A week after the US Democrats’ sweeping victory in the mid-term Congressional elections, I would still need to suck a lemon to take the smile off my face.
This humiliation of George W Bush prosecutor of a disastrous war in Iraq, denier of a minimum wage rise to the poorest workers in his own country, deceiver of sincere evangelical Christians is the sweetest victory of them all.
The Democratic Party won more than twice the number of seats they needed to control the House of Representatives, picking up at least 30, and sealed victory in the Senate by winning four seats in their own right. Two victorious independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who calls himself a ‘socialist’) and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (who calls himself no such thing), will also caucus with the Democrats.
Make no mistake about the significance of this election outcome: it represents a resurgence of the Left. It is the realisation of the US historian Arthur Schlesinger’s theory of the ‘cycles of history’ alternating between communitarian/social democratic and individualist/free-market models. There is now mounting evidence to suggest that the Right-wing ascendancy, which began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and continued even through the presidencies and prime ministerships of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair (with these leaders compelled to run neo-liberal policies) is ending.
It is tempting to believe that the American voters’ decision to reward the Democrats with majorities in both Chambers rested entirely on the mismanagement of the Iraq War, with its estimated 660,000 Iraqi civilian and its 2,839 US soldier fatalities. The War certainly energised the Democratic base and, around the world, has been held up as the most significant factor in the result.
But voters were punishing Bush on a vast range of fronts, not least of which was his surrender of American democracy to multinational corporations and the obscenely rich, who could afford the best that Congress and Administration money could buy. Much of the debate about corruption focused on the way corporate lobbyists personified by the disgraced Republican felon Jack Abramoff had bought off legislators in the interests of big business.
For some voters, the issues of war and economic ethics converged. Bush has given generous tax cuts to the wealthy, while exempting them from any wartime sacrifice. He is the polar opposite of President Franklin Roosevelt who, during World War II, told America’s economic elites they would have to pay their fair share, and introduced top tax rates of 98 cents in the dollar.
Many voters were also enraged at the way Bush a son of the establishment and not a rugged Texan, as he pretends has blocked a rise in the already miserly minimum wage rate of just $5.15 an hour. In at least five US States they voted in ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage. In the bellwether State of Missouri, such a ballot initiative passed with 76 per cent support.
Evangelical Christians also woke up to the manipulation of the Bush White House. According to CNN exit polls, at least a third of them supported Democrats. They realised just as Bush’s former adviser on faith-based initiatives, David Kuo, realised that this White House had exploited them in 2002 and 2004. Bush paid lip service to their concerns about abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research, while pursuing an agenda that enriched Fortune 500 companies and their $US50 million-a-year chief executives.
Thanks to Bill Leak
To be sure, this election was as much a victory for traditional progressive economic populism as it was a protest against the Iraq War.
Americans have realised that major corporations, using slippery Washington lobbyists, have stolen their democracy. In the case of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company Halliburton, which has pocketed more than $US1 billion in Iraq War contracts that never went to tender, the corporations have also stolen their tax dollars.
Many Right-wing commentators, desperate to find a comforting rationale for the result, have pointed out that some of the victorious Democrats are conservative and centrist. But they are conservative only on cultural issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control. They are equally committed to labour rights; rolling back Bush’s tax cuts for millionaires; raising the minimum wage; fair, as opposed to free, trade; expanding medical insurance coverage for low-income Americans; investing in renewable energies to end the dependence on oil; protecting the environment; ending corporate lobbyists’ power to write legislation and debauch democracy; and a withdrawal, phased or otherwise, from the morass of Iraq.
These were the common themes running through all six Senate campaigns, in which Democrats or Independents took Republican seats. For example, Bob Casey Jr, the so-called ‘conservative’ anti-abortion Democrat who won with a crushing 59 per cent in Pennsylvania, supports ‘eliminating the tax cuts for multimillionaires,’ demands ‘fair trade laws that don’t send our jobs overseas’ and heralds ‘school teachers and nurses’ not CEOs, as American heroes.
Sherrod Brown, who won 56 per cent in Ohio, made ending price gouging by pharmaceutical companies and expanding Medicare centrepieces of his campaign.
John Tester, the hog farmer with the buzz cut and three missing fingers, who won in Montana, has, among other populist measures, promised to ‘ stand up to big insurance companies and support a health care plan that makes health care affordable for all Montanans.’
Even Jim Webb, a long-time Republican and former official in President Ronald Reagan’s Administration who switched to the Democrats because of the Iraq debacle, and who is lauded as the most conservative of all the freshman senators is an unashamed progressive populist. His victorious campaign was lifted entirely from the playbook of the 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards, whose ‘two Americas’ theme made him the most class-conscious candidate for national office since the great Ted Kennedy in 1980. Webb declared:
This country is splitting into three pieces. As a result of the internationalisation of the economy, the people at the top have never had it so good. The middle class is continuing to get squeezed by stagnant wages and rising cost of living. And we are in danger of creating a permanent underclass. We must re-examine our tax and trade policies and reinstitute notions of fairness, and also enforce our existing trade laws so that free trade becomes fair trade.
In the wake of the US mid-term elections, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s political editor, Peter Hartcher who epitomises cautious, middle-of-the-road establishment thinking admitted to an audience at the Lowy Institute last Friday that while the ‘neo-liberal economic project’ will go on, it is no longer politically ascendant. That’s an understatement.
The neo-liberal doctrine of privatisation of public services, free trade (usually without meaningful labour and environmental standards in the developing world), corporate welfare and tax cuts for the elite has never been popular and now it is likely to become a fringe, even crank, ideology.
In fact, dehumanising Right-wing economics is in retreat almost everywhere. The only reason for the rallying fortunes of British Tor
ies is that leader David Cameron has renounced Thatcherism, rejected tax cuts and made strengthening the National Health Service the focus of his campaign.
The Swedish Centre-Right only squeaked into office in September’s elections for what is likely to be a one-term interregnum before the Social Democrat restoration, if 2 0th Century history is any guide by styling itself as ‘the new labor party’. In last year’s German elections, the voters kept the supposedly unpopular Social Democrats as one half of the governing coalition as a check on Centre-Right policies; while Socialists gained power in the recent Austrian elections, held in October.
Last week, in the shadow of the US Congressional elections, one of the great revolutionary figures of the 1980s, Daniel Ortega, swept back into power in Nicaragua, the people consciously putting a collective thumb in the eye of American neo-conservatives who had threatened to cut off aid if they voted for the Sandinista hero.
The message from the US result for Centre-Left Parties around the world, especially in Australia, is to put economic justice front and centre in their campaigns. They should sublimate their fashionable liberal social policies to the broader progressive populist message, which holds big business accountable, protects the environment, supports workers’ rights and demands that the economic elites that is, the real elites pay their fair share.
A social democratic sea change has begun in politics, and Australia sooner than we think is about to catch the wave.
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