Crisis on N Earths (N=2): The 1992 US Presidential Election

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Crisis on N Earths is a recurring series in which I address events or works outside of the DC Animated Universe and its characters, but both contemporary and significant to the period under discussion.

It’s November 3, 1992, the day before “Beware the Gray Ghost,” so see that post for the movie and music charts.

The big news story today is the election of Bill Clinton to be the next President of the United States, a job he will hold for eight years. It’s not particularly relevant to what’s going in Batman the Animated Series at this precise moment, but it is emblematic of changes that will matter later in this project, so let’s discuss briefly how this–the last time a sitting President lost reelection–happened.

First, we can largely dismiss Ross Perot as a factor. Yes, he did better than any third-party candidate in decades, and oftentimes that can result in a “spoiler” effect where people are split between a candidate who otherwise would have won and a third-party candidate who can’t win, resulting in the person who would otherwise have come in second winning. However, for Bush (the elder, father of the Bush who would succeed Clinton) to have won, the overwhelming majority of Perot’s voters would have had to vote for him, and Perot’s voters appear to have been roughly evenly split between Bush and Clinton as their second choice.

No, as was famously said internally in the Clinton campaign, “[it’s] the economy, stupid.” As I described in the post on “The Forgotten,” the deregulation of the Reagan and Bush years led to a banking crisis and recession in 1992, which caused Bush’s popularity–high in the aftermath of the first Gulf War–to plummet. It didn’t help Bush that the Republicans–who had largely defined themselves as being the anti-communist party–had trouble maintaining cohesion after the end of the Cold War, and Bush had alienated the more conservative wing of his party by breaking a promise not to raise taxes.

Clinton, meanwhile, had just come from chairing the Democratic Leadership Council, a non-profit organization founded in response to Reagan’s landslide 1984 victory that advocated for a “Third Way,” pushing the Democratic party to abandon the leftward turn it had taken in the 1960s and 70s (which turn, keep in mind, consisted primarily of civil rights and social welfare programs). They supported welfare “reforms” designed to punish people for not trying hard enough to find jobs, supported continued (albeit less) deregulation of business and industry, opposed single-payer health care, and “opposed class warfare”–not in the actual sense of trying to protect the poor from the predations of the privileged, but in the sense of trying to placate business owners and corporations in the hopes of getting donations.

In short, the DLC saw Republicans winning elections, and decided that the best way for Democrats to start winning was for them to become Republicans. While Bush tried to shift right to recapture the fiscal conservatives he’d alienated, Clinton played ads that emphasized Bush’s broken tax promise and attacked rapper Sister Soulja’s lyrics to court those same conservatives, while also promising support for affirmative action to court African-Americans and anyone else who might see a racist element in those attacks. Clinton supported abortion rights, which the left liked, but also the death penalty, which the right liked. Wherever he could, he split the difference, trying to be all things to all people.

As an election strategy, it worked. Fully 10 states which had gone for Bush in 1988 not only flipped to Clinton in 1992, but went to the Democrat in every election since. The entire country realigned, firmly cementing the Democrats as the party of the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Great Lakes. But in the process, the Democrats ceded their populist economic principles, meaning that both major political parties now represented the economic interests of corporations and the wealthy, not workers or the poor. In subsequent elections, the Republicans were able to take advantage of the rising power of the Christian right, with which Reagan had been closely allied, to position themselves as champions of a new kind of populism–instead of farmers and workers against big business, now it would be white Christian men against gay rights, abortion, and science. In the process, they cemented their hold on the flyover states.

In short, the 1992 election represented the establishment of what we now think of as the “red state/blue state divide,” the abandonment of liberal and socialist policy goals by the Democrats in favor of becoming Republicans Light, and the real start of the culture wars. Very shortly, the Republicans–who as mentioned were having trouble maintaining party cohesion without the nebulous shared enemy of communism–would discover a new shared enemy, liberalism, which they defined as anything that wasn’t identical to Republican policy plus anything which was identical to Republican policy but said by a Democrat. And, perhaps most critically of all, it represented the final, full abandonment of the liberal ideals of the 60s as politically viable positions in the U.S.

It’ll be a while before we get anything to replace them. Let’s go back to talking about cartoons for a bit.


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11 thoughts on “Crisis on N Earths (N=2): The 1992 US Presidential Election

  1. Interesting. I knew, of course, that the “Third Way” was a transatlantic phenomenon, but I hadn’t realised just how aligned Tony Blair and Clinton were.

    The difference (apart from healthcare, since the UK it’s almost unthinkable even for right wing politicians to attack the NHS directly) is that the Christian Right aren’t such a big thing over here, so the Tories stayed in the moderate right and found themselves saying “Yes, we’re basically promising the same things Labour are but, um, we mean it and they don’t.”

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  2. daibhidc, It’s not surprising that Blair resembles Clinton closely, because he was reacting to Thatcher and Clinton was reacting to Reagan, and politically Thatcher and Reagan were basically the same event.

    You say that attacking the NHS is unthinkable, but I’ve heard lately that the Tories have managed to privatize at least a major part of it. It resembles to me Social Security – in the United States, it’s called “The Third Rail of American Politics” and the elites have made almost no progress in their deeply held wish to cut or end it. Here in the US we understand that “privatizing Social Security” is equivalent to ending Social Security, well enough that when G. W. Bush tried it at the height of his influence, failure wasn’t even a near miss.

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  3. Also relevant is this comment at ex-conservative blog Balloon Juice:

    I remember the exact moment they began to go off the rails. I was working, at the time, for people who were rather high up in the world of state Republicanism. The kind of folks who were on a first name basis with with Republican governors and were old buddies with Republican senators and were generally knit into the fabric of the state GOP.

    And I remember well how tepidly they supported the reelection of George H.W. Bush. How grudgingly they wrote the checks, how prone they were to skip the big fundraiser and just cut a check instead, how constantly they grumbled about his unreaganess. And thus it was nationwide, from the Republican members of Congress down to the blowhards in the bar.

    And when Clinton beat the candidate they barely supported, their response was blind, blazing rage, shock and horror and, above all, deeply aggrieved outrage. And looking back, it’s clear what happened. In just the twelve years between Reagan’s inauguaration and Clinton’s election, they had truly come to believe that they, and they alone ruled by divine right, that elections were just tedious little civic rituals by which their divine right to rule was legitimated by the serfs and any election they lost had been stolen from them like a thief breaking in to your house at night and stealing your silver.

    They believed they had been chosen by the One True White Male God to save His Chosen Nation Murrika Nubber Wun from Communist infiltration, Communist subversion, fluoridated water, and the other tools of the International Communist Conspiracy. Jura gur Nzrevpna crbcyr erwrpgrq Nzrevpn’f Crg Tbq, fbzrguvat oebxr va gur “oenvaf” bs gurfr “crbcyr” (naq V hfr obgu bs gubfr jbeqf ybbfryl).

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  4. *dons mod hat* ROT13’d the last sentence of your comment for violating Comment Policies 1.2 and 5.1. Please do not use ableist insults or dehumanize people. Even conservatives.

    *removes hat* That said, I completely agree with the bulk of your comment. Though I’d say it’s a combination of the slowly dawning realization that the Terrible Communist Menace wasn’t there anymore and the rejection inherent in the ’92 election. (Which in turn was just a precursor to the HOWLING OUTRAGE with which conservatives greeted the ’08 election, since they viewed that not just as a rejection of Good Ol’ Fashioned American Family Values (aka, hating everyone who’s not a white Christian conservative cishet male) but of whiteness itself.) Note the way conservatives latched onto 9/11 and repurposed all their anti-communist propaganda and strategy to be anti-terrorist instead–they finally had a new Them against which to define an Us!

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  5. You say that attacking the NHS is unthinkable, but I’ve heard lately that the Tories have managed to privatize at least a major part of it.

    Yes, they have, but they haven’t done it directly. They’re champions of the NHS and just want private companies to help make it more “efficient” and so on. They seem to be getting away with this to a great extent, although they’ve been called on it a lot as well.

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  6. (A process, of course, that was started by Third Way Labour and their Private Finance Initiatives, leading to the Blairites now saying “Yes, but we wouldn’t have gone *that* far.” So we now have a former New Labour Health Secretary standing for party leader on a platform of “Only I can stop the privatisation of the health service that I was complicit in!”)

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  7. I come from the future. Do you have anything more to add now that a certain someone exploited this by going so far right he ended up enticing the Left Behind to vote for him, taking the Great Lakes from the Democrats? Perhaps Clinton set his wife up to fail in this regard?

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  8. I think ultimately the blame for Il Douche winning lies on the people who voted for him. But yes, the complete abandonment of anything even remotely resembling leftism essentially guaranteed that something like this would happen sooner or later. Bill led the dems to fully embrace neoliberalism, transforming it from a rightwing position to a consensus. We are now living in the collapse of that consensus.

    There are, ultimately, two ways for a traditional liberal democracy to end: it can evolve into a socialist state (democratic or otherwise), or it can collapse into fascism. By pivoting the opposition party so hard to the middle that there ceased to be any opposition, the Dems, led by Bill, ensured that evolving was off the table for the foreseeable future.

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