Feb 11, 1995
On January 4, Republicans took over the U.S. Congress, the first time in 48 years that Republicans had absolute control over both its chambers. In the House of Representatives, where their new found “right-wing” populism is the discourse of the day, they overhauled procedural rules, promising to make the House more “accountable” to the people. Following a written script, which Newsweek reported ran some 30 pages, the Republicans passed – one after the other, at precise 37 minute intervals – a long series of rule changes. The most noted were requirements that labor, health & safety, and civil rights laws which govern private business will also apply to the House itself; that the staff assigned to the standing committees of the House be reduced by almost 1/3; and that approval of all tax increases be approved by a 3/5 majority in the House. At the end of the day, Newt Gingrich, the new Republican speaker of the House, crowed that the first session “was a remarkably controlled event. It worked. It worked amazingly.”
Behind the scenes, of course, things also worked, just a little differently. While 1/3 of the committee staff people were being ushered out the door with great fanfare, Gingrich was quietly proposing to spend 40 per cent more for staffing his office than what the previous speaker, Democrat Tom Foley, had spent. Obviously, “accountability” took a back seat to the Republicans' need to replace at least a part of the committee staff, almost all of whom had been hired during the Democrats' 40-year reign in the House.
In any case, this inconsistency did not catch the headlines. What did was the fact that the Republicans had moved so quickly to change so many rules in an institution known more for its long-windedness and foot-dragging capacities than for its speed. This 37-minute-a-rule pace even gave credence to the Republicans pre-election promise to pass, within the first 100 days of the new Congress, bills addressing what the Republicans called the nation's ten most pressing problems. And it reinforced Gingrich's proclamation that the House Republicans were starting a “revolution”. (The Senate Republicans, of course, are talking as though they will play the role the Senate ruling party usually does: to rein in the hot-headed upstarts in the House.)
Thus, the “revolution” began. Congress was inundated with the bills Republicans began to submit, a number of which have already been passed by the House. Their proposals which have so far drawn the most attention, in addition to the “balanced budget amendment”, are the ones dressed up in the moralistic verbiage which characterized the Republicans' campaign. They undertake to “stop violent criminals” by making the death penalty more “workable”, not to mention building still more prisons. They intend to “discourage illegitimacy” by denying welfare payments to teenagers who have babies, to women who have more babies while on welfare, and to women who won't or can't identify the father of their children. They say they will increase a “sense of personal responsibility” in the population by cutting welfare off for anyone who has been on it for 2 years and also by dropping all non-citizens from the welfare rolls. To “strengthen the family”, they would use the tax code to encourage couples to marry and stay married; and they would let parents decide what their children can and cannot be taught in the public schools.
The most famous – or infamous – proposal was Gingrich's call for taking “illegitimate” children away from women on welfare and putting them into orphanages built by the government out of savings realized by kicking the women off welfare. Obviously, he hadn't done his arithmetic, which any number of ordinarily Republican newspapers were quick to point out, advising Gingrich to think through his proposals more carefully. Gingrich responded by advising his critics to see “Boys Town”, the 1940s movie, starring Bing Crosby as a priest who runs an orphanage when he isn't singing.
Of course, Newt is known for running his mouth a little bit faster than his brain. Witness his statements to a college audience, explaining why men are more suited than women for combat: “If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections.... Males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.” Pity the poor giraffes!
The point is not whether Gingrich has a loose mouth – no question about that – nor even whether his proposals could be practically realized. It's obvious that his orphanage proposal, like many others, couldn't be. But that doesn't mean that Gingrich hadn't thought these things out. Like many other proposals the Republicans are making today, it was carefully devised propaganda. Today, a large part of the population – faced with crime, drugs, unemployment, children killing children, etc. – feels that the society is going to pieces. The Republicans respond with moralistic simplifications, focusing attention – and blame – on capitalist society's victims. This same deeply reactionary approach runs through all the propaganda emanating from the Republicans today, drowning out any clear idea of what the Republicans are really proposing.
The Republicans have set out, although much more quietly, the main goals they intend to pursue in the economic field over the next 100 days: they promise to put through another reduction in the capital gains tax; ease depreciation schedules for investment; increase military spending – that is, corporate subsidies; lessen government regulations on business; limit damages in lawsuits against big business.
