Repair Manuals for Politics

Columnist George Will may crow about "an era of wealth creation unprecedented in human history." But the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton have decisively increased poverty and dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor. A century of social welfare programs have been systematically dismembered. The social "safety net," which generally protected the poor and working poor from the free fall into abject misery, is sagging and tattered. Whereas in 1977, 16.2 percent of all children were raised in poverty, in 1993, 22.7 percent of children were poor, the highest percentage since 1964.

These statistics come as no surprise to the people on the short end of the stick—the poor, the working class, and the dwindling middle class. Several recent books provide chapter and verse on our country's dangerous course of driving an increasing number of people into poverty and the fact that, for nearly two decades, government has failed its most fundamental responsibility of serving and protecting the poor and marginalized of our society.

Robert B. Reich's Locked in the Cabinet provides an insider's view of Clinton's successful candidacy for presidency and his first term in office. Reich's journal details his struggle to balance his commitment to his family and his new job as Secretary of Labor. The heart of the book, however, is his ongoing struggle to preserve some measure of Clinton's promised "investment in the future."

Laced with humorous anecdotes and political barbs, the brunt of Reich's criticism is not aimed at foes across the aisle, the unlovable Newt Gingrich and his Republican buddies, many of whom Reich calls "bullies and thugs." His chief adversaries are fellow Cabinet members Panetta, Rivlin, and Bentsen and, as the 1996 election approaches, political spin master Dick Morris. As a result, Reich's tale is largely one of repeated compromise and frustration.

Reich records ongoing skirmishes in an increasingly futile battle to salvage a progressive agenda from the demands of Wall Street and the firm grip of the most powerful man in the U.S. economy—Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan. According to Reich, Clinton's putative populism was continually eroded and undercut: "[D]espite modest gains among the working poor, the 1990s have witnessed greater polarization of income than at any other time since the Second World War. We are fast becoming two cultures—one of affluence and contentment, the other of insecurity and cynicism."

He describes the confluence of factors leading to early failures, including a president who is "unfocused and too eager to please," a resurgent Republican Right pandering to people's economic insecurity, and a populace too exhausted and cynical to care. But his critique centers on the power of the moneyed few who have come to dominate politics completely. "The wealthiest nation in the history of the world [is] splitting into the have mores and have lesses."

Reich recreates an observation by the chair of the House Budget Committee, describing how the Democratic Party has fallen victim as well: "We're owned by them. Business. That's where the campaign money comes from now. In the 1980s we gave up on the little guys. We started drinking from the same trough as the Republicans. We figured business would have to pay up because we had the power on the Hill....We were right. But we didn't realize we were giving them power over us."

Reich apparently crossed the line with his public in his criticism of "corporate welfare" and his realization that Clinton "has already lost the real war—the contest over whether balancing the budget is more important than investing in our future....All that remains is a political game over who appears to have won, how badly the poor get shafted, and who gets blamed for this train wreck." Reich's departure from the Cabinet was just a matter of time after he was sickened by Clinton's signing the welfare "reform" bill.

OUTSIDER in the House: A Political Autobiography, by Bernie Sanders, straddles the line between insider and outsider. The Democratic congressional leadership gave Sanders, the first independent elected to Congress in 40 years, committee assignments and seniority as though he were the lowest ranking Democratic member of his congressional class.

In Outsider, Sanders intertwines tales of his congressional re-election campaign of 1996 with his earliest forays into electoral politics. A chronology, though sometimes confusing, provides an energetic and inspirational account of how a broad-based movement of progressives, public service sector representatives, seniors, social service providers, unionists, students, and farmers first elected the Democratic Socialist as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then built a broad-based progressive coalition to win control of the city council, and finally elected and re-elected Sanders as Vermont's sole congressional representative. Despite sometimes tortuous efforts to find sufficient common ground to move a political agenda forward, Sanders adamantly refuses to morph into a Demoblican or Republocrat.

Sanders admits to voting for Clinton and was a legislative ally for Reich in the few victories won for working people. For three terms he has battled "for sane priorities in our federal budget, for a national health care system guaranteeing health care for all, for a trade policy that represents the needs of working people rather than multinational corporations, for an end to corporate welfare, and for the protection of programs which sustain the weakest and must vulnerable among us."

Sanders denounces continued increases for the Pentagon, saying, "The Cold War is over, we spend many times more than all of our æenemies' combined and, with very little fanfare, the defense budget is significantly raised." He has tried to cut funds for the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Most of the time, however, corporate interests prevail. "[G]roups representing the wealthiest people in this country are able to decisively influence the legislative process so that public policy reflects the interests of the privileged few and not the needs of the general population....It seems clear that a smaller and smaller group of citizens are determining our nation's future."

