John Kerry’s pro-Wall Street, pro-war, anti-labor, anti-middle class, right-wing presidential campaign may be the final nail in the coffin of the American political process. The shutdown of American politics, now complete, has long been in the making, going back at least to the trainwreck of the Democratic Party over Vietnam at its 1968 national convention. Up until then, the Democratic Party stood clearly if imperfectly for greater social justice, as manifest in the civil rights and social legislation of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the New Deal before that, and it commanded the majoritarian electoral power necessary to deliver the goods.
The crisis of Vietnam shattered the coalition of neo-imperialist cold warriorers and social activists which had sustained the Democratic Party for a generation after World War II. In the McGovern campaign in 1972, the social activist wing seized control of a shrunken party while the neo-imperialists and cold warriorers began their drift to the right. McGovern’s humiliating defeat confirmed the new minority status of the Democratic Party.
The political vacuum was filled by a reenergized conservative movement focusing on patriotism,’free enterprise,’ and a militarily reassertive America. Shocked by the Vietnam defeat and the ‘excesses’ of the counterculture of the 60s, wealthy political conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife, Lynde and Harry Bradley, John Olin, Joseph Coors, David and Charles Koch and others, funded a series of foundations, publications, university chairs, and media outlets to promote the free enterprise system, corporate power, and renewed American leadership in the world. (Cf. “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History,” by Lewis H. Lapham, HARPERS, September, 2004)
As a result, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Howard Pew Freedom Trust, the Business Roundtable, and later, entities like Fox News and conservative talk radio, succeeded in redefining political discourse in America in favor of the conservative agenda. The alliance with religious fundamentalists — who were left out of the progressive New Deal-Great Society coalition — beginning with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson, ensured a grassroots base for corporate power and an uncritical sympathy for right-wing Israeli governments. At the same time, southern voters (many of then fundamentalists) alienated by the civil rights commitments of the old Democratic party, moved into the Republican Party, a development heralded by Nixon’s southern electoral strategy.
The minority status of the Democratic Party was disguised by its lingering control of Congress (until 1994) and the fluke election (thanks to Ross Perot) of Bill Clinton. Social activists and progressives of various sorts remained the party’s base, even as party leaders, embodied in the Democratic Leadership Council, sensing the limited electoral appeal of the progressive agenda, steadily drifted to the right. Their failure to rearticulate a compelling vision of social justice and democracy sealed the party’s fate. Conservative attacks on ‘big government,’ and their promotion of ‘deregulation’ not only of much of the economy but of campaign financing, solidified the corruption of the political process. As early as the Carter years, conservatives captured the leadership of the Democratic as well as the Republican parties, and created the two-party, right-wing duopoly which now confronts us.
The right-wing duopoly is now virtrually impervious to challenge, as the careers of figures as diverse as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean, and Denis Kucinich demonstrate. Kerry’s right-wing campaign for president, echoing the exploitative domestic and aggressive foreign policies of Bush, confirms the end of meaningful political discourse in the United States. There are simply no remaining effective instruments of political action available to the restless masses, who are probably a majority of the country, and most of whom, as a result, no longer participate in the political process at all.
Voting for Kerry is marginally better than voting for Bush, or wasting a vote for Nader. But it’s rather like voting for Marius and Caesar (the Democrats) rather than Sulla and Pompey (the Republicans). A more benevolent despot is always better than a less benevolent one, but despotism it remains all the same. Can we pretend otherwise any longer?
What is likely is the continued consolidation of the right-wing duopoly, most evident in the erosion of civil liberties and the war on terrorism. Somewhere along the line, America lost its political freedom without even realizing it. The last meaningful opposition to the duopoly was perhaps Ross Perot’s presidential candidacy in 1992. His presence in the presidential debates and his subsequent garnering of almost twenty percent of the vote — in spite of dropping out of the race and then reentering it — may be the most underappreciated event in recent American political history. Perot was no social activist liberal, but he showed what an open political process might achieve. Afterward, the duopoly regrouped and created a rigged, ‘bi-partisan,’ corporate-sponsored debate commission dedicated to making sure that no third party candidate would ever again enjoy such exposure to the voters.
The coming darkness is the eclipse of American political freedom and the unchecked reign of a venal, arrogant, and ignorant ruling class. Onerous as its depredations at home are likely to be, even more omnious is its immoral, illegal, and criminal policy of preemptive war abroad — a policy fully endorsed by Kerry. There is no end to the war on terrorism, since a terrorist is increasingly defined as anyone who opposes the duopoly at home or abroad.
It has always been madness to try to remould the world in one’s image, as we see most recently in the war in Iraq, but it is a vastly greater madness in a nuclear age. The lesson of 9/11 was that resentments born of decades if not centuries of perceived wrongs will find their target if those wrongs are not addressed. The ultimate equalizer, in our time, is the nuclear bomb and this the terrorists will sooner or later obtain and use if they continue to be provoked. This will be the final, bitter fruit of the loss of our political freedom, and it will be made the ultimate justification for the tyranny now established upon us.
In a dark age, it is the responsibility of those who care about things like political freedom and democracy to struggle to ensure that those values somehow survive and are transmitted to future generations, even if they can no longer play an effective public role, much as the monks of the middle ages preserved the learning of antiquity for a better day. That day will come, but likely not in our time.
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI is Research Scholar in Philosophy at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY, and a former official of the Green Party in New York State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org