First Published in The Village Voice, Nov. 12, 1996
After years of crafting and rationalizing Bill Clinton's version of the attack on poor people, high-ranking Department of Health and Human Services officials May Jo Bane and Peter Edelman resigned recently, several weeks after the president signed the hideous "welfare- reform" bill. David Ellwood, another architect of the welfare overhaul, left a year earlier. I'm sorry, but their grand gesture, tastefully skirting direct criticism of Clinton's action, seems too much like a self-righteous attempt to escape responsibility for their own involvement in bringing this savagery about. To that extent, their crocodile tears underscore the ugly truth of American liberalism.
Sometime early in Ronald Reagan's first term, I decided to forget everything I'd always disliked about liberals. I took pains to subordinate what put me off about them to the larger objective of unity against the rightwing onslaught, I decided to overlook their capacity for high-minded fervor for the emptiest and sappiest platitudes; their tendencies to make a fetish of procedure over substance and to look for technical fixes to political problems; their ability to screen out the mounting carnage in the cities they inhabit as they seek pleasant venues for ingesting good coffee and scones; their propensity for aestheticizing other people's oppression and calling that activism; their reflex to wring their hands and look constipated in the face of conflict; and, most of all, their spinelessness and undependability in crises.
But during the '80s liberal opinion gradually accommodated to Reaganism by sliding rightward. Two rhetorical justifications emerged for this adaptation. The Democratic Leadership Council called for a new centrism, jettisoning egalitarian politics and the constituencies identified with it. Additionally, an excesses-of-the-'60s-as-fall-from-grace fable propelled this slide and justified the smug dismissal of those of us who didn't want to go along. This new liberalism curtly demanded that we grow up and accept the realpolitik; Reaganism was all our fault for going too far anyway.
Bill Clinton's genius is that he managed to embody both the neoliberal and DLC variants of the rightward shift, and combined them with a superficial earnestness that mitigates whatever egalitarian thoughts may linger among those who will to believe in him. So liberals have followed and rationalized and pimped for him through the debacle of his half-assed, insurance company-led health-care reform, NAFTA and GATT, his horribly repressive crime and antiterrorism legislation, and his conspicuous retreat from support of civil rights enforcement. Now Clinton's apologists even attempt to justify his embrace of the abominable welfare- reform bill, stooping to a Flip Wilson defense (Gingrich made him sign it) and using the bill's passage as a reason to vote for Bipartisan Bill (so that he can "fix" what he just did). Talk about will to believe. Or is it will to get paid? Their lapdog defense of Big Bill highlights liberals' willingness to sacrifice the poor and to tout it as tough-minded compassion and an act of courage. Even before Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 this trait was visible, especially among those policy-jock types who had begin to sense the possibility of a Clinton victory and their impending opportunity to consort with power. I got my wake-up call from a poverty-researcher colleague who, on the eve of the Illinois primary, impatiently dismissed my objections to Clinton's having just executed black, impoverished, and brain-damaged Rickey Ray Rector. She blew me off as naive for not recognizing that any Democrat who hoped to win the presidency would have to support capital punishment. "Easy for you to say," I thought, but, regrettably, was too polite to say out loud.
Nowhere have the moral and political deficiencies of this liberal notion of realpolitik been more clearly exposed than around the Clinton administration's welfare-reform politics. A decade ago, William Julius Wilson set the tone with The Truly Disadvantaged. In that work, Wilson chided the left for losing credibility, to the benefit of conservative critics, by not facing up to a spreading social pathology among the urban underclass. He proposed a sleight-of-hand approach to helping the poor schmucks through "universal" programs that wouldn't antagonize the better-off by appearing to do anything for poor people in particular. Fittingly, he became a major Clinton apologist in 1992. Following Wilson, David Ellwood, a highly regarded liberal poverty researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, invented the "two years and off" notion, which he publicized in his 1988 book, Poor Support. Ellwood eased his provocative idea with calls for a battery of support services that would accompany expulsion from the welfare rolls. Like Wilson, he blew off the critics on his left who argued that his costly bundle of safeguards would go nowhere without a forceful challenge to the right-wing climate that his get-'em-off-the-dole slogan accommodated. The fear, now realized, was that his liberal credentials would legitimize the two-years-and-off idea as a programmatic goal without including any of his finely crafted hedges.
Attracted by Bubba's call to "end welfare as we know it," Ellwood and Kennedy School colleague Mary Jo Bane headed south to become part of official Washington. They would be the main players in the administration's overhaul of welfare, using two-years-and-off as their centerpiece. Joining the team later was Peter Edelman, the perennially up-and-coming liberal lawyer. He had assailed welfare as early as 1967, employing the coded attack phrase fostering dependence (read: poor folks are lazy bastards).
Beneath all this idiotic coyness lie liberals' long-standing aversion to conflict and their refusal to face up to the class realities of American politics. They avoid any linkage of inequality with corporations' use of public policy to drive down living standards and enhance their plunder, So Marian Wright Edelman (Peter's wife) of the Children's Defense Fund concocted the strategy of focusing on children. This save-the-babies politics is not only maudlin (notice how her pal Hillary's "whole village" went so easily from raising a child to stoning poor families in her support of hubby's welfare travesty), it also gives in to the right's demonization of poor adults by conceding their worthlessness in order to focus on their presumably innocent kids.
Roll ahead to the summer of 1994. Ellwood and Pane, representing HHS, sat at Daniel P. Moynihan's Senate Finance Committee hearing on Clinton's welfare-reform package (which, by the way, wasn't all that different from the Republican thing he signed). Alongside them was their boss, another liberal stalwart, HHS secretary Donna Shalala. As chief Clintonista, Shelala proclaimed that the purpose of the president's welfare-reform initiative was to eliminate out-of-wedlock births, her underlings nodded in agreement -- thus playing into one of the ugliest right-wing canards about social provision. As if that wasn't disgusting enough, when Moynihan invoked the specter of "speciation" -- the notion that generations of out-of-wedlock breeding in isolated, impoverished city pockets has created a new "species" -- each of the HHS folks nodded again.
I'm sure that these good liberals would have explained away their participation in that dehumanizing characterization as a strategic move; their intention being the advancement of humane social policy within an unfavorable political climate. However, their behavior exposes a deeper truth about the political commitments on which this strain of liberalism rests: This is a politics motivated by the desire for proximity to the ruling class and a belief in the basic legitimacy of its power and prerogative. It is a politics which, despite all its idealist puffery and feigned nobility, will sell out any allies or egalitarian objectives in pursuit of gaining the Prince's ear.
In a few short years, these sort of liberals have reminded me of all that had troubled me about them, and more. I'd just about convinced myself that my earlier scornfulness was a function of youthful hotheadedness. Some was, but not that much. In the end, it is the poisonous mix of self-righteousness and hypocrisy -- as illustrated by Ellwood, Bane, and Edelman -- which earns my contempt.