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This past election found the American left split into two antagonistic groups: a majority camp which insisted Bush represented so unique and unprecedented a threat that all other considerations should be subordinated to ensuring a Democratic victory, and a minority camp which deemed the broader two-party dynamic itself to be the real threat and urged a clean break from the Democrats in favor of more leftist alternatives. History, usually slow and often ambiguous in its judgment, spoke with rare and resounding authority on this question on November 4th. The convincing defeat handed to the Democrats and their cowed supporters by Bush and his militant base has completely demolished and discredited the majority camp’s lesser-evil logic of acquiescing to the Right. To reorient ourselves and move our struggles forward, radicals must first take stock of this fact and soberly assess its meaning and consequences.
Many members of the majority camp, including most liberals and none too few radicals, have fallen into a mood of defeatism and despair in the election’s aftermath, deploring the state of America and the supposed intellectual and moral poverty of their countrymen in choosing Bush over Kerry. These former Anybody But Bush advocates consider Bush’s re-election a dual blow to decency: on the one hand, a green light of public support for war in Iraq, and on the other, cultural regression concerning gays and women’s rights. However, such agony and anger is not warranted, since the real issue at hand is the intellectual and moral poverty of the Democratic Party itself.
In the broadest sense, the Democratic Party dug its own grave. Its constant slide to the right has finally backfired in two significant ways: one, it has alienated those potentially sympathetic to the left and receptive to its values, who quite accurately see nothing in the party that reflects their own interests, and two, it prepared the conditions for the Republicans to court and cultivate far-right wing forces in the country, who have been made acceptable by this overall rightward shift of the entire spectrum enabled by the Democrats’ strategy in the first place.
On specifics, too, recovering or rather, relapsing–Anybody But Bush sufferers are dead wrong.
The claim that the re-election of Bush constitutes a people’s “mandate” for the slaughter in Iraq, for instance, ignores the actual parameters of the election parameters which, thanks in no small part to the ABBers own hysterical efforts, were extremely narrow. For what is conveniently forgotten is that Kerry did not actually oppose the war in Iraq in the first place and that, therefore, the election was never a referendum on the war at all. Kerry’s meager and mealy-mouthed criticisms of the war merely concerned the way in which it was fought, never the actual principles, ideology, or motives behind it. In fact, he literally declared from the outset that he would have launched the war even in absence of WMD and al-Qaeda links, and sent Clinton’s foreign policy advisor Strobe Talbot around to spread the good news.
While Kerry did adopt more critical rhetoric about the war near the end of his campaign, this not only proved confusing in light of his song and dance to the precise opposite effect earlier on, but also absurd, given his continuous mantra about fighting the war more effectively with more allies and more soldiers. John “reporting for duty” Kerry was never an anti-war candidate. That distinction belonged to only one man–much-maligned and deeply resented by the ABB majority camp Ralph Nader.
The other claim, concerning doomsday on the domestic front because of “moral issues,” hobbles about on equally crippled legs. While the New York Times opines that America is a “center-right country,” and Michael Moore’s website now bitterly features a map of America with the “blue states” comprising a “Jesusland” and “red states” joined with Canada forming a “United States of Canada,” it was once Moore himself who understood and pointed out citing polls taken by media outlets like the Times that a majority of Americans are in favor of abortion and substantial gay rights.
The truth is that the Republicans mobilized evangelical Christians by touting Bush’s staunch stance on these “moral issues,” while the Democrats, pistol firmly ensconced in mouth, touted a candidate who stood personally opposed to both abortion and gay marriage. When I asked executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party Susan Fenochietti Thomson how such a strategy made sense for winning votes, she seemingly missed the point and simply defended Kerry’s right to hold his religious beliefs separate from his politics. Also worth noting is the fact that the evangelicals stayed home during the previous election, wary of Bush’s prior drinking problem. Rove had to actively court them this time around. Compare this to the meek mentality of most of the left’s feminist and gay groups, who wouldn’t dare punish a Democrat by withholding their votes even in their wildest dreams–and have therefore ended up with a nightmare in office.
The crux of the matter is that conservatives have confidently and stridently advocated their program and vision, garnering authority, respect, and the votes that go with being able to set the agenda, while liberals and radicals tethered to them have heretofore played a losing game of tailing their opponents, abandoning their real positions, looking weak and opportunistic in the process. Again, I asked the Democratic executive director why her party insisted on this futile centrism when the ground kept shifting rightward beneath it, but she was evasive, willing to go no further than to say that Republicans “stand for their core principles” (without saying the same for her party), then slipping into quasi-elitist mode, insisting that the Democrats must “inform, educate, and explain.” Indeed.
I wonder how it was possible for this party leader not to grasp the irony of her declaration. Who was the one truly in need of “informing, educating, and explaining”? Those Americans who, when confronted by two right-wing candidates, chose the more consistent and confident politician between them–or those “leaders” who long ago forgot the difference between resistance and obeisance?
But let us turn away from the flaws and failures of the Democrats, and toward our own. How do we move forward? What can we do to advance a progressive agenda in America today? We must first do away with that vertical bridge we have erected in the expectation that some mainstream politician will roll down from above and deliver us from the crises he himself has helped create, and instead extend a hundred horizontal bridges connecting ourselves to those who are daily being deeply affected by the injustices, inequalities, and hardships being imposed by the system in all its manifestations–including war, unemployment, bigotry, chauvinism.
This not only possible, but absolutely essential. In times these dangerous, with lines these clearly drawn, in favor of demands this urgent and against elites this powerful, what do we have to lose by being radical? The strength, impact, and influence we have already lost by being too timid? If we put forward our agenda and politics clearly, sincerely, and honestly, we can mobilize the many on our side, or more precisely, mobilize ourselves on their side, convince those who can be swayed, and prepare ourselves against those who must be defeated. This is the task of our times.