responsible for the Republican victories in Congress, only 12 percent of voters responded ‘voter support for Republican programmes’. But 50 percent said ‘disapproval of Clinton’s job as president’.

It would be wrong to see just a one way growth of conservatism in US society today. Working class anger is also growing. In 1992 Clinton raised the expectations of working class people in order to win the election. He promised health care for all, pro-union legislation, gay civil rights, sweeping abortion rights and a higher minimum wage. In other words, he promised an end to Reaganism.

Two years later Clinton has delivered on none of his promises, while working class living standards continue to fall. The result is widespread bitterness and cynicism toward the entire political system. This was shown clearly in a Times Mirror opinion poll leading up to the election. In that poll, fully 57 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to see a third party alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. About two thirds said that even if all new politicians took office, they wouldn’t expect the government to work any better; about the same proportion said they couldn’t think of a single public official they admired.

This anger has begun to produce a marked rise in the willingness to fight back – shown most clearly in the wave of protests against Proposition 187 in California, both before and since 8 November. In October 125,000 people took part in a march against the proposition in Los Angeles – believed to be the biggest march in Los Angeles history. That kicked off a protest movement involving more than 15,000 high school students from more than 40 schools, who organised walkouts at every high school throughout the election. The students were so militant that officials shut down the entire school district in a Los Angeles suburb the day after the election, in fear of student riots.

Meanwhile, workers walked out from factories in the Los Angeles garment district in the days before the election, and truckers blockaded the Port of Los Angeles for a day. Thousands of teachers and health care workers have signed pledges to defy the new law, which is now tied up in court challenges. Far from representing a return to Reaganism, the events of recent weeks show that the potential for building a fightback in the US is greater than it has been for decades.

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