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ISR Issue 53, May–June 2007

U.S. politics shifts leftward

LANCE SELFA notes that there has been a dramatic shift in U.S. politics over the past months and, for the first time in many years, rising expectations

U.S. POLITICS continue to shift leftward and away from its conservative groove at a pace that has defied predictions. By its sheer incompetence, cronyism, and devotion to policies that appeal to an increasingly narrow band of Americans, the Bush administration has managed to crystallize public doubts about the conservative orthodoxy that has set the pace for U.S. politics for a generation. Bush strategist Karl Rove came into the White House in 2001 with a plan of fashioning a long-term conservative Republican majority. Instead, in five years, the Bush administration has damaged the conservative brand to such an extent that none of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls has bona fide conservative credentials. And the early favorite, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has actually lost support by attempting to position himself as a successor to Bush and cheerleader for the Iraq War.

In the corridors of Washington, the administration appears set to spend its last twenty months in office fighting off subpoenas and corruption investigations from the Justice Department to the Department of Defense.

Even the normally timid Democrats in Congress are projecting a more confident posture, challenging the administration on a number of fronts. This certainly did not appear to be in the cards even after the November 2006 election. But the gathering list of administration failures and the sense among growing sections of the opinion-making classes that the administration is a lame duck has added to the Democrats' confidence. While the news that Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) nearly matched Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) in first-quarter 2007 presidential campaign fundraising hit the headlines, the broader back story was the fact that Democrats far out-raised Republicans in preparation for 2008. This means that many people with money are preparing to usher a Democratic president into the White House in 2009.

More importantly, this shift in fortunes between the political parties reflects a longer-term shift in public attitudes away from conservatism, according to a recent Pew Center for People and the Press survey. The Center reported that:

Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets underway.

At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew's longitudinal measures of the public's basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.

In the great scheme of things, April's firing by two major networks of radio/television shock jock Don Imus for an on-air racist and sexist comment was no major political milestone. But the protests Imus stirred with his denigration of the Rutgers women's basketball team as “nappy headed 'hos”-and the response of CBS and MSNBC-was another indication of how the political climate has changed since post-2004 election pundits declared the U.S. “Bush country.” For years, characters like Imus and others of his ilk, from Ann Coulter to Rush Limbaugh, have flourished in a media atmosphere that catered to a dominant right-wing ideology supportive of the Washington establishment's attacks on working people and its program of war and empire.

Time will tell whether Imus's demise will lead to further cleansing of the airwaves of other right-wing shills. But something has changed in the political culture, making conservative ideas seem increasingly irrelevant and just mean-spirited to larger numbers. After almost three decades of Washington-led attacks on the social safety net, erosion of civil rights, an employer's offensive against workers' living standards, and ever-increasing spending on the military, the majority of people in the U.S. are poorer, less economically secure, and worried about their futures. That reality has affected millions of Americans' attitudes more than the faux outrages that Limbaugh and Coulter regularly whip up.

Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer, in her comments to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, put the Imus issue in this broader context.

[T]oo often politicians, leaders, and whatever, religious leaders…speak for us, and we sit back and don't realize the power in numbers, and when to say enough is enough... I hope that it doesn't stop with Mr. Imus, because he's not the only culprit…. [W]e haven't stepped up, you know, [to the fact] that the corporate executives have dealt with the color of all of this being green…. We see these things over time, you know-a kid that steals something with a plastic cap pistol, to spend 10 years in jail, and yet you see, you know, the white-collar workers, you know, thieves that steal millions of dollars. I think that we've just got to come back, we've got to come back to some level of human decency. And I do think that if people stood up, and politicians wouldn't wait for a poll, but are strong enough to make a decision and stand.… I would gladly exchange winning a national championship if we, as young ladies, would stand and allow the country to somehow be empowered and that we take back our country, and we start talking about moral decency.

Of course, the lightning rod issue of today is the Iraq War. And on this, the public is far more in tune with the demands of the antiwar movement than with either the Democrats or Republicans in government. Another Pew survey showed that almost six in ten Americans support the idea of a date certain for U.S. troops to get out of Iraq, and a plurality of those surveyed (40 percent) said they thought the Democrats weren't doing enough to challenge Bush on Iraq.

In fact, in many ways, the Iraq debacle has become a prism through which all of the broader political trends can be seen. The scandal of veterans living in filth at Walter Reed Hospital highlights the tattered social safety net and the false promises of privatization. The disappearance of billions of dollars through corruption in war contracting stands in for everyday policies that reward the rich with tax cuts and government subsidies. And the neoconservative fantasy of an all-powerful Pentagon remaking the world in the U.S. image has crashed and burned in the Iraqi desert.

In conventional political terms, these setbacks for conservatives and Republicans have redounded to the benefit of the Democrats. And the Democratic presidential hopefuls, knowing how to read the political winds, have begun to respond with promises for universal health care and an end to the Iraq War. The huge crowds that have greeted Barack Obama at rallies across the country suggest that increasing numbers of Americans want to get rid of the rut of a political system that has offered up a Bush or a Clinton on every presidential ticket since 1980.

Whether Obama really represents the change that his supporters project onto him is another question. The important point is that millions of Americans are anxious and hopeful to see a positive political change. All indications point to the end-or at least a severe weakening-of the conservative era. Mass consciousness is shifting leftward on a number of questions. It hasn't yet found its expression in any sustained social movements, such as the 1950s-1960s civil rights movement that ended segregation and fundamentally altered racial attitudes. Yet long-term political change occurs microscopically and, often in the realm of ideas and attitudes, before it bursts forth on the scene in public, political protest. Although last year's immigrant rights “mega-marches” took much of the political establishment by surprise, they were the result of decades of immigration into the low-wage workforce on which the U.S. economy depends, and immigrants' disgust at being made scapegoats for the country's problems.

Similarly, a political climate that nurtures increased demands and hopes that the government will actually address real social problems can be a spur for the creation of social movements that historically are the only vehicles through which long-term social change has been won. On the one hand, when politicians are forced to talk about genuine issues like the health care crisis, it spurs on people to organize to demand that these promises be fulfilled. On the other hand, when the corporate-dominated political system fails to fulfill those demands-as it most often does-those who thought that “voting for change” was sufficient can conclude that they can only depend on themselves to fight for the change they want.

Lance Selfa, a member of the ISR editorial board, is currently working on a book about the Democratic Party.
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