The End of Liberalism?

The Democrats, the Elections and the Rise of Independent Politics.

The pundits have their rap down: Clinton went too far to the left, and the voters "sent a message" against liberal, activist government. The Republicans are "in touch" with a tax-weary, crime-weary citizenry, and now are poised to implement their two-step of punishment for the less well-off and rewards for the wealthy.

That makes for a neat storyline, and allows television correspondents to avoid the task of real thinking, but it's a shallow analysis.

Why? Because on the core economic issues of the day, President Clinton listened too attentively to the center-right of his own party (prominently, the Democratic Leadership Council) and moved to the right from the opening bell of his Administration. In so doing, he set the stage for the Republican landslide.

Think back to the budget, in which the Administration tried to accommodate "the Perot voter" (and the bond market) with a budget package/tax hike that stressed deficit reduction over economic policies to improve living standards for ordinary people. The Clinton crowd, frustrated, complains that they get no credit for the economic progress the nation has made, but that's because the progress is not visible to most people.

Think back to the NAFTA battle, which turned off the best activists in the labor and family farm wings of the Democratic Party's grassroots base.

Think back to the crime bill, racist in impact if not intent, and widely understood as a silly symptom of election- year politics. Its main effect will probably be to further alienate the Democratic Party's core black voters and activists.

And think back, finally, to the health care debacle. On an issue that could have been the crowning and definitive achievement of the Administration, the center-right of the Democratic Party had neither the intelligence nor the discipline to deliver on a reform that would have been both good policy and good politics. In offering an absurdly complicated proposal that desperately sought to offend nobody (especially big insurance companies), the Administration played into the Republican message about how "the government can't do anything right," which in turn helped them win this stunning victory.

In hindsight, the fatal flaw in Clinton's overall strategy should now be apparent even to, say, Lloyd Bentsen or Al From. The Administration had hoped to "fix" the economy with the approval and support of the business community. In return, corporate America would provide some running room for an activist agenda on health care, the environment, national service, and the like.

But it didn't work, and it really couldn't have. You can't "fix" the economy without at least some willingness to actually challenge corporate power and privilege. Kevin Phillips is right -- a good chunk of our GNP has been shifted away from working and middle class people to the wealthy, but this dirty little secret is one that Democrats are afraid to mention (and Republicans would never admit). Clinton and the Democrats got blown away not because they were too liberal, but because they never developed a populist message or program. Absent such a program, the economic anxieties of the day -- downsizing, part-time work, stagnating wages, college graduates who have to live at home, and on and on -- leave people wide open for the demagogues of the Republican Right and their sideshow appeals on immigration, taxes and crime.

If President Clinton continues to govern as the "extreme centrist" that some advisers prefer, then he is headed for a disastrous last two years. The only way to outflank Gingrich and Company would be to reveal the Republican program for its anti-democratic, pro-corporate bias. Fight hard and creatively for labor law reform and the share of national income that goes to working people. Raise high the banner of genuine campaign finance reform, a key concern for independent voters. Ignore the clamor for mindless "bipartisanship," and just keep saying that it really does take two to tango.

This election marks the end of liberalism, but not in the simplistic way that Newt Gingrich believes. The "state" has failed, but the unbridled "free market" cannot succeed. Some new (and old) structures, rooted in workplaces and communities, will need to be constructed or built anew. Whether or not we need government off our backs, we certainly need it on our side. And any party or candidate who can figure how to do that will have a bright future.

It may be that such a party is already in formation. (A massive Times-Mirror poll registered 53% of the public in favor of a "major third party," so there's no doubt that the soil is fertile). Among the hopeful contenders is the "New Party," one of a handful of newly forming independent, progressive parties in the country. New Party chapters have backed 93 candidates in nine states over the last eighteen months and won 62 elections. On November 8th, New Party candidates went 24 for 36 in local elections for city council, school board, zoning board and the like. Their program: democratic reform, economic fairness, environmental sustainability and a large dose of common sense. This election is startlingly clear evidence of just how ripe the moment is for such a new party, and for just such common sense, in American politics.

Back to the New Party page.