Katha Pollitt, 1996 vs. 2016
[What a difference 20 years can make. Here’s the full text of column that Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation as welfare was being repealed. It’s full of sharp criticism of the Clinton administration, the awfulness of the Dems, the treachery of lesser-evil politics, the limits of elite advocacy—and even a little mockery of Supreme Court fetishism. Today, Katha is a big fan of Hillary Clinton and has forgotten all this. Too bad, because this is very good.]
The Nation — August 26-September 2,1996
The Strange Death of Liberal America
I woke up this morning to the voice of Linda Chavez-Thompson-first and only female, first and only minority executive vice president of the supposedly revitalized, supposedly reprogressified A.F.L.-C.I.O.-telling National Public Radio how thrilled she was with the Democratic Party platform. That’s the one that claims as a party triumph the Republican-authored welfare bill that will push countless children into poverty, deprive legal immigrants of a wide array of benefits and force millions of poor mothers into minimum- or even subminimum-wage jobs that do not, so far as we know, exist. “I love this platform!” announced Dennis Archer, Mayor of Detroit, where 67 percent of children are on public assistance. Did I mention that the platform this year omits the usual lip service to the ongoing urban crisis?
The passage of the welfare reform bill signifies more than the end of welfare as we know it; it signifies the end of a certain kind of liberalism too. Plenty of solid liberal Democrats voted for the act in the Senate: Russell Feingold, Bob Graham and Barbara Mikulski, who wasn’t even up for re-election. The House vote included yeas from Nita Lowey, who is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues; Elizabeth Furse; Jane Harmon; and Lynn Rivers. I’m ashamed to say I actually contributed to the campaigns of some of these people, through EMILY’S List and other supposedly feminist PACs. Maybe you did too.
“Sometimes you’re in a position in which you have to make a decision,” Representative Lowey told me. “The system is so broken,” Is it? Lowey asserted that 25 percent of those on welfare are third-generation recipients, a figure she revised later in our talk as 25 percent on welfare for ten years or more — “that’s two generations.” Maybe she was thinking of horses on welfare? (Actually, only about 6 percent of recipients have been on welfare continuously for that long, and only 9 percent grew up in house- holds that frequently received welfare.) It was unnerving but strangely enlightening to hear the head of the Congressional women’s caucus defending her vote with numbers plucked out of the air and Orwellian tributes to “the dignity of work,” while simultaneously professing herself “concerned” about the actual content of the bill — the free hand given to states with atrocious records, the cutoffs of legal immigrants, food stamp limits, etc. When the Democrats retake Congress we’ll be monitoring those things, she assured me. So now we’re supposed to vote for the Democrats so they can undo their own votes! Talk about triangulation.
Well, why single out Nita Lowey? Elizabeth Furse’s press aide wanted me to believe that Furse voted for the bill in order to protect Oregon’s “wonderful” programs. (Hello? There are forty-nine other states out here? Full of women you asked for campaign contributions?) The picture from the world of Beltway advocacy is not much brighter. Marian Wright Edelman threw away the last, best chance to organize popular resistance to punitive welfare reform and convened a giant Stand for Children that attracted 200,000 people to.. stand for children. A.F.S.C.M.E. finally decided to use its phone banks to organize callers to urge a White House veto — on the very day Clinton announced he would sign the bill.
NOW (which, to its credit, is refusing to endorse or support legislators who voted for the bill) is mounting a daily vigil at the White House with a coalition of progressive groups. Patricia Ireland and other NOW staffers are on a hunger strike.
All this is good, but why so little? Why so late? This bill has been moving toward passage for months, and welfare reform has been a major political issue for four years. It’s because these liberal groups are caught up in mainstream electoral politics, which in practice means clinging to Clinton and the Democratic Party, waiting and hoping and beseeching, working on the inside, faxing and phoning and producing yet another study or poll. Meanwhile they preach the gospel of the lesser of two evils, that ever-downward spiral that has brought us to this pass and that will doubtless end with liberals in hell organizing votes for Satan because Beelzebub would be even worse — think of the Supreme Court!
They really didn’t think he’d sign it, one welfare expert told me when I asked why protests were so lackluster as the bill moved toward passage. That was a miscalculation that goes way beyond the President’s character — it applies to a whole mode of political action. Liberalism is the idea that the good people close to power can solve the problems of those beneath them in the social order. Its tools are studies and sermons and campaign contributions and press conferences. The trouble is, the political forces they call on are not interested anymore — and this is true not just in the United States. In country after country, social benefits are being slashed and the working class’s standard of living lowered, and the major parties, including the ones that call themselves Labor or Socialist or Democratic, accept this process as a given. Of course, there will always be a few noble oddballs like Paul Wellstone, the only Democratic senator up for re-election who voted against the welfare bill. But the general direction of government in the age of globalized corporate power is clear.
Advocacy politics can’t turn this around, because advocacy is based on speaking for people rather than those people acting on their own behalf. Enormous demonstrations around the country, with strikes by S.E.I.U. and A.F.S.C.M.E., sit-downs in welfare offices and 100,000 homeless people camping out on the capital Mall might have affected the debate. Marian Wright Edelman issuing a press release no longer can. Indeed, the media didn’t even pick up the most recent one, eloquent as it was. The Women’s Committee of 100is suggesting that people return fundraising letters from party organizations, PACs and anti-welfare politicians with a note saying that you’re now sending your disposable dollars to social welfare organizations. Why not take it a step further and fund direct action? The National Union of the Homeless (246 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106) has great politics and no money. The Democratic Party cannot make the same claim.