By Malik Miah
SAN FRANCISCO — US voters on November 8 gave the Republican Party control of both houses of the US Congress. The last time the Republicans controlled Congress was in 1954.
President Bill Clinton's Democratic Party lost its 78-seat majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives, and its 8-seat majority in the 100-member Senate. The Republicans will have a 232-202 (1 independent) majority in the House and 53-47 majority in the Senate.
The scope of the Republican victory was indicated by the fact that no incumbent Republican governor, senator or representative was defeated. Seven of the eight largest states now have Republican governors. Several prominent Democrats, including powerful Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, were defeated. The last time a speaker was ousted by voters was in 1860.
The meaning for domestic policy will be a further shift to the right by the government. Working people, especially people of colour, will face sharper attacks on their gains of the last 30 years. Women's rights will also face more challenges from the Christian rightists active in the Republican Party.
In foreign policy there shouldn't be much change. Historically Democrats and Republicans have had a bipartisan approach to international affairs. Clinton's policy toward Cuba, for example, is more right wing than that of Reagan or Bush. The Republicans in the main agree with the US military occupation of Haiti, the support for Israel and the reactionary Arab regimes and for pro-capitalist forces in Russia, Eastern Europe and other former Communist countries. If anything the Republican right will push a willing Clinton government to be more open in its support to undemocratic governments — Indonesia comes to mind — to promote trade.
The main reason given by voters for the rout was Clinton and career politicians. Several states even passed referendums to limit terms of elected officials.
Pundits of all stripes wrote that the elections mark a political upheaval of "historic proportions". Hyperbole aside, these elections were significant and do tell us a few things about the changing mood of the US people.
According to exit polls, one-third of voters acted as they did because they disapprove of Clinton. Clinton's approval rating is less than 50%, one of the lowest on record for a president mid-term.
The dissatisfaction with Clinton is for many reasons. One is his frequent flip-flops. He declares a plan to lift the ban on gays in the military, then adopts a policy not much better than the old one. He promises a tax cut for the "middle class" and can't deliver. He pushes health care reform but retreats and retreats until the plan is dead.
Moreover, Clinton, who identifies himself as a "New Democrat", is in fact a "soft" Republican in practice. He showed his true neo-liberal stripes around the issues of free trade and crime. He aggressively fought for the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the new GATT treaty on world trade. He lost a lot of liberal backers as a result.
He pressured the liberal Congressional Black Caucus to back a racist crime bill that undermines civil liberties and will lock up thousands of African-Americans and other poor people while denying funds for badly needed social programs.
The Clinton government has pledged to take steps to beef up border patrols. While governors in California and Texas pressured him to do more, Clinton is taking steps to expand victimisation of undocumented workers and their families.
Republicans openly declare their aim to go after immigrants and working people. But Clinton and his party are carrying out these attacks while claiming to defend working people.
Conservatives inside and outside the Republican Party consider Clinton's actions as not enough. The Christian right especially seeks laws to outlaw abortion rights and to roll back affirmative action for minorities and social legislation benefits the nearly 40 million people without adequate health care and millions of workers without regular jobs.
The mainstream Republicans echo their most rightist friends. The weak-kneed liberals in the Democratic Party adapt to them instead of fighting back with a positive vision.
In the context of no viable alternative, many working people have turned to the Republican demagogues. Their promises to cut taxes, to fight crime and to stop social services to illegal immigrants are appealing.
Republican Governor Pete Wilson of California led the campaign of division and polarisation. To stop crime, he supported new legislation called "three strikes you're out." The new law puts so-called persistent criminals away for life. A ballot initiative supporting this concept was hailed by Wilson and passed. Most "criminals" tend to be people of colour. The new law will double the number of state prisons by the year 2000.
The most pernicious California ballot initiative, called "Save Our State", passed 59-41%. This misnamed law will deny public education, health care and other social benefits to illegal immigrants. Anyone with false documents faces a jail sentence of five years or fines of $25,000. School teachers and health care providers are to become immigration police asking children for proof of citizenship. The law is so far-reaching that even children who are citizens face expulsion from schools.
Wilson openly appealed to anti-immigrant sentiments and promised more jobs and security if the ballot passed. The law is now being challenged in court.
One positive reaction to this defeat is the political mobilisation of the Latino community across the state. Before the vote, a march of 100,000, mostly Latinos, took place in Los Angeles. High school students walked out in LA and other cities. The Los Angeles City Council voted 10 to 3 not to enforce any provisions of the measure, except its crackdown on the sale and possession of false identity documents.
The politics of scapegoating and division will backfire. Some ruling-class circles are already bracing for complications in US-Mexican relations since the majority of undocumented workers are from Mexico.
The one issue that the Democrats saw as their own backfired. The economy is considered "up", but it was a big factor in their defeat. Although the US has been officially out of a recession for two years, it doesn't feel like it if you work for a living. Big corporations continue to fire and lay off workers. Downsizing and re-engineering are the code words of big business to cut wages and chop jobs. Workers' real income is in decline as profits soar.
When Clinton took office in 1992, the top 20% of US households received 11 times as much income as the bottom 20%, up from a multiple of 7.5 in 1969. And the gap continues to widen.
For the second straight quarter, corporate profits have risen 45%. "What's making companies so profitable?" asks Business Week. "It's a simple matter of productivity and its brake on labor costs ... Unit labor costs ... are growing by less than 1 percent — a pace not seen since the early 1960s. Among manufactures, unit labor costs fell 2.7 percent in the third quarter. By contrast, the price of goods and services climbed 2.8 percent in the same period."
While jobless rates have declined since Clinton took office — 5.9% compared to 7.3% a year ago — the unemployment statistics don't count the roughly 4 million part-time workers wanting full-time jobs and the explosive number of temporary contract workers.
Uncertainty is behind a large number of disgruntled voters. The Democrats are simply seen by many as "soft" Republicans at best. One impact of this further shift to the right by the Democrats was the drop in its base. Many blacks, for example, saw no reason to vote. While 88% of African-Americans who voted cast ballots for Democrats, only 35% of blacks voted compared to 65% of whites.
There were some positive signs in the elections. More and more Americans don't like either major party and prefer (one in three) to be identified as "independents". In a recent Times Mirror survey, 53% said they like the idea of a third major party. In 1982 when the same question was asked, 44% said yes.
Low votes for third parties reflect the discriminatory ballot laws, big business monopoly of campaign funding and control of the media. Nevertheless, third party candidates had some modest successes. In California, the Greens and Peace & Freedom parties received together 3-5% of the total vote. In New Mexico, the Green Party candidate for governor, Roberto Mondragon, collected enough votes (10%) to establish the Greens as a major party in the state.
Working people are dissatisfied and want change. Unfortunately, the progressive forces are too weak to provide viable alternatives. Politics of racist polarisation, division and demagogy won out for now.
At the same time, sentiment for a "third force" is growing. The early organising by Latinos against immigrant bashing in California and the success of the Greens and other small progressive groups at the ballot box are blocks to build on for the future.
[Malik Miah is the editor of Independent Politics.]