Posted on December 11, 1995 in Washington Watch
The end of the Cold War has brought about world-wide political dislocation. No country, not even the U.S., is immune. For decades there was one constant in American politics: intense competition with the Soviet Union defined a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. During that time the fear of communist infiltration also played an important role in shaping attitudes on many domestic political issues as well.
From the 1920s through the 1960s, opponents of organized labor, of the civil rights movement of African Americans, of the anti-nuclear and pro-environmental movements, attempted to thwart these movements by defining them as “communist” or anti-American movements.
It might have been imagined that, with the demise of what President Ronald Reagan dubbed “the evil empire,” there would be a period of political calm.
The opposite appears to be true, however. The disorientation resulting from the end of the Cold War and the passing of the familiar nightmare of the “Communist world” has brought about a new and in some ways more troubling source of fears.
Americans have turned inward. While not fully articulated into a coherent ideology, there is abundant evidence in American political discourse of an undirected anger. This anger, coupled with a deep sense of alienation characterize many of the conservative spokespeople on the right wing of the American politics.
The end of the Cold War is, of course, only one source of this disorientation. Other sources stem from the dramatic changes in U.S. society brought on by economic factors. Throughout the U.S., many communities are beginning to realize the full impact of the tremendous economic dislocation of the past three decades.
The entire Northeast and Midwest have been dramatically affected by the loss of industry. As unions became powerful, factories which dominated the labor market in that region closed down and moved first to Southern states where there were no unions, and then abroad to Mexico and Asia where wages are even lower.
In their wake the departed industries left unemployment, cities with declining economic bases unable to pay for necessary services, declining population and young people forced to find employment outside their home region, and with that the breakup of neighborhoods and families.
My home town is a case in point. As late as 1960 Utica, New York, was an industrial-based city of 100,000 people. Today the industry is gone and the population has dwindled to 60,000. With most of its educated young residents having left to find employment elsewhere, the city today is a shadow of its former self.
Neighborhoods that were once middle class ethnic communities are now poverty-stricken and dotted with abandoned homes. Wage earners have been replaced as the dominant social group in many neighborhoods by elderly living on social security payments, the disabled and poor living in government-subsidized housing projects. And the breakup of neighborhoods and families has brought a revolution in the social mores of the whole area.
Across the U.S. this story repeats itself. Even the middle class has been riven with economic stress.
It is no wonder that new political currents have emerged in U.S. politics. A confused and distressed public seeking clarity has, in recent years, fallen prey to a number of candidates, movements and political leaders who have fed off the public anger and acted to deepen it.
There were the Presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in 1992. Both were populists and angry campaigners who were both “anti-government” and “isolationist.” The trends reflected and fostered by their efforts have recently spurred a number of national radio and television “talk shows.” Hosted by right-wing personalities, these programs have become extremely popular and reach an estimated audience of 11 million.
Even a casual listener can read the mood of these programs. They are, for the most part, entertaining – the hosts are skilled at transforming anger into irreverent, iconoclastic humor. Anger at the President, at Congress and the government in general, anger at things and groups “foreign” to America, and anger at the loss of the old “certainties” – all drive the currents of right wing political discourse.
Today these ideas, namely isolationism (fear of foreign involvement) and nativism (fear of foreigners), have moved from the far fringe of American politics, where they were in 1992, to the center of the national political debate. And they have spawned the difficult legislative battles that confront Arab Americans and others concerned with the future of U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
Over the next few weeks, Arab Americans will be engaged in an effort to build support for U.S. peacekeeping in Bosnia, maintain support for U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people, oppose efforts to restrict immigration and deny government benefits to legal immigrants and oppose legislation that will deny civil liberties in the name of countering terrorism.
In each case we will have to confront the angry currents of nativism and isolationism.
1) Support for Bosnia Peacekeeping
Even with Republican support from Senator Dole and former Presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford for President Bill Clinton’s decision to send U.S. troops as a part of the NATO force in Bosnia, most members of Congress are reporting that calls to their offices are running 100 to 1 against the move.
With the radio talk show hosts and Buchanan and Perot beating the isolationist drums against the President, it will be a tough, uphill battle to secure Congressional support for the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. The President has the authority to send the troops, and he will do it. But absent Congressional and public support, it may be difficult to sustain the mission.
The White House is fighting back hard, as is the strong coalition we have built with the cooperation with other ethnic, religious and humanitarian groups.
2) Aid to the Palestinians
The right wing has refused to allow some old demons to die, and has created new ones to replace those it lost with the demise of the Soviet Union. For some Senators like Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato, the Palestine Liberation Organization remains “terrorist” and evil, and Islamic groups have replaced communist groups as the number one perceived threat to the West.
While the State Department has not wavered from firm support for the Palestinians and has exercised care in its definition of Islam and Islamic groups in the Middle East, the right wing commentators and politicians have found these to be attractive issues with which to create public fear and anger. And so, what ought to be an easy issue of $75 million to support economic development in support of the Middle East peace process, has become a huge battle with the Administration forced to cede more and more ground to the Congress in order to get the money approved.
As it currently stands, the small amount of aid given to the Palestinians is the most encumbered and controlled of all the aid packages given by the U.S.
3) Anti-Immigrant Legislation
While some right wingers such as Pat Buchanan have called for ending all immigration to the U.S., the final compromise reached by the proponents of immigration reform in Congress calls for cutting immigration by 30%. The bill currently under consideration in Congress will make it virtually impossible for citizens to bring family members to the U.S. as new immigrants and it will deny social services to immigrants who are not yet citizens. One provision that passed the Senate, but not the House, even proposed to eliminate social benefits to immigrants who become citizens!
A strong coalition has mobilized to oppose this legislation but, given the mood of the Republican-led Congress, the bills will most probably pass. After strong lobbying, the Administration has gone on record promising to veto bills containing provisions that will deny benefits to naturalized citizens and some immigrants.
4) The Anti-Terrorism Bill
After lying dormant for many months, the effort to pass anti-terrorism legislation has resurfaced. Despite some compromises, the bill being considered by Congress still contains many provisions that are threatening to the civil and political rights of some U.S. groups, especially Arab Americans and American Muslims.
Given the intensity with which proponents are pushing this legislation, one might conclude that terrorism had reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. In fact, the opposite is true. From an average of twenty or so terrorist acts per year in the early 1980s, the number has dropped to a mere three or four incidents in recent years.
And of the 180 or so domestic terrorist acts reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the past 15 years, only three were carried out by Arab or Muslim groups. And, as experts have testified, nothing in the current legislation could have stopped any of those evil acts from occurring.
Nevertheless, fear is an effective mobilizing force and the air of panic generated by the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings continue to influence the debate in support of the anti-terrorism bill.
A new coalition opposing the bill was announced last week. It is an unusual grouping in that it spans the political spectrum from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association. Arab Americans and Irish Americans are also included in the coalition. The common thread uniting most of these groups is concern that they will be primary victims of the aspects of the bill which violate current standards of civil and political rights.
The legislation will be voted on next week.
These legislative battles of 1995 foreshadow the issues that will dominate the political debate in 1996. The forces that derive their impetus from fear and isolationism and nativism will continue to be strong factors in the political discourse. Arab Americans and their allies will have their agenda defined for them in large measure by opposition to these groups.
No longer a single-issue constituency, Arab Americans will, like other Americans in the post-Cold War world, engage in the broad and far-reaching debate over the future direction of America and the values that will shape its foreign and domestic policies.
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