A surreal cheeriness as revolution brews

August 30, 1996|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Back in 1968 when police were battling demonstrators on the streets of Chicago, I didn't give a hoot.

I had just come back from seven months in Prague, and the only thing that mattered to me were the Soviet tanks rumbling through Czechoslovakia. One of their first objectives was to blast Radio Prague (where I had been working), whose broadcasts promoted the kind of democratic reforms that horrified Moscow.

I kept flicking TV channels in my newspaper's city room in a frenzied effort to get past bloody Chicago street scenes and find some Prague news. My colleagues muttered darkly about ''revolution in the streets.'' Revolution in Chicago? Chicago pitted anti-war activists vs. local police; in Prague an entire populace opposed the Stalinists. Chicago's troubles didn't merit the label ''revolutionary.''

But 28 years later, watching the peaceful, upbeat Democratic convention in Chicago, I worry more about revolution in America.

There is something surreal about the cheeriness of our national political conventions at a time when the divisions in American society are far deeper and more dangerous than during ''the days of rage.''

Sure, things looked worse then, on the surface. When Mayor Richard Daley's cops beat up demonstrators along with innocent bystanders many thought the apocalypse was coming. But the underlying issue -- opposition to the Vietnam War -- was soluble. And the unrest mainly involved students facing the draft.

American dream

The majority of the population, back then, still supported the government and believed in the American dream. No surprise. Good factory jobs were plentiful, housing was cheap, and annual income was still growing for all segments of the population.

No wonder most workers rejected student protesters who never substantially broadened their base. But where are those happy workers now, in the days of job flight, downsizing and lower benefits?

The ''rage'' of students and anti-war protesters has diffused itself throughout American society, as real wages of lower-skilled workers plummet and living standards fall or stagnate for the majority. As the top 1 percent makes spectacular gains, the gap between the rich and the rest is getting so big that it would startle old-time radicals.

Recently, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York -- no left-winger -- worried out loud about something that sounds suspiciously like class warfare. William J. McDonough asked whether ''we will be able to go forward together as a unified society with a confident outlook or as a society of diverse economic groups suspicious of both the future and each other.'' That is a question that poses far greater challenges to American democracy than did Vietnam.

Sliding toward extinction

In today's America, the middle class is sliding toward extinction, with both parents often forced to work several jobs to equal previous family income. (Is anyone surprised that families are weaker?)

All this is the result of a worldwide economic revolution. Major shifts in technology have linked up -- or, to use the jargon, globalized -- the world's economy. This process has put in motion an inexorable trend: the kind of jobs that made middle-class life possible for the ordinary American Joe flow out to Third World countries, while pressures grow at home for lower wages and fewer social benefits in order to compete abroad.

These kinds of pressures don't automatically send Americans into the streets (although French unions recently rioted against cuts in social benefits). Right now the average American is probably too exhausted from his growing workload to think about demonstrations.

But such huge structural shifts -- if not addressed by America's leaders -- will surely undermine American democracy. They have already soured Americans on ''government,'' and undermined faith in political institutions.

Growing cynicism breeds political extremism. Legitimate new political experiments like Ross Perot's Reform Party have so far failed to deliver any changes. What will follow, if they fail? Is it only coincidence that bombings and attempted bombings across the nation have increased by more than 50 percent in the last five years?

These days Americans are even beginning to question their most holy of holies -- unfettered capitalism. What the Chicago Eight couldn't sell to the American public is being rubbed in by history's march. If corporate profit and CEO salaries continue to rise as salaries drop, while widespread profit-sharing fails to materialize, can such questions be avoided?

But such dour subjects aren't deemed fit for prime time -- or any time -- at the 1996 conventions (except for Ross Perot). The only Republican who openly articulated worker rage, Pat Buchanan, was virtually banned from his party's fiesta, where tax cuts and individual responsibility were touted as the cure for all society's ills. The Republican mantra neglects to mention that changes in global technology may leave many individuals far behind.

Bill Clinton at least recognizes that the magnitude of structural economic changes in America require both government and corporations to respond. But, in an election year, will he dare to utter the G-word?

Perhaps delegates from both conventions should take a field trip to Prague, where the communists were finally ousted, only to leave its citizens struggling to come to grips with untempered capitalism. (The coalition led by aggressive free-marketeer Vaclav Klaus lost its majority in recent elections.)

In Prague, where they have lived through several real revolutions, they understand a new one when they see one.

In San Diego and Chicago, politicians shy away from the stark nature of the changes Americans face.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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