To ABB or Not to ABB?


Many progressives make it sound as if there’s a world of difference between the candidates. Is this true?

The standard liberal charge hurled at Nader supporters is that we believe there is “no difference” between the two mainstream parties in U.S. politics–the Republicans and Democrats. Actually, no one on the American left–certainly not this newspaper–has ever made this claim.

In fact, the U.S. political system works precisely because there are some minimal differences between the two parties. It simply wouldn’t be credible–nor would it be a recipe for election success–for the Democrats and Republicans to run on identical platforms.

Yet as the two governing capitalist parties in the U.S. political system, the Democrats and Republicans are instruments of the capitalist class. They carry out the policies of the capitalist class. They merely differ on the details.

If the Republicans openly flaunt their favoritism toward the rich, the Democrats are, in the words of Republican pundit Kevin Phillips, “the world’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” If the neoconservative “hawks” around George W. Bush loudly trumpet the need for a new U.S. imperialism, Kerry and the Democrats speak for the need for “muscular internationalism.”

On the key questions of the day–the issues that elections are supposed to be about–there is little difference between Kerry and Bush. Conservative pundit George Will has said that you can’t slide a piece of tissue paper between Kerry’s and Bush’s positions on Iraq. Both are committed to maintaining and prevailing in the U.S. occupation.

Kerry voted for the civil liberties-shredding USA PATRIOT Act and Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to wreck public education. He supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was an early proponent–even when Bill Clinton was president–of “regime change” in Iraq.

On domestic policy, he has been a firm and unwavering supporter of “free trade” agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. He, like Bush, opposes the right of gays and lesbians to marry.

On all of these questions–all of which are quite fundamental–there is very little difference, mainly a rhetorical one, between Bush and Kerry. The problem with pro-Kerry progressives is that they take the differences that do exist between the candidates and elevate them to the chief reason to vote for the Democrat.

This is the classic method of “lesser evilism” at work. But focusing on particular differences obscures the overall agreement between the two parties.

Thus, the Democratic convention in Boston featured Ron Reagan making a pitch against Bush for opposing stem cell research because of his connections to the anti-abortion fanatics. There’s nothing wrong with stem cell research, of course, and any reasonable government should support it. But this is hardly a main question in this election.

Yet it was an “approved” criticism of Bush that Kerry’s handlers allowed at the convention–while they wouldn’t allow any delegate to carry a sign with the word “Peace” written on it. That would have been “off message” in a convention dedicated to showing that Kerry would be tougher than Bush on Iraq and the “war on terrorism.” By the logic of lesser evilism, we’re supposed to forget all of this and vote for Kerry just because he has a better position than Bush on stem cell research.

The editors of The Nation wrote in their “Open Letter to Ralph Nader” in February, “The odds of this becoming a race between Bush and Bush Lite are almost nil.” But after the warmongering Democratic convention, can anyone seriously believe this?

KERRY WON’T be perfect, but won’t grassroots struggles have a better shot at success with Kerry in the White House instead of Bush? Aren’t the Democrats more open to pressure by our side than Republicans?

A NUMBER of leading figures on the left, with long histories in activist movements–like Alternative Radio founder David Barsamian and United for Peace and Justice leader Leslie Cagan–make this argument. They call for a vote for Kerry because, they argue, a Democratic administration would be more likely to respond to constituencies like organized labor, women’s rights groups, or the antiwar movement.

This argument isn’t specific to 2004. It resurfaces every election year. Unfortunately, this is another claim where the evidence is thin–and getting thinner with each election year.

In fact, the ruling orthodoxy of the Democratic Party today–stoked by the mandarins of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council within the party–is that Democratic candidates have to prove themselves by not “pandering” to the Democrats’ most loyal voting constituencies, and doing all they can to help out the party’s big-business funders.

In key “battleground” states like Michigan, organized labor’s get-out-the-vote efforts regularly deliver around half of the Democrats’ votes. Yet the Clinton administration “rewarded” labor with the NAFTA trade agreement and “welfare-to-work” programs that undercut union jobs.

What about issues like abortion where there are real differences between the two parties? At least Democrats are committed to maintaining abortion as a legally available option for women, whereas the Republicans are committed to outlawing it. This is true. But supporting Democrats just because they aren’t as bad as the Republicans demonstrates the poverty of expectations among liberals and progressives.

When he was running for president in 1992, Bill Clinton promised to pass a “Freedom of Choice Act” that would guarantee a woman’s right to choose. After he took office, he dropped the bill. While he vetoed efforts to ban the late-term abortion procedure misnamed “partial-birth” abortion by the right, he nevertheless signed into law abortion bans on federal employees and residents of Washington, D.C., and he maintained the ban on Medicaid funding for abortion.

