What the Left Must Learn from 2004


Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. The book is an analysis of the 2004 presidential campaign. Frank’s writings appear regularly on the Internet, and he is a contributor to Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils. In this interview, we examine what the antiwar movement can learn from the 2004 presidential election and how the movement should be approaching the 2006 election.

Kevin Zeese: First, tell me about your new book Left Out! What did you learn about the 2004 campaign while writing it?

Joshua Frank: I learned a lot from the 2004 elections, and this book is my attempt to put it all together and make sense of what went down. In Left Out! I shovel through the muck of our current political arrangement, where progressives and those on the Left are continually told that we have real options within the so-called two-party system. Many told us during the 2004 elections that George W. Bush was so darn bad that we had to, just had to, vote for John Kerry. There was no other choice. The polluted climate, as you well know, was “Anybody but Bush.” Or better put, “Nobody but Kerry.” Hatred of Bush drove the support for Kerry. We had buses to Ohio, we had DVD parties, and all were targeting Bush rather than trumpeting Kerry. That should have been sign number one that the Democrats were on the wrong path. The candidacies of Ralph Nader and even that of the Green Party’s David Cobb were seen as far too dangerous to support in the states that could have actually put pressure on Kerry (i.e., swing states) to take on issues we believed in. The strategy, endorsed by so many respected activists and intellectuals on the left, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Medea Benjamin, Norman Solomon, to name just a few – was all about expediting the process of removing Bush from office. Not issues.

Their strategy was a miserable failure, however. The Democratic alternatives were grossly inadequate. The Left asked absolutely nothing of Kerry, and guess what? They got absolutely nothing in return. That’s what you get when you give someone’s candidacy unconditional support, despite the fact that the Democrats mirrored Bush on so many crucial issues – from the economy to civil liberties to trade to foreign policy to the environment. It was textbook lesser-evilism and it was a loser. The left had succumbed to the plague of ABB. Their unconditional support made Kerry worse and undermined everything the Left supposedly stood for. And this is where I think we must be crystal clear as to what the costs of expedient choices are, even if the benefits seem predominant. As I argue in Left Out!, backing the lesser evil, like the majority of liberals and lefties did in 2004, keeps the whole political pendulum in the U.S. swinging to the right. It derails social movements, helps elect the opposition, and undermines democracy. This backwards logic allows the Democrats and Republicans to control the discourse of American politics and silences any voices that may be calling for genuine change.

Despite all this, there are still many that are not convinced that the Democrats are virtually identical to their Republican counterparts. So to argue this point, I focus a bit on one Democrat whom many argue represents the liberal end of the respectable mainstream Democratic Party – and that’s DNC chairman Howard Dean. At this time, Dean, along with Barack Obama, is thought to be a beacon of hope within the Democratic establishment. He wants to transform the party. He wants to empower the grass roots. But there’s a catch, and that’s that Howard Dean really doesn’t disagree with his party’s own platform, which is virtually the same as the Republicans’. So his quest for change is not grounded in any ideological divergence. No, Dean’s “new” path is a strategic one. He simply wants to corral all the progressives into the Democratic fold. He certainly doesn’t want them to leave the party and go join up with some progressive third party. And that is really what Dean’s job is now: keep the party activists in line while he cashes their checks. Take their money and don’t let them stray. Because when and if they ever do, real change could be possible. And Lord knows that nobody in power out in Washington wants that to happen. They like business just the way it is.

Zeese: What happened to the antiwar issue in 2004? We had developed a large base of activists, massive demonstrations, the war was going downhill – indeed, all of our worst predictions were coming true during the presidential campaign – yet the antiwar issue was not on the agenda during the presidential race. What happened?

Frank: What happened was the antiwar movement supported a pro-war candidate, which not surprisingly, was an utter disaster. How can a movement back a candidate that supports everything it opposes? There is no question that during the campaign John Kerry was a relentless warmonger, as William Safire put it. Kerry was the newest neocon who even out-hawked Bush. True enough. Most people that supported Kerry didn’t support his position on the Iraq war, which was shown by a USA Today poll taken during the Democratic convention in Boston.

If you mentioned this paradox in mixed company during the campaign you were likely to hear all sorts of tepid excuses. Like, “Oh, Kerry really isn’t for the war, he’s just being tactical,” or, “Well, at least he’s not a neocon, they are really dangerous ya know!” Or something ridiculous like that. All these excuses, despite the fact that Kerry during the 1990s supported the Iraq Liberation Act, which endorsed the military removal of Saddam Hussein. All this despite the fact that Kerry continues to support some of the most violent and grisly U.S. military ventures in Colombia and elsewhere. This, despite the fact that Kerry’s key foreign policy advisor Richard Holbrooke played a significant role in perhaps the largest U.S.-backed genocides of the last century – as Holbrooke helped supply Suharto’s bloody regime in Indonesia with bundles of illegal weapons. Apparently it didn’t matter at all to these supposed antiwar folks that Kerry stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush claiming that Iraq had those pesky weapons of mass destruction hidden under its turbulent soil. None of this mattered in the least. Talk about the collapse of a movement.

How can you stand for something and yet completely capitulate [on] your ideals? The answer is simple: you can’t. Again, this gets back to the main point: you cannot support any candidate sans specific demands. You cannot profess to stand for issues you know to be just and still surrender those stances and convictions at crunch time. It’s like training to run a marathon for a year or two and then getting inebriated right before the big race. All the training you did up to that point is now irrelevant. You’re bound to fail. And it’s safe to say the antiwar movement was drunk on ABB last year. All the good work they did up to that point was irrelevant. They should have stuck to their issues despite the alleged consequences – which turned out to be ill-founded anyway. Not only did the antiwar movement not elect the man they wanted, John F. Kerry, they in fact helped reelect the very man they wanted to defeat, George W. Bush – simply because they didn’t ask anything of the candidate they supported.

Zeese: So what should the antiwar movement have done during 2004?

Frank: The antiwar movement should have backed a candidate that embraced their call to exit Iraq at once. They should have forced Kerry to take this position or risk losing their support. The best way they could have done that was to support a candidate that was willing to put pressure on Kerry in the states that mattered most to the Democrats. They should have supported Ralph Nader in swing states, plain and simple. They should have told Kerry that he wouldn’t get their votes unless he took on their positions. Of course, some of us were saying this during the election, but few in the antiwar movement were listening. They thought that supporting Nader could tilt the election in favor of Bush. They were wrong. What they didn’t realize was that by curbing their own important antiwar convictions, they were making Kerry unaccountable. They were making Kerry worse than he already was. By not opposing his Iraq position, they helped tilt the election to Bush.

Remember how Kerry just couldn’t get anything right? He was constantly in flux. That’s why more people were mobilized against Bush than for Kerry. If we learned anything from 2004, we should realize that hatred of an incumbent is not enough to elect a challenger. Had the antiwar movement mobilized behind an antiwar candidate, despite who he or she was, and despite the alleged consequences – Kerry would have felt tremendous pressure to differentiate himself from the Bush agenda, and particularly Bush’s position on Iraq. But Kerry couldn’t do it. Nobody was pressuring him. So he wavered, collapsed, and lost a monumental election. In the end it wasn’t just the election that was lost, the soul of the antiwar movement was lost too.

Zeese: What do you think the antiwar movement should do in 2006 during the congressional elections?

Frank: Well, the antiwar movement should do what they didn’t do in the 2004 elections: hold candidates’ feet to the fire. The body count in Bush’s illegitimate war on terror seems to be almost exponential at this point. Every month there are more deaths than the last. Each day the resistance fighters in Iraq seem to be gaining more and more control. There is no end to the occupation in sight. If candidates do not embrace the exiting of U.S. led occupation forces at once, they must be opposed with the full force of the antiwar movement (or what’s left of it).

In certain cases, this may mean running third party antiwar candidates against pro-war Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. It’s time for the antiwar movement to step up and oppose candidates who support Bush’s war agenda. And if the Democratic candidates continue to support Bush’s ghastly foreign policies, they must be defeated until they learn. We need to monkey-wrench this issue. The antiwar movement must learn from the 2004 elections where so many activists and scholars caved in and supported Kerry, simply because they saw Bush as such an extreme threat to world peace. The threat isn’t Bush’s alone; both parties have a long, bloody history of employing military aggression. We aren’t going to get what we want if we keep supporting candidates whose positions we oppose. We are only going to get what we want when we start voting for what we want.

Kevin Zeese is a director of Democracy Rising. You can comment on this column on his blog spot at DemocracyRising.US.


















Kevin Zeese is an organizer at Popular Resistance.