The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.42           November 23, 1998 
Radicalism, Bonapartism, And The Perot Vote  

The Nov. 3, 1998, election of Reform Party candidate James George Janos Ventura as governor of Minnesota highlights the rise in social polarization that gets reflected in bourgeois politics today. It was similar to the vote for Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election. The Texas billionaire, running against both Republican George Bush and Democrat William Clinton, took 19 percent of the vote.

The following selection is 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, scheduled for publication in December. It is copyright (c) 1998 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

The history of this century teaches us that a deepening capitalist crisis starts breeding radical attitudes before it precipitates massive class battles. Before a broad working- class radicalization begins - with growing numbers of workers becoming more receptive to class-struggle proposals and communist ideas-radical attitudes begin getting a hearing in the middle class and among better-off layers of workers who aspire to become part of the middle class.

In a working-class radicalization, a vanguard of the labor movement begins to organize as a conscious political force, independent of the capitalist class and its parties. Prior to that, resistance by workers to the employers' offensive takes on a guerrilla character - a fight by a group of workers at a particular plant, a battle that explodes in a particular industry, resistance to a police attack in some city, and other partial struggles around specific abuses and demands.

But the working class currently has no class-conscious political voice, organization, or leadership of our own on any mass scale. The working class does not think and act like a class. So the political initiative today comes from currents on the right, which take advantage of their foothold within the structures of the bourgeois parties and other ruling-class institutions. Rightist forces tap into the loss of confidence in the government and suspicions about the rulers and their most prominent, established spokespeople. Nationalism, not communism; national socialism, not proletarian internationalism; not the historic line of march of a class, but the hatreds and resentment of a heterogeneous popular mass - these are the marks of this political development.

Because of the misleadership of the labor movement by the union officialdom and social democratic and Stalinist parties in the United States, the political monopoly of the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties was never really challenged by any substantial wing of the labor movement during the Great Depression and labor radicalization of the 1930s....

Behind the radicalization that is initially putting wind in the sails of the right, however, we can see fracture lines that tell us the two-party system the rulers put together before World War I is not immune to breakup. That is what this election signaled. We should never think that the only way the capitalist class can run things is through a two-party system; that is one of a number of ways they can do so.

The reflection of this emerging radicalism in this year's election campaign was more important than anything we saw with William Clinton and Albert Gore or with George Bush and Danforth Quayle. Everything those four said and did during the campaign could have been prerecorded on a videotape and played back on the nightly news; nobody would have known the difference. Once the October surprise had been scotched, everything else about the Bush-Clinton contest was like a choreographed dance.

But an aspect of bourgeois electoral politics this year was not choreographed - the campaigns of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan. The vote for Perot earlier this week -19 percent of the ballots cast - is the most significant electoral phenomena in the United States since just before World War I, when Theodore Roosevelt ran as an independent against the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 1912 elections. Roosevelt, who had been president from 1901 to 1909, had made his name as an officer in the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was the first military engagement by Washington as an emerging imperialist power. By that time, the U.S. capitalists' rivals in Britain and elsewhere in Europe already had a jump on them in colonial markets, and substantial sections of the U.S. ruling class were pressing Washington to begin acting more aggressively as a world military power. Starting with the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba - all either annexed or brought under Washington's heel during the Spanish-American War - growing layers of the U.S. ruling class were determined to push toward establishing their predominance in the world imperialist system that was coming into being. It was against that background that layers of the U.S. capitalist class backed Roosevelt's candidacy as an independent in 1912, and he ended up getting around 28 percent of the vote - more than the Republican incumbent. Although Roosevelt was not elected, the goals of those who pushed his candidacy were successful. The new Democratic president Woodrow Wilson went on to win reelection four years later and led the United States into World War I in 1917. Out of that slaughter, Wall Street and Washington emerged as world imperialism's leading power, whose fortunes would determine much of the course of the twentieth century.

Not a bizarre anomaly
Theodore Roosevelt is the only "third party" candidate in this century who polled a bigger percentage of votes than Perot. It is important to assess the Perot campaign accurately, or we will fall into the trap of accepting its portrayal by much of the bourgeois press as a bizarre anomaly. But this kind of political phenomenon - with its bizarre elements, for sure - is not abnormal for this stage of the curve of capitalist development. Thinking workers better get used to anticipating that radical demagogues will win support from many small businessmen, farmers, and other middle-class layers, as well as sectors of the working class. These social layers are attracted to a figure who comes along and seems to offer explanations and proposals radically different from those of politicians whom growing numbers consider incurably corrupt, ineffective, and self-serving.

Every sophisticated, liberal, coiffured newsreader on TV had written off Perot. Who, they asked, would take seriously a candidate like Perot who held a news conference to charge that a picture of his daughter was being circulated by George Bush to try to make her look immoral, and who then withdrew from the race for a while, citing that as one of the reasons? Who would take seriously a candidate who earlier during the campaign claimed to have been the target in the 1970s of an assassination plot organized by the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese government? When Perot re-entered the race this fall, these pundits said he could kiss good-bye his earlier expectations of 16 or 17 percent of the vote; he would be lucky to get 4 or 5 percent now, they said.

Conspiracy theories
But we should ask ourselves the question: how many millions of people in the United States believe Perot's charges? How many millions are beginning to believe that only conspiracies and plots by powerful forces who do not have the interests of "the country" at heart can explain what is happening to their lives and livelihoods, and the even bleaker future they foresee? How many millions see no explanation other than a spreading moral corruption in what they believe was once the greatest country in the world? How many "on the left" show the need to lean on conspiracy fantasies to explain the horrors of the rulers' march toward fascism and war?

When Ross Perot cried "Conspiracy!" he increased his vote. (I might add that the only actual conspiracy that was even partially documented during this election campaign was one organized earlier by Perot himself using private detectives to break up the engagement of one of his daughters because he was not going to have her marry a Jew. A number of witnesses seem to substantiate that Perot used almost exactly the same kind of blackmail scheme against his younger daughter that he charged Bush with using against her older sister.)

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.

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