A portion of a talk by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes, titled, "The Vote for Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan's `Culture War': What the 1992 Elections Revealed." This talk was presented at a Militant Labor Forum in New York on Nov. 7, 1992, just four days after the U.S. presidential elections. It will be included in Capitalism's World Disorder: Working Class Politics in the 21st Century by Jack Barnes.
....The vote for Perot is the thing bourgeois pollsters were most wrong about this year. I do not usually pay much attention to opinion polls, since they rarely reveal much about what is really going on in politics and the class struggle. But the polls caught many of the trends in bourgeois politics pretty accurately this year. They were right about the shift after the Republican convention, when bourgeois public opinion swung decisively against Bush. They were right about how the Clinton- Bush race was turning out.
Why were the polls so wrong on the vote for Perot, then? I think they were wrong because a substantial number of people who intended to vote for Perot did not tell the truth when they were selected at random to be surveyed. Why? Because these people considered the pollsters - like reporters, news photographers, and most "professional politicians" - to be part of the conspiracy.
I watched the televised reports on Perot's huge rally in Long Beach, California, on Sunday night before the election. He stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence and began shouting, "Look, look up there! There are seals! There are seals up in the rafters!" I figured, this is it - he's gone around the bend on nationwide TV. But then the camera panned the audience, and they were all cheering. Many of them knew exactly what he was talking about. He was pointing to members of the navy SEALs - the U.S. Navy's special forces, like the army's Green Berets. And then he explained to the whole audience, and to everyone watching on television, why he does not accept Secret Service protection. For his protection, Perot said, he counts on "our boys" who are trained to protect this country, to protect all of us. (Earlier this year, the New York daily Newsday reported that Perot has a "devoted following in the military, notably within the special-operations community.")
Perot told the crowd in Long Beach that he had watched videotapes of the televised presidential debates; he called attention to how many times his eyes blinked versus how many times Bush's and Clinton's eyes blinked. It sounds bizarre, doesn't it? But if you are prone to believe in conspiracy theories, then isn't eye-blinking a wonderful test of who is telling the truth? Watch their eyes blink! Then watch mine!
These things sound irrational to us. But they get a hearing because millions are trying to find answers that can explain the irrationalities of capitalism. Millions want to know what can be done about the destabilizing consequences they fear for themselves and their families. In the absence of real explanations, the "theories" of a Perot can seem to solve the mystery of what is happening to the country, to the government, to the world, to jobs - to any semblance of security in their lives.
Why capitalism appears more corrupt
Perot taps into a conviction growing among millions of people that the established bourgeois politicians are incapable of addressing the social crisis. More and more people are open to the suggestion that these figures are at worst plotting conspiracies; at best they are immoral, not fit to be in office. Millions are convinced that the government is rotten; Washington and all it represents is morally degenerate; the parliamentary and democratic institutions under capitalism are cesspools where thieves and bureaucrats and maneuverers hide. And more and more believe that something radical must be done to break through this spreading corruption.
The ruling class and its political spokespeople today appear to be so much more corrupt, so scandal-ridden, because of capitalism's deepening and irresolvable problems. Actually, the propertied classes and their politicians are corrupt in all periods. They have always cheated each other and used the government to enrich themselves and their friends. Why else do "public servants" stay in government? The difference today is only that the scope of the social crisis makes it more difficult for the exploiters to hide what they have always become and what they have always ended up doing.
Even when the capitalist class was on the rise historically in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the executive branch of the government was always careful about what it said publicly, including in front of parliaments and congresses.
Presidents, prime ministers, and their deputies lied continually. What changes in capitalism's decline, however, is the growing power of the executive branch. What changes is the executive power's need to hide more and more of what it must do to defend imperialist interests against working people at home and abroad, growing numbers of whom have won the right to be at least a part of the "political class."
The Watergate crisis surely had little to do with the episodes from which it got its name-the break-in at the Democrats' national committee office in the Watergate hotel, organized by the Nixon campaign committee's "offensive security" volunteers. No. Watergate registered the implications for the U.S. ruling class of Washington's defeat in Vietnam. It marked the end of the historic high point of U.S. imperialism's strength and stability. Similar problems for the U.S. rulers - revolutionary developments in Central America and the Middle East in the late 1970s and 1980s - are behind the so- called Irangate and Iraqgate scandals too.
This tendency, in the context of sharpening political polarization, increases suspicions of the rulers and their government representatives. Perot plays on this growing distrust of politicians, even as he offers a Bonapartist solution that would in fact greatly tighten the grip of the presidency. Congress is an obstacle, says Perot. Gridlock! Gridlock everywhere! Gotta cut through the gridlock! Gotta get rid of corruption to end the gridlock! Gotta watch out for conspiracies that lead to gridlock!
Perot uses insinuation effectively. How do people like Bush and Clinton end up so wealthy? Ross Perot is a self-made man -an effective businessman, not a Washington insider, he boasts. There's no mystery how he made his money. "I'm spending my money, not PAC [political action committee] money, not foreign money, my money- - take this message to the people," Perot aggressively asserted during the second televised presidential debate last month.
