Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Race, Class, and the Democrats

A top White House pollster has written an apology for Clinton's presidency. He has lots of work to do.

Ronnie Dugger

Middle-Class Dreams
Stanley Greenberg
Random House, $25.00

Stanley Greenberg's Middle-Class Dreams is an explanation of "the Clinton solution" and a screed for the President's re-election. Greenberg makes the case for Bill Clinton by virtually ignoring his performance as President, blaming Lyndon Johnson for "betraying" White Democrats, scoffing at the need for campaign finance reform, and failing to identify the seizure of control of the Democratic Party by major corporations and the very rich as the chief cause of its present disgrace and ruin.

Precisely because it is so perverse, Stanley Greenberg's apology for the Clinton presidency is of substantial interest. Although Bill Clinton is insulated from the details of this book simply because he is not its author, the President encouraged Greenberg to write it and kept him on as a top White House pollster and strategist despite the Democrats' loss of the House and Senate last year. The writer still is a White House insider who works closely with Clinton. His hype for his boss' re-election includes flattery, campaign doggerel, a hagiographic 49-page fairy tale about Clinton's career, and incantations of "the Clinton solution." So the book provides a window on the cock-eyed rationalizations of those stars and operatives at Democrat Central who have turned what was once the party of the common man into the party of the corporate manikins.

Stanley Greenberg was not always a pollster and political insider. In several vigorously researched and useful books, Professor Greenberg investigated racism, class, work, and social change in the United States, Israel, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. His analytical thinking, he wrote, was "situated in the mainstream of positivist and Marxist social science" and "the materialist analysis," as against "the tenor of liberal thought."1

In his Race and State in Capitalist Development (1980) -- which cited work by Hobsbawm, G.D.H. Cole, Du Bois, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Schumpeter, the Webbs, Gramsci, Weber, and James Q. Wilson, for example -- Greenberg concluded that, in his research, "capitalist development...both preserves and remakes the racial order, extending and reinforcing racial barriers," but also causes tendencies toward the dismantling of those barriers. "Each of the dominant class actors -- commercial farmers, businessmen, and trade unionists -- ... in his own way lends legitimacy to...racial domination." More importantly, Greenberg argued that "Racial essentially a class phenomenon" that changes as material conditions change, although racism, in its own right, is stubbornly rooted in pre-industrial evolutionary conditions.2

Greenberg's transformation from academic to pollster-politician has been stark. Shifts in his nomenclature were foretold in his 1987 book on South Africa by his use of the term "economic growth" for "capitalist development."3 His present role with Clinton seems to have transformed his concerns about racism and racial domination, as he shows when, in Middle-Class Dreams, he sets himself two implausible tasks.

First, concerned to promote the theory that universally applicable social programs are the best way to help the underprivileged, he seeks to glorify "the middle class" and Clinton as its champion while opposing "targeted" programs for the poor or racial minorities. In a sobering flight of classism (that is, the notion that persons of one class, as persons, are superior or inferior to those of another class), Greenberg says that members of the American middle class are "the hardest working and most virtuous citizens, yet the least honored." They feel that "a collapsing class structure...placed all of society's burdens on them." They solicit, then -- do they not? -- our almost unlimited pity. Clinton and Greenberg, by buying and selling this kind of sentimentality for their tactically favored class of victims, in effect tell us that it's the middle class and implicitly that it's not the poor and the discriminated-against who deserve our compassion.

Second, startlingly, Greenberg seeks to establish that Lyndon Johnson "betrayed" the White Democrats, not in Vietnam, but by shepherding into law the great civil rights legislation of the 60s and crafting the Great Society to help the poor. These efforts were a betrayal, Greenberg says, because they alienated White-racist Democrats who had expected Johnson to preserve White domination as most Democratic leaders had done.