Of course, they may hide these proposals behind their well ballyhooed promise to pass a $500 per child tax credit. But these gifts to big business are really the cornerstone of their economic program. And while Gingrich may denounce that “bunch of rich, upper-class people” when he proposes to reduce subsidies to the arts and to public radio and television, there is a much more important “bunch of rich, upper-class people” whom the Republicans are not going to touch at all.
The Republicans, like the Democrats, serve the big bourgeoisie. But each party has its own particular voting base drawn from other classes: the Democrats, from the working class, the poor and an important part of the intelligentsia; the Republicans, from the traditional middle classes – shopkeepers, medium and large farmers, ranchers, professionals – and a part of the white skilled workers.
Gingrich and the other House Republicans talk so much about the “family and religious values of ordinary Americans” for a very simple reason – they can't go around broadcasting what they are doing for all those extraordinary people, the ones whose income is in seven figures and up. Those “ordinary people” who voted for the Republicans wouldn't much like it.
The party in power is the one that usually has to take the blame for imposing sacrifices on the population. Today, the Democrats are doing everything they can to reinforce the idea that the Republicans are totally in control – let them take the blame when the population begins to realize that things are getting still worse.
The Democrats already have their sights set on the next election. For example, two weeks into the new Congress, the Democrats submitted a bill to raise the minimum wage. While, the raise is insignificant, it is, nonetheless, a raise. If the Republicans vote it down, as they are expected to do, the Democrats can blame them for keeping the minimum wage so low. (Of course, these same Democrats didn't bother about the minimum wage during the last two years – that is, when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, when they could have passed it.)
The Democrats don't even need to do much to gain some credit. By simply sitting back and letting the Republicans carry on, they appear to be, if not the defender, at least more friendly to the working class and to all those people who feel threatened by the Republicans. For example, today, the Republicans attack Henry Foster, Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, who “confessed” to having performed a grand total of 39 abortions in 38 years of medical practice; Clinton does little to support his nominee. If the nomination fails, the Republicans will take the credit (or the blame), and the Democrats, even while doing nothing to oppose this nonsense, can appear as the champion – perhaps a weak one – but nonetheless a champion of women's right to choose abortion.
The same thing holds true for the budget. Clinton has proposed a new budget which obviously is going to be cut, and cut drastically. Not to be outdone, Clinton proposed steep cuts in welfare, but he left the difficult job up to the Republicans. When Medicare gets the ax, Clinton can say that it wasn't his idea.
Of course, the Republicans will try to play the same game. Undoubtedly there will be a tug of war over their proposal to give a $500 per child tax credit. Someone will have to shoot it down, and the Republicans would like to corner Clinton and make him do it. There has already been this kind of struggle over the issue of new loans and credits to Mexico. With the workers' reaction against NAFTA still ringing in their ears, and with Congress poised to cut Medicare, neither party wanted to provide the votes needed to extend more loans and loan guarantees to Mexico. On many matters, the bourgeoisie can let the two parties play political football. But it could not let the two parties play while Mexico defaulted on its loans and thus created problems for a whole series of American banks and brokerage houses. Clinton, as president, was forced to extend the loans in his own name.
Today, it is difficult to see much difference between the two parties. Especially since the Democrats often seem to be trying to “out-Republican” the Republicans. For example, when Jocelyn Elders, the previous Surgeon General, in answer to an informal question, agreed that it might be a good idea if the schools were to mention masturbation in classes on sex education, and commented that the kids probably already knew all about it anyway, Clinton gave her the boot. Another example: Tim Jennings, Democratic state senator from New Mexico gave this as his answer on how to treat criminals: “It's my personal belief that if they're not rehabilitated after 15 years, kill 'em.”
But given that the Republicans would probably say, “Kill 'em after 10 years”, if not 5, this still leaves the Democrats a tiny little bit to the “left” of the Republicans. And that tiny little bit of difference is all that matters. The problem for the Democrats is not how to defend those under attack today. It's how to give the sense that they would ... if only they could. If the working class should begin to move, if other social movements should develop, the bourgeoisie will once again need them to play their usual role: “friend of the working people” and “defender of freedom and social equality”. Just a little bit of difference between them and the Republicans today can preserve a role for them tomorrow. Once again, in this dictatorship run by two parties, they will be able to appear as the only “real choice.”
While the Republicans have been vociferous in their propaganda since the election, they were much less so before the election. More than anything, they rode into office quietly, aided by a total lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats after two years of total Democratic rule. No one should forget that the rate of abstention in the last election was almost 60 per cent, and that abstention among working people was even greater.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the country has been, for the last few years, more right-wing than what we had known for several decades; the attitudes expressed, more reactionary. Abstentions notwithstanding, the Republican victory probably reflected that.
