The December 17th issue of the liberal Nation magazine contains an article penned by former California Senator Tom Hayden, purporting to offer antiwar voters a glimpse of hope for mainstream relevance in the coming election year-which will certainly be a contest between two pro-war candidates from the two corporate political parties. Hayden’s article, “How the Peace Movement Can Win: A Field Guide,” exudes confidence that antiwar activists have a role to play in spreading a message of peace as the presidential primaries begin on January 3rd.
Hayden acknowledges that, even as a Congressional majority over the last year, Democrats have provided little more than an “echo” for the Bush administration. He also admits that leading Democratic presidential contenders refuse to guarantee troop withdrawal before 2013, arguing, “The platform of ‘out by 2013′ may be a sufficient difference from the Republicans for some, but it won’t satisfy the most committed antiwar voters.” He notes that all the leading candidates vaguely assert the need, as Hillary Clinton does, for “a smaller American force left behind dedicated to training Iraqis and counter-terrorism.”
Nevertheless, Hayden’s “Field Guide” exhorts antiwar activists to get out the vote for 2008-for whichever candidate becomes the anointed Democratic nominee. “Only in this way,” Hayden argues without evidence, “will the peace movement succeed in expanding and intensifying antiwar feeling to a degree that will compel the politicians to abandon their six-year timetable for a far shorter one.”
This leap of logic begs the question: Why would politicians feel pressured to change their pro-war policies when legions of antiwar activists are already working for grassroots votes on their behalf? Far from empowering the antiwar majority, this strategy appears doomed to enabling the pro-war and bi-partisan status quo.
Tom Hayden can be dismissed as a relic of a bygone era. His radical credentials date back to the 1960s-as a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and one of the “Chicago Seven,” the arrested leaders of the mass antiwar protests against the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Hayden long ago traded in his love beads for a suit and tie, in an unremarkable political career that ended in 2000 when he left the California State Senate. Now he serves on the advisory board of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), an organization aimed at expanding the influence of the left wing of the Democratic Party-from inside its bureaucratic framework.
Perhaps more alarming than Hayden’s election year strategy is one from the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis that appeared in the November issue of Peaceworkmagazine.org: “Deepening the Majority: Anti-War Organizing in an Election Year.” Bennis, a long-standing champion of Palestinian rights, might appear an unlikely bedfellow for the has-been Hayden. Yet she likewise argues, “It is very hard, at an emotional level, for people to understand that none of the Presidential candidates likely to win in 2008 is committed to ending the war Still, it matters very much who gets elected in 2008.”
“Even those of us whose work is focused almost exclusively on ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have the luxury to say that all candidates, for Congress or for the presidency, are the same,” Bennis continues. Here Bennis strikes down a straw figure, since virtually no one opposed to supporting Democrats in this election year has argued that all Democrats and all Republicans hold identical political positions.
Both main parties do, however, share certain overriding aims that dwarf their differences. One of those aims is their shared desire to preserve the credibility of U.S. imperialism, and that requires salvaging a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, in the form of permanent military bases. This is the reason why Clinton et al refuse to commit to removing all U.S. troops by the end of their first term in 2013. Indeed, according to White House adviser General Douglas Lute speaking to the Financial Times, the Bush administration is already negotiating a bilateral agreement with the Iraqi government authorizing a “continued presence for US and other coalition troops outside of the UN Security Council mandate.”
So what do Hayden and Bennis share in common? Bennis is a close collaborator of the leadership to United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the largest national antiwar coalition in the U.S. Hayden was the only Democratic Party politician who attended UFPJ’s third national assembly on June 22nd-24th, which declared as a priority “engaging in the 2008 electoral season to project a peace and justice agenda.” Presumably, Hayden’s and Bennis’ appeals for election-year voter registration together represent the uninspiring consensus of the assembly.
To follow this misguided advice will repeat the very mistakes that sidelined the antiwar majority during pro-war John Kerry’s campaign in 2004. All claims to the contrary, an electoral strategy effectively denigrates the importance of antiwar activism during election years-especially when such activism might embarrass pro-war candidates. Look no further back than 2004 to recall the demoralizing consequences for the antiwar movement. All movements must aim to influence government policy. There is no evidence to support the claim that supporting pro-war politicians furthers the aims of the antiwar movement, while there is plenty to discredit it.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org