In a discussion of "Race and the End of Democratic Populism," Greenberg writes: "The Democrats had fashioned a party of the people...within a national political space that was largely and artificially white." In evidence, Greenberg recalls that William Jennings Bryan stayed silent as Jim Crow was established in the South; Woodrow Wilson segregated the civil service and Washington, DC; Roosevelt refused to back any civil rights legislation (Truman and Humphrey were brave exceptions among Democratic leaders); Adlai Stevenson warned against going too fast on civil rights; and John Kennedy avoided the question until the Civil Rights movement and the White South's violent reactions forced his hand. Then came the Vietnam War, true, but mainly, Greenberg contends, then came Johnson and "civil rights, riots, and the Great Society." Greenberg concludes: "For white middle-class America, this tumult represented a broken contract": thus, "the betrayal."

This is just a trick. Democrats in large numbers feel betrayed. You can't persuade them to give up this feeling. So how do you appear to agree with them while denying that you're to blame? Greenberg's sleazy solution is to adopt Republican scapegoating as the correct interpretation: the betrayers are not the corporations and the rich whose money has rotted out the Democratic Party, or those leaders and insiders at Democrat Central who accommodated them; the betrayer is Lyndon Johnson for aligning the party with the Blacks and the poor. This switch of villains is the ultimate betrayal of the Democratic Party by those who presume to run it from the center. It's a decision to court White racists rather than to screw up some courage and go after corporations and the "major donors" that are providing all that sweet, sweet money. It's so base you almost miss it.

Greenberg actually maintains that White workers' racism is "reasoned and understandable" in settings such as South Africa and Alabama. After recalling from his earlier books that the South African Mine Workers Union struck for an all-White labor policy to protect White workers from Black ones and that the United Steelworkers in Alabama "negotiated segregated ladders of promotion confined blacks to the dirtiest jobs and gave whites a monopoly of skilled positions," the President's pollster and at-the-shoulder adviser adds: "If not necessarily the right moral choices, they were reasoned and understandable ones, I had argued, in the context of a divided country."

Greenberg's Exhibit A for "the Clinton solution" is his and his co-pollsters' work in what he, as if playing the good liberal, calls "lily-white" Macomb County, Michigan, a formerly Democratic working-class area outside Detroit which switched to Reagan in 1980. It's Whites he's talking about, and he makes it explicitly clear that they're racists. The population of the county is 97% White, and the Reagan Democrats he talked to were "all white." They "expressed a profound distaste for black Americans," believed Blacks "lacked virtue," and thought that "not being black was what constituted being middle class; not living with blacks was what made a neighborhood a decent place to live....These suburban voters...rejected out of hand the social-justice claims of black Americans ....They had no historical memory of racism and no tolerance for present efforts to offset it."4

Greenberg recasts this racist reaction as heroic rebellion: "In Macomb County ...middle America...rebelled against the Democratic betrayal...." "Winning Macomb County represents a kind of mastery of our history." "Macomb County is not just a place. It represents the ordinary citizenry of America...."

Clinton is from the South. The Democratic Party's controlling strategists have refused to acknowledge that the South is lost to them and that, as University of Massachusetts political scientist Jerome Mileur's study of election patterns clearly shows, the future for a progressive Democratic coalition would lie not on the old North-South axis of the New Deal, but on a new transcontinental axis from the Atlantic above Dixie to the Pacific, with Florida or Texas plus or minus, if they would once again champion working people, unions, minorities, and the poor.5 Choosing a White racist county in Michigan as Americanism incarnate can hardly camouflage a strategy of sucking up to big business and trying to hang on to the South, a strategy that either is brain-dead or reflects a willingness to lose rather than to represent the interests of the ordinary person against the corporations and the rich.

