An article in Saturday’s Guardian reports that left-wing icon Noam Chomsky has given his “reluctant endorsement to the Democratic party’s presidential contender, John Kerry”. Chomsky’s support for Kerry is far from enthusiastic. He describes the choice between Bush and Kerry as one “between two factions of the business party” and Kerry as “Bush-lite”, only a “fraction” better than his Republican opponent. But Chomsky argues that the current administration is exceptionally “cruel and savage” and “deeply committed to dismantling the achievements of popular struggle through the past century no matter what the cost to the general population.” He concludes that “despite the limited differences [between Bush and Kerry] both domestically and internationally, there are differences. In a system of immense power, small differences can translate into large outcomes.”
Chomsky’s acceptance of the “anybody but Bush” position is sure to be influential, but on this occasion the arguments he offers represent wishful thinking rather than the clear-headed political analysis for which he is famous. There is no question that the Bush administration’s policies are “cruel and savage”, but John Kerry (along with the majority of Democrats in the Senate) supported most of them, including the war on Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, the war on Iraq, and the “No Child Left Behind” education act. As Marjorie Williams pointed out in the Washington Post recently, “Kerry voted for so many of Bush’s major initiatives that in order to disown them now he can only argue that they were wrongly or dishonestly ‘implemented.’ This amounts to a confession that his opponent made a chump of him for the past three years. In fact, one might argue that Kerry is a poster boy for all the ways in which congressional Democrats have allowed themselves to be rolled by the Bush administration.”
The Bush administration has pushed US politics sharply to the right, but this represents not a qualitative break with what came before but an extension and continuation of “cruel and savage” policies implemented by other administrations over the past 25 years, Democratic as well as Republican. Bush’s attacks on civil liberties build on the legacy of Bill Clinton, including the 1996 Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorist act (supported, incidentally, by Kerry). And while Bush is certainly committed to “dismantling the achievements of popular struggle through the past century no matter what the cost to the general population”, nothing that he has yet done in terms of social policy has equaled the brutality of Clinton’s gutting of the federal welfare system (again supported by Kerry).
In terms of foreign policy, the differences are even smaller. Kerry’s criticisms of Bush are purely tactical, as was abundantly clear in a recent interview in Time magazine:
“Look, I’m prepared to take any action necessary to protect the country, and I’m prepared to act unilaterally if we have to,” Kerry insists, noting that he backed the use of force in Grenada, Panama, Kosovo and Afghanistan. “But there is a way to do it that strengthens the hand of the United States. George Bush has weakened the hand of the United States.”
In fact, Kerry wants to send an additional 40,000 troops to Iraq, advocates a “muscular internationalism” in the tradition of 20th-century Democratic presidents (whose foreign policy record was far bloodier than their Republican counterparts) and even refuses to rule out “preventive” wars. Chomsky is right that “small differences can translate into large outcomes”, but this plays both ways. Kerry, for instance, may be in a better position than Bush to push through the reintroduction of the draft, just as it took a Democrat to implement welfare “reform”.
Making decisions about the presidential election on the basis of the minute differences between the two major party candidates is ultimately a mug’s game. Whoever wins in November, we’ll need the biggest and most militant social movements on the ground to fight their policies, but when activists get sucked into support for the Democrats the movements are weakened and sometimes destroyed. In 1964, when the Republicans nominated the anti-communist fanatic Barry Goldwater as their candidate, anti-war activists thought they could go “Half the way with LBJ”. But as the late Hal Draper remarked in a classic article on the politics of “lesser evilism“:
… you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater, who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles. Many of them have since realized that the spiked boot was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for “actually carried out Goldwater’s policy.” (In point of fact, this is unfair to Goldwater: he never advocated the steep escalation of the war that Johnson put through; and more to the point, he would probably have been incapable of putting it through with as little opposition as the man who could simultaneously hypnotize the liberals with “Great Society” rhetoric.)
“So who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964?” asked Draper. “The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.” The same is true in 2004. The most liberal administration of the past 35 years was led by Republican Richard Nixon, who was forced to respond to ghetto rebellions, wildcat strikes and radical social movements. But the historic role of the Democrats has been to muzzle such movements. If we choose Kerry over Bush, we make it more difficult to do the only thing that ever makes a difference for our side–building real activism on the ground.
Think again Noam.
PHIL GASPER is professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He is a member of the National Writers Union and a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.