When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, many believed that he would be a transformative president. In the end, he was not. His final years in office were full of scandals, and he repeatedly “surrendered” to corporate and conservative interests. He barely won both of his elections, reflecting many Americans’ indifference to the existing political order. While Clinton was a charismatic, likable figure, “his rhetoric was not matched by his performance.”
In this chapter, Zinn will discuss the legacy of Bill Clinton, the President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. He begins by sketching out his basic argument: Clinton billed himself as a transformative president, but he just continued the policies of his predecessors.
Clinton repeatedly demonstrated his loyalty to the market system and made efforts to make the Democratic party a “business party.” When appointing cabinet members, Clinton took care to appoint black, pro-labor people to lesser positions, but his main advisers were mostly “wealthy corporate lawyers” or “traditional players on the bipartisan Cold War team.” His unwillingness to follow through on his rhetoric of equality and change became clear when Lani Guinier, a prospective hire for the Justice Department, made comments about racial equality that conservative critics found too strong; faced with a controversy, Clinton abandoned Guinier. Similarly, when nominating Supreme Court justices, Clinton chose two fairly moderate figures, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, rather than a genuinely transformative justice in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall.
Much like Jimmy Carter before him, Clinton claimed that he would put representatives of historically marginalized groups—blacks, women, Latinos, etc.—in important leadership roles. However, most of Clinton’s cabinet consisted of traditional Establishment figures: educated, business-friendly, etc. Zinn argues that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were moderate justices. Though many have argued that Ginsburg is the farthest-left member of the Supreme Court, this perhaps says more about the Court than about Ginsburg.
Clinton tried to prove that he was “tough on crime.” During his campaign, he oversaw the execution of a mentally retarded criminal and later he sent the FBI to attack a group of religious fanatics in Waco, Texas. Instead of waiting to negotiate, the FBI fired on the fanatics, starting a fire that killed 86 people, including women and children. Clinton also introduced laws to toughen drug sentencing, ultimately adding around one million people to the prison population. During the Clinton presidency, immigrants—one of the quintessential “bogeymen” that American politicians have used to frighten their voters into obedience—began to face harsher treatment. Clinton’s crime bills strengthened the power of America’s border guards; Clinton also supported bills to allow the deportation of any immigrant ever convicted of a crime, “no matter how long ago or how serious.”
Throughout his presidency, Clinton tried to assemble a broad coalition of voters by appealing to both conservative and liberal causes. Thus, he made an effort to appear “tough on crime”—a traditionally conservative cause. Like many conservative presidents, Clinton supported policies that protected American borders and made it more difficult for immigrants to enter the country.
The Clinton administration did not “establish government programs to create jobs.” Indeed, Clinton claimed, “The era of big government is over,” probably to appeal to more conservative voters in the 1996 presidential elections. Clinton’s remarks were hypocritical, since his administration made no significant cuts to the military budget, even after it cut some forms of welfare.
At the time, many Republicans criticized Clinton for making cuts to the defense budget; however, in Zinn’s book, these cuts were “minimal,” and did not go far enough in remedying the structural problems with American society. Furthermore, Clinton cut some forms of welfare that further weakened the American working class.
Clinton supported an active, aggressive foreign policy. Within six months of inauguration, he ordered the Air Force to bomb Baghdad, allegedly because of a plot to assassinate George H. W. Bush, the evidence for which was weak. In so doing, Clinton violated Article 51 of the UN Charter, which expressly forbids military action that is not “in defense against an armed attack.” Clinton also deployed troops to Somalia, though when a genocidal campaign broke out in the country of Rwanda the next year, Clinton ordered the UN forces in Rwanda to step down, effectively allowing the genocide to continue.
Like most modern American presidents, Clinton favored an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, and he repeatedly violated international law by sending aggressive troops into foreign countries. Some have disputed Zinn’s account of Clinton’s role in the Rwandan genocide. Zinn attacks Clinton for being too interventionist and then he attacks Clinton for not being interventionist enough.
Clinton’s foreign policy followed the Cold War paradigm of “maintaining friendly relations with whatever governments were in power, and promoting profitable trade arrangements with them, whatever their record in protecting human rights.” The administration maintained alliances with Indonesia, a country with a horrific record of mass-murder. Military interests continued to drive policy; for instance, when the Red Cross launched a campaign urging governments to suspend the use of “cluster bombs,” the U.S. refused to cooperate.
Clinton continued the Cold War policies of his presidential predecessors, despite the fact that the Cold War was over. In doing so, Clinton ensured that military interests would continue to drive American government.
It’s instructive to compare the Clinton administration’s relations with two Communist nations, China and Cuba. China has a lengthy history of human rights abuses, and yet Clinton gave the Chinese government economic aid and trade privileges in return for its support of U.S. corporate interests. Cuba, by contrast, has “no bloody record of suppression as did Communist China.” And yet the Clinton administration continued to place an embargo on Cuba that deprived Cubans of food and medicine.
Zinn suggests that Clinton’s administration lent some economic support to China to ensure business cooperation between the two countries, but didn’t do the same for Cuba because Cuba wasn’t a significant economic force in the Western hemisphere. (However, many would disagree with Zinn’s claim that Cuba has no bloody record of suppression—Castro violently suppressed a great number of Cuban dissidents.)
During the Clinton presidency, “free trade” became an important slogan. In Clinton’s first term, Congress signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which “removed obstacles for corporate capital” and allowed American business to move across the Mexican-American border. Later economic studies found that NAFTA had resulted in a net loss of tens of thousands of American jobs, since American corporations, now based in Mexico, hired cheaper Mexican labor. In reality, free trade was not “free” at all; the government interfered with trade whenever it felt that interference benefited “the national interest.” For example, the Clinton administration prevented shipments of food and medicine from entering Iraq, a decision that may have killed as many as half a million children.
Clinton is often seen as a supporter of neoliberalism, the set of policies that favor “free trade” between different countries. As Zinn argues, however, “free trade” isn’t as idealistic a system as its name might suggest. Indeed, businesses support free trade because it allows them to gain cheap labor for their factories and facilities, taking jobs away from American workers. Furthermore, the Clinton administration proved that it was more than willing to interfere with “free trade” whenever it wanted—for example, it interfered with trade in Iraq, depriving children of food and medicine. (One politician described Clinton’s Iraqi sanctions as “infanticide masquerading as politics.”)
In 1998, Clinton faced his biggest challenge: the accusations that he’d had sex with a young government worker named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton proceeded to lie about his relationship, and, as a result, he was impeached (i.e. called to stand trail before Congress). Congress impeached Clinton for his private sexual behavior—not his dangerous welfare cuts, his aggressive, illegal foreign policies, or his child-killing sanctions in Iraq. The same year, Clinton deployed NATO forces to Yugoslavia, supposedly to suppress the “ethnic cleansing” policies in Kosovo. However, data later showed that bombings had forced almost a million people to leave the country, including civilians and children. Some writers have argued that the international community should have pursued diplomacy instead of resorting to bombing. Yet the Clinton administration, like its predecessors, preferred displays of military force to diplomacy.
After everything Clinton had done to support inequality, starvation, and human rights abuses around the world, it’s remarkable that Congress impeached him for something as relatively minor as his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky. Congress turned a blind eye to Clinton’s foreign policy decisions in Yugoslavia, which, according to some political critics, including the activist and linguist Noam Chomsky (a close friend of Howard Zinn), resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians,.
During the Clinton years, the richest one percent of the country grew to control a larger portion of the total wealth in the country—around forty percent. For many, the nineties were a time of economic growth, since the stock market was healthy. However, an appalling percentage of the population lacked health insurance, even while the military budget continued to grow. There continued to be a racial gap in America: children of black families were far less likely to attend college and succeed in life than children from white families, a gap largely attributable to a “terrible environment” that prevented success for “millions of Americans, whether white or black.”
One of the defining themes of American politics in the last twenty years has been the growing inequality between the richest and the poorest American citizens. Clinton, as Zinn sees it, did nothing to prevent the widening inequality of the American economy. Zinn also argues that Clinton didn’t do enough to address the income gap between black and white families, a gap which seems to illustrate the ongoing racism of American society.
Clinton did not profoundly change the structures of American society. Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy by a “pitifully” small amount, but continued to lavish money on the military. Clinton often claimed that his policies were moderate because the American people were moderate in their beliefs. However, polls regularly showed that most Americans wanted major cuts to the military, universal health care, and government help for the poor.
During his presidency, Clinton was widely seen as a skilled “triangulator”—someone who could make compromises between different political factions. Zinn believes that, by triangulating and compromising on so many political issues, Clinton failed to honor the American people, who wanted radical changes to the welfare, tax, and health care systems. (However, Zinn doesn’t touch upon Clinton’s widely publicized efforts to reform the healthcare system, perhaps in order to portray Clinton as more passive and disloyal to the American people than he really was.)
Americans protested and demonstrated against the Clinton administration. After the government announced that it would be bombing Iraq because Iraq had failed to allow anyone to inspect its “weapons of mass destruction,” students at the University of California at Berkeley made banners saying that Madeline Albright, the Secretary of State, was a war criminal. Many writers and professors pointed out that Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, had previously fought wars in the Middle East with CIA funding. Other activists participated in the “Million Man March” on Washington, D.C. in 1995, and founded the Black Radical Congress in Chicago in 1998. Unions continued to strike, often under female leadership. Also during the nineties, students united with unions to demand better pay for school employees. Leftists founded alternative media to challenge the Establishment consensus. Evidently, some of the “spirit of the sixties” had survived into the nineties, despite the Establishment’s efforts to wipe it out.
In spite of the overall health of the American economy, the American people continued to demonstrate and protest against what they saw as the injustice of American foreign policy under the Clinton administration. As in the 1960s, students were at the center of the protest movement of the 1990s. Black activism, feminism, and the labor movement remained strong, proving, once again, that the American people were resilient in their opposition to the Establishment.
Perhaps the most dramatic display of activist strength in the nineties took place in 1999, when hundreds of thousands of activists demonstrated outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, showing their opposition to the hypocrisies of “free trade”—which is to say, “the freedom of corporations to roam the globe in search of cheap labor and no restrictions on industrial policies that poisoned the environment.” The corporate world found it hard to ignore popular opposition. Many businesses and international organizations declared their “concern for the environment and the conditions of their workers,” though whether they’d do anything substantive to alter their policies remained unclear.
That so many people would demonstrate against the World Trade Organization suggests that, contrary to what the media often claim, American radicalism isn’t dead. Huge numbers of common, everyday Americans sincerely believe that they’re living in an unjust time and fear that business leaders and powerful politicians aren’t doing enough to preserve the environment and address economic inequality in American society.
As America entered the 21st century, it remained clear that real, profound social change would not come from the “top.” The country would change if and only if ordinary citizens worked together, “threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.”
Zinn ends the chapter by reiterating one of his most important points: although the most powerful people in American society like to take credit for social change, true, radical change can only come from the American people.