The party line on abortion under the Clinton administration was that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” but that ideal can be secured only through real social democracy in health care, housing and education—namely, in all the public goods that advance the material and social well-being of women. The same administration, however, advanced a punitive program of “welfare reform,” dismantling some remnants of the New Deal welfare state that gave shelter to the most exposed women and children.
Two of the signal concessions President Clinton made to the far right concerned the rights of gay people, namely, signing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) into federal law. Both laws have thrown long shadows over the political landscape at the state and local levels. Obama campaigned on a vague program of hope and change, and promised whatever he thought was necessary to any group of likely voters, including gay people. As a self-proclaimed “community organizer,” he might have drafted genuine organizers from all the communities hoping for change. Instead, he hired Wall Street insiders and the usual partisan hacks of all races, religions and sexual persuasions.
Clinton had once been described as “the first black president,” itself a projection of hope upon a Southern white career politician. An honest wish to transcend racist history is just not good enough. But Obama was, in fact, the first black president, and the same wishes and projections are shipwrecked once again on the rocks and reefs of class politics. The very idea of economic class is a poor abstraction unless it is grounded in social relations that are also racial, sexual and cultural. How does a class-divided culture really come to light? Only through the very social system that is saturated with the ruling ideas of a ruling class. The manifold reality of class is tested and proved in real time, and in searing events such as wars and epidemics. Before there is enlightenment there is heartbreak.
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The epidemic of AIDS tracked heavily, though not exclusively, along lines of race, sex and class. Clinton discovered AIDS in earnest only when he left public office and began campaigning for the Nobel Prize. Nowadays Clinton would much rather deal with AIDS in Haiti (certainly a worthy cause) than with the class system that still burdens so many African-Americans with chronic illnesses, including AIDS.
Irony? But there can be no irony if we do not even remember history. Each president graduates from the White House into a kind of Ivy League of philanthropy, and into an alternate universe in which buildings, libraries and foundations bear their names. Besides being tasteless, such people have no sense of shame. There is an inconvenient truth buried in the foundation of all their well-publicized philanthropy. In the words of William Blake: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor, / And Mercy no more could be / If all were as happy as we.”
Likewise, the only lesson Clinton learned from the economic counterrevolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was to make a hard-right U-turn toward deregulation, a kind of Keynesianism in reverse. In this realm, too, certain New Deal restraints on banks and the “free market” were abandoned. (I recommend a 1998 book by the economist Michael Meeropol, “Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution,” and the recently published “The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street,” by Robert Scheer.)
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party has used the courts as blunt instruments against the candidates of the Green Party. Using the “independent judiciary” as partisan brass knuckles may seem thuggish, but the bipartisan lockdown of elections can also be achieved by selling voters a false bargain. This is what happened when Proposition 14 was sold to Californians as a great electoral reform. It was nothing of the kind; it was designed to bump independent and insurgent parties off the ballot, and it may yet succeed. Recently, the Green gubernatorial candidate in California, Laura Wells, was denied the chance to debate the two corporate candidates at a public forum. When she tried to attend the event as a member of the audience, she was arrested. That story was then broadcast online and went over, under and around much of the traditional news media. Every such attack on basic democracy also speeds the day when career politicians hang themselves with their own rope.
War is more truly our national religion than the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, so making a class-conscious case for peace is rank heresy in many houses of worship and in both houses of Congress. Protestantism has largely devolved into the gospel of prosperity, and God has become the gatekeeper of a gated community— for in my Father’s house there are many mansions.
The First Amendment to our Constitution forbids the establishment of any state religion, but the deism of Jefferson and other Founding Fathers is no better than atheism to Christian crusaders. For that matter, if the Bill of Rights can be neatly reduced to the right to own guns and form far-right militias, then the rest of the text is a damn nuisance. Much of our national history has not even been forgotten, since it was never learned or taught in the first place. This is why right-wing candidates for public office can invent any original intent they please for the Founding Fathers and not have any idea of the original text of our country’s Constitution. The First Amendment was breaking news to Christine O’Donnell, a conservative Christian and a Republican candidate from Delaware for the U.S. Senate, during an Oct. 19 televised debate with her Democratic opponent .
If Abraham Lincoln were to rise from the grave and talk as plainly about labor and capital as he once did in Congress, many Democrats and Republicans would think he sounded like a socialist. That’s not far wrong, since Lincoln was (within the limits of his time and place) a social democrat within the republican tradition. In other words, our devolved Democrats have long since abandoned plain talk about social democracy, even as our devolved Republicans have abandoned the constitutional ground of the republic.