Presumably it will change as the day draws near, but the American presidential election has had a hard time competing for the attention of the working class in Britain against the Ugandan Asians, Heath’s £2, Northern Ireland and the antics of their favourite TV star or footballer.
It is said that the personalities of the two candidates have not helped. In the past, the Kennedys always had the capacity to arouse the strangest responses among British workers, who were somehow persuaded that these ruthless, rich politicians cared about the desperations of poverty, racial suppression, war. When one of them was assassinated, it was almost as if a favourite child had died. It is sad fact that workers like to be able to choose between politicians who are puffed up as exciting, glamourous men—men who can make gimmicks. The 1968 election seemed boring—although it was a very close run race—because neither Nixon nor Humphrey came over as dynamic or handsome or alluring.
Writing Them Off
This election has been affected in the same way and additionally because it has always been assumed that Nixon was the winner. It is, apparently, as boringly predictable as if Leeds United were playing Barrow in the Cup. McGovern’s
only defence against the damaging assumption that he is a loser is to point out that he was once written off as an impossibility for the Democratic nomination :
. . . I won the Democratic nomination through hard work, careful planning, a willingness to move ahead decisively, greater public participation and a determination to take nothing for granted. And this is just the way I intend to win the presidency. (The Guardian 20 July).
The publicity men will be most grateful to McGovern, if he manages to make a contest of it.
To the supporters of either side, this election is described as a struggle between right and wrong, good and bad. There is said to be widespread disillusionment among the voters, at the lack of any real differences between the candidates, as the buyers of Henry Ford’s cars might have felt when they could have chosen any colour as long as it was black. It is fair to ask why there should be such a feeling about only this election —why haven’t the workers in America grasped the fact before now, that the candidates of all the capitalist parties are basically the same? The gloomy prospect is that there will also be a disillusionment with elections and politics as such, that the workers will blame the tools which are misused rather than realise how they misuse them.
Nixon, as many incumbents do, has fought the election from a long way above it, leaving his Vice-President Spiro Agnew
to tangle with the opposition. In itself this is of course a political move, since it implies that Nixon is more concerned with running America to the benefit of all its people than in the sordid mess of political squabbling. He has worked hard during the past four years to lose the old labels like Tricky Dick and, on the standards by which capitalist leaders are judged, he may have succeeded.
Politicians make or lose their names not upon any fundamental issues but upon superficial changes in capitalism. In 1968 Nixon fought on the well worn theme of Law and Order, so in order to claim success he must be able to show some progress in making America a more peaceful place to live in. Four years ago there was plenty of scope for improvement; the war in Vietnam seemed to be lasting for ever, organised protest against some of the symptoms of capitalism was often a bloody, murderous business, the city ghettoes periodically erupted into fire and warfare. It was an event almost predictable when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down.
Past and Present
What does Nixon claim as he goes to the polls this time? American capitalism has made, or is about to make, a deal with China and North Vietnam which will carve up anew a piece of South-East Asia and probably halt the war in Vietnam. The diplomatic burrowings of Kissinger have brought home to the American ruling class that they cannot hope to win the war there, only to finish it. As in 1968, Nixon is promising to end the war, by which he means to provide an interval before the next conflict and to set up the battle lines for it.
At home, Nixon can draw comparisons between 1968 and 1972 which are to his advantage. When the Democrats met at Chicago in 1968, they did so within a barbed wire stockade and behind a tight security screen while outside tear-gassing, troops with fixed bayonets and rioting police were accepted sights. Although this was a heavy over-reaction by Mayor Daley, it was also a climax of years of protest in which pitched gun battles and deaths were common. The conventions this year went off with hardly a whiff of tear-gas or swing of a truncheon. Symbolically Bobby Seale
, who was gagged at the trial which followed the Chicago 1968, is now standing for Mayor at Oakland, California. The figures say that violent crime is increasing in America and New York (which is not the worst city) recently notched up a new record for the number of murders in a single day. But there is enough scope in the statistics to enable the Administration, with a bit of juggling, to claim that the increase in violence is slowing down and it is with such material that successful election campaigns are fought.
The Real Issues
During Nixon’s term American capitalism has been faced with the customary economic problems which, in the customary way, he has promised to control with some “fine tuning” of the economy. In a nation of car owners, this phrase is easily understood and accepted. In August the American government “floated” the dollar, slapped a duty surcharge on imports and declared that they were going to control prices and wages. Such measures in fact have no effect on capitalism’s economic crises, which are a matter of cycles out of the control of politicians or anyone else. At the crucial time in terms of his re-election, Nixon can claim that the rate of inflation is slowing and that unemployment has fallen; the cycle is running his way and should help him to victory.
Although none of these changes is fundamental, or permanent, they are the stuff of which electoral victories are made and will continue to be made as long as the working class fail to face the real issues. Until they do that, they will continue to vote for a modified capitalism. Against the Nixon record, McGovern has had a hard time to convince the American workers to prefer his modifications.
McGovern’s campaign has been fascinating for its apparent confusion and hopelessness. He first made his name as an opponent of Johnson’s policies on Vietnam (which did not prevent him trying to get the ex-President to support him) and since then, whenever he stuck to a policy long enough for it to be analysed, he has usually got himself classified as what is known as “a dangerous radical”. McGovern was once well known for something called a “wealth redistribution plan” which was a programme to guarantee a basic wage and to increase some income taxes. This would better have been called a poverty redistribution plan; workers in this country are well familiar with similar attempts to paper over the deprivations of capitalism.
McGovern missed out on the simple fact that as he must work to deceive and confuse workers as to the nature of capitalism, so they are liable to react in a confused and misled manner and to find an attempt at reorganising their poverty very threatening. Seeing some of this rather late, McGovern quickly dropped his “radical” plans and since then made a name for himself as one who organises his retreats like a Napoleon. Once he was specifically committed to cut American troops in Europe by more than a half; then he promised only to “review” the matter. He was once known as an anti-war candidate but he told the nostalgic warriors of the American Legion, when a man of principle might gladly have offered defiance:
. . . my budget will give us enough fire power to destroy Russia and China simultaneously 20 times over. (Times, 24 August).
McGovern has run on what is called a populist line; he implies (like George Wallace
) that he is on the side of the common people against the crafty, manipulating politicians who exploit them. Yet there could be no more cynical examples of political manoeuvring than his performance over the election of his running mate, his appeal for Muskie’s support to get the trade-union vote, for Humphrey’s to get the Jewish and other “racial” votes, for Kennedy’s to cash in on the glamour which that ruthless family still holds for the American working class.
When Johnson was riding high in 1964, the Republicans chose a candidate whose stated policies were more likely to alienate voters than attract them. It is possible that this time the Democrats have accepted the invincibility of the president and that they have chosen their Goldwater, a ludicrous interval of sacrifice who can be quickly forgotten after the election.
It is useful to recall here what happened to Johnson, how he fell from his overwhelming popularity of 1964 to the man who would not run in 1968, when he was exposed. The Democrats are possibly calculating that their opponents are also due for disillusionment, which they can exploit in the election of 1976. Perhaps by then they will have settled on a candidate of greater voter-attraction than McGovern. While the election is on they mostly unite behind their man but when the votes are cast the in-fighting will immediately start again, with the candidacy of 1976 as the prize. By then the Republicans will hope to have done what Wilson hoped to do for the Labour Party — to change from the alternative government into the governing party of American capitalism.
The election of politicians to power in a capitalist state is a business in which the expectations of the electorate play an important role. To begin with, the working class like to feel that their leaders are strong men who can control and influence events, even if for most of the time they are not sure of how this is to happen. In many ways this means that something is expected to happen simply because a politician says it will; it is enough for one of them to spout a slogan like Johnson’s Great Society for the problems of poverty, bad housing, social despair, to melt like snow in the sunshine.
Tough at the Bottom
At the same time the workers prefer their leaders to have some contact with what they, rather selectively, see as reality; only in extreme situations like wartime will they accept what they call extremism. Thus it is established now for politicians to fight over the “middle ground” of policies, which means over which party can distort facts and fashion its deceptions successfully enough to appeal to a wide majority of workers. This is the party which usually wins the elections—and on this reckoning 1972 looks like the Republicans’ year.
Nixon is a strange case of a politician who was discredited before he came to power and who since then has won a fair amount of support in his opponents’ traditional ground. This should be enough to keep him in one of the toughest jobs in capitalism, head of the most powerful state in the world. But tough as it is, the people who suffer as a result of it all are those who will vote to send him there.