Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
In August the Kansas state school board voted to drop the theory of evolution from its educational curriculum, opening the door for a return to teaching 'creationism'--the Christian theory that god created the earth and the universe just 10,000 years ago. The ruling was a victory for the organised Christian Right of Kansas, who previously tried to prevent students from using pocket calculators in schools. Kansas now joins a handful of other states which refuse to condone the theory of evolution. Alabama's biology textbooks include a disclaimer describing evolution as 'a controversial theory'.
While the Kansas school board's decision has made it a laughing stock throughout the world, a number of mainstream politicians--who live in fear of the voting power of the Christian Right--managed to keep a straight face as they defended the right of schools to teach creationism. Republican Tom DeLay, the House Whip, recently blamed teenage violence on 'school systems [that] teach the children they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionised out of some primordial soup'.
But even the two main presidential contenders for next year's election, Republican George W Bush and Democrat Al Gore refused to take a stand against the Kansas school board. Bush said, 'I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started,' throwing his weight behind the Kansas decision. Gore went further, advocating the teaching of 'creationist science' (a practice which has been banned by the Supreme Court). His spokesperson later 'clarified' his statement as meaning that he thought it should be taught in religion classes.
If you were to judge the political climate in the United States simply by what its politicians say and do, US politics has not been more right wing since the 1950s. But this is the wrong measure. Especially in the United States, where less than half the electorate votes in even its presidential elections, politicians cannot even claim to represent the will of the majority.
It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of the population is far to the left of its political leaders on a whole range of issues. Opinion polls show this on almost every social and class issue. This is true even over the battle of evolution verses creationism. A Gallup poll taken at the end of August showed that 55 percent of those polled nationally oppose replacing the teaching of evolution with the theory of creationism in public schools. Nearly the same percentage of adults aged 49 years or younger believe human beings originated through a process of evolution.
This trend shows itself in surveys on other social issues as well. Fairly soon into Nato's war against Serbia last spring, it became dear that much of the public was not very gung-ho about the prospect of US involvement in a war overseas, especially if it might lead to ground troops. In fact, the opinion polls towards the end of the war showed that more than half the population would have opposed a ground invasion--and more than 80 percent said they would support a temporary halt in the Nato bombing as a spur to diplomatic efforts. After the war less than half the population agreed with Clinton when he said that Nato's victory was 'a victory for the forces of democracy'.
The Chicago Tribune conducted polls last spring that showed that the vast majority of Chicagoans--at least 70 percent--want to see a temporary moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, because there are so many innocent people on Death Row. And far from thinking that crime is the major problem facing society, most Chicagoans rated police corruption as a bigger problem than crime.
A recent Gallup poll showed a majority of whites support either improving affirmative action programmes for minorities or keeping them the same. Another Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of households believe gays should have equal job opportunities, and 50 percent believe gay sexuality should be legal. A Wall Street Journal poll recently showed that half the population believe the government should guarantee healthcare to everyone, even if it meant paying more taxes.
Other Gallup findings showed that 65 percent of respondents believe that unions help workers and a Gallup poll this summer showed that 70 percent of respondents believe the government should put money into improving public schools instead of offering vouchers to parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. And a full 63 percent today believe that wealth should be more evenly distributed in society--that well known mainstay of the socialist tradition.
These are not the opinions of the right wing. These are the opinions of a working class that is becoming more class conscious. They show that, on a wide variety of social issues, the US population stands clearly to the left of the politicians who run the US government This shift in consciousness has not yet led to a revival of working class struggle in any significant sense, so 65 percent of the population may support unions, but the fact remains that only 13.4 percent of the workforce belong to a union. While 63 percent of the population believe wealth should be more evenly distributed, there has not yet been any move to form a left wing political party. The shift in consciousness has led to what would more accurately be described as a political awakening among a substantial minority of the millions upon millions of working class people waiting for the wonders of the miracle economy to trickle down to their weekly pay cheques. In June Newsweek magazine ran an opinion poll in which 71 percent of those surveyed said they have no hope of ever getting rich in their lifetime.
A new generation of revolutionaries is being born today--those whose ideas have shifted far to the left over the last decade and who are thoroughly alienated from the politicians in Washington. They are now being trained in the small struggles which are taking place, or they are among those who are looking for a way to become politically active. This is the audience for socialist politics.
The scale of class and social polarisation which exists today in the US may not yet have found an expression through large scale struggle, but it has led to a level of political generalisation and a level of bitterness at class society--among a significant minority of workers and students--which will lead to a much deeper level of radicalisation when the level of struggle does begin to rise.