1980s >> 1983 >> no-941-january-1983

Reagan at Mid-term

In November 1980 Ronald Reagan swept to an overwhelming victory in the United States Presidential election – the culmination of one of the longest campaigns ever. In addition to his two terms as Governor of California, Reagan had unsuccessfully tried for the Republican Party nomination in 1968 and 1976, his image as a right-wing extremist possibly contributing to his defeat on those occasions. The main campaign issues were inflation, rising unemployment, the crisis over the American hostages in Iran, law-and-order, and the stance taken by the incumbent Jimmy Carter on the need for energy conservation. Reagan stressed the “communist” (Russian ruling class) threat abroad (who doesn’t in American politics?) and the dire effect so-called “big government” was having on the nation’s economy. He never clearly spelled out his remedies other than calling for a massive cut in income taxes, but then, who does (we might say, who can) among those seeking political power under capitalism? Basically his fiscal policies have been those nowadays dubbed as monetarist, similar to those of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in Britain.

During his campaign Reagan hammered away at bureaucratic inefficiency and waste, portraying himself as an untainted outsider who would clean up the mess, defeat unemployment and inflation, and restore faith in America at home and abroad. Jimmy Carter’s task, like that of most incumbents, was somewhat harder, particularly with capitalism in recession. His tactics were to minimize critical scrutiny of his administration’s record and to emphasize Reagan’s extremist image, suggesting on many occasions that his opponent was too dangerous to have his finger on the nuclear trigger. Reagan’s acting skill was a considerable help in defeating this tactic, and the television debates screened nation-wide provided just the right setting in which to exploit this asset: one that can still win a trick or two for him after two years in office. By speech and gesture Reagan still manages to convey the image of a crusader battling against the Washington establishment. As could be foreseen he has failed to deliver the goods he promised to American workers in 1980, but despite this a recent opinion poll published by the Los Angeles Times, and quoted by Nicholas Ashford (The Times 14 October) revealed that “. . . American workers believed OPEC, Japan, big business, the trade unions and even former President Jimmy Carter, were more responsible for the recession and rise in unemployment than Reagan”.

In one of his typically emotional campaign speeches Reagan stated that “recovery begins when Jimmy Carter loses his job”, a promise particularly directed at the unemployed workers. The grim reality after two years was graphically illustrated on the television news. (BBC1). We were informed that over 11 million American workers are out of a job and shown a negro Baptist church in New York where charity is handed out to the destitute. A thousand or more are given a daily basic ration yet always supplies have run out before applicants. It was claimed that many were actually starving.

The President’s tax cut program me has also suffered a considerable setback. Congress, after weeks of bitter debate, passed a bill on 29 July 1981 to cut income tax rates by 25 per cent over 33 months, the largest reduction in United States history. Despite appearances, however, tax cuts are of no benefit to the working class as a whole. The wage or salary which the worker receives is the price which his or her labour power will fetch on the labour market. On average this is just enough to keep the worker and any dependents in a state fit to carry out the tasks required by the capitalist class. Of necessity it must be the net wage, the worker’s take-home pay, which  represents the price of labour power, otherwise the worker’s efficiency as a wage slave would tend to diminish, all other things being equal. Thus the income tax deduction on an employee’s pay slip is in fact part of the employer’s contribution to the exchequer and not a charge on the worker.

The contrary argument used by supported of tax cuts is that the extra money left in individual or corporate hands will lead to increased investment, and hence more jobs. The immediate effect of the cuts however is to reduce the living standards of the lower paid workers quite considerably as the tax reductions were made possible by swingeing cuts in spending on social security. As The Times (14 October 1982) reported: “since January of last year the poor in America have lost more than $10,000 million in federal support. Some 660,000 children have lost Medicaid coverage. Almost one million poor children no longer receive free or reduced price school lunches. One million people have been dropped from food stamp rolls. “The increased investment however has not taken place. How can there be investment without the prospect of a profit? Instead, in a sharp U-turn the President has been forced to persuade Congress, after an intense lobbying campaign, to vote in favour of a record $98,300 million tax bill intended to reduce federal government budget deficits and speed up America’s economic recovery (The Times, 21 August 1982).

Reagan has been no more successful  on the “law and order” issue. A firm believer himself in the Almighty, and given considerable support by a right-wing, semi-religious movement calling itself the Moral Majority, he made much emotional play during the 1980 campaign on how, by having the right party in government, a moral climate would be created in which the crime rate would come tumbling down. However the president was recently forced to admit (The Times, 13 September 1982) that the “US was in the midst of a crime epidemic which has touched nearly a third of American households”. A Bill now before Congress to toughen the law includes revision of the insanity defence. (Apparently Reagan is particularly upset at the acquittal of his assailant, John Hinckley, for this reason. The insanity of the social system which produces such unbalanced minds has, of course, escaped him.) In any case, attempts to introduce tougher legislation have proved ineffective on countless occasions, leaving untouched the social cause of crime.

The ruthless suppression of the strike staged in August 1981 by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (one of the few unions to endorse the Reagan ticket in 1980) is very much in the Republican tradition. It was a Republican controlled Congress which passed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of Harry Truman, then President on the Democratic ticket. Not that the record of the Democrats, though possibly less openly aggressive, is really much better, as was shown by the crushing of a national rail strike in September of this year. On 22 September an emergency order was approved which ordered an immediate return to work and removed the engineers right to strike for the remaining 21 months of their present work contract. The votes were overwhelming in both Houses of Congress, even so-called liberal Democratic representatives chipping in. Edward Kennedy was quoted (The Times, 23 September 1982) as saying: “The National Interest is overriding and there is not, I believe, any alternative”.

The recent mid-term elections produced just enough gains to enable the opposition Democrats to claim a substantial victory but, by and large, their gains were of debatable significance. The political system in the United States differs in a number of ways from its British counterpart. For instance, the executive (President) and legislative (Congress) branches are much more separate. In Britain, loss of a parliamentary majority almost invariably forces the government to resign; in the United States his has never happened. The 1980 elections produced a Republican Senate but a Democratic House of Representatives and, while the Democrats increased their majority in the lower house this autumn, there was no change in the Senate. There have been many instances where a President has governed without  a real deadlock with both Houses of Congress containing a majority of the opposition party. Conversely there have been occasions when the President’s party has had adequate majorities in both Houses but considerable friction has existed. Congress represents many capitalist interests spread over a large and diverse geographical area – hence they have difficulty in uniting on a common viewpoint. For this and various other historical reasons, party discipline is much more lax in the United States than is usually the case in Europe, and ad-hoc coalitions often form across party lines.

This does not however prevent the whole government machinery from acting effectively when called on, as shown by the railway strike. Here all sections of the capitalist class united against what they saw as a common threat, and decisive action was taken.

In the presidential stakes the Democrats have made little headway and, despite their mid-term gains, still seem to be in some disarray. Ronald Reagan (The Times, 14 October 1982) is the only president in recent history whose popularity rating has never fallen below 40 per cent and the most recent polls say that his popularity is on the increase again. This, linked with the poll published by the Los Angeles Times, suggests that the President, somewhat unusually for someone actually in power, has succeeded in diverting the blame onto other influences at home and abroad, In this situation the Democrats might once have hoped that Edward Kennedy would regain power for them but whatever they now do, we obviously cannot rule out a second Reagan term.

E. C. Edge

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