U.S. Politics at a Crossroads

One year after the tragedy of 9/11, American politics is at something of a turning point. The revelation of one corporate scandal after another, the sharp drop in the stock market, and the prospect of the economy slipping back into recession (a “double dip”) have all acted to take the shine off the Bush administration. Millions of working people have lost their jobs over the past year and a half and million others have seen the value of their pensions go down with the stock market.

The decisive events triggering this change were the wave of corporate scandals, starting with Enron and most recently with WorldCom. This has brought to the surface a sea-change in public opinion with the vast majority of ordinary workers feeling that you can’t trust corporations, that the CEOs and politicians are liars and crooks only out to protect themselves, and that when the companies go bust it is the workers who are forced to pay. Some of that anger is beginning to now also be directed against George Bush’s administration, perhaps the most closely linked to corporate America in living memory.

Actually the slow erosion of Bush’s popularity has been going on since January, but polls now consistently show it to be around 65% and falling. Perhaps even more telling is the recent CBS/New York Times poll which found that 61% of Americans felt that the Bush Administration is more interested in protecting the interests of large corporations rather than those of ordinary Americans (New York Times, 7/18/02). Nor will the farcical economic “conference” which Bush held with a handpicked audience during his “working vacation” in Texas do anything to reverse this trend.

One leading Republican strategist summed up the situation by saying: “What they’re [Bush administration] concerned about is people losing faith in their institutions” arguing that the wave of business scandals were touching the same public chord as the troubles in agencies like the FBI, CIA and the Catholic Church. (New York Times, 6/28/02)

The degree of popular outrage was seen in the u-turns Bush was forced to make on the campaign finance reform and corporate accounting reform bills. Bush had previously said he was dead set against any campaign finance reform. But in light of the Enron scandal, he had no choice but to reverse his position and sign the bill.

This was repeated again after the WorldCom scandal with the Senate’s corporate reform laws. Inspired after Enron, the Senate bill to reform corporate accounting was virtually dead until WorldCom hit the news. After only a few weeks, the bill sailed through the Senate with a unanimous vote, and Bush signed it into law. These same pressures pushed Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

With the November elections around the corner, the Democrats have smelled an opportunity in all of this to take back the political initiative and in particular to gain control of the House of Representatives. Even though there is some attempt on their part to sound a populist note on corporate scandals, the reality is that, like the Republicans, their coffers were also awash in corporate donations in the ’90s, including from Enron and Arthur Andersen.

The Democrats’ loyalty to big business was demonstrated when Senator Joe Lieberman, their 2000 Vice Presidential candidate, used his appearance at the Democratic Leadership Council on July 29 to argue that the reason the Democrats lost the 2000 Presidential elections was that Al Gore went too far to the left! He further warned that the Democrats should not turn the corporate scandals into “an economic class conflict.” Of course, not all Democrats are as hopelessly conservative as Lieberman, but the party’s real problem is that the voters may well see straight through their new populist veneer.

War on Iraq

Besides the economy and corporate scandals, the other key issue, of course, is the “War on Terrorism,” which we discuss in detail later. The administration’s agenda, especially the preparations for a war against Iraq, are being driven by the ideologues in the right wing of the Republican Party, who believe that overthrowing Saddam is vital to reasserting US global military and political dominance. Many in the establishment, including even some Republicans, are clearly worried, however, that a war on Iraq will have potentially catastrophic consequences for US interests in the Middle East by destabilizing a whole series of “friendly” regimes.

But to many people around the world and in the US, the incessant drumbeat for war is increasingly also looking like an attempt by Bush to divert attention away from his domestic economic and political problems. It cannot be excluded, however, that Bush may be able to use a new patriotic mobilization for war to blunt the Democrats’ impact in the November elections and to temporarily regain the political initiative.

But the desperate cynicism – verging on criminal lunacy – of his foreign policy, which has absolutely nothing to do with the security of ordinary Americans, is only going to make the real emerging movement of opposition to Bush and the whole political establishment even more formidable. This movement whose outlines could be seen in the April 20th demonstrations in Washington DC has nothing to do with voting for the Democrats in November. It is the movement into struggle first of sections of the youth, but soon of working people as well, against war, globalization, cutbacks, layoffs, attacks on civil liberties, racial profiling, indeed against all the crap which is being dumped on us by this rotten system.

Building an Alternative

While it will first and foremost be a movement on the streets, the search for an alternative to the two political parties of big business – which in recent times reached its height with the candidacy of Ralph Nader – will resume.

In the coming November elections, the main electoral force to the left of the Democrats will be the Green Party. The Greens could attract support from a layer of radical youth and workers on the basis of their opposition to corporate corruption and defense of the environment. For the Greens to provide an effective opposition and harness the enormous potential to build a radical movement against big business, however, the Greens need to clearly demarcate themselves as an independent force, completely separate from the Democrats with a clear anti-corporate program. Unfortunately, the Greens are an extremely heterogeneous grouping, which will not provide such a lead in many areas.

What is needed is to build local coalitions of unions, community, environmental, civil rights, anti-war and anti-globalization organizations to fight the attacks of Bush and big business and run independent candidates around a fighting program that offers a real alternative for workers and young people. This can lay the basis for the emergence of a mass workers’ party that can fight for the interests of all workers and oppressed people.

After Enron and WorldCom it is becoming clearer to increasing numbers of people just how rotten this capitalist system is. The anger that is simmering below the surface in American society will soon find visible expression. The role of socialists is to be involved in this movement as it emerges and provide the ideas and strategies that will enable the movement to finally put an end to this system and begin the construction of a new, socialist world.

Justice #31, September-October 2002