Apart from accommodating White racism, Greenberg also buys the GOP analysis of the Great Society and subsequent Democratic decline. By 1968, he exclaims, the Democratic Party "emerged narrow and racial, even elitist...weighed down by taxes and big government." The Democrats' civil rights crusade caused most people to believe the party "no longer championed the common people." Meanwhile, Reagan reached ordinary people by "his heartfelt program to lift their financial burden by cutting tax rates....Reagan set a populist face against the establishment and bureaucratic bullies."6

But even the Whites in Macomb had made it clear to Greenberg that many of them blamed big corporations and the very rich for their fundamental troubles. The fact buried in Greenberg's analysis is that these White racist working people resented what Democrats had done for the Blacks and the poor in the context of their bitter resentment of the Democratic Party's capitulation to corporations and the rich. Blaming Johnson's Great Society for resentments that were more fundamentally caused by the overconcentration of wealth and power, Greenberg -- along with Clinton, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the rest of those accommodationists who now control the Democratic Party -- embrace the Republicans' philosophy rather than enact the Democrats' supposed representation of the common man.

The Macombians told Greenberg and the strategists at Democrat Central that they were mad at rich people, immigrant workers, foreign imports, robotics, givebacks, and corporate blackmail threats to move to cheap labor in the South. These workers supported, among other things, government takeover of the utilities. During the Reagan presidency, as Greenberg points out, more than 70 percent of those polled believed the concentration of power "in the hands of a few large companies" was too great "for the good of the nation;" right after Dukakis' defeat, 65 percent gave top importance to making sure the "wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share of taxes;" after 1990, confidence in major corporations dropped to 11 percent. People know the corporations are governing through both parties, but their knowledge does not make its way into Greenberg's or the Democratic Leadership Council's analytical labyrinths. Nowhere does Greenberg address the Democrats' chronic failure to confront and curb -- much less seek to end -- the corporate domination of democracy. By effectively excluding from his apologia both the corporation in the Democratic Party and the tidal waves of money in elections, Greenberg's analysis embodies the corruption of the Democratic Party.

And while we are on the subject of omissions, there's nothing in Greenberg's book about his own man's broken promises, perhaps because defending them would have left him no room for anything else.

There's nothing about Clinton's compromising before a fight begins and selling out before it ends.

There's nothing about his accepting the Republicans' proffer of welfare mothers as the villains to stand in for the corporations and the very rich.

There's nothing about his false promises to the Haitians, nothing about his failure to lead the United States and Europe into intervening with military force to stop genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi.

There's nothing about his opposing the successful and money-saving Canadian single-payer health plan and advocating instead rationed care (that is, "managed competition") to save the health insurance companies while soaking the people additional tens of billions of dollars in mandatory "premiums" to pay to insure the 40 million uninsured who could have been covered for nothing additional by the enormous financial savings of single-payer.

There's nothing about his watery "campaign reform proposals" and his abandonment even of them; the wilting of his program of "investing in people;" his maintenance of the military budget at obscene Cold War levels [see Randall Forsberg's essay in this issue of the Boston Review] while cutting and preparing to cut welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid; his promise to use his power as President to establish the equal rights of gays in the military only to sign off on new rules that intensify their humiliation.

Not a word, either, about Clinton's and Congress' transfer of the authority of the American government over US jobs and the economy to NAFTA and the secretive new World Trade Organization, the first palpable materializations of a new World Corporate Order.

Most tellingly there's nothing about the shrewdest point yet made about the Clinton presidency: to make sense of Bill Clinton's reversals, zig-zags, feints, and faints, simply ask what the major corporations want because that's what he's doing.

Candidates for office are supposed to say what they mean and stand for what they believe. "Political consultants," the mercenary election manipulators, teach their clients instead that to win they must do or say what the consultants tell them the people want. Greenberg's once-sober analysis is now tainted by this pervasive moral and intellectual perversion. He is so fixated on winning he seems to associate victory with virtue, as if Reagan was right because he won. Celebrating himself ("I had an epiphany") for having come up with a certain selling pitch (including "investing in people") during the 1992 campaign, Greenberg reports that when "a national test" (a poll) showed that the new gig was "twice as powerful as any message we had tested in the past," Bingo! -- "This was the Clinton solution." What sold was what went.

Historical materialism evidently translates, in Greenberg, into fatalism about the value of personal leadership in a democracy. In one of his books he admitted grudgingly that, in the Alabama racial situation in the early 1960s, Bull Connor and his ilk were forces that transcended class factors. Evidently the obverse, that humanists can be such forces, too, does not occupy his imagination, and Clinton's rejection of his advice to go for single-payer can hardly have given him hope in that direction. The thing most grievously lacking in the Clinton presidency is the same thing most grievously lacking in his pollster-strategist's book about him: any sign of a President secure in humanist convictions and fighting hard to advance them.

In the final chapter on Clinton's "new vision," Greenberg's mind is full of marbles: "Bill Clinton is seeking to reassociate his party with the American dream... The starting point is the middle class as the center of our politics....Safety nets...represent bad politics and a moral trap....The starting point on values is work." This is "the Clinton solution" that is expected to overcome the President's record in office?

One thing the Clinton solution is not is the defense, protection, and expansion of workers' rights and their unions. Greenberg, choosing to say nothing here about the rights of workers and of labor unions which have been important foci in his previous books, berates Walter Mondale for having been "the candidate of organized labor." Two years ago Clinton's Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, said, "The jury is still out on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace," and the Democrats' slumlord Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, said "unions are okay where they are ....and where they are not, it is not clear yet what sort of organization should represent workers."7

All the traditional elements of the historic Democratic coalition -- the working class, unions, poor, Blacks, Hispanics, "liberals" -- have been disappeared like the Argentine dissenters who were dropped into the Atlantic from helicopters as sharkbait. So now Greenberg and his President are actually trying to get Democrats to act, for the purpose of renominating and re-electing Clinton, as if they believe that the White middle class deserve compassion and entitlements just as much as the disadvantaged (perhaps more). "The middle class" gets the focus, but not the working class, the racial minorities, the underprivileged, or the underclass. Ethical clarity has given way to sentimental flattery of targeted voters, acquiescence in the scapegoating of politically impotent poor and minorities, and an unwillingness to oppose the termination of benefits that once protected them from sickness, hunger, and homelessness.

Is it any wonder that "the grassroots" of this party have died? That's just what the corporate chieftains and their lawyers who run the party want. Real people keep raising nasty questions about contaminated chickens, or taxing the corporations and the very rich, or the need for public jobs and public works programs, or how to protect workers on the job. Run the Democratic Party from the top, dump vats of abuse and contempt on the grass roots, and people will leave you alone.

Stanley Greenberg's book is opportunist politics presented as analytical wisdom, silent consent to racism disguised as hostility to Lyndon Johnson's "betrayal" of White-racist Democrats, submission to organized greed packaged as lofty partisanship for the middle class. There's been a betrayal all right. But who betrayed whom? Lyndon Johnson did not betray the Democrats with civil rights laws, Head Start, the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid. If we must play the scapegoat game, well, then! Robert Strauss betrayed the Democratic Party by gaveling to death the Democrats' "issues miniconvention" of 1974. Jimmy Carter betrayed the Democrats by promising national health insurance to win the 1976 election and dropping it as too expensive after he won. Walter Mondale betrayed them by refusing to stand for anything, except raising taxes, that might distress the "major donors." Michael Dukakis betrayed them by running on "competence" and slogans, and by waiting until nine days before the vote to confess he was "a liberal." White racist Democrats betrayed their party and themselves by turning to Reagan against their own economic interests. Clinton has betrayed the Democrats by campaigning as a liberal and governing for the corporations, and Stanley Greenberg betrays them now by calling Johnson the betrayer because of the best thing he ever did.

In effect, Greenberg's theses and silences and his President's sell-outs, put together, tell us the prices they and their Democratic Leadership Council and other fat cat friends are trying to charge us to make "the new American majority" Democratic -- that is, to renominate and re-elect Bill Clinton and to restore control of Congress to their kind of Democrat in alliance with the Republicans. The prices are unresisted resurgence of White racism, our acceptance of the death of the American union movement, our acceptance of the perpetual militarization of our nationhood, our continued humiliation as citizens by a Democratic President who lied his way into office and soon will be trying to lie his way into re-election, and replacement of democracy by corporate governance. Whether or not this or that Democrat regards these prices as acceptable, they are not.

Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |