If history has a healthy sense of the absurd, then at its bar Bill Clinton will be crowned with a tiny laurel for service to the cause of free love and phone sex. For everything else—his scoldings on “personal responsibility” and “playing by the rules,” his war on the poor and license with repressive state power, his fealty to the captains of business and flimflam in selling a center-right regime as “progressive”—he will be condemned. Now his heir, with the same punishing politics but none of the libertine impulses of the hallway sodomite, is on the stump, and once again liberals are pulling out their score sheets to calculate the lesser of two evils.
For many, the calculation will come down in favor of Al Gore, and then be followed by hand-wringing, queasiness, and other familiar symptoms attendant upon making a choice when there really is none. For those lining up behind Ralph Nader or another protest candidate, the symptoms will be less severe—chiefly anxiety about “wasting the vote”—and for these, there is the folk remedy of firm concentration on federal matching funds and the symbolic value of exercising a right that our forebrothers and sisters died fighting for.
In truth, even for those who plan to “hold their nose and vote for Gore,” symbolism is all that’s left. The plain person is courted and then ignored—something that’s understood by a great many Americans (46 percent in 1996), who sensibly decline the invitation. No, our dead forebears ought to be allowed their victories without the burden of responsibility for voting as an empty ritual. Eighty years ago, thirty years ago, the cry was not simply participation but power. Today, power is impossible without resistance. It’s an old rule of politics that withholding consent can have as much force as conferring it, and that doesn’t exclude the electoral arena. There is a condition though; withholding must not itself be an empty ritual. As a friend of mine on the fighting side put it, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it’s what you build for.”
Electoral fetishism is hard to shake without an argument, though, so since the front-runner in engendering angst is Al Gore, let’s cast back to the beginning of his executive career, the early days of Clinton time. “We won,” exclaimed progressives after the 1992 election. It never was clear who “we” were, but from the start there was a lot of talk about winning from the Clinton-Gore team. “Win-win” policies would satisfy environmentalists and plunderers of the earth, labor and capital, poor women and the people who hate them. Of course, there can’t be winners without losers, and the Democrats bet correctly that their liberal allies would have no response to the question that drives politics: if we don’t give them what they want, what will they do to hurt us?
And so it goes that, for instance, as of 1998, according to the venerable environmental defender David Brower, “the Clinton-Gore administration ha[d] done more to harm the environment in six years than Reagan-Bush did in twelve.” On the labor front, business got NAFTA. Backhandedly, it got an immigration policy that facilitates mass firings; discourages complaints over wages, hours, and working conditions; and crushes unionization drives. Despite record numbers of new workers organized, union membership is 2 percent lower than it was after eight years of Reagan. Despite a token increase, the minimum wage is still so low that a family of two–a full-time minimum-wage worker and her child—lives below the poverty line.
As economist Robert Pollin shows in a devastating “Anatomy of Clintonomics” in the May/June issue of New Left Review, in terms of growth and productivity the economy performed no better in the Clinton era overall than during previous presidential tenures. The average wage for nonsupervisory workers was lower than it was under Reagan and Bush. Inflation is low, but as Federal Reserve chairma