It's likely that the right wing has grown somewhat, even if the noise it makes has grown a lot more. For example, according to exit polls, the Christian fundamentalists, who made up 12 per cent of those who voted in 1988, were 22 per cent of the turnout in 1994. There may have been a small increase in their actual numbers, which look much bigger because the rate of abstention of everyone else had increased so much. But there is another, important difference: there has been a growth of political groupings based on the evangelical Protestant churches. The Christian Coalition for example was exceedingly active in the campaign, just to turn out all the evangelicals to vote. Having done so, Pat Robertson & Co. are now very active in demanding that the Republicans give them what they want in return, especially on the question of abortion.
Certainly, the Republicans, for electoral reasons alone, are ready to play on the Christian fundamentalists' most reactionary concerns. But the Republicans are also interested in reinforcing the reactionary atmosphere. Spouting a series of platitudes about “moral regeneration of American society”, the Republicans are pandering to the basest prejudices existing in this society: racism, xenophobia, and so on. They cynically propose to commission a study to see “whether white males are discriminated against”. They issue the results of another study which purports to show that immigrants use welfare more than do naturalized citizens – forgetting to mention that the very same study shows that native-born citizens use welfare more than either kind of immigrants, and that there are more white native-born citizens using it than anyone else. Some of them call for an end to abortion. Others declare war on homosexuals. They call for a return of prayer in the public schools and an end of sex education in those same schools. They have helped make The Bell Curve, by Murray and Herrnstein, into a best-seller by referring to it so often. This is the book which purports to use scientific evidence – evidence which has been falsified or cribbed from openly racist publications – to prove that lack of intelligence causes such things as poverty and crime, and that if there is inequality between classes or between races, those inequalities reflect underlying inequalities in intelligence which, they say, are genetically based. And so on and so on.
So far, this “moral regeneration” has remained essentially propaganda. While talk radio is filled with this crap, the major media which speak for the big bourgeoisie, The New York Times or Fortune magazine for example, give the Republicans friendly warnings not to overstep themselves. A Times editorial counselled Gingrich that he would be wise to emulate Reagan who was able, according to The Times, to indicate his disapproval of abortion without ever pushing to outlaw it.
But obviously, the bourgeoisie could change its views, and the Republicans could push further in the direction they have already started, whipping up more racial, ethnic and other antagonisms, and acting to reinforce them.
Even in the current reactionary atmosphere there is a danger. Some of the extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalists, or the survivalists, or the openly racist organizations could act on the propaganda being spouted by the House Republicans today. Certainly, the anti-abortion forces feel strengthened and justified in increasing their harassment of abortion clinics, of the people who work there and of the women who attempt to use them. Maybe we can't be sure that the propaganda emanating from the camp of the House Republicans caused John Salvi to kill two people in abortion clinics in Massachusetts – there had already been other such assassinations. But the Republicans certainly have encouraged a range of other, less overtly violent attacks on women's right to choose abortion.
But the biggest danger in this situation comes not from what the right has done or is about to do. It comes from what the working class does not do, leaving the field open for the right.
There have been no sizeable struggles by the working class, or even a sizeable fraction of it since the 1977-78 miners strike. The social movements fighting for the rights of black people, of other minorities, of women have virtually disappeared. And no one with any real weight in the working class speaks clearly and unambiguously from the left. There is a vacuum, and the right has stepped into it.
In this regard, the thing which holds the workers back more than anything else is the position the unions take. Having for years tried to represent the interests of both the corporations and the workers, they do not speak out unambiguously for the interests of the workers. Nor do they propose to unify and expand the struggles of the working class. Confronting the Republican party in power, with the working class under attack by the corporations and by the Democratic administration, the unions offer no perspective other than pointing people toward the next elections. The goal they give is to return the Democrats to office. In fact, this will not stop the growth of a right, nor will it prepare the workers for what they must do if they are going to fight to defend themselves.
If things do develop more to the right, that development won't be stopped by the working class putting the Democrats back in office. The Democrats will do nothing to stop the right, any more than they resist the attack on Clinton's own nominees today. In fact, if nothing else is proposed to the working class other than putting the Democrats back in, we may see sizeable parts of the working class itself falling for the rhetoric of right-wing demagogues. But if they do, it will be because there is no radical left voice addressing them.