Left Politics and Posturing in the Presidential Race
Left Politics and Posturing in the Presidential Race
Voting is a drag. John Kerry will get my vote in the November elections, and Iâ€™ll give it with the same grudging, wintry discontent that I did in the last two presidential elections, when I backed Ralph Nader. In those races, I made statements. Now I want to beat Bush.
But thatâ€™s not what this piece is about. Itâ€™s not why a vote for Kerry is inevitable in a year when Bush is vulnerable. Itâ€™s also not about renouncing my left-wing apostasy or embracing sobering lessons learned in
Itâ€™s about how liberals and leftists on both sides of the Kerry-Nader divide can get rabidly exercised about other peopleâ€™s campaign choices, when they both know that power does not come out of an election booth. It comes out of the economic and social movements poised to hold officeholders accountable. Itâ€™s about never forgetting that the left â€” the only hope for humanity (and do I exaggerate?) â€” is not built by electoral struggle but by building the social movements, before, during and after elections.
It is the weakness of those social movements that forces poor choices on us. Beyond the facility of corporate Democrats to co-opt movement leaders into precinct captains or the fecklessness of radicals to form lasting electoral and structural alternatives, a centrist Democrat is sadly our last best shot for ending the White House occupation because no social movements are strong enough to move the country left.
That simple fact hasnâ€™t stopped sides from forming up for intramural color war, with the loudest drumming from the punditry. When Nader announced his third run, the usually measured Michael Tomasky, for one, called his supporters â€œleft-wing lions of ideological chastityâ€ and counseled the Democrat primary contenders, to a man, to â€œattack Nader right now, and with Lupine ferocity.â€ He told American Prospect readers how Nader was â€œa megalomaniac whose tenuous purchase on present-day reality threatens to cancel out every good thing heâ€™s done in his life,â€ which, if true, would be a cancellation on the order of the original Star Trek.
There was more passion on view in Tomaskyâ€™s tough love for Nader than in his eight years of covering
In the same vein, David Corn, writing in the Nation, puts the best possible face on Kerry by stripping away the issues. He argues that despite any identifiable lesions, the career of Kerry the man shows â€œkey moments when he displayed guts and took tough actionsâ€ and where he has â€œshown courage, devotion to justice and commitment to honesty, open government and principle-over-politics. There are few senators of whom that can be said.â€ Few indeed. But except for his biographers and handlers, why should this observation matter?
Making the case for Kerry is no slam-dunk. Problems with the Washington fixture are palpable; they can be lined up and bowled over like candlepins.* But even if Kerry is every bit the political bastard his left detractors say he is, he is â€” as FDR said of the senior Somoza â€” our bastard, at least until