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More Ross Perot than Ronald Reagan

After the Republican Party victory in America's mid-term elections, James Heartfield explains why there will be no return to Reaganism

The defeat for Bill Clinton's Democratic administration in America's November mid-term elections was resounding. For the first time since 1954, the Democrats lost control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives - something they had controlled all through the Reagan-Bush years. Traditional Democrat governorships like New York state and Texas also fell to the Republicans.

The leader of the Republican campaign, former academic Newt Gingrich, promised to bury the remnants of the 'Great Society, counter-culture, McGovernick' legacy with his 10-point 'Contract with America' platform. Reaganism, says Gingrich, is back. The idea that the clock has been turned back to the era of Ronald Reagan's presidency depressed liberals as much as it delighted conservatives in America and Britain.

According to the Sunday Telegraph 'the elections confirm what conservatives have been saying all along, that Clintonism is the last gasp of a defunct ideology and that this administration is a freak interlude in a relentless historical shift to the hard right' (13 November 1994). But the celebrations at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square are premature.

Despite Newt Gingrich's claims, the 'Contract with America' and the Republican Party's election triumph do not mean a return to the strident free market conservatism associated with Reagan. In fact, on almost every issue the Republicans have been running scared from the high moral posture struck by the former film star and president.

Take the issue that has been at the heart of the programme of right-wing Republicanism in recent years: opposition to abortion. In the heady days of the moral majority, 'born again' president Reagan was personally identified with the 'pro-life' crusade. Yet today, the Gingrich camp has studiously avoided saying anything about abortion. Even Ralph Reed Jnr of the Christian Coalition has warned that the right has to tread carefully on the abortion issue - recognising that voters were more interested in tax cuts than being told how to live their private lives.

Those Republicans who did closely identify with the moral majority - like conservative champion Oliver North, veteran of the Iran-Contra scandal - have not gained with the party. North lost his Virginia campaign after the intervention of Nancy Reagan, criticising North for lying to her husband when he was president.

Nor for that matter have today's Republicans taken up the standard of foreign policy in the way that Reagan and his successor George Bush did. For Reagan, America's willingness to walk tall in the world was the foundation of his government's authority. By contrast the in-coming Republican team are equivocal about America's global role.

Conservatives understand that patriotism is still an effective stick with which to beat a president who avoided the draft. Appointing the belligerent right-winger Jesse Helms to sit on the senate defence committee must have seemed like a good idea - especially after he caused a storm by saying that Clinton was not fit to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Later he suggested that the president would need an armed guard to visit American army bases, so unpopular were his defence policies.

But the storm blew up in Helms' face after former president Bush went on record to say that Helms represented everything that was wrong about current Republican thinking on defence, especially an unwillingness to honour America's commitments abroad.

Republicans moved even further from the Reagan legacy when senate leader Bob Dole said that British and French obstructions to American policy over Bosnia could lead to the 'complete breakdown' of Nato. Where Reagan used the Western alliance as a guarantee of American leadership, today's Republicans are threatening to withdraw from it. In the 1992 presidential elections it was the Democrats who ran against the foreign policy president - George Bush. Today it is the Republicans who are increasingly using Clinton's campaign slogan 'Come home America'.

The isolationist rhetoric in Republican foreign policy statements is an indicator of one real reason for their recent electoral success - the party's ability to cash in on voters' hostility to government. Military adventures in Haiti and Somalia seem to many Americans only the worst example of the way that their government ignores their interests.

The most effective anti-government measure in Gingrich's contract is one policy that is in keeping with the Reagan legacy: welfare cuts. Cuts in welfare spending appeal to the increasingly suburbanised American working classes as well as the more affluent middle classes.

For many years now, more people have lived in the suburbs than the cities. Those who can afford to have moved out as industry has decamped. As inner cities are left to the poor, financial crises have crippled American city halls. In the suburbs, Americans resent paying taxes to keep city-dwellers on welfare.

Anti-tax campaigns have always been a mainstay of Republican platforms. They appeal to an unstated assumption of American politics: that 'welfare dependent' and 'city' are code words for non-whites. The suburbs, by contrast to the inner cities, are almost exclusively segregated through informal colour bars upheld by pre-emptive policing.

Anti-tax campaigns play on the prejudice that the black inner city is the author of its own failure, rather than the victim of economic decline. The identification of taxes with big government lends anti-welfare campaigns a populist flavour. By playing off the white suburbanites against the inner cities, the Republican Party secured itself enough working class votes to win.

Anti-city sentiment cost the Democrats key governorships in New York state, where the electorate is largely made up of the New York overspill, and in the south. In the mid-term elections, Californians also voted for Proposition 187 that bars 'illegal' Mexican immigrants from access to basic welfare measures - like schools. The mood behind the Republican victory reflects a society fraught with increasingly bitter divisions. In the absence of the Cold War rhetoric that pulled America behind Ronald Reagan, these trends can only accelerate the disintegration of American society.

Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America' is framed in pointedly anti-government terms. Commitments to audit Capitol Hill and investigate fraud back to 1906 play upon American resentment at big government. The Republican victories in the mid-term elections owe more to the anti-incumbency politics of Ross Perot than the Cold War politics of Ronald Reagan.

All the indications are that, now they are back in Washington, the Republicans will distance themselves from the anti-government rhetoric of Gingrich's 'Contract with America' in favour of a more conciliatory approach to the Democratic presidency. Already Gingrich has been overshadowed by more pragmatic Republican leaders like Bob Dole.

The potential for cooperation with the Democrats is more extensive than the conservative rhetoric of the election campaign suggests. There is an underlying convergence between the major US parties that fits into a pattern identifiable across Western politics.

Even before the elections, Clinton's Demo-crats were committed to 'welfare reform'. The style of the Democrats' welfare policy is different --posed in terms of helping people back to work rather than cutting benefits. But the content is similar: both parties are committed to reducing welfare spending by a managed reduction of entitlements.

Republican and Democrat leaders have indicated areas of possible cooperation, especially in reducing the role of the legislature - that is, the houses of congress - in favour of the executive --the White House. Limits on the number of terms that congressmen can serve and an increased presidential power of veto are supported by both the president and the Republican leaders.

It seems strange that Republicans would willingly reduce their power relative to that of a lame-duck Democratic president. But it is part of the emerging consensus that authoritarian measures are necessary to reduce the pressure on the budget and resolve the crisis of the political system. In this view, the hard decisions and cuts that government needs to take to manage America's economic decline are best made if the electorate has less impact on policy.

The irony is that an election success achieved by playing upon American fears of big government and resentment at the incumbent adminstration will lead to a greater consolidation of executive power over the electorate. Behind the apparent hostilities between the Republicans and Democrats, the political class is closing ranks to defend American capitalism against the demands of the American people.


Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 75, January 1995
 
 

 

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