Are you looking forward to Bill Clinton’s second term? I’m not. This past election, in both its campaign and its conclusion, reiterated that the dominant political dialogue in the United States is between the elite establishment and the right. Clinton’s co-option of this dialogue was both deft and depressing.
Of course it’s easy to deride Clinton’s failings, and natural to want to dismiss those voters willing to re-elect, say, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. It’s also tempting to imagine that the re-elected liberal senators from Massachusetts and Minnesota, Kerry and Wellstone, represent the future — and that Clinton, now that he doesn’t have to run again, will stop veering to the right.
But disengaging from political reality is self-destructive if you wish to enact positive change. Do progressives really want the responsibility of public office? Sixteen years after Reagan’s election, some seem more interested in moral posturing. Nader’s smug, halfhearted run was more depressing to me than Clinton’s slick, wholehearted one.
There was one quite positive sign in last fall’s election: the women’s vote. Within this vote is a political philosophy — call it “tough mothering” — that could dominate many elections to come. But the potential of this philosophy is apparent only if one first engages head-on the public’s continuing quarrel with the entire left.
The quarrel isn’t economic. The conventional analysis of the American political mood is, I believe, precisely wrong. The pundits would have us believe that Americans are social liberals and economic conservatives — which is, for the most part, what the political and media elites are. In fact, most voters are exactly the opposite: economically liberal (they hold the government ultimately responsible for the country’s financial well-being) and socially conservative (they feel the nation’s moral fabric is fraying, and certain government efforts to help have actually hurt).
Newt & Co. misinterpreted the public’s frustration as a mandate to dismantle both the government’s financial oversight and its personal caretaking functions. Credit women voters for checking Newt’s reign. They didn’t want a nation that doesn’t adequately support Medicare, education, and the environment.
In a country where the media seems able to focus only on the freshest scandal (e.g., Clinton’s fundraising), it’s worth remembering that a Dole presidency would have given Newt and his House revolutionaries de facto dominance. So why didn’t this prospect scare more male voters? Clinton’s lack of a center (how odd that he’s known as a centrist) is apparent to most voters. But why do so many men project onto the president’s emptiness a vileness? Why is their hatred of him so profound?
Many conservative men view Clinton as fundamentally illegitimate. Not only is he not a national father figure, he has no paternal tradition behind him. He represents a world without limits, one that encourages childishness, disorder, and immorality. One that grabs without requiring sacrifice. Thus the sacrifice candidate, Bob Dole, was put forth to send a message, however grumpy and incoherent, to what’s left of liberalism.
We ignore this message at our peril. As the congressional elections showed, the country still leans right. If Clinton stumbles, a new Newt may take his place. This successor’s rhetoric would doubtless be kinder and gentler, but its underlying social Darwinism could be still more virulent.
Where might Clinton falter? Not on social grounds. He preaches the virtues of the nation coming together, but avoids strictures that would impose it. This moderate social conservatism is in step with the rest of the country.
On economic grounds, however, Clinton’s stand is shaky. He campaigned on America’s renewed economic vigor. But when a downturn comes — and one always does — the incumbent will be blamed. Popular ire on both the right and the left will focus on the alliance between the president and corporate elites. But the Buchananite rallying cries from the right are far more likely to be heeded than organizing calls from the left.
Why? Because the majority of Americans still believe the left represents rights without responsibilities, citizenship without the payment of dues. Not only is this critique outdated, its target is absurdly small. Organized labor is arousing from its slumber, but otherwise there is very little left to speak of. Paradoxically, this void presents an opportunity. In today’s volatile political world, new forces can suddenly coalesce. I believe the best hope for this happening is around the women’s vote.
It would be wrong to exaggerate the importance of this vote at this point. Daniel Yankelovich, perhaps the keenest public opinion analyst in America, says that women may be in the vanguard of redefining government’s role, but they haven’t yet articulated how reformed public agencies can help strengthen families. And if the women’s vote becomes polemical, it could degenerate into yet another group narcissism and dissipate as a decisive force.
For the moment, what’s possible is a broad movement that builds upon social moderation and economic oversight — what I call tough mothering. Or better yet, reciprocity. Some of its principles might be: Individuals must find their own way in the market, but the market should be monitored to make sure it is serving the greatest number of individuals and not depleting our common environment. Capital has a life of its own, but not the right to rig the political system, as it is doing now. Government should help the poor, sick, and elderly, but its goal should be to increase autonomy. Educating the young is the core obligation of the adult world, but the core value to be taught is mutuality — the obligation to give back.
Those who seek to create a world where reciprocity is rewarded will find they attract both males and females, Democrats and Republicans, the religious and the secular into an astonishingly productive union.