Politics Needs Resurgence of Citizen Action

With the lowest percentage turnout of eligible voters since Calvin Coolidge’s campaign in 1924, the Clinton-Dole contest for the Presidency limped to a merciful end. (Dole promptly went on David Letterman and then Saturday Night Live as if to punctuate his much mocked campaign blunders.)

What was Clinton’s mandate? Did he run on any coherent policy platform to claim a mandate. Hardly. He ran on general slogans and bragging rights for his carefully chosen yardsticks regarding the economy. Those yardsticks did not include the presence of 23% child poverty and the bottom 80% of the workers on the income ladder losing 19% of their wages, adjusted for inflation, since 1973.

It will be difficult to remember what this Presidential campaign was all about except that Clinton was telling people he wasn’t Newt Gingrich, that he was hope and opportunity and education, that Dole was offering the wrong kind of tax cut.

Probably more people will remember the orgy of campaign cash that flowed into both Party’s coffers in record amounts from domestic and a growing foreign input. They will also remember how a Presidential Debates Commission, created and controlled by the two major parties and funded by corporate monies (including tobacco money) excluded all third party candidates, including Ross Perot.

The surprise of the campaign was that, despite Clinton’s large win over Dole, the Congress remained under Republican control for another two years of gridlock and evasion of responsibilities. On his return from Little Rock after election day, President Clinton told reporters that what helped the Republicans keep control were the key bills signed into law at the end of the Congressional session that were sent to him.

Of course, Clinton made this all possible when he signed into a law a bad welfare bill (throwing over one million children into poverty and offering no jobs or day care programs), a bad minimum wage bill (full of tax loopholes for business lobbyists) and a sliver of a health insurance coverage bill that is too complex to be workable for workers who shift jobs.

These three bills got the Republicans off the cruelty and extremist hooks that sent their polls dropping. The Democrats, ever unwilling to open up the corporate crime, the consumer and worker protection fronts on the Republican corporate toadies, had little else in their political arsenal. Not even the massive misuse of small taxpayer dollars going into corporate subsidies, giveaways and bailouts became a campaign issue.

Why not? Because the Democrats are beholden to the same business interests for campaign cash and other comforts. Because the Democrats themselves have not done anything on corporate crime or corporate welfare or stronger labor and consumer law enforcement.

But this should not have stopped individual Congressional candidates from taking the Republican incumbents to the wall on this. When Democrats ran progressive campaigns, as did Senator Paul Wellstone, Walter Capps of California or Cynthia McKinney (GA), they won. But if Democrats behave as crypto-Republicans, they are likely to lose. When they made the environment issue specific and real, more Republicans lost the House races.

The basic lesson of this campaign is that if people turn off politics, politics will turn on them, their standard of living, health and justice. A political system is like a fish; it rots from the head down. To make politics reflect the needs of people instead of the greeds of the powerful means a bottoms up resurgence of citizen action and participation. It has happened in the past in our country’s history and it can happen again in the future.

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