Republicans and Democrats: What’s the Difference?

Republicans and Democrats: What’s the Difference?

Postby admin » Mon Dec 07, 2015 6:59 am

Republicans and Democrats: What’s the Difference?
by Pete Dolack
Winter 2004

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Many times in United States history, power has shifted from one major political party to the other. Predictably, the winners hail a “new era” and the losers warn of disaster. Sooner or later the roles reverse, but little seems to ever change.

This is “democracy in action,” we are invariably told by solemn voices. Rather than taking this at face value, let’s instead ask the real questions that need to be asked: Why are there two political parties? What are the differences between them? Isn’t it advisable to settle for the lesser of two evils? To answer the last question first, the short answer is “no.” To flesh out that one-word answer, we’ll discuss the first two questions, which should provide the answer to the third.

To maintain the illusion that working people make decisions, it is useful to have two parties that pretend to be different while representing the same folks at the top.


To answer the first question—why do two different political parties exist?—we need to go beyond the obvious. Yes, parties exist to achieve and hold power, but that obvious statement doesn’t really answer the question. Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They represent either the interests of social groups or at least a specific area on the spectrum of political opinion. The myth of the “wide differences” between Republicans and Democrats the corporate media continually bombards us with is rooted here. The Republicans try to obliterate the fact that they represent the richest men and women in the country. Instead, the Republicans make their arguments on ideological bases and love to claim their “ideas” represent “common sense.” There is logic here. After all, saying “I’m rich and I’m going to screw you to stay that way” would not win many elections.

The much bigger myth, however, is the front presented by the Democratic Party. Democrats love to claim they represent working people and are against the ongoing massive upward flow of money into the hands of the richest people of society. This myth also serves the Republican Party, which then can scream “that’s class warfare!” at the empty rhetoric of Democrats.

Despite the low comedy that this ongoing act provides, we should keep in mind that there are two crucial differences between Republicans and Democrats. These two differences are entirely splits in the ruling class and represent competition among various ruling-class blocs. These differences are real, and it is on this basis that the two major parties compete and that accounts for the bitterness between the two parties.

US run by rich elite

When we use terms like “ruling class” and “super rich” and “captains of industry,” it is important to remember that these terms are not rhetorical flourishes. The United States, even more so than other countries dominated by the Capitalist economic system, is run by a rich elite that enjoys immense power over all areas of society and which intends to maintain this power, at whatever cost. This power is deeply rooted in economics and exercised through corporations. Convincing most of society that being a wage-slave and ceding control to those “who know what’s best for you” is what you really want is far easier than maintaining power at the end of a gun. It is also much more stable, so in the US we have “democracy,” complete with elections where we allegedly get to choose among candidates representing “wide differences” of opinion and interests.

Although we live in a sham democracy with police-state characteristics and not in a Fascist state or even in a country that is anywhere near a dictatorship in the classical sense, we should not be under the illusion that we have any choice or control over American society.

Republicans believe in the naked fist and Democrats believe in timely conciliatory gestures.


To maintain the illusion that working people make decisions, it is useful to have two parties that pretend to be different while representing the same folks at the top. More important is the fact that there are significant differences of opinion among the ruling elite. The two primary differences are: (1) a serious split on the best ways to maintain themselves at the top and keep everybody else down; in other words, tactical differences; and (2) the growing divergence of interests between Wall Street (the financial industry) and industrialists (the owners of factories and other producers of tangible products).

The tactical differences basically fall into two camps: Republicans believe in the naked fist and Democrats believe in timely conciliatory gestures. Democrats believe in the fist just as much as Republicans, but know that you can beat people only so much.

Republicans believe the way to maintain power is to continually attack; to extract the maximum at all times with no mercy. The plutocrat in this camp knows that his foot on everyone else’s neck is the natural order of the universe and sees any concessions made to any worker as an unthinkable sign of weakness and as taking away his right to enjoy the highest profit and the most power.

While he lives for his piles of money, he will, in specific circumstances, sacrifice profits in the short term to exert his power, knowing that his life on the top is contingent on his iron grip on economic and political power. This is why this plutocrat likes to force his workers to go on strike if he feels he can win. If he’s successful in breaking his workforce, he will more than make up for the lost short-term profits over the long term, anyway. Because of this mentality, the Republican plutocrat bitterly opposes any concessions, so he has a special loathing for the Democratic camp.

Society needs a safety valve

Democrats realize that you can’t continually press down on people. If you make people too desperate, they will eventually fight back, feeling they have nothing to lose. Therefore, it is better to push when and where you can, but also to be prepared to make concessions at other points as a safety valve. Sometimes you only have to give a little. At rare points in time, society has broken down so drastically that major concessions had to be given to keep the system in place.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt realized this during the 1930s, and so concessions that have not been seen before or since—unemployment benefits, social security, banking regulations—were forced out of the ruling elites by widespread social upheaval. Unions were even tolerated for first and only time in US history. Hard-liners certainly stewed, but Roosevelt knew that unless drastic concessions were made, the holder of history’s dustbin, who was beginning to come into view, might just have swept him and his peers away.

