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In the first minute of his July 29 Democratic National Convention (DNC) acceptance speech, John Kerry told us that the Democratic party has "one simple purpose: to make America stronger at home and respected in the world." The Republicans have set the standard by which a US President will be judged, and listening to peace and social justice activists is not one of the desired qualities. Regardless of who gets elected, the two parties tell us, the next president will be a "Commander-in-chief": tough on terrorism, national security and Homeland Security, and easy on corporations, while paying lip-service to jobs, healthcare, and education. According to Democrats quoted in the New York Times (July 25th 2004), this year’s DNC was designed so that you "think you’re looking at a Republican Convention." Kerry is reaching out to the same base that Bush is, so this election year there is hardly even the pretense of progressive values coming from the Democratic elites on the podium.
The thousands of people who mobilized four years ago at the Los Angeles DNC to critique the Democrats are a very different crowd from the mainstream or liberal wing of the party that will vote for John Kerry this November. Kerry and the Democratic Party elite do not need the votes of activists they do not constitue a significant or influential voting block like corporations or other Republican constituencies that appear to be the targets of most Kerry campaigning. Furthermore, Kerry and the Party elite do not actually want peace activists to campaign for them, at least not as peace activists. This was demonstrated most tellingly at the DNC where not only was criticism of the war discouraged, but peace activists among the delegates were not allowed to bring literature or clothing that expressed an anti-war stance. Medea Benjamin, who advocates voting for Kerry in swing states, was thrown out of the convention hall after unfurling a banner calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq. Other activists were barred from entering with headscarves that read "Delegates for Peace" and one California delegate with a flyer entitled "No War on Iraq" was prevented from bringing it onto the floor of the convention hall.
Anti-war views were by no means rare at the Convention. Even within the narrow spectrum of the Democratic Party, ninety percent of delegates oppose the war in Iraq (according to a recent CBS/NY Times poll). Their views were barely reflected in the choreographed speeches of their elite "representatives." Outspoken anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich justified ignoring the divide: "we’re going to unite our party to elect John Kerry and then we’re going to continue the debate within the Democratic Party." (PBS Interview) So, ninety percent of the party’s rank-and-file have to compromise their position on the war to comply with the 10 percent who are represented by the powerful elite of the party. Instead of the party taking a stand based on the majority sentiment, the crucial debate over war has been relegated to internal party discussion, where it will probably fizzle out. Those on the left who advocate blind support for Kerry hand responsibility for the debate over war and occupation to the Democratic Party, whose elites have more in common with Republicans than with their own rank-and-file.
The irresponsible idealism with which the antiwar movement is throwing its support behind a pro-war Bush-like candidate is disturbing. Little attempt is being made by the Party itself to reach out to those who are unregistered or uninterested, but private groups like MoveOn.org and individuals like filmmaker Michael Moore are doing it for them, under the slogan "Anybody But Bush." The MoveOn Political Action Committee just sent a letter to its members that "hope is on the way" in the guise of John Kerry, parroting Kerry’s own refrain ("help is on the way") during his DNC acceptance speech. After he wins, MoveOn tells us, "we’ll wake up that morning able to dream big dreams for a country and a world that are once again headed in the right direction." Unless voters are aware of the problems of backing Kerry for President most will go home after election day, either happy that their candidate won or cynical that their actions had no effect. Being realistic about Kerry’s background may prepare activists to begin organizing now, regardless of who wins, determined to involve themselves in struggle for the long haul, if that’s what it takes.
The constituency that Kerry actually listens to includes those who want the good old days of a glorious America that had "credibility" in the world and could enforce genocidal sanctions on Iraq with a smile. They want the Democratic Party to back a candidate that "appears" to respect international law even as we repeatedly violate it. Kerry voters will include Republicans who are disgusted with the Bush administration’s overt imperialism, choosing instead a stealthy approach to world domination. Kerry would forego Bush’s blatant unilateralism in favor of a more nuanced version. Just like Bush, Kerry would " never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security," but he would at least have "the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden." To Kerry, the US must be feared and respected, "not just feared."
"We need John Kerry to restore life to the Global War on Terrorism," said Jimmy Carter on the first day of the DNC. If the war on terrorism needed any more life than Bush gave it in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is in for a disaster. As we saw by the State Department’s (revised) Patterns of Global Terrorism report, countries subjected to the US "war on terrorism" showed increasing rates of terrorism. If Kerry wanted to address sources of terrorism, he might work to end the US occupation of Iraq and theUS-backed occupation of Palestine. Instead, he is insistent on continuing the brutal legacy of the Clinton era in Iraq and has allied himself unequivocally with Israel. If he becomes President, Kerry will clearly act at least as center-right as Clinton, and maybe worse. His positions on Afghanistan and Cuba are Clintonesque as well.
Carter and others have emphasized Kerry’s tour of duty as a soldier in Vietnam as evidence that "He is a proven defender of national security." The implicit emphasis is on his blind obedience to US imperial policy. Kerry himself said he learned his values "on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta," without mentioning his eventual public stand against the war. Rarely is Kerry’s past anti-war activism invoked, except by some anti-war supporters who blindly ignore his more recent pro-war record as Senator.
Knowing that public disenchantment with Bush’s foreign policy will not be enough to elect him (especially since he does not have much that is different to offer), Kerry has decided to highlight domestic issues like jobs, healthcare, and education. Outsourcing is a hot-button issue that Kerry has promised to reduce, despite his vote for NAFTA. Little mention is made of the inherent contradiction between his support of "free trade" and protectionist measures to preserve jobs at home-or the contradiction between wooing organized labor by backing environmental and labor standards in trade agreements, and his support for corporate power. Kerry is unambiguous that his real constituency is Big Business. In an interview with BusinessWeek (August 2nd) Kerry revealed, "I am going to bring Corporate America to the table to say: How do we make you more competitive? How do we get out of your way? Research-and-development tax credits? I’d make them permanent and larger. Manufacturing tax credits? That’s a smart way to help I am 100% in favor of companies going abroad to do business."
It is true that a small amount of positive change will accompany a Kerry administrationmost certainly fewer people will die in the short term. If Kerry wins in November it will definitely be a blow to the ultra-facist Neoconservatives and their allies. But those who are interested in long term radical social change, an admittedly marginal slice of the population, should not waste their time and effort in propping up the Democratic Party elite and their Republican-like agenda. There are plenty of people who are doing that already. Activism should focus on exposing Kerry before he ascends to the White House so that there will be few illusions that the Kerry era will be any better than the Clinton era; and so we can lay the groundwork for opposing Kerry’s policies as soon as possible. Kerry should be put on notice that the rabble-rousers who see through his compromises will not for long indulge in a sigh of relief if he wins. Instead activism ought to focus on constantly pushing the discussion to the left, wresting it from the rightward trend of current political discourse. We should be clear: activists who want serious social change, like those who mobilized 4 years ago to hold Gore and the Democrats accountable, will not find it in backing Kerry.
Sonali Kolhatkar is co-producer and host of Uprising, a morning drive-time radio program on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles.
James Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Space Telescope Science Center, California Institute of Technology. They both are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission.