The Failure of the Second Populism

No other blackman had ever gotten as far as Jesse Jackson did in the Democratic primary of 1988 Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination. He actually had one-third of the number of delegates necessary for the nomination. But Jesse Jackson's populism was doomed to failure no matter how much the liberals may have wanted it to succeed. Jackson's star took a definite dive when he made the remarks about New York City being "Hymietown" and then flirting with the Reverend Farrakhan of the Black Muslims.

His desire for greatness was severely curtailed with the Sister Souljah affair that candidate Bill Clinton engineered in the 1992 election campaign to distance himself from Jackson and the blacks. Frady's last section is title "Adrift," which pretty much describes Jackson's current situation. According to Frady (1996) Jackson currently is much discouraged, as he should be. In fact, Jackson seemed increasingly given to stray, darkening ruminations. Speaking to an assembly of civic leaders in Chicago, he suddenly called out, "Where we think we are and where we going, it can be so different from what may actually be. It's almost like, what's the point? Just this talking here is so temporary. So much of what we see now as acting in the main events of our day is really, in history, just a comma, a parenthesis. And it can be that at our strongest moments -- in the twinkling of an eye, there's no more. Twinkling of an eye. And we gone." (Frady 1996:505)

Multiculturalism as the New Populism

There are many blacks who are looking for, like the critics of Douglass during the first reconstruction, new approaches to obtain more lasting gains for blacks. The main approach has been that of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a new form of populism that replaces an alliance between poor whites and blacks with an alliance primarily with any group that considers itself a minority, some of which are not poor economically speaking: Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women, and homosexuals. Theoretically, according to liberal thought at least, poor whites might also be attracted to this rainbow coalition of minorities.

Marshall Frady (1996:381 & 383) writes of Jesse Jackson's populism as Gospel Populism. He had a populist "dream of an alliance of all society's discounted and discarded, black and white, form the cities and the farmland." He was the only civil rights leader trying to make a link between African-Americans and the white working people in the country, whereas most of the civil rights connections had been between the affluent liberal white community and the impoverished in the black community.

The problem with the Rainbow Coalition and it call for cooperation between blacks and other minorities is as Cruse (1987:380) noted that "... not unexpectedly, none of the vocal leaders of the other minorities answered the call."

Beginning of a New Separate but Equal Period of Segregation

The equal in the plural but equal system is on the verge of being canceled in the United States. Many of the individual states in America are not waiting for federal action but are ridding themselves of the affirmative action programs built up so painstakingly by the liberals over the decades. President Clinton sounded the death knell for any true equality between the multi-cultural groups when he signed the welfare reform bill. This marked a significant change in American politics, as the government has now chose not to assure a safety net under those who are the most unfortunate in American society.

It could have been worse, but the Democrats were saved in the 1996 elections by the Republican victories in the 1994 off-year elections. Following the 1994 elections, the Republicans dominated both House and Senate. Their overwhelming victory, however, led them to think that they had a mandate to become even more conservative. This proved their undoing for it is one thing to threaten to take away the benefits for the poor, and it is quite another to threaten to take away welfare state benefits designated for the white middle class. The hubris of the Republicans, and the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, allowed them to portray themselves in a mean-spirited fashion that led the white middle class to perceive them as a threat. And as a result, Clinton won reelection. Although the Republicans failed to win control over both the executive and legislative branches at the same time, the conservatives won a great victory with the Democratic approval of the new welfare reforms.

Today we find ourselves in a period of increasing segregation that we can term the era of multi-cultural or plural but equal segregation. Our new Booker T. Washington's are the top multiculturalists, such as Jesse Jackson. And judging from American history following the first Civil War this period of separate but equal segregation will last quite some time.

According to a 1994 Time-CNN poll of black opinion, Jackson remains the nation's preeminent black leader at 34 percent, with Farrakhan, his notoriety notwithstanding, considerably behind at only 9 percent. Jackson ran for the presidency in 1984. His appeal was direct and effective, but Sleeper described Jackson's rallies as exercises in "therapeutic self-assertion." Jackson was more interested in making blacks feel good than in illuminating the political and economic landscape. (Friedman 1995:348 and 330-331)

Intellectual Justification of Separatism

A seminal work by Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, then a freelance writer and later a founder of the Afro-American studies program at the University of Michigan, published his book in 1967, at a time when racial unrest was exploding in major American cities. In this and in a later book, Plural but Equal, Cruse sought to free black intellectuals from the domination of a white power structure, which he believed had diverted blacks from the path of black empowerment. A leading cause of the predicament, he argued, was the subservience of blacks to Jews and the inordinate involvement of Jews in black affairs. Cruse assailed as a myth the idea of Jewish friendship for blacks. (Friedman 1995:6-7)

Cruse's book gave a degree of respectability to the radicals' cry for racial separation. Before long, Cruse's writings became a source in the burgeoning Afro-American studies programs on college campuses, foreshadowing the revisionism of black intellectuals of the eighties and nineties. (Friedman 1995:222)

In 1969 Cruse was one of the founders of the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Michigan. By the early seventies some five hundred colleges and universities had such programs. (Friedman 1995:223)

Liberals feared the politicization of the field and its segregation from mainstream history. (Friedman 1995:226)

In 1972, among persons interviewed on 70 campuses were 209 sociologists who at the time or in the previous few years considered race and ethnicity as a teaching or research field. On the basis of the contents of these interviews, the sociologists could be sorted roughly into four categories with respect to response to black studies. (Record 1974:369)

28% The embracers are those who for various reasons regard black studies programs as essentially a plus for the campus.

22% The antagonists opposed black studies from the outset and continue to combat the movement openly, while pursuing their own teaching and research in race relations.

30% The accommodators may be no more enthusiastic about black studies than the antagonists, but they accept the programs as here to stay.

20% The dropouts have left the field of race relations, withdrawing under the fire of black militants.

It was not only the blacks that were becoming disillusioned with liberalism. Many white students and professors became radicalized and started flirting with various versions of Marxist philosophy. Indeed, in the universities radical chic came to dominate. This was a precursor of what came to be known as political correctness.

It was Malcolm X who more than anyone else put together all the Third World pieces, at home and abroad, that would soon take root among the black intelligentsia and elsewhere. (Friedman 1995:220) (Much has been made of the post-Mecca Malcolm X, of his turning away from racism and separatism. But he seems to have simply turned to the age-old Marxist philosophies that have never been successful in the United States. Post-Mecca Malcolm X flirted with socialism in the Marxist vein, and also Marxist-Leninism, in his groping toward allying himself with the socialist philosophies of African nations recently freed from colonialism.)

In 1967 Carmichael veered even more sharply to the left, traveling to Havana in July to meet with Third World revolutionaries from North Vietnam, South America, and Africa. A third World ideology was adopted by a growing number of black civil rights leaders, including Joseph Lowery, Benjamin Hooks, and Jesse Jackson. Increasingly, Jackson positioned himself as an American spokesman for the Third World. Around 1979. (Friedman 1995:229-231 and 327 & 330)

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent crushing defeat of Iraq by an international force gave President Bush a boost to the virtually unprecedented approval rating of 90 percent. Partly as a result, the Democrats largely fielded what was thought to be their second-string to run in the presidential election of 1992. The previously virtually unknown Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton became the nominee of the party. Facing a choice between Bush and Clinton, many disillusioned voters flirted with voting for maverick Texas billionaire businessman, Ross Perot. Voters liked Perot because they saw in him a businessman that would not substantially help the blacks, while at the same time invigorating the economy. Perot was attractive precisely because he was Republican on the race issue, while being a conservative Democrat on the economy, a powerful appeal to white middle class voters.

Clinton defused the racial issue to a considerable extent by deliberately engineering a situation in which he scolded a black rap artist and rebuffed Jessie Jackson in the ensuing controversy. This may be smart politics, but it is confirmation of America's thorough racism. During the campaign, an all non-black jury refused to convict four Los Angeles police officers captured on video beating black traffic offender Rodney King. The race riot that followed killed fifty-eight people and the delusion that racism was declining as a national problem.

The presidency of Bill Clinton seems to indicate that the United States has gone a long way to becoming the South. Clinton tried to bring about liberal change for the United States, but all his efforts failed. His administration dealt with problems created by the unfulfilled welfare state reforms dating back to the Franklin Roosevelt era. A great deal of attention focused on creating a decent health care system, an issue long ago worked out by other industrialized nations. The effort expended, however, led to only small reforms and still millions of Americans are without adequate health insurance. While the United States played catch-up, little discussion has occurred on the crucial issue of industrial planning. Without such discussions and real change, the United Sates can expect economically to fall further behind, just as the old South did with its refusal to abandon its slave economy.

Clinton's attitude on racial issues have been relatively conservative. While issuing no bold initiatives in the civil rights area, he has called for increasing the number of police officers and the length of prison sentences. His talks on civil rights could have been taken from a manual of equality-of-opportunity racism with their incessant stress on responsibility, self-help, and other voluntary virtues. Meanwhile, whites continue to refuse to take responsibility for their role in continuing racism.

If there was ever convincing evidence that the United States had become like the South, one need look no further than President Clinton's second term in office (reelected in 1996). Never before has the moralism of the nation been more clear than in the attempt to the Republican party to throw out of office a duly elected president  -- an unprecedented move. The incident was so disturbing that many commentators referred to it as an attempted coup d'etat.  The incident also reveals how the right wing of  the conservatives could use the language of the left wing to attempt to undo a democracy.  

The Republicans started abusing legal channels to investigate the President for everything he might have ever possibly done wrong.  Their efforts came to naught until they hit on Clinton's private sexual affairs.  The mistake of appointing a missionary independent prosecutor gave the conservatives their opportunity to remove the president from office.

The left emphasized the great importance of sexual harassment (overplaying their hand by labeling almost any incident involving a man and a woman disturbing to the woman as sexual harassment).  This gave the Republicans an opening.  A wealthy Republican businessman gave Spectator magazine $4 million dollars to dig up embarrassing details on Clinton's personal life.  The conservatives turned up Paula Jones, a worker for the Arkansas state government. Apparently, Clinton had expected a sexual liasion with Ms. Jones and had exposed his privates to her.  This was not a case of sexual harassment, but rather an incident of misusing the confusion over what exactly is sexual harassment.  During the Jones investigation, word of  another Clinton sexual affair surfaced, this one happening during his presidency.  The independent prosecutor misused this situation to force Clinton to testify about the matter.  Clinton proved to be misleading in his testimony, helped by the inability of the puritanical forces to define what is a sexual affair (grounds enough to through out the whole case).  This gave the conservatives the chance to charge Clinton with perjury.

The entire matter was an undemocratic process, but the conservatives were strong enough to impeach the President Clinton in an almost totally partisan process.  The conservatives were not even deterred by their losing the mid-term elections in 1998.  Frankly, the entire matter smacked of fascism, or McCarthyism at the very least, and the Republicans should have been ashamed of themselves, especially for wrapping themselves in the mantle of morality (self-righteousness is more the case).  

The only positive aspect of the entire process was the seeming sophistication of the non-right wing American people, who seem to have been able to spot a farce when they saw it.  But the entire incident is a very disturbing one, raising questions about how far the political divisions in the nation will go.


Justifications for change in the United States are expressed in terms of the equality-of- opportunity thesis. Growing fear over the nation's relative economic standing caused many to wonder if the entire equality of opportunity ladder (regardless of whether one accepts the conservative or liberal version of the thesis) would be damaged for everyone. There was also deep concern over the skewed distribution of income, accompanied by the growing feeling that Republican policies were favoring the upper class to the detriment of the middle class. The candidates for the 1992 presidential election did not spend much time talking about racial issues as campaign themes centered around concern for the white middle class. All this proves that the racist context is still alive and well within the United States.

Instead of talking about equality-of-opportunity, the multicultural liberals talked about compensation for minority communities through affirmative action. In essence, they became the new Booker T. Washington advocates of racial separatism. They say the different racial/ethnic cultures should be separate from American culture (which they deem racist) and that the government should give the different racial/ethnic groups various types of assistance under the rubric of affirmative action.

While thinking they are racial progressives, the multiculturalists are actually justifying the system of racial segregation in the United States. To defend their new separatist philosophy, the multiculturalists righteously impose a form of politically correct censorship on any views to the right or left of the multiculturalists.

A Failure to Change: The Impoverishment of American Society by Racism

Even before the United States started to weaken its welfare state following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation was twenty-second on a list of twenty-three industrialized nations in expenditures on social welfare programs as a percentage of the gross national product (Goodin and Dryzek, 1987:57). The attitude of the country towards social welfare is so punitive and restrictive that Alfred Kahn and Sheila Kamerman (1975) felt compelled to write Not for the Poor Alone: European Social Services, introducing Americans to European attitudes towards welfare. Their purpose was to show how, compared to Europeans, average Americans are constantly deprived in their daily lives. In fact, the popular attitude of the United States today is not much advanced from those of pre-welfare state days when Americans identified poverty with vice or idleness and provided relief only at starvation level. Indeed, Americans seem more concerned with welfare fraud than with the general welfare of the nation. Contrast this with the European welfare programs, which not only help already damaged and dependent people, but also the typical citizen. This different attitude makes it possible for the European welfare programs to be of an adequate, non-demeaning quality.

Among other weaknesses, the United States has the poorest system of health care. Most welfare states have some form of national health insurance, but not the United States. There are many other public policy areas in which the United States lags behind other industrialized nations. This includes family related issues such as sex and AIDS education, abortion, and family planning. The United States has by far the highest rate of teenage pregnancies, and yet the nation most in need of family planning is most opposed to it.

The United States is also the most conservative nation on gun control. Around 30,000 Americans die every year from gun shot wounds. And the United States has a higher proportion of its population in prison than any other industrialized society, including South Africa. This unprecedented statistic among the more wealthy nations is astounding and yet, even though most Americans favor some type of gun control, only very weak policies exist.

America also provides the least protection for the average worker. An employee unjustly thrown out of work for reasons other than sexual, religious, ethnic, age, or racial discrimination will be informed by his or her lawyer that the law in this area is based on the concept of "at will." Since the employee is "at will" to leave anytime, the company is also "at will" anytime to fire the employee. And yet, the power of the corporation so overwhelms the power of the single individual that it is insulting to compare the two. And yet, there is little outrage among Americans.

One could continue to list area after area of American conservatism, but the point has been sufficiently made. The explanation for this extraordinary conservatism is racism. Conservative and liberal Americans are afraid that if they agree to liberalize their values and policies, the racial system will start to come apart and whites will have to accept blacks.

Following the Second World War, the United States had the world's leading economy. The nation was rich in resources and had a good public education system producing inventors and innovators, as well as providing trained workers. Its chief economic rivals, Japan and Germany, lay in ruins. But now the once defeated nations have recovered and have very strong economies. Being able economically to start over may actually have been beneficial to these nations as they acquired the most recent technologies without social resistance from vested interests. In addition, they did not have the heavy defense expenditures that have plagued the United States.

American competitors have now become so strong that many Americans increasingly see these countries as economic threats. What they have failed to see is that capitalism has entered a new economic phase. In the new era, at least in Europe and Japan, government has become a major player in the actual long-range plans of capitalism. Outside the United States, this government-businesses alliance is seen as both necessary and good, and as a natural extension of national power.

In the new age both Japan and Germany have certain cultural advantages over the United States. Japan has always had government sponsored capitalism and, therefore, has none of the prejudices that America's laissez-faire philosophy has against government involvement. Germany was also elite dominated and autocratic, and does not have the economic prejudice against government cooperation with capitalism. Unlike the United States, these countries perform national planning on a long-term basis and do not see this as a form of "socialism".

The American antipathy towards long-range planning extends to the average business firm. Here the emphasis is on "the bottom line" in the short-run and not on long-term profitability. Combined with this short sightedness, is an extreme unwillingness to support social programs that would substantially enrich the lives of average workers. In fact, the Japanese are often shocked at the ease of conscience and the rapidity with which American firms fire and lay- off their workers. This can be traced to the overall hostility of the American system and values towards welfare in general. But being harsh towards one's workers is not good business and the successes of America's competitors demonstrate this quite clearly.

Some American authors have tried to dispute the above scenario. Michael Porter's (1990) book entitled The Competitive Advantage of Nations reiterates classic American faiths by arguing that competition itself is the key ingredient in determining the national advantage in industries. Porter argues that ferocious rivalry among Japanese firms (with nine major auto companies, fourteen suppliers of copiers, and fifteen of cameras) has led to lower costs, increased quality, and new products. The United States has similarly competitive industries in computers, software, and telecommunications, while Germany is highly competitive in printing presses and paper machines.

The facts are true, but the argument is incorrect. Governments will increasingly sponsor and insure competitiveness by such measures as coordinating investment in research and development. If American corporations do not adapt to the new rules of the game, American firms will not be able to compete in the long run. For instance, America's competitive advantage in computers is being threatened by the high cost of research and development. Hitachi recently unveiled the prototype for a new semiconductor that leapfrogs over a generation of memory-chip technology. The new dynamic access memory (DRAM) chip has a capacity of sixty-four megabits, which is sixteen times more storage than the current four megabit chips distributed by IBM. The cost of developing each new generation of DRAM chips is forcing American firms out of the process, giving more economic leverage to Japanese firms which benefit from government sponsored research.

Unfortunately for the United States, America's second Reconstruction came at a time when the world changed drastically. The Soviet military threat receded and the German and Japanese economies sky rocketed. President Ronald Reagan stressed the importance of laissez-faire capitalism at the very moment when Germany and Japan took the economic initiative. As Reagan went backwards in time, Japan and Europe continued forwards.

Compared to its world competitors, the laissez-faire capitalist economic policies of the Republican administrations have meant worsening living standards for America. The long recession at the end of the Bush presidential term meant considerable suffering for white middle class Americans. But more importantly, the ignoring of social problems under the Republican reign has meant a great increase in the suffering of the residents of the central cities, and hence an increase in social problems. In response, the middle class has become so conservative that they have fallen back on, and hence exposed, the real ideology that has always been used to justify American racism: equality-of-opportunity racism.

Americans themselves deny they are racist and have increasingly scored "liberal" on polls asking about race relations. Americans have come, however, to be less supportive of those measures needed to bring about the inclusion of blacks into the system of equality of opportunity (Schuman, et. al. 1985). If one asks white Americans about various means of improving the situation for blacks, these Americans reject one method of social improvement after another until almost all viable options are rejected. Social scientists are going to have to become more sophisticated in their approach to white racism. The discussions of the results of opinion polls on racism are very misleading simply because Americans are not only deluding the pollsters on the role of race, but themselves as well.

Racism as a belief in the biological inferiority of blacks is no longer socially acceptable in the United States. This does not mean, however, that racism is dead. Since biological racism has been seriously weakened, white America has increasingly turned to sociological racism. Racists have had to turn for support to the traditional racism that has always underlain all other racist theories: equality-of-opportunity racism. Heard everyday somewhere in the United States is the following argument. In the United States we have eliminated the legal barriers to discrimination against blacks. Therefore, if any hiring preferences persist it is due to the poor performance of blacks themselves or to their communities. Blacks should organize themselves, emphasize traditional American values of hard work, and pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

This more sophisticated version of racism is often backed up by sociology in the idealistic tradition. Many whites believe not that blacks are racially inferior, but sociologically inferior. This racism is in part based on the culture of poverty idea (Lewis 1959, 1968). More recently, it has been given support by political scientist Edward Banfield (1974) and black sociologist Thomas Sowell (1975). The idea is that poverty creates a culture of misery and inability to defer gratification such that the culture itself takes on a life of its own and works to keep the poor in poverty. There is some truth in this thesis, but it must always be remembered that social structure is primary. This culture of poverty is primarily a result of racism and poverty. Although the authors vehemently deny it, books like William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character (1990) are also basically little more than nicer versions of neoconservative equality of opportunity racism.

The real tragedy is that popular commentators and the average white American have adopted this theory of poverty. They have transformed it into a new excuse for racism by simply dropping or deemphasizing the role of the social structure and white racism. (See Steinberg, 1981 for an excellent criticism of the culture of poverty thesis.) This reasoning ignores the fact that blacks experience prejudice and discrimination virtually every day of their lives (see Hacker, 1992). This discrimination takes the form of refusing to hire blacks, refusing to rent housing units in white areas to blacks, opposing inter-racial dating and marriage, and a myriad of other ways too long to list. The new, more sophisticated kind of racism in America today makes it questionable whether or not the nation can move forward to meet the challenges of the new world order.


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