THE DUST had barely settled after Election Day when Newt Gingrich began to hold court with the media. Even before his coronation he pledged quick action on the conservative agenda. He promised cooperation, but not compromise. Enter, King Newt.
Yes, the Republicans won, but the emperor still has no clothes. Look at who didn't vote, and why: Only 38.7 percent of the electorate made it to the polls on Election Day, and less than two-thirds of those voted Republican. With three-quarters of the electorate silent or opposed, the Republican Congress hardly has a mandate for their right-wing agenda.
Non-voters are often characterized as apathetic dupes who allow others to decide their fate, but that profile is misleading. If the 60 percent of the eligible voters who stayed home thought that voting would have made a qualitative difference in their lives, I am convinced that most of them would have voted. But choosing not to cast a ballot is also a political choice. For many voters, it is the equivalent of checking "None of the above."
The single biggest political lesson from this election is not that Mr. Gingrich represents the second coming of Ronald Reagan, but that the majority of Americans are disillusioned with the lack of real choices in the electoral arena. With Democrats falling over themselves to look, sound and act like Republicans, the two-party system is becoming an ineffective avenue for political participation.
Instead of providing a viable alternative to racist and nativist mantras about welfare, crime and illegal aliens, the Democrats have molded themselves into sorry Republican facsimiles. Not surprisingly they have failed to win over the Republican constituency, and in the process they have abandoned and alienated their own. They have ignored the 60 percent who saw no compelling reason to vote at all.
Simple arithmetic demonstrates the transparency of the Republican mandate, and simple English demonstrates the dangerous nature of their agenda. The Republican Contract with America was touted by Mr. Gingrich as a plan to "save American civilization." In concert with a crescendo of "tough on crime" rhetoric and continued attacks on welfare recipients, it is clear that, as defined by Mr. Gingrich, the threat to American civilization comes from poor, urban blacks. In California, Texas and Florida, immigrants from Mexico and the Caribbean are also blamed for draining economic resources.
Never mind the conservative resistance to providing sex education and birth control; they still want to pin the breakdown of the family on teen-age moms on welfare. Never mind decaying schools, a paucity of urban jobs and conservative opposition to gun control; they still rail at the rise in violent crime among urban youth. Not coincidentally, the stereotypical teen welfare mother and the stereotypical young criminal are unmistakably black or Latino, despite the fact that these gross media caricatures probably destroy more young lives than crime and welfare combined.
Conservatives have narrowly defined America's problems as originating with the so-called underclass. Their proposed solution is denying public assistance to unwed mothers, putting young fathers in jail, refusing basic health and education services to immigrants, and getting tough on crime.
To save the village we are destroying it: penalizing black mothers when they have kids, deporting illegal immigrants, locking minorities in prison, and when all else fails, executing them. This is a chilling prospect for resolving complex social problems.
Our nation is not really polarized between Democrats and Republicans; we are divided between those who advocate cruel measures of social control and those who see no viable solutions at all.
Perhaps last week's Republican victories can serve as a wake-up call to the 80 percent of this country that has not signed onto the conservative contract for a more repressive government. If we want government that is just and humane, we had better not wait for either the Democrats or the Republicans to deliver it to us. We've had enough of both, and of populist billionaires to boot. It's time to start working with our neighbors to build the kind of grass-roots movement that can give us real choices and real hope, not King Newt.
Barbara Ransby is a longtime community activist who teaches African-American history at DePaul University in Chicago.