Besides, over time you can always take your concessions back, or at least most of them. Better to give up something when you must, to release pent-up pressures and to give working people the illusion the system works for them. The Democratic plutocrat sees his hard-line Republican counterpart as something of a dinosaur, unwilling to consider new strategies. Concessions are never forever. Once the upsurge in street-level protest dissipates, you can start taking the concessions back.

Other than in the 1960s, when new mass rebellion broke out, the last 50 years are a nearly unbroken record of take-backs. As long as people continue to be duped into believing in the Democrats and the “lesser of two evils,” this will continue.

Now on to the second difference between Republicans and Democrats: the growing divergence of interests between Wall Street and industrialists. This tends to be overlooked, but this split in the ranks of the ruling class is openly acknowledged, if you know where to find the clues. The most common euphemism for this split is the so-called “Wall Street vs. Main Street” conflict, as it is gently referred to in business-news pages. “Main Street,” however, does not mean working people; it is a reference to industrial concerns. It is also a reference to small businesses and shopkeepers, and the “Wall Street vs. Main Street” conflict also represents a secondary fault line, big business vs. small business.

There has always been an inherent tension between the interests of Wall Street (the financial industry, or finance capital) and the interests of industrialists (the direct owners and operators of the means of production), but the conflict between these two groups has become much more acute during the past 20 years as a result of the imbalance that has developed between them.

Falling out of balance

Historically, the two sides were in rough balance. Both, of course, agree they deserve the pie and that working people deserve nothing. The two sides need each other. Wall Street giddily bids up prices, creating more profits and driving up the value of industrialists’ property, while the industrialists extract profits from their workers, without which there is no finance capital.

…the industrialists have clung to the Republican Party, while the Democrats have come to represent Wall Street.


Since the dawn of the Reagan era, however, Wall Street has gained the upper hand and now dominates the industrialists to a degree never before seen. This, too, is openly discussed under the cover of business-press euphemisms—the favorite term here being “market discipline.”

What does this infighting have to do with Republicans and Democrats? Simply put, as the historical balance between the two sides has given way to dominance by Wall Street, the interests of the two sides often conflict. Since these ongoing struggles, which are, in part, philosophical in their own way, inevitably spill over into the political arena, political entities inevitably grow to represent the two sides.

As this struggle has intensified since the start of the Reagan era, the industrialists have clung to the Republican Party, while the Democrats have come to represent Wall Street. An important clue to this is George W. Bush’s choice of treasury secretary upon taking office in 2001—the head of Alcoa, an industrialist. Normally, the head of the Treasury Department is from Wall Street, since the department exists to benefit finance capital. Bill Clinton’s treasury secretaries, for instance, were drawn from Wall Street’s biggest investment banks.

The party of Wall Street

That the Democratic Party would come to be the party of Wall Street is not as strange as it might sound. Whenever a company announces bad news that results in a stock-price decline, a flurry of lawsuits will be filed, seeking financial recouping of the shareholders’ losses. The officers of the company being sued in this situation stomp their feet in rage—being a captain of industry is supposed to mean never having to admit a mistake—swearing they are as innocent as a new-born baby. This kind of mess, which happens all the time, winds up in court. It’s highly profitable for the law firms that represent the interests of Wall Street to pursue these lawsuits, and sometimes, of course, there is chicanery going on and not simply bad management or a downturn in the market.

The symbiotic relationship here is that trial lawyers and Wall Street interests need laws favorable to lawsuits, to rules geared toward investors and to open flows of accurate business information, including requiring companies to report details of their operations. In turn, Democrats love the piles of money these interests give to them.

Industrialists believe it should be almost impossible to sue their companies, want the rules tilted in their favor and hate having to reveal any information. They form the upper ranks of the Republican Party and direct its ideology on economic issues.

These differences are not absolute, of course. There are Democrat industrialists (in certain industries, such as entertainment) and Republican Wall Streeters. Republican Wall Streeters, however, are far more common than Democrat industrialists, so the “new breed” of Democrat—exemplified by former President Bill Clinton—knows his party must try harder to be the official party of Wall Street while also trying to appeal to industrialists who might be won over. The party must be driven ever further to the Right to achieve this. In this way, the Democrat feels her party can compete on an equal footing with the Republicans. Meanwhile, just as industrialists often step directly into bodies like the US Senate and into top leadership roles in the Republican Party, Wall Street fat cats, flush with cash, are increasingly doing the same thing in the Democratic Party.

So to return to the third of the three questions asked at the start of this essay, about settling for the lesser of two evils: Do you feel either of the sides described above represents you? If not, you should make a clean break with Democrats, as well as with Republicans. To create a better world, to eliminate the economic domination exerted by a relative few at the top, use your vote on a candidate who represents what you believe in, and, much more importantly, join the ranks of protesters and demand change. Supporting a lesser evil only leads to more evil.

Pete Dolack lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Re: Republicans and Democrats: What’s the Difference?