JIM HIGHTOWER'S commentaries in There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos span the media, class, the environment, and, again, powerful corporations running our country. Hightower served for eight years as the elected agriculture commissioner for the state of Texas. As radio commentator, political pundit, and self-proclaimed "contrarian," his critique has all the bite of an outsider lobbing verbal grenades into a game he refuses to play. Few books have so many memorable one-liners: "Unfortunately Clinton operates like a light bulb not screwed into its socket very tightly; he occasionally flickers with brightness, but you never get any steady light."

Hightower also focuses on the "insidious new æism' that has crept into our lives: corporatism." He decries the gains of corporate America in media, culture, and politics at the expense of the poor. Hightower credits Clinton with "formally and publicly wedding the æparty of the people' to the bigamist corporate powers that had long ago tied the knot with the GOP."

A handful of exceptions, such as passage of a higher minimum wage, demonstrate the rule: The additional $.95 per hour still does not restore the earning power lost by workers in the past two decades.

Hightower traces the origins of "corporatism" to an 1886 Supreme Court ruling that "abruptly decreed...that a corporation is æa person,' with the same constitutional protections that you and I have, including the right to free speech, which in turn has been interpreted as the right of the wealthy, the powerful, and the corporate to buy politicians."

Hightower points out that 51 of the top 100 strongest economies in the world are corporations. He quotes a business magazine to the effect that "Corporations have become the dominant institution of our time, occupying the position of the church of the Middle Ages and the nation-state of the past two centuries."

The few victories that can be claimed by Clinton, including the Family Leave Act, are astonishingly modest. They basically align the United States with the practices of most other "developed" countries. It is amazing that conventional wisdom dismisses as beyond political reach remedies which would help to redress the impoverishment of the majority of Americans. Lowering the cap on home mortgage interest or slightly increasing taxes on inherited estates would minimally impact the nation's most wealthy and help balance the budget without adding to the burden of the poor and working classes. Given the opportunity, surely 80 percent of the tax-paying (as opposed to the currently voting) public would vote to end many subsidies, special tax breaks, and outright giveaways to corporations identified by Reich, Sanders, and Hightower.

All told, these books present an overwhelming case that Clinton, the Democratic Party, and politics more generally have failed to meet the needs of a large number of people in our country. This failure is made possible by the demoralization and depoliticization of the population. Presidents are elected by less than half of the eligible voters. Poor and working people consistently don't exercise their political muscle. Elections continue to be bought and sold. It is worth noting that getting more people out to vote was a key to electoral success for Sanders, who maintains, "If poor people believe that voting will make a difference, they will vote."

Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual, by Sam Smith, has some concrete suggestions. Smith suggests groups to contact, provides sources of information to draw on, and cites dozens of examples of individuals and groups working to take back politics from the corporate elite.

Reich, Sanders, Hightower, and Smith agree on the broad outline of a progressive political agenda: campaign finance reform to wrest control of the electoral process from corporate interests and the wealthy few; substantial cuts in the military budget; a progressive tax structure; and investment in physical and social infrastructure. According to Hightower, the agenda must "favor government efforts to reduce the income gap between rich and poor, government providing a job for everyone who wants one, government-paid health care for all, ample welfare spending, aggressive labor unions, making corporations put more of their profits into better wages and benefits for workers."

Sam Smith's Repair Manual demonstrates that, while the challenges are formidable, the sources of inspiration are accessible and examples of success many. Any and all of the necessary changes depend on what Hightower describes as the widespread recognition of earlier progressive movements "that things were bad, that the many were being had by the few [and] the realization that it does not have to be this way, that people themselves can take charge."

SCOTT KENNEDY is a co-founder of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. He is completing his second four-year term as an elected city councilmember in Santa Cruz, and served as mayor from 1993-1994. For more information, contact: Jim Hightower: ò Sam Smith: ò Or, visit the American Repair Manual at: http://=emporium.turnpike. net/ P/ProRev/repair.htm

Locked in the Cabinet. Robert B. Reich. Random House, 1997.

Outsider in the House: A Political Autobiography. Bernie Sander. Verso, 1997.

Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual: How to Rebuild Our Country so the Politics Aren't Broken and Politicians Aren't Fixed!. Sam Smith. W.W. Norton, 1997.

There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.. Jim Hightower. HarperCollins, 1997.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Repair Manuals for Politics"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines