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Power Concedes Nothing Without Demands

Blaming the Victims of the 2004 Election

by BRIAN KWOBA

I hate to keep wading around in the drudgery of election-year fallout, but I’ve heard too much elitist cynicism and scapegoating of a supposedly dumb-and-dumber American population to keep quiet. In much of the post-election commentary, the left along with much of the rest of the world has predictably cited a stupid, ignorant, or incurably right-wing US electorate as the reason for Bush’s recent win. The cynicism arises from interpreting the wide margin of victory in the popular vote as ratification of Bush’s unilateral rapacity in Iraq and Afghanistan, decisive complicity in the Haitian coup, and his menacing attacks on the minimal civil liberties, education, social security, and healthcare systems at home. All of this is certainly daunting and immensely unwelcome, to say the least. But the blame for Bush’s second coming should not be placed on the "American public." For those of us who truly seek change, there is a more complicated story. And that story is rife with lessons that are absolutely critical for the future of our movement.
First of all, less than 30% of the population voted for Bush. He did win 51% of the popular vote, but that’s hardly a significant majority of the American electorate, much less the general population. In other words, when we refer to the people who voted Bush, clearly we’re not talking really talking about a unified, monolithic American public. Of course, given the total quagmire of foreign and domestic policy which the Rove-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd has catapulted us all into, it seems that Bush should have lost hands-down. So how did he win?

Given the record turnout, it certainly wasn’t lack of voter-drives. Everyone from P. Diddy to Bruce Springstein was pushing to "rock the vote." Perhaps it was behind-the-scenes electioneering? Certainly there was plenty of voter fraud. For example, some 4,000 extra votes for Bush from a "faulty" electronic voting machine in Ohio, intimidation and harassment in places like Ohio and New Mexico, and fuzzy overvoting in various Florida districts were probably all the result of serious right-wing attacks on democracy. But when you have a president who started a war based on lies, oversaw a massive increase in the deficit, 5 million more people off health care, and the first lost jobs since Hoover, I think getting "re-elected" would take a bit more than just a little backroom vote-scamming. Again, Bush should have lost in a landslidewhat went wrong? I thing that our favorite "messianic militarist," as Paul Street calls him, won in 2004 for two main reasons, closely related: the Democrats and the left-wing social movements.

First, the Dems: Kerry ran a ridiculous Bush-Lite campaign. Just like the past 20 years or so, the Republicans set the framework. Bush ran as strong wartime and anti-terrorism president, tax cutter, and social conservative. Kerry, despite the urgings of many "progressive" Democrats, responded to that framework by posing as a smarter warmonger, a tougher prosecutor of the so-called "war on terror," and a both liberal(un-enthusiastically pro-choice) and conservative(against gay marriage) on social issues. His positions were contradictory, claiming on one hand it was the "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" yet also that he wouldn’t "cut and run" and that he’d add more troops to "finish the job" of the disgusting, imperialist occupation of Iraq. Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, but wanted to change it. He voted for No Child Left Behind, but thought it was under-funded. And on and on.

All told, Kerry essentially took for granted (i.e. abandoned) his supposed base, and tried instead to take over his opponent’s–or at least peel off the disaffected layers of it. Instead of providing an authentic and inspiring alternative to Bush’s agenda, Kerry advocated the same basic framework with mere tactical modifications, which shifted all discourse to the right, to Bush’s advantage. Kerry’s imitation-neocon platform thereby validated policies which Bush should have been skewered for. Adding to this a pervasive climate of post-9/11 fear, it is understandable why people would choose the original over a waffly copycat. But Bush’s electoral victory wasn’t just Kerry’s fault.
Although the Bush campaign shouldn’t have had a leg to stand on, and Kerry’s response to it was largely self-defeating, the progressive movements adopted and equally appalling position: Anybody But Bush (ABB). More specifically, the left social movements-from gay marriage, to women’s reproductive rights, to the antiwar movement-totally capitulated to the suicidal logic of ABB and diverted their time, energy, and resources in to campaigning uncritically for a candidate whose platform was the opposite of theirs. Rather than continue the fight for same-sex marriage, everyone kept quiet in the face of reluctantly-for-civil-unions Kerry. Instead of coming out in the millions after the bombing of Falluja in April, or the Abu-Ghraib prison scandal, or the siege of Najaf in August, all of which could have successively increased opposition to Bush’s war, the antiwar movement was virtually silent, so as not to embarrass their intended presidential replacement.

