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Already Reaching Across the Aisle

Those Damned Democrats

by SHARON SMITH

In the final countdown to the November 7 election, Democrats.com has already begun celebrating. Calling for candle light vigils outside polling stations across the nation on election night, the website’s blue-clad supporters will bear moral witness against voting fraud during the historic moment when the Democrats are expected to retake Congress (well, at least the House of Representatives), with the Republican Revolution finally unraveling after 12 long years.

"Let’s imagine a Blue Revolution," the website’s writers chirped, "every bit as joyous and historic as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the other democratic revolutions of recent years–right here in the United States of America."

Meanwhile, the sometimes-antiwar liberal Todd Gitlin anticipated a post-election "rebirth of liberalism" on the Guardian website, predicting that the Republican Party’s misfortunes will allow "American liberals" to "dare lift their heads and contemplate long-unimagined possibilities."


A "revolution" without struggle?

To be sure, the Democrats are likely to benefit from mass discontent against the Bush administration. But if the Democratic Party does finally manage to eke out a Congressional majority from the scandal-ridden Bush regime, Democrats should not congratulate themselves prematurely. The Republican Party is imploding due to its own outrageous "stupidity" and "arrogance", as senior U.S. diplomat Alberto Fernandez recently described in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.

This election has been declared a referendum on the Iraq war. But no Democratic congressional leader has called for a fixed deadline for troop withdrawal. And the Democratic Party has refused to articulate a coherent alternative to the over-riding aims of the Bush administration, merely continuing its long-standing and calculated orientation to the swing-voting "center"-while disparaging its own antiwar voting base. This has resulted in continuing the rightward shift in mainstream U.S. politics rather than challenging it.

James M. Lindsay, a former national security official in the Clinton administration, justified Democrats’ reluctance to call for withdrawal. "The problem is you also have to win the general election," he argued. "You don’t need to appeal to people who have made up their mind and had a bumper sticker on the back of their car for the last four years."

The Democratic establishment rolled out its spin-doctors to lower expectations a week before the election, explaining in advance why they will accomplish little of significance even with a congressional majority. Bipartisanship is the watchword of the Democratic Party in this election. Liberal New York Rep. Charles Rangel told reporters, "God knows, the Democratic leadership will be reaching across the aisle [W]e will never have the margins–even if we did do it–to get anything done."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, leading the Democrats’ election year strategy in the Senate, summarized the only principles at stake: "The days of Democrats’ having to check 28 boxes before they run are over," Schumer says. "We want to win."

As the San Francisco Chronicle noted on October 29, "The new Democratic majority, should it occur, will consist of a fresh crop of moderate and conservative members whose elections will have been won in part by distancing themselves from the party’s progressive wing."

These Democratic Party upstarts include a set of social conservatives opposed to abortion and gay marriage, hand-picked by party powerbrokers:

Abortion opponent Bob Casey Jr., challenging Republican Rick Santorum for his Pennsylvania Senate seat;

Indiana sheriff Brad Ellsworth, running for the House, who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage;

Black evangelical Christian Harold Ford, running for a Tennessee Senate seat, who names Ronald Reagan as one of his heroes. Ann Coulter, in turn, called him "one of my favorite Democrats."

White evangelical Christian Heath Shuler, who opposes abortion, running for House representative in North Carolina.


Liberalism, then and now

The only Democrats expressing a desire to "fight" are those galloping to the right. California Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of California, co-chairwoman of the House’s centrist New Democrat Coalition, made clear that the Democrats’ current embrace of social conservatism is not meant to be temporary: "I think there’s tremendous agreement and awareness that getting the majority and running over the left cliff is what our Republican opponents would dearly love," Tauscher said. This is something "we’ve got to fight," she added.

As the New York Times reported on October 30, "Asked if he could envision a Democratic Party with, say, an anti-abortion platform, Mr. Shuler did not hesitate. ‘I’m pro-life and I’m part of the Democratic Party, so I hope it’s part of the platform,’ he said. ‘Someone needs to lead.’"

Democratic Party liberals, in contrast, remain tied to chasing the coattails of a party that has long since abandoned them. The mid-1970s marks a crucial turning point, when Democrats joined Republicans in a bipartisan project to launch a sustained ideological attack on liberal principles in order to lower U.S. workers’ living standards while re-building the might of U.S. imperialism after its defeat in Vietnam.

Liberalism has been in decline ever since. Today’s Democrats stand to the right of 1970s Republicans on key social issues. A case in point: George H.W. Bush, who was an ardent proponent of birth control clinics for women in the late 1960s-and committed to legal abortion- until he experienced an apparent "crisis of conscience" upon becoming Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980.

Bush Sr. could not have dreamed of launching the attack on gay marriage spearheaded by the Clinton administration’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Thus far, bipartisanship has achieved only Democrats’ accommodation to the right, and liberalism has long since lost its way.

Gitlin, a 1960s leader of the antiwar Students for a Democratic Society, now brandishes his pro-war credentials in the American Prospect online, declaring (along with co-author Bruce Ackerman), "We supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan."

Gitlin’s American Prospect article was intended to rebut Tony Judt’s recent London Review of Books article deriding U.S. liberals, entitled "Bush’s Useful Idiots: the Strange Death of Liberal America."

Judt states simply, "In today’s America, neo-conservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig-leaf. There really is no other difference between them But the United States now has an Israeli-style foreign policy and America’s liberal intellectuals overwhelmingly support it."

Gitlin’s response merely illustrates Judt’s point. In his Guardian article, Gitlin warns liberals with lofty expectations from a Democratic-controlled congress, "To accomplish the mission of expanding their power, liberals will require an iron discipline of the sort that the Republican right has found it easier to muster in recent years. Bush and the Republican leadership made the Christian right wait its turn while it was busy servicing the pro-business right. On the left, too, bitter pills will sometimes have to be swallowed."

"On the other hand," he adds, "liberals will have to articulate and fight for principle"-as if these two goals do not stand in complete contradiction.


The prospects for real change

Barely noticed by the mainstream media in this election season is the real story: massive voter discontent. How else to explain the eleventh hour surge of the Green Party’s unknown Illinois gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney, reaching 14 percent in an October 23 opinion poll by Survey USA. Among independent voters, Whitney is polling evenly (at 29 percent) with Republican Judy Baar Topinka (31 percent) and incumbent (and scandal-ridden) Democrat Rod Blagojevich (27 percent).

A week ahead of the election, the Aurora Beacon-News headline read, "Neither of the above," based on a poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV. The poll indicated 58 percent of Illinois voters view Topinka unfavorably, matched by the 57 percent who disapprove of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who helped focus the sentiments of the antiwar majority more than a year ago, has shown the courage to endorse New York’s antiwar Green candidate Howie Hawkins, running against prowar Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate.

Mainstream liberals solely focused on the "blue revolution" from above could well be missing the real rebellion brewing below. Setbacks for the Republican Party do not automatically translate into gains for the political left-not without a fight. The world’s future lies at stake.

SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: sharon@internationalsocialist.org