Postby admin » Wed Sep 21, 2016 10:01 pm

Partners in POWER: The Clintons and Their America -- Excerpt
by Roger Morris

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15. Washington II: "A Little Too Much Like What It Really Is"

As the Clintons were making their comeback in Little Rock, the tyranny of political money was transforming the nation with historic consequences.

Dominance of wealth was the congenital disease and disgrace American democracy was supposed to avoid. In national myth, George Washington might be the symbolic father of his country, his own political accommodations to money suitably muted, but Alexander Hamilton and his mercantile patrons in the Northeast and the planter oligarchs of the tidewater were its political-economic godfathers, practicing what Jefferson called "the general prey of the rich on the poor." Now furtive, now garish -- a subject most histories discreetly overlooked and politicians duly ignored -- money was the arbiter of most Congresses and presidencies after the Civil War. Power came to be embodied not only in wealthy individuals but in the vast corporations spawned by industrial concentration and conformity.

Yet as late as the 1970s it was still possible to run for the US House and Senate for sums that did not necessarily pawn the candidate -- less than $100,000 in some states, far less in others. Even presidential money and its legendary abuses could still seem slight in retrospect. In 1960 John Kennedy drew laughter from the press, and no awkward questions, when he disarmingly referred to stories that his wealthy father had corrupted the crucial West Virginia primary -- as indeed he did with last-minute payoffs of thousands of dollars, not to mention what FBI wiretaps later showed to be large Mafia donations on behalf of the future president. Old Joe Kennedy, his own fortune made in smuggling and stock market manipulations typically condoned by local and national governments, had sent his son's campaign a stern telegram. "Don't buy one vote more than necessary," JFK mockingly quoted it as saying. "I won't pay for a landslide."

By the next decade contributors were doing just that, and no one was laughing. All proportion vanished with the cost of the new manipulative weapons of media campaigning. Consultants, polls, and the inevitable television ads devoured millions. After 1976 the cost of running for the Senate rose sixfold, the House fivefold, the presidency more than sevenfold. A typical 1980s senator spent $3.6 million for a seat, soliciting an equivalent of more than $12,000 every week of a six-year term. House races averaged a half million, demanding $5,000 raised week in, week out over the two years in office. In both chambers 60 to 80 percent of contributions now commonly came from outside the home state or district, from interests far removed from constituents. In Capitol Hill's version of the quick and the dead, there were now only two kinds of politicians -- those "never free of the money-raising fixation," as one put it, and those retiring or dying in office.

As costs soared, corrupt money poured in. It reached a climax in the Nixon campaigns of 1968 and 1972, awash in bribes from rogue corporations and even foreign juntas. Watergate brought sensational if only partial exposure. In the open for a moment, abuses long known in Washington prompted the obligatory shock and reform. Under hasty new laws, individual contributions were limited to $1,000 per candidate in each primary and general, $25,000 a year for all federal races. Political action committees might hand $5,000 to each federal candidate with no limit on their total. For the presidency, both individual and PAC donations were eventually confined to primaries, with $40-50 million publicly funded for the general election. But Watergate laws only channeled the cash into new currents, creating a surface of legality while corruption swirled beneath.

For would-be presidents, money would be more powerful than ever in an electoral system deliberately designed to put a premium on winning the first primaries. Money anointed the front-runners for both Democrats and Republicans, rewarding the early winners and turning a summary thumbs-down on the losers, effectively sealing the nominations of the two kindred parties before most of the nation ever voted. In the general election cash -- "soft money" -- flooded into the system through a cavernous loophole. Given to parties free of restrictions on candidates, it bought the White House outright in spite of the partial public financing of campaigns.

In sums of $100,000 to $200,000 or more, fat cats supposedly tamed by reform were by the late 1980s passing out a total of more than $30 million to each presidential ticket. Hedging their bets, several individuals and interests showered cash on both sides. Insurance, tobacco, liquor, oil, and entertainment companies, banks and brokers, arms merchants, developers, the most prominent manufacturers and the more discreet sweatshops, a flourishing medical industry, the vast military-industrial-energy combines of the cold war -- all these interests and many more swelled the coffers of the men competing for the White House. They became the faceless makers and breakers of the American presidency.

On Capitol Hill, as at the White House, rich individual donors outspent all others. But it was the political action committees that most vividly embodied the corporate seizure of power in Washington. The money coup d'etat of the 1970s and 1980s coincided with a major resurgence of big business in the manipulation of politics and government, an intervention more massive and concerted than any in the annals of oligarchic politics. By the early 1970s -- with the continuing growth of federal regulation, with huge budget or tax largesse for those who could control legislation, and with new sophistication about means and ends, about the sheer corruptibility of politicians -- corporate America moved from shareholder to full-fledged proprietor.

The stakes were enormous -- multiple tax exemptions and credits, preferential interest rates, subsidies to entire industries, tariffs, banking and bankruptcy laws, licenses, contracts, and myriad other concessions worth hundreds of billions. In the early 1970s corporations had sent only a handful of agents to Washington. By the end of the decade more than four hundred of the Fortune 500 corporations had encamped in "public affairs" offices. Hundreds of other large interests hovered with hireling lawyers, consultants, trade groups. Most of all, there were their PACs. Multiplying from five hundred in 1974 to more than four thousand by the 1990s, they passed out tens of millions a year. What had once been the old game of the rich or of big business winning government favors now became a continental shift of power.

The wealthy ruled. For the 249 members of "Team 100" who gave George Bush $25 million in 1988, there were returned favors to make nineteenth-century spoilsmen blush. A grateful White House killed a two-year-old criminal investigation of a team member's company. It approved a questionable airport project with windfalls for another team investor. It revised the Clean Air Act to benefit a product and a corporation after a Team 100 stalwart intervened with the president himself. It reversed a twenty-six-year-old government practice and standing presidential policy of imposing tariffs on foreign cement. It made suitable arrangements as the savings and loan bailout became what one witness called "a bottomless welfare program for the politically well-connected," and members of Team 100 were some of the biggest purchasers of forfeited real estate from the Resolution Trust Corporation. On and on went the deals, tax shelters, environmental exceptions, regulatory interventions, friendly appointments. According to a detailed accounting by the Washington watchdog agency Common Cause, the 249 members of Team 100 who contributed $25 million received in return -- in subsidies and concessions, issues evaded or ignored -- federal favors worth well over $100 billion.

"When these political action committees give money," Bob Dole, Republican leader of the Senate, would say in his dour sarcasm, "they expect something in return other than good government." Taking millions himself, a major violator of even tepid campaign finance laws, the former prosecutor from Russell, Kansas, was in a position to know. Every law and most lawmakers were reliably assumed to have a price. Two hundred medical PACs gave $60 million to both parties in congressional races between 1982 and 1992, ensuring that any "reform" would be written by the industry itself.

Arrangements were mutual. On top of the usual campaign funds, senators and representatives took generous gifts to their own personal "back pocket" or "leadership" PACs, dummy foundations or other fronts from which, in turn, they dispensed donations to fellow members in their own monied patronage. Until the practice was ended by public outrage in the early 1990s, they might also pocket unlimited amounts of unused campaign moneys at retirement or take large honoraria for speeches to interest groups that already funded them and commonly drafted the speeches themselves. But even after the retirement and honoraria scandals, the politicians merely devised inventive new schemes for personal payoffs and enrichment, from payment for their "academic" lectures and political training courses to backing of "issues" groups and committees. "I guess we have our own united ways," laughed a young congressman.

Author and journalist Philip Stern documented a typical case in which AT&T's PACs put out $1.4 million in the mid-1980s and received special tax exemptions of over $12 billion, a net return of 867,145 percent on the investment. By the same measure, General Electric realized a 673,759 percent return on its political money, Sears, Roebuck 510,581 percent, and so it went.
The real killing of the 1980s was never on Wall Street, political donors knew, but more discreetly in the marbled corridors and paneled committee rooms of the US Capitol. While politicians extolled risk taking and free markets, enough money in the right places made Washington in the 1980s and 1990s as close to a sure thing as any venture on the planet.

By 1992 less than 1 percent of the gross national product would be spent on human welfare, and most of that was taken by Social Security. Altogether states would spend less than $23 billion (some $262 per family) on welfare; meanwhile, the nation spent $87 billion (or $1,000 per family) to bailout the executives of failed savings and loans.
Washington would grudgingly appropriate $25 billion for food stamps, nearly $30 billion for subsidies to agribusiness, and another $100 million each year for international market promotion for more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies. It was, after all, what the political money had paid for. Harper's editor Lewis Lapham described in his 1993 book, The Wish for Kings, a reality Washington knew only too well:

The politicians dress up the deals in the language of law or policy, but they are in the business of brokering the tax revenue, . . . redistributing the national income in a way that rewards their clients, patrons, friends, and campaign contributors. They trade in every known commodity -- school lunches, tax exemptions, water and mineral rights, aluminum siding, dairy subsidies, pension benefits, highway contracts, prison uniforms -- and they work the levers of government like gamblers pulling at slot machines. As with the subsidizing of the farms and the defense industry, so also with the paying off of the bad debt acquired by savings and loan associations. Except for the taxpayers (who, as always, didn't know what was being promised in their name), none of the ladies and gentlemen privy to the workings of the swindle took the slightest risk.


By the late 1980s Washington's most prominent figures were its parodies -- Senate Democratic majority leader George Mitchell, Republican minority leader Dole, and assistant leader Alan Simpson; in the House, Democratic Speaker Thomas Foley, majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, GOP minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois, and minority whip Newt Gingrich. They would average more than $250,000 a leader among the millions passed out by the health industry over 1982 to 1992. From insurance companies, drug makers, hospitals, and others, the reform-stifling money was again only a small portion of the millions the same men garnered altogether, election after election, from other interests for other issues. Much of their slush funds came from PACs -- 70 percent of House Speaker Foley's war chest in 1990, for example. Each session they might also take hundreds of thousands in blatant "conflict of interest" cash from those for or against legislation that they effectively controlled from introduction to passage.