What these movements should have done was to continue the protests, demonstrations, and demands to indirectly exert pressure on Kerry from the left. This strategy would have done at least two important things. It would have allowed the movements to continue strengthening themselves and developing, instead of collapsing in the face of a pro-war, pro-Patriot Act, anti-gay marriage "opposition" candidate. Secondly, it would have given Kerry far more votes, because a) he would have had to address the demands of the millions of people in the streets and b) the movements, by gaining visibility, would have influenced the ambivalent "swing" sector of the American public that much more, making the central issue in popular consciousness the war instead of our conflicting cultural norms ("morality" as defined by an unchallenged right-wing). To put it in religious terms, who would Jesus bomb?

Speaking of the religious right, there’s another reason why we shouldn’t place blame on the working class or rural pro-Bush voters: they’re beneficiaries a sophisticated propaganda system which has been developed and perfected over a long time. Corporate media consolidation and saturation has probably never been stronger. For example, the mainstream media adopted the Pentagon framework on the war on Iraq, ramping up fear and false pretext unquestioningly prior to invasion. A Fairness and Accuracy In news Reporting study showed that during the two weeks surrounding Colin Powell’s case before the UN, 4 out of 393 primetime interviews on CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS featured antiwar pundits. That’s around 1%. Including PBS. Imagine how right-wing talk radio compares, on this and every other issue of "debate."

A PIPA Poll found that of Bush supporters, 72% still believe that there were WMD’s in Iraq, and 75% believe that Iraq was providing substantial support for Al Qaeda. Neither of these things are true, but people don’t make up those beliefs on their own. That’s a powerful propaganda system, not a stupid or reactionary public. Even people who read the "liberal" New York Times wouldn’t necessarily have sufficient information to make a judgment about the case for war on Iraq, which the NYT themselves openly conceded, regarding their pre-invasion coverage and lack of journalistic scrutiny.[1]

In conclusion, of the 28% or so of the total US population who chose the incumbent war criminal, it seems likely that most of them were either:

a) rich and powerful and voting with their class interests;

b) misinformed victims of propaganda and disinformation saturation;

c) weren’t provided with a viable or trustworthy alternative by the wishy-washy Lite version or

d) formed opinion on a set of right-wing-defined "morals" due to the total silence by the broader left opposition on those issues and more serious ones.

Notice how none of these categories implicates an incurably stupid or reactionary American public. Rather, it points to a smart, strategic, and well oiled Republican campaign, to which the Democrats responded with a pathetic attempt to out-Bush Bush, to which the left responded with a quiescent and undemanding orientation to Kerry, saving the real venom for Ralph Nader, the only candidate who was fighting for a left alternative to the two-party straightjacket.

I don’t mean to throw salt in our wounds, but imagine for a second what things would be like if the broad left rejected the "me-too" candidate this year and instead gathered forces around a real alternative. Imagine where the antiwar movement would be now. Image where the gay rights movement would be. Imagine where the Green party would be. Yes, Bush would have won, but he did anyway, so it is now officially obvious that this would have been a better strategy after all. Given that over 50% of the public is still against the war, we must not lose hope for rebuilding these movements. But not without taking a look in the mirror and drawing out serious lessons from the last few months.

In any case, the Republicans have set the entire political framework. And they’ll continue to do so with the house and senate seats they’ve picked up. Kerry’s adoption of the same basic agenda-multilateral-instead-of-unilateral imperialism, smarter war on terror, subtler patriot act, sensitive neoliberalism-served only to legitimize Bush’s command and control of each of these fundamentally-illegitimate arenas of policy. Operating on that consensus of assumptions, its no surprise that a statistically insignificant 3% more voters chose the real thing over the generic duplicate, especially in times of fear (Osama on the loose) and war(Iraq under siege). But as I hope to have made clear, it wasn’t the because of a stupid electorate. The simple lesson for the Dems is: you can’t fight fire with fire. And for the left: if you demand nothing, you get nothing. Frederick Douglass said it best: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will."

[1] See New York Times, "A Pause for Hindsight", Editorial Desk, July 16, 2004.

BRIAN KWOBA can be reached at bwk6@cornell.edu.