But what about Bush and Clinton? How did they get their wealth? How do they explain how they got where they are? Ability? Moral stature? Hardly. So what is the explanation? "Who would you give your pension fund and your savings account to, to manage?" Perot said in his closing remarks during the final presidential debate. "Who would you ask to be the trustee of your estate and take care of your children if something happened to you?" And he returned to that theme in Long Beach the other night. "If you had a small business, would you hire either one of these guys to run it?" he asked to thundering shouts of "No!" from the crowd. But wouldn't you trust your money with Ross Perot? The guy's a billionaire, after all. He claims to be beholden to no one - no lobbyists, no bankers, no "foreign interests," nobody. He says he spent millions of dollars of his own money on the campaign. Ross puts his money where his mouth is - his own money. That's Perot's pitch....
Perot, the self-made man, isn't afraid to explain why everybody has to accept pain, why "we all" have to sacrifice, he explains.
Social Security can't be sacred, Perot says, at least not for well-off people like himself who don't need it. (That is his "populist" foot in the door, to open the assault on Social Security as a universal social right, guaranteed for all.) A higher tax on gasoline may be necessary, too. The federal budget deficit has to be slashed at all costs. But "we" in America can do this, Perot says. Can do!
Perot did not win the election, but we should all watch what happens to domestic policy in this country over the next twenty- four months. Perot's economic program will come closer to what the Clinton administration and bipartisan Congress actually implement than anything either the Democratic or Republican candidates talked about during the campaign.
A warning to workers movement
Perot's radical, demagogic appeal gained a hearing from millions this year, as the election results show. I repeat: the vote for Perot is the important outcome of the 1992 elections, and it is a warning the workers movement ignores at its own peril....
A vote anywhere close to the size of Perot's is rare for a third-party candidate in the United States in this century. Remember the John Anderson campaign in 1980? Anderson got less than 7 percent of the vote, running against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. In 1948 two third-party movements broke off from the Democrats - Strom Thurmond's segregationist States' Rights Democrats, and the Progressive Party ticket of Henry Wallace, backed by forces in and around the Stalinists and some liberal milieus. Those two parties combined, however, got less than 5 percent of the vote, and Democrat Harry Truman won the election and started consolidating the national security state for U.S. imperialism.
But Ross Perot got nearly 20 percent of the vote - 4 to 5 percent more than predicted on the basis of those who said beforehand they would vote for him. The Perot vote registers the growing view that no established Democratic or Republican party candidate will ever be any different. It registers the glorification of the armed forces and their special elite units that gains momentum at times of social crisis - no corruption there! It converges with the glorification of the cops. It reflects the elevation of the so-called self-made businessman (like Perot) who knows how to cut through red tape. "I'm Ross. You're the boss!" - that became Perot's demagogic, populist watchword as the campaign progressed. Together, we will cut through the pretense of democracy in Washington, the gridlock of elected institutions, and get things done!
To get a feel for the way similar forces evolved earlier in the century in the United States, it is useful to read a novel called All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. It is based on the life of Huey Long, the demagogue who became governor of Louisiana during the crisis-ridden years of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Warren brings to life some of the social reality behind the rise of Bonapartist-minded demagogues such as Ross Perot. This is not a new phenomena in the United States. What is new is the acceleration of the social crisis that begins to provide a social base for such rightist developments again today. These movements all combine populist demagogy with deeply undemocratic attitudes and proposals, always built around conspiracies.
The social and political pressures reflected in the vote for Ross Perot have nothing to do with him as an individual. The vote he received has nothing to do with what may or may not happen to Perot or to his "United We Stand" movement tomorrow.
What is new is that a candidate running outside the two major bourgeois parties, with the kind of radical demagogy he spouted, got close to 20 percent of the vote in the United States of America in the closing decade of the twentieth century. To drive home how new it is, we should just ask ourselves the question: "What would I have thought if I had turned on the television ten years ago, or even five, and heard a major candidate for president saying these things?"
This kind of movement, this kind of demagogy is going to be a permanent and growing aspect of the intersection of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politics in the period we have entered. It is an inevitable product of a world capitalist order heading toward intensified trade wars, economic breakdowns, banking and currency crises, accelerated war drives, and their inevitable accompaniment-class battles.
Perot's radicalism is a manifestation of the increasingly brutal politics of capitalism in decline. It is a radicalism that pits human beings against each other and reinforces all the most savage competitiveness and dog-eat-dog values of capitalist society. It singles out scapegoats among the most oppressed and exploited layers of our class. When Perot explains what "we" can and must do, the "we" is a lie. But when he says that "we" must act quickly and decisively, because "time is not on our side," Perot is pointing to a fundamental class truth-he is just deliberately using the wrong pronoun. Time is not on their side-the side of the capitalists and rightist demagogues who seek to salvage their system. But time is on our side-the side of the working class, in the United States and around the world.
That is why it is so important for workers and revolutionary- minded youth to absorb that radicalization per se is not in the interests of the working class. In and of itself it has no class content. Radicalism has staked out a permanent place in bourgeois politics, one that will expand as the crisis deepens. Perot may or may not be among its standard-bearers next time around. But the bourgeois right will win adherents to their own radical-radically reactionary-views and proposals until the working class begins to forge a leadership with class-struggle answers out of the fighting vanguard of the toilers.