No tribune of the money tyranny would be more mercenary -- or more casually hypocritical -- than the fiercely ambitious future Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. While savaging Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in 1987 for ethics violations in accepting special-interest favors, Gingrich was quietly -- sometimes secretly -- building an empire of political finance large enough to dwarf Wright's typical graft. By the early 1990s, as he got ready to make a first nationwide bid to be Speaker, his GOPAC had accumulated over $7 million, the Friends of Newt Gingrich campaign committee over $6 million, a front foundation another $2.3 million, all in the cause of the pudgy, driven politician who would be ruler of the House. Though a loophole in the reporting laws would allow many of the donors to remain hidden, they were, for the most part, what the New York Times eventually described as "a predictable array of bankers, health-care executives and other benefactors whose contributions could raise conflict-of-interest questions when Republicans act on proposals governing business." They would be known as Newt, Inc.

A restless young academic described by the press as "an environmentalist critical of the business establishment" when he first ran for Congress in the mid-1970s, the protean Gingrich swiftly evolved into a self-styled "conservative revolutionary," decrying handouts to the poor and brazenly promoting any policies or legislative schemes that could enrich his sponsors in insurance, finance, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, or other interests. While he denounced socialism for the inner cities, his affluent suburban Cobb County, Georgia, would be the third-largest recipient of federal funds of any suburb in the nation, its take 55 percent higher than the national average, its gated, guarded white subdivisions bolstered in part by weapons contractor Lockheed, in whose Pentagon contracts Gingrich found no small incentive.

With his artfully cultivated fortune Gingrich would erect a sophisticated 1990s political machine of indoctrination and recruitment, fealty and favor -- all with a cocky confidence and insouciance and with a contempt for his Democratic rivals so richly deserved that critics were largely disarmed. "The first duty of our generation is to reestablish integrity and a bond of honesty in the political process," he told the conservative Heritage Foundation in a 1990 speech. Even Dole had called him and his ranks "the young hypocrites," but the bold disingenuousness was in many ways the essence of the money tyranny. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution would later more aptly quote one of his GOPAC donors, a real estate developer who had given nearly $200,000. "My dad used to say," Fred Sacher recounted unabashedly, "'What we've got to do is just get those corrupt, dirty Democratic crooks out and put in some nice clean Republican crooks.'"

In the boom that began in the 1970s -- in the politicians' greed and the interests' unprecedented aggressiveness to match -- the parasites multiplied as never before, a caste of lawyers, fixers, and advisers without substantive portfolio, men and a handful of women who raised the money, implicitly peddled the influence, and frequently ended up, as part of their reward, in government themselves, in cabinet offices or in other prominent positions.

Alongside them grew the thriving industry of campaign consultants and those who concocted political ads, technicians and soothsayers who, like the money pushers, were thought to command special gifts, and high fees in any case. From the White House to the back rows of Congress, they were widely consulted on all matters affecting money and elections, which was to say, sooner or later, everything in American politics.

Some thought the result "an aristocracy of money," others a seedy oligarchy worthy of some minor satrapy. By any name, [/b]it produced a largely permanent Congress. Incumbency alone gave senators a more than six-to-one advantage in PAC funds, representatives ninety-seven cents of each PAC dollar in the House, and both groups three to four times more money overall than challengers. Through much of the 1980s there was a numbing 97 percent reelection rate in the House regardless of party. From 1988 to 1992 thirty-three of thirty-nine Republican incumbent senators won reelection, forty-two of forty-five Democrats. They outspent challengers by $200 million. Seats open owing to retirement or death were the only chance for renewal. But those races, too, were quickly dominated by special-interest money[/b] that captured the winners, most of whom soon became money-obsessed, entrenched incumbents themselves.

In 1990 a self-motivated Democratic challenger named David Worley was making inroads against a corrupted and brazenly hypocritical incumbent by attacking him on congressional pay raises and other issues. Yet Worley found his own Democratic Party refusing to support him because he had violated a backroom bipartisan deal on Capitol Hill not to fund challengers who raised the pay-hike issue against either party. Outspent by $1.5 million to $333,000 in a race he might well have won with comparable support, Worley narrowly lost by 974 votes out of 151,000. The winner was Newt Gingrich.

By the 1980s the oppression of money made the US Congress less competitive, with less turnover, as Ronald Reagan once observed, than the old Soviet Politburo.

***

For Republicans, lost was the heart of the old faith, a genuine restraint and skepticism about intrusive government. Behind the worn ideological facade of limiting the state, ever-hungry and pragmatic business donors to the GOP now required just the opposite -- proper management and manipulation of the government appropriations on which they had developed, said one observer, "an abject dependence."

Glib opportunists like Gingrich made careers of railing against the "liberal welfare state," urging cuts in services for the poor and minorities while pushing deregulation and privatized services. By 1992 the GOP had occupied the White House for a dozen years, controlled the Senate for six years during the 1980s, held the balance of power in the House for more than a decade, and for years had dominated the federal courts. Yet over the same period the demonized federal government grew larger, more expensive, more bureaucratically ponderous. While taxes were reduced for the wealthy and corporations fattened at the public trough, Republicans had stoutly refused to address vast middle-class "welfare," including education, highway, and farm budgets. The fastest growing federal spending during the Reagan-Bush era was on GOP constituencies, the agribusinesses, for example, that received an extra $20 billion in 1986, "nearly three times," as one account noted, "the entire federal contribution to Aid to Families with Dependent Children that year." Meanwhile Ronald Reagan "piled up more debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than Roosevelt and Truman had incurred to win World War II," David Frum wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "In just four years, George Bush accumulated three times more debt ... than Woodrow Wilson had taken on to fight World War I."

Hypocrisy this grand called for the oldest of political tricks: acting out of self-delusion, calculation, or a combination of both, the Republicans simply lied. They would blame taxes on the indolence and demands of the poor, regulations on the antibusiness venom of a phantom liberal elite. Debt they ascribed altogether to Democrats. Amid the social ravages of their political economy, they would spend hundreds of millions to change the national subject from politics and economics to the cultural fears and social resentment their oligarchy had so aggravated by unprecedented inequity. The middle-income sectors were to be convinced that their problem, their enemy, was the poor -- and not simply people down on their luck, as Americans had defined the victims of the depression in the 1930s, but rather a class apart, separate and ultimately menacing.

A single mother with three children was expected to practice rugged individualism on $400 a month while corporations and their inflated upper payrolls were doled out billions. "The problem is that corporate welfare has created a culture of dependency that has encouraged certain industries to live off the taxpayers," an independent research group found in the early 1990s, charting over $51 billion in direct subsidies to large businesses and, in a single session of Congress, another $53.3 billion in special tax breaks. More than ever before, America's corporations depended on government's suborned taxes, budgets, regulations, and other benevolence. It was always done discreetly, in congressional committee markups, secret budget negotiations, and deals few saw in crucial detail. Serving such furtive politics, Republicans became the quintessential party of centralized power and state intervention. Descendants of Calvin Coolidge and Barry Goldwater evolved into special pleaders for tax breaks and government dispensations -- capitalists by blustery political day, socialists for their engorged patrons by still legislative night.


Politics was not somehow apart from the system; it was the system. The capital's silence was captured in the epigram of an elderly western senator. "Be careful what you say, boys," he once warned his colleagues. "It looks a little too much like what it really is."

Among the Democrats the ironies seemed still sharper. "What was once the party of the common man," wrote Ronnie Dugger, "is now the second party of the corporate mannequin." Whether the Democrats had ever been quite so democratic, there was no doubt about what had happened by the 1990s. "The whole tragic decline of the Democratic party," one of its many disillusioned voters would write, "can be traced to the soft, manicured hand from which it is accustomed to feeding." Three hundred pairs of hands would be there for the 1992 election. A Democratic version of Team 100, donors were accorded the accurately proprietary title of "trustee" for their gifts of $100,000, "managing trustee" for $200,000. As with the GOP, money set the bounds for Democratic policies, which in wan mimicry of Republican practices produced everything from bloated Pentagon budgets to regressive taxes. Even the remnant of Washington's Democratic think tanks and promotional groups were now commonly founded and effectively run by lobbyists for the interests and financed -- "de facto owned," admitted one of their directors -- by corporate money.

The epitome of the courtesan organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, in which Governor Clinton himself was prominent, again and again took tens of thousands in corporate underwriting in the 1980s to discover the virtues of more corporate-oriented Democratic policies. Accordingly, the council and its satellites churned out policy papers and "reform" proposals, advising that Democrats should practice fiscal responsibility by cutting social programs and avoiding awkward revisions of the tax code. They could win back the great resentful middle of the electorate, the council told its members, by indulging popular resentment of the poor in sterner welfare measures, zeal on crime, and other issues that did not intrude on more basic questions of money and power. Naturally enough, DLC financial patrons included several who were also generous in their support of President Reagan and President Bush and some of the most reactionary GOP senators and congressmen. Meanwhile, beyond Washington, the skylines and back streets of American cities, so long the political preserve of Democrats, reflected the same venality. To believe the party was redeemable, critic Norman Solomon wrote, "you'd have to forget the ... miserable urban Democrats who run our big cities, hacks utterly in the grip of local real estate and banking interests who promote downtown development above all else."

Like its state clones, the national Democratic Party was bereft by the late 1980s not only of meaningful financial support from and contact with ordinary voters but of independent ideas and alternative policies. Typical citizen contributors were now in their seventies, a dwindling vestige of New Deal loyalty. Local parties had degenerated into voter-turnout operations that sent volunteers home after the job had been done, with no further help needed. While Republicans aggressively recruited younger grassroots contributors to their corporate-approved and corporate-enriching "populism," Democrats could find no genuine popular cause not at odds with the aims of their own backers among the same interests. And it was the chief intellectual distinction between the two parties in the 1990s that Democrats, unlike the zealots of the GOP, could not even conceal their betrayal beneath a demagogic fig leaf. The real cost of the Democrats' co-option was that their space on the national stage was silent. Corruption rendered them mute and intellectually sterile, leaving the theater to Republican mythology, with its social divisions and political diversions. Worse than the loss of their integrity, the Democrats had surrendered the very terms of the political dialogue.


Reduced to a countinghouse, the party saw its millions in "soft money" controlled by congressional leaders or a presidential candidate -- and at the state level by governors and legislators indebted to the interests. "If the Democratic party began to act like a real political party, the money would be cut off," wrote a longtime Washington journalist on the eve of the 1992 election.

But then Washington also understood that the tyranny of money would loom over any new president, especially a Democrat. If he did not confront it immediately and unequivocally, regardless of the culpability of his own party and past, his every other promise would be betrayed.

***

Only slowly over the 1980s and 1990s did the toll of the corruption become clear. In the richest agricultural economy in history, farmers despaired as their homesteads were auctioned off. In the cities of the world's last superpower, families boarded up their windows against the anarchy of gang violence. There were waiting lists at the most fashionable restaurants and long lines of the hungry at shelters and soup kitchens. In the guise of national security, government planes took off secretly from remote airfields in the South to fly illegal arms to Central America and elsewhere, returning with drugs to be sold by a criminal empire on the streets of Little Rock and Knoxville, Los Angeles and New York. Capitalism triumphed in the cold war, and in the United States the largest single private employer was an agency for temporary help.

The historical adjustment to world economic challenges would have been difficult enough, the transition to a new postindustrial economy a national trial. But coinciding with the money tyranny in Washington, the impact was in many ways lethal.

Jobs vanished at a rate and with a finality worse than in the Great Depression. Nearly two million disappeared in manufacturing alone, and hundreds of thousands more than official figures ever acknowledged. There were layoffs, plant closures, the flight of corporations and export of jobs abroad. In the place of once-decent pay millions found only minimum wages, instead of full-time employment only part-time work stripped of benefits and rights. The average earnings in 1994 were some 15 percent less than two decades earlier. Even as American workers' efficiency and productivity rose, their wages stagnated or fell -- breaking what the New York Times called "one of the most enduring patterns in American economic history." Meanwhile farm values plunged along with collapsing commodity prices. Their unions broken or impotent, their land sold at auction, American workers and farmers returned to a vulnerability and powerlessness not seen since the nineteenth century.

They were only part of a larger decay of the economy. Never before had the country been so challenged by competition from abroad. Its aging infrastructure and industrial base were already straining in the 1970s. The fabled American commerce of the midcentury faced retooling and renewal at best. Yet by 1992 even that ominous condition seemed some distant, nostalgic past. Arresting the decay meant confronting corporate America and the whole elaborate structure of power by which business folly and abuse were protected, sometimes rewarded. It was the very task a money- and corporate-dominated government could never do.

When it was needed most, investment in plants and equipment had fallen drastically. A vast accumulation of wealth at the top had once again failed to "trickle down." Instead, there was plunder of healthy corporations and institutions. Speculators made fortunes seizing and destroying businesses through stock manipulation. Executives once answerable to shareholders, if not to the moral restraint of public leadership, sacked company holdings for salaries and other perquisites nearly 150 times the wages of their employees. Savings and loan institutions sank in an orgy of shady loans at the cost of hundreds of billions in depositors' ruin and taxpayers' liability.

America went from the world's greatest creditor to its deepest debtor, the annual budget deficit approaching $400 billion and the national debt climbing toward an unimaginable $4 trillion. As a conservative convert in the early 1960s Ronald Reagan liked to draw gasps from his audiences by evoking the Democrats' scandalous national debt as dollar bills stacked "eighteen miles high." By the time he and George Bush left Washington, as one writer reckoned, the same figurative pile reached over 250 miles.

The binge of spending and debt came alongside a deliberate impoverishment of public services. Washington slashed domestic social programs by more than a third between 1981 and 1989, aid to cities by 63 percent, housing by 82 percent, jobs programs and other services by more than half. As support for schools fell over the decade by more than 35 percent, America invested less in education than did any other industrialized nation and trailed most in literacy as well as science. Once proud of its quality of life, America came to rank behind even Third World countries in the health of its babies.

Of the fifty to sixty million Americans -- one-fourth of the nation -- living in poverty in the early 1990s, at least three million were homeless and seven million more at risk. In 1993, 26 percent of American children under the age of six were officially poor. Despite working full time, nearly ten million American workers -- and eight million spouses and children -- remained poor. Moreover, they represented more than twice the number of adults on welfare. By 1994 nearly one in five fulltime workers were counted among the poor even by woefully unrealistic government measures of poverty. Their curse was neither welfare dependency, lack of education, nor poor skills but the oldest economic disadvantage of all -- low wages. More than thirteen million full-time jobs -- one in every six and nearly half again more than in 1979 -- now paid less than it took to raise a family of three out of poverty. In 1970 the minimum wage had been more than 50 percent of the average worker's salary; by the early 1990s it was 30 percent and still declining in relative terms.

As part of the same trends there was a relentless growth in the old impoverished black ghettos. By 1992 nearly six million blacks lived in urban slums, 36 percent more than in 1980. Half of all African American children were born and raised in poverty. There was no question about the social disintegration in such neglect -- abuse, illness, suicide, drug addiction, a pandemic of crime, the costly cycle of imprisonment and still more crime.

The collapse of public services, the economic exclusion, and the profound cynicism and alienation were inseparable. The nation now led the world in the percentage of children living in poverty, teen pregnancy, murders of young males, and murders by handguns for all ages. Five million of its children under twelve went hungry every month. It imprisoned more of its citizens than the former totalitarian Soviet Union had. In social and class terms, the nation's penitentiaries were de facto prisoner-of-war camps, though without benefit of the Geneva Conventions. In many urban communities of color, police were a veritable occupying force, their implicit role to contain as well as control. Though politicians and the media found it too frightening to call by its right name, there raged in many US cities in the 1990s a virtual race and class war.


Nationwide, race was only the knife edge of a larger crisis, whose essence was class. The poor of 1992 numbered twice as many whites as nonwhite, especially in the so-called New South, where blacks, though they could at last hold office in the local courthouse, were still, as one book portrayed it vividly, "surrounded by white merchants who own and run everything else." Single-parent families, the uneducated, unemployed, and unemployable, the poor and near poor, always a paycheck or two from disaster, were in every locale, including the more than five hundred suburban communities newly classified as poor by 1989 and the hundreds soon to follow. An official study in the mid-1980s found that more than half of all Americans over twenty-four died in relative poverty, their assets "at the low end," as the report discreetly put it. A 1993 report revealed that five million of the elderly, despite incomes above the official poverty line, were suffering what was delicately defined as "food insecurity."

The wreckage included the once-thriving middle class, though more than 50 percent of the adult working population now received hourly wages, which were what traditionally defined the working class. Median family income, mired at $35,000 in 1990, no longer purchased the status of a generation earlier. Suddenly the children of Middle America were half as wealthy as their parents had been, and with less chance for college, career, property, or secure retirement. Home ownership, once the proud badge of the middle class, became a privilege of the relatively wealthy. Hundreds of thousands of Americans refinanced their homes because their wages were stagnant or they lost their jobs. Equity fell by a record $300 billion over the 1980s. The median cost of a new home rose fivefold in twenty years. Combined with falling real wages, the spiraling costs cut in half, to a little over 30 percent, the percentage of families able to buy their own homes. It all struck at the heart of what Georgetown professor Carroll Quigley had taught the young Bill Clinton about America's unique "future preference," the nation's stoic readiness to sacrifice and postpone so long as there was the prospect of "a better future."

No condition was more telling than the crisis in health insurance at the beginning of the 1990s. Neither destitute enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare, the working poor and middle class accounted for most of the thirty-seven million Americans without health insurance and the sixty million more with inadequate coverage, all facing ruin in a major illness. As premiums shot up nearly 200 percent and medical costs tripled, the employer-paid insurance common in the postwar covered less than a third of the nation's families. The ravenous $800 billion yearly cost of the medical industry -- 14 percent of the gross national product and nearly twice that of other advanced countries -- undermined even larger businesses. But its massive burden, like much else, had been shifted to fall most heavily on the least affluent, the least powerful. By the early 1990s experts estimated that a hundred thousand deaths took place each year simply because the uninsured victims could not afford basic health care; lack of health insurance, something uncommon in other civilized nations, caused three times more fatalities in the United States than AIDs.

***

In the sum of suffering and shattered dreams, there had been a historic change in the political economy of the United States. By 1989, before most Americans realized the first shot had been fired, the class war was effectively over. While the ranks of the poor were teeming and the middle class was shrinking by the millions, those reporting incomes of a half million dollars or more grew from 17,000 in 1980 to nearly 200,000 by the end of the decade. Those earning between a quarter million and a million dollars a year rose by some 700 percent, and multimillionaires by unprecedented numbers. These inequities in wealth were far greater and more swiftly inflicted than any since the inception of the nation.

Few causes and effects were so direct as the dominance of money in politics and the emergence of an economic and political overclass. Altogether, there was the largest gap of money and power separating the rich from other income earners anywhere in the developed world. "The once-egalitarian United States," said an analysis of the 1990 census, was becoming "more stratified and polarized than Europe." As economist Timothy Smeeding would document for the Congress in the early 1990s, the nation tolerated "a level of disadvantage unknown to any other major country on earth." This would be the America that Bill Clinton wanted to govern. How much he truly understood of the national forces at work would never be altogether clear in the campaign, though his apparent empathy for the suffering and complaints of ordinary people became a compelling part of his candidacy.

The Washington he ran against was a deeply ingrained culture with its own tribal habits and mores, a culture of complicity the new president, if his promises were to have a chance, would have to understand and confront as directly as he faced the other challenges. To both Washington and the nation, in any case, he came from his own peculiar history in the Arkansas of the 1980s, a place with its own money tyranny, human toll, ugly secrets. And that, too, would eventually have to be seen for what it really was.
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