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You Call These Democrats an Alternative?
How can George Bush be stopped? Many people among the millions who oppose Bush’s wars abroad and at home are asking that question. And even though Election Day is more than 16 months away, a good number have already pinned their hopes on the 2004 presidential vote.
The urgency about stopping Bush is certainly justified. Since stealing the White House in 2000, he has carried out a hard-line right-wing agenda across the board–from the warmongering Bush Doctrine for expanding U.S. power overseas, to his take-no-prisoners domestic policies deliberately aimed at making corporations more powerful and the rich richer.
Even more frightening to those who oppose this agenda is the way that Bush is already considered–according to the conventional wisdom in Washington anyway–the odds-on favorite in 2004. Since the September 11 attacks two years ago, Bush’s job approval rating has remained consistently high compared to past presidents. And with a series of mega-fundraisers in the coming months, the Bush reelection drive is already on the verge of breaking the campaign cash records it set last time around.
So it’s little wonder that the 2004 election was, for example, an underlying issue at the United for Peace and Justice national conference of antiwar activists in Chicago in early June. Beating Bush at the ballot box was an even more explicit theme a few days earlier, at the Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.
In contrast to much smaller gatherings previously, this year’s Take Back America conference drew some 1,600 people–and not only staffers for unions, liberal groups and the Democratic Party, but grassroots activists, including from the antiwar movement.
This was another symptom of the anger with the Bush administration–and the desire to do something about it. But what should be done? And can the Democrats be trusted to do it?
* * *
AFTER ALL, one major reason that the Bush administration has gotten away with so much has been the cowardly behavior of the Democrats. Especially since September 11, but even before, the Democratic leadership in Washington has caved again and again to the White House, providing Republicans with an often comfortable margin of victory on the resolution authorizing war on Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, the misnamed "partial-birth" abortion ban, and both of Bush’s tax cut giveaways to the rich, to name just a few examples.
At one level, this is nothing new. The Democratic Party’s claim to represent ordinary people has always hidden a different reality. In any election, the Democrat is likely to be to the left of the Republican. But the differences between the two, important though they may be, are really quite small compared to what they share–an agenda that puts the interests of big business first, even if the two parties sometimes disagree about how.
Ultimately, the Democrats are not a party that represents the interests of working people. They represent big business. Whenever its preferred choice, the Republicans, becomes too discredited to win elections, Corporate America can count on the Democrats, waiting in the wings with predictable and non-threatening policies.
This is ultimately why the Democrats–to the great frustration of many of their most dedicated supporters–usually give up ground to the Republicans, and not the other way around. But despite this record, the same appeal is made at every election–that while the Democrats may not be perfect, at least they are the "lesser of two evils."
In the 2000 election, discontent with this Republican and Democratic "duopoly" over national politics produced the most successful left-wing challenge in half a century–the Green Party presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, who won nearly 3 percent of the vote nationwide. Despite the abuse he took from Democrats for supposedly throwing the election to Bush–actually, Al Gore has only himself to blame for the miserable campaign he ran in an election that was his to lose–Nader was a lightning rod for millions of people fed up with a system that offers so little choice.
The 2004 election will shape up very differently. Already, many Nader supporters–even members of the Green Party itself–are talking about supporting the Democratic candidate in order to defeat Bush.
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Global Exchange and the Green Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate from California in 2000, says that she is leaning toward a limited Green presidential campaign that doesn’t try to win votes in states which could tip the balance for the Democrats in the Electoral College. "[The Democrats are] shameful in terms of even calling themselves an opposition party," Benjamin says. "But despite that, I still think that we’ve got to get rid of Bush. He’s too dangerous for the globe, and too dangerous for any of the issues we stand for."
Liberal Democrats themselves are even more outspoken. At the Take Back America conference, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of the top liberals in the House of Representatives, said that people who feel fed up with the Democrats should "get over it."
"Like it or not, either George W. Bush or the Democratic nominee, whoever he may be, will be our next president," Schakowsky said. "We should, by all means, be working to promote a progressive agenda with each and every candidate and to make the nominee as progressive as possible. But in the end, we are going to have to dedicate ourselves to electing the Democrat. To do otherwise is a luxury we cannot afford."
* * *
THE MESSAGE is clear: Any Democrat is better than Bush. But is this true?
Just how big a difference is there between Bush and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of the early frontrunners for the 2004 presidential nomination? Lieberman, after all, loudly supported the war on Iraq, demands that the White House spend more money on homeland security, made his reputation as a Hollywood-bashing cultural conservative, and regularly attacks other Democratic presidential hopefuls for proposing "big government" programs to fix the U.S. health care crisis.
The record of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the most prominent liberal among the other leading candidates, isn’t that much better. And his appearance at the Take Back America conference was a prime example of how Democrats snub their supporters to appeal to the "center."
Kerry spent the final portion of his speech lecturing the overwhelmingly antiwar crowd about why he rejects "those who reflexively oppose any U.S. military intervention anywhere, or who see U.S. power as a mostly malignant force in the world, or who place a higher value on achieving multilateral consensus than necessarily protecting vital interests of our nation…If Democrats are not prepared to make America safer, stronger and more secure, for all we care about all those other issues, we will not win back the White House, and we won’t deserve to."
There are other candidates for the nomination who are more willing to take a stand against the Bush agenda, rather than adapt to it. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is trying to stake out a position as the main left-wing candidate, challenged by Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
But Dean–who himself admits that it is "pathetic" he’s considered a left-winger–is a long shot to win the nomination, and the rest aren’t even that. Thus, Kucinich gave the best-received speech among the seven candidates who addressed the Take Back America conference–but afterward, talk among attendees returned to whether they could tolerate a more conservative Democrat.
"I think a lot of people now are agonizing," says Barbara Ehrenreich, a Nader supporter in 2000 who spoke at the conference. "How far would they go to get ‘anything but Bush’? A lot of people I know say it stops at Lieberman."
In fact, when the eventual nominee is chosen, the Sharptons and Kucinichs will have a time-honored role to play for the Democratic Party–to accept defeat and round up their supporters behind whatever candidate did win, no matter how conservative.
* * *
OPPONENTS OF the Republican agenda felt the same urgency about retaking the White House in 1992–and in 1984 and 1988 for that matter–when Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. were on the rampage. The same argument–that another four years of Reagan or Bush would be a disaster, and the left therefore had to bury its criticisms and unite behind the Democrats–could be heard everywhere.
But what we got after 12 years of Republican rule in the White House was finally brought to an end wasn’t an end to the Republican agenda. Instead, the Clinton-Gore administration carried through very similar policies.
Even worse, when Bill Clinton signed into law outrages like welfare "reform"–which effectively shredded the decades-old social safety net for the most vulnerable people in the U.S.–the organizations that could be expected to mobilize a response were silent. Their justification was explicit–opposition to the Clinton administration might damage the Democrats’ chances in the 1996 election.
"This is a bad bill, but a good strategy," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), explaining why he would vote for the welfare bill he opposed. In order to continue economic and social progress, we must keep Prsident Clinton in office…Sometimes in order to make progress and move ahead, you have to stand up and do the wrong thing."
To listen to today’s discussion about 2004, it’s as if Washington’s attack on working and poor people began in January 2001, when Bush took over the White House. For example, at the Take Back America conference, Barbara Ehrenreich, quoted Bush describing welfare "reform" as a "resounding success." But this is precisely the opinion of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership.
Likewise, other speakers referred to the recent Federal Communications Commission vote on new rules that will make it easier for right-wing press barons like Rupert Murdoch to expand their media empires. But no one mentioned the Telecommunications Act of 1996, shepherded through Congress by Al Gore, which set the stage for today’s media merger mania. Leaders of organized labor criticized the Bush White House’s anti-union offensive. But they neglected to point out that the Clinton White House championed the NAFTA free trade deal.
There are real differences, of course. Bill Clinton vetoed several versions of legislation banning the late-term abortion procedure misnamed "partial-birth" abortion. Bush is about to sign the ban into law.
But these differences are no excuse for amnesia when it comes to the Democrats’ real record. And anyone who is considering voting for a Democrat as the lesser evil in 2004 should think about how organized labor and mainstream liberal organizations found themselves disarmed when they fell in line behind the Clinton White House.
If Democrats know that they have the support of those to their left safely in hand, they will always pander to the right in the search for more votes. That’s why those who vote for the lesser evil usually get both the lesser and the greater evil.
* * *
AN INDEPENDENT political alternative that stands uncompromisingly against the two-party "duopoly" in Washington is every bit as necessary today as in 2000. Ralph Nader has not said yet whether he will run again in 2004, though Green Party members say that he is inclined toward another campaign. Another potential presidential candidate for the Greens is former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who lost her seat in Congress last year after she was targeted by a right-wing crusade–and the national Democratic Party abandoned her.
Whether a Green Party presidential campaign can find an audience in the face of the massive "anybody but Bush" climate is another question. Green Party supporters will definitely find themselves in a much smaller minority this time around. But that doesn’t change the need for an independent alternative.
Does all this mean that we supporters of a third party challenge don’t care about stopping Bush? Not at all. We have to mobilize in every way against the Bush agenda, around whatever issues where struggle develops–including those that the Democrats find too inconvenient to take a stand.
These struggles from below, after all, are the way that real social victories have been won in U.S. history–not by relying on politicians, no matter how liberal. Thus, the major pieces of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 that marked the success of the struggle against Jim Crow segregation came at the crest of a mass movement of African Americans that was shaking the political power structure in the South and the U.S. as a whole. Before that, Democrats–including the party’s northern liberal wing–resisted taking action in favor of civil rights.
As Howard Zinn put it in an interview with Socialist Worker right after George Bush took office, "There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens."
If the Clinton-Gore record suddenly looks rosier compared to the crimes of the Neandrathals occupying the White House now, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Clinton stands out in many ways as more conservative than the presidents that came before him–Republicans included. So, for example, Richard Nixon launched more anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs than Clinton. Obviously, that’s not because Nixon was more liberal on civil rights–on the contrary, he was a miserable right winger. But Nixon was under pressure to act from the mass social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s–something Clinton didn’t face, in part because organized labor and mainstream liberal groups fell in line behind the White House during the 1990s on the reasoning that the Democrats were the "lesser evil."
As long as Corporate America dominates Washington and the most important votes are the dollars given by the biggest campaign contributors, the U.S. political system will remain out of touch with what working people want–and beyond of their ability to exercise any real democratic control.
The job of defeating the Bush agenda can’t be left to an unaccountable Democrat, who will decide which Republican policy to overturn, and which to keep. We need to organize that struggle from below. And in the process, we can build an alternative to a political system where the only real choices come down to different versions of the status quo.