This is one of a multi-part blog series in Howard Zinn's groundbreaking and controversial book, "A People's History of the United States."
I just watched part of the recent PBS special on Bill Clinton, so I will be interested to read this chapter on the Clinton Presidency and "the Crisis of Democracy" with that and other knowledge in mind.
Zinn is certainly not conservative, but he's not a Democrat either. Both parties, as he says repeatedly, are in the hands of the oligarchy. Some of the country, he felt, agreed: "President Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 with a distinct lack of voter enthusiasm. As was true in 1992 (when 19 percent of the voters showed their distaste for both parties by voting for a third- party candidate, Ross Perot), the electorate was clearly not happy about its choices. Half of the eligible voters stayed away from the polls, and of those who did vote, only 49 percent chose Clinton over his lackluster opponent, Robert Dole. One bumper sticker read: "If God had intended us to vote, he would have given us candidates.""
Indeed, Zinn spends the first part of the chapter talking about how very pro-capitalism and politically centrist Clinton was. I think Obama's the same way. Zinn shows where Clinton's ideas differ greatly from some of MLK Jr's more radical ones about exposing the link between capitalism, the military, and the government; and radical racial equality; etc.
Zinn talks about how Clinton was tough on crime, building prisons instead of bringing people out of poverty. Clinton was weak for a liberal, but Zinn fails to mention the overwhelming surge of Republican zeal at the time, politically and physically realized by the Republican's retaking of the legislative branch by a large margin in the 1994 elections.
"There was a simple but overwhelming problem with cutting off benefits to the poor to force them to find jobs. There were not jobs available for all those who would lose their benefits. In New York City in 1990, when 2000 jobs were advertised in the Sanitation Department at $23,000 a year, 100,000 people applied. Two years later in Chicago, 7000 people showed up for 550 jobs at Stouffer's, a restaurant chain. In Joliet, Illinois, 2000 showed up at Commonwealth Edison at 4:30 A.M. to apply for jobs that did not yet exist. In early 1997, 4000 people lined up for 700 jobs at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. It was estimated that at the existing rate of job growth in New York, with 470,000 adults on welfare, it would take twenty-four years to absorb those thrown off the rolls." The simple but overwhelming response from the 'other' side would be for these folks to create their own jobs through entrepreneurship (or, less compellingly, to move to where the jobs are).
"Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against "big government," were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government-huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations-continued at exorbitant levels." The conservative argument I hear regarding this is that military spending is actually in the Constitution. This is true but not sufficient; to me, that's like equating the Constitution with the Bible (and I don't believe that either is infallible).
Zinn reads my mind a bit here (a mind he has, admittedly, helped create): "
'Big government' had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.
It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor that political leaders and business executives complained about 'big government.'"
To free the money it would take to keep enough welfare so that U.S. folk could have things like jobs and health care, we could either/both cut military spending or/and raise taxes on the wealthy. Both of these seem anathema in the current political climate. One weakens us in the eyes of the world (including weakening our hold on foreign natural resources and stopping the revenue we make by selling made-in-the-USA guns and bombs to the rest of the world) and the other supposedly disincentivizes innovation and hard work. "With the four or five hundred billion dollars gained by progressive taxation and demilitarization, there would be funds available to pay for health care for everyone, to guarantee jobs to anyone willing and able to work. Instead of giving out contracts for jet bombers and nuclear submarines, contracts could be offered to nonprofit corporations to hire people to build homes, construct public transport systems, clean up the rivers and lakes, turn our cities into decent places to live."
"The alternative to such a bold program [which, as I've said, is reiterated very clearly by people like Benazir Bhutto and posed similarly but for the environment by folks like Lester Brown] was to continue as before, allowing the cities to fester, forcing rural people to face debt and foreclosures, offering no useful work for the young, creating a larger and larger marginal population of desperate people. Many of these people would turn to drugs and crime, some of them to a religious fanaticism ending in violence against others or themselves (in 1996, one such group committed mass suicide), some to a hysterical hatred of government (as in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing at least 168 people). The response of the authorities to such signs of desperation, anger, alienation has been, historically, quite predictable: Build more jails, lock up more people, execute more prisoners. And continue with the same policies that produced the desperation."
New citizens' movements began to form - political, racial, social, pro-labor, pro-feminist, pro-religion. Zinn describes some of these movements through the mid-1990s and then sums it up: "If democracy was to be given any meaning, if it was to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come-if history was any guide-from the top. It would come through citizens' movements, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed."
The chapter ends with hope of these populist movements, movements that have now been channeled into things like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. While the groups sometimes have very different aims, it is clear that both groups oppose the way the government holds up the moneyed oligarchy in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson said that it was healthy for nations to have a revolution ever twenty years or so. People should not be complacent when institutions of power become self-serving and solipsistic. The government is a socialistic institution that does scaffold programs for the common good - infrastructure, education, health care, defense. It really is up to us to find the balance that allows us to reap the benefits of shared responsibility without giving up our treasured rights and freedoms.