But women’s rights groups never made Clinton pay a political price for these betrayals. Meanwhile, a concerted attack on abortion rights gathered steam at the state level, while feminist leaders refused to mobilize a counteroffensive–based, in part, on their assumption that abortion rights were safe with a Democrat in the White House.

IT WAS one thing to vote for Ralph Nader in 2000 when he was a candidate of the Green Party. But this year, he’s an independent. His campaign is doing nothing to build the Greens or the left in general.

THIS ARGUMENT is heard primarily among those who supported the nomination of David Cobb and Pat LaMarche as the Green Party candidates for president and vice president. As left-wing author Stephen Shalom wrote in New Politics magazine before the Greens’ convention, “The case for backing David Cobb…seems to me much more compelling than for backing Nader. Cobb is really part of the Green Party, which is a real organization, going through a democratic process–not very efficiently, to be sure, but democratic nonetheless.

“Look at the Green Party Web site, <>, and see such links as United for Peace and Justice, ZNet, Democracy Now and Fair Trade Coffee. This is our party.” This argument would carry some weight if the purpose of Cobb’s candidacy was to aggressively take on Bush and Kerry on questions of the war, the occupation, the USA PATRIOT Act, abortion rights, health care, or any one of a number of positions on which the Greens are to the left of the Democrats.

But the Cobb campaign made it clear that it would support a “safe states” strategy of not campaigning hard in states where a big Green vote could tip the election to Bush–illustrated most absurdly when LaMarche, a Maine native, said in an interview that she would vote against herself if the election looked close in Maine. By accepting this, the Green ticket declared its own irrelevance to the national debate.

You can’t “build the left” if you don’t want your ideas to have any consequence in the real world. Indeed, Shalom wrote that a vote for Cobb is a way to build the left without “giving undo aid to Bush”–in other words, without presenting a challenge that could hurt Kerry and the Democrats where it matters.

In contrast, the Nader-Camejo campaign–despite vicious baiting from people on the left and a full-court press by Democrats determined to keep it off ballots around the country–is attempting to offer a left alternative for people who want to vote against the war and occupation, against the USA PATRIOT Act, and for gay marriage and national health care.

As California Nader organizer Todd Chretien put it, “Like Paine, Douglass, Parks, Lewis, Malcolm, Mario, Gurley-Flynn and countless others understood, any movement that ever aims to win, must learn to stand up for itself precisely when it is darkest. That’s the only way the millions of people who hate the system that oppresses them can ever gain confidence in us to join us and transform our movement from a minority affair of protest into a majority tide of power.”

THIS ELECTION is a referendum on the war in Iraq. Imagine the reaction of the Iraqi people if Americans re-elect the man that invaded their country and killed so many people. We have to make sure that Bush doesn’t get a mandate for his war on the world.

GLOBAL EXCHANGE founder Medea Benjamin put it this way: “The world is watching and waiting with bated breath to see if the U.S. people will reject the Bush agenda. When I was last in Iraq, Ghazwan Al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi engineer, said, ‘Saddam Hussein was a bastard, but this was not a democracy, and we didn’t elect him. So his evil deeds were not done in our name. Can you say the same thing for George Bush?’

“We owe it to ourselves and to the global community to make sure that Bush is no longer allowed to speak in our name.” This would be a compelling argument if the national elections were organized to fire the president. Unfortunately, as Benjamin herself knows, the only way to accomplish this is to elect John Kerry.

In “An Open Letter to Progressives,” Benjamin, Peter Coyote, Daniel Ellsberg and other prominent figures made the case that “the only candidate who can win instead of Bush in November is John Kerry”–and urged a vote for Kerry in “swing states.” If Kerry is elected on a platform that calls for the continued occupation of Iraq, an increase in the number of troops deployed there, a further “internationalizing” of the occupation and worse, can we really say that a vote for Kerry is vote against Bush’s war policy?

Kerry has openly campaigned as the candidate who can make the occupation work–which can hardly be good news for ordinary Iraqis. If the end result is the same for ordinary Iraqis–and for U.S. soldiers and their families–why is it better to have John Kerry “speaking in our name” than George Bush?

For Iraqi civilians–or Colombian peasants or any other people–who will bear the brunt of U.S. imperialism’s assaults, it makes no difference whether a Republican or Democratic administration is ordering the bombing of their villages or the arming death squads against them.

AL GORE wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq, and Kerry will be less likely to go to war in the future. That’s enough of a difference to vote for him.

“HAD GORE been elected, he would have gone to war in Afghanistan, but I doubt he would have gone to war in Iraq,” British antiwar activist and socialist Tariq Ali told Doug Henwood in an August 6 radio interview. “This is very much a neocon agenda, dominated by the need to get the oil and appease the Israelis. This war in Iraq is very much something this administration went for. The defeat of this administration would be a defeat of the war party.”

The problem with Tariq’s claim is that there’s no way to verify it. We don’t know if Gore would have invaded Iraq, and we don’t know what the future holds, so we can’t say whether Kerry will take the U.S. into more wars.

We do know, however, that the Democrats have a long record of posing as more moderate than the Republicans, but carrying out the same war policies. Thus, in the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon Johnson campaigned as a “peace” candidate against the “warmonger” Barry Goldwater, and won in a landslide. But it was LBJ who escalated the war in Vietnam.

Al Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), was one of the biggest pro-Israel hawks in the U.S. government, and a supporter of the neocon Project for a New American Century. During the buildup to last year’s invasion of Iraq, Lieberman often went on television to chide Bush for not moving fast enough!

We do know that Kerry and Edwards voted for Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We know that both advocated “regime change” in Iraq long before Bush signed on to the project. And on August 10, Kerry told reporters that, knowing what he knows now about Bush’s lies and Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” he still would have voted for the war and supported the invasion!

The Democratic platform that Kerry’s operatives largely wrote criticizes the Bush administration because it “did not send sufficient forces to accomplish the mission” in Iraq. It asserts that “[w]ith John Kerry as commander-in-chief, we will never wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake.” In other words, Kerry is not going to give up his right to “unilaterally” order U.S. troops around the world.

While it’s that party platforms aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, it’s hard to avoid the message that the Democrats were sending with their parade of ex-generals at the convention–and the browbeating of antiwar delegates to accept a pro-war platform. In fact, Kerry is espousing the key points of the neocon agenda–without the neocon baggage.

Anti-imperialists like Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky know this very well, and will oppose imperial adventures led by a President Kerry as vigorously as they would oppose those of Bush. But isn’t this also a good reason for them not to cut Kerry any slack today?

I’D LIKE to vote for Nader, but we can’t afford to vote on principle this year. The stakes are too high for workers and the oppressed.

“THE PRESIDENTIAL election of 2004 is not a debate about voting your fears or voting your conscience,” reads a statement from Greens for Impact–an organization of Greens, including well-known radicals like left-wing writer Norman Solomon. “It is not an academic or theoretical exercise. Real people’s lives are at stake.

“Women, people of color, the GLBT community, our nation’s poor, and many others, save for the privileged few, will face real consequences from the outcome of this election. As a result, we must view the effect of our votes collectively, not merely by what they mean to us as individuals.”

This statement is only one of many similar examples that could be quoted. But the truth is that its appeal mirrors those that Democratic Party liberals haul out every election year. Liberals, labor leaders, civil rights leaders–who spend most of their time being ignored or disparaged by the Democratic Party–can always be counted on to denounce activists who want something better than the Democrats as “elitists” who don’t care about the dire consequences that will befall ordinary people if the Republican wins the election.

Before they class- and race-bait people who want to vote for a left-wing alternative that actually reflects their beliefs, these liberal leaders should ask themselves what they get for their efforts to drum up support for the Democrats. The answer is next to nothing.

Look at the record of the Clinton administration. During the eight years of the Clinton administration, abortions became harder to obtain. The percentage of workers organized in unions dropped. Income inequality increased by 10 times. The number of people in the nation’s prisons (disproportionately Black and Latino) nearly doubled. And the number of people discharged from military service because they are gay actually increased. And Clinton eliminated the U.S. welfare system.

So when liberals talk about how “lives are on the line” if a Republican is elected, we should ask how many people’s lives have already been sacrificed under Democratic administrations. The Democrats are accomplices, not opponents, to these assaults.

If liberals and progressives always line up with the Democrats and oppose any alternative to the left, then the big-money, corporate forces that run the party will demand that candidates shift further to the right and run “centrist” campaigns–marginalizing any demands for policies that actually benefit working people.

OF COURSE we need to build the movement. Why shouldn’t we do both — organize grassroots struggles and vote for the “lesser evil” on Election Day?

IT SEEMS very straightforward: voting only takes a few minutes, and we can spend the rest of our time building the movement. But if you’re serious about believing that elections offer the hope of social change, then a “few minutes on Election Day” isn’t enough.

This year, the AFL-CIO is spending an unprecedented amount of money to get out the vote for Kerry. Those millions could be spent, for example, organizing Wal-Mart workers into unions–which would have far greater impact on advancing organized labor’s agenda. So this strategy of voting for the lesser evil diverts resources away from the real fights that need to be waged.

I’m not against voting in principle. What I oppose is working people throwing their votes away on a candidate who opposes them on the major issues. Thus, the movement for gay marriage that erupted earlier this year has been sidetracked and sabotaged by liberals who worry that the issue’s prominence could hurt Kerry. So supporters of gay marriage are now being asked to vote for a candidate who explicitly opposes the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

When movements fall behind Democrats like Kerry, it weakens them. They get used to lowering their sights and putting their issues on the back burner.

LANCE SELFA writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: