FOR OPPONENTS of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was a big question hanging in the air in the wake of the 2004 election. How could George Bush–the man behind the war that so many people protested–be re-elected?
Unfortunately, many on the left have offered answers that are less than useful. For some, Bush’s re-election showed that a majority of Americans bought the snake oil that George W. Bush was selling. Now, goes the most extreme of these arguments, they got what they deserved.
For others, John Kerry was defeated because he ran a poor campaign. The people who actually lead the Democratic Party–like Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean–think Kerry was “too far to the left.” But at least on the question of the war and occupation, Kerry was as close to Bush as he could get.
Contrary to the party establishment’s assessment, a section of the antiwar left now proposes moving the Democratic Party to the left, with antiwar forces taking it over and transforming it.
The strategy is supposed to run on two tracks: inside and outside. “Outside” means protests and actions that put pressure on the politicians to take a position against the war. “Inside” means supporting progressives within the Democratic Party in the hopes of shaping the terms of the debate.
For some, outside can also mean supporting non-Democratic Party candidates, but mainly in the hope that this would pressure the Democrats to move leftward.
Medea Benjamin, founder of the antiwar group Code Pink who helped argue within the Green Party against Ralph Nader in favor of party nominee David Cobb and his strategy of telling Greens to vote for Kerry in swing states, seemed to have a change of heart in the December 20, 2004 Nation. “Many of us in the Green Party made a tremendous compromise by campaigning in swing states for such a miserable standard-bearer for the progressive movement as John Kerry,” Benjamin wrote. “Well, I’ve had it. As George Bush says, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me–you can’t get fooled again.’”
But the change of heart wasn’t complete. “Let’s stop the infighting, though,” she continued. “Dems, Greens and other progressives must not only respect one another’s choices, we must start using these different ‘inside-outside’ strategies to our collective advantage. A strategically placed Green/progressive pull could conceivably prevent a suicidal Democratic lurch to the right.”
What Benjamin and others haven’t come to grip with is that the Democrats aren’t in danger of lurching to the right–they’re already there. The problem in 2004 wasn’t that the antiwar forces neglected work with the Democrats. It’s that the Democratic Party didn’t listen to them.
At every step of the way, Democratic Party leaders could silence dissent with a simple threat: If you don’t support Kerry, then you are to blame if Bush is re-elected. So progressives like Benjamin did one better than silence–and became loyal attack dogs of the Democratic Party against the explicitly antiwar campaign of Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo.
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THE REALITY of the inside-outside strategy is that it stops being “outside” when there’s an election going on. So in the months surrounding the 2004 election, there were no national protests against the war–even in the face of widespread disgust over the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
And when supporters of Dennis Kucinich–looked to by many activists as the antiwar candidate among the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination–arrived at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last summer, they were surprised to find out that the “big tent” of the Democratic Party was a little too small for their antiwar views.
Antiwar signs were immediately confiscated by convention officials–who Kucinich delegate Charles Underwood called “the Kerry enforcers.” “I am just very disappointed that there is no ability to express any hope for peace on the floor of this convention,” Underwood told Amy Goodman in an interview on the Democracy Now! program. “We’ve had our signs confiscated…We’ve had people that tell us to sit down and be quiet. We’ve got no particular points for peace in the platform. This is becoming an extremely narrow Democratic tent.”
He added, “It’s just that we are off message when we talk about peace. It’s that simple.” And this is how the Democratic Party treats fellow Democrats. According to a poll by the Boston Globe, 95 percent of delegates to the convention opposed the war in Iraq, yet the party adopted a pro-war platform.
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SADLY, THE lesson of the Democratic Party’s unwelcome mat in Boston hasn’t been learned very well.
Today, the Progressive Democrats for America (PDA) are organizing to bring left-wing and progressive activists into the Democratic Party, with the hope that it can be transformed from within.
But during the election, the PDA tried to keep antiwar voices in line. When Kerry announced during the campaign that he would have voted for the war in Iraq even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction, PDA board member Joe Libertelli issued a statement counseling silence from the antiwar movement.
“This curious statement infuriates progressives and others who opposed the war, dismays about 80 percent of Democrats who now oppose the war, and surely encourages some to consider supporting Ralph Nader or the Greens,” he wrote. “It’s tempting to issue the usual rallying cry to the effect that, ‘Progressives need to demand,’ and to urge all who will listen to threaten to withhold their votes if Kerry doesn’t change his tune.
“But the truth is, merely demanding that John Kerry change his position will get us almost nowhere. Progressives have been making similar demands for years. And threatening to support Ralph Nader or the Greens will only alienate those who, at our founding conference, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called ‘future progressives.’”
In other words, the best way to put forward progressive ideas is not to raise them. Just who are these “future progressives” anyway? Is Libertelli referring to the slew of House Democrats who just voted to give Bush another $81 billion for his occupation of Iraq.
And now that the election is over, the strategy continues. For example, the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice voted at its recent convention for a focus on lobbying Congress–read Democrats–to take more antiwar positions.
THE TRUTH is that rather than moving Democrats to the left, the inside-outside strategy moved our movement to the right.
Instead of coming to grips with the failure of the “Anybody But Bush” strategy last time, pro-Democrat progressives are focusing blame on the very people who maintained their political independence and their antiwar, anti-occupation stance.
For example, in reaction to Peter Camejo’s recent criticism of the Green Party’s “safe states” approach and the tide of lesser evilism among progressives, Ted Glick, the Dickie Morris of the Cobb campaign, leveled a new attack on ZNet earlier this month. “The last thing we need right now is the ‘correct line’ approach, individuals or small groups claiming to have all the answers or quick to jump on other progressives for their supposed failings,” Glick wrote.
If there was ever a time for political clarity in the antiwar movement, it is now–for clarity won’t be achieved if we wait until the next election.
The problem isn’t that the Democrats have gone off course. War and occupation in Iraq are part of their agenda, too. And unlike Republicans, part of their job is to co-opt, soften or squelch the message of the activists and grassroots movement.
We have to build an antiwar movement that not only recognizes the Democratic Party’s shortcomings, but understands that it is part of the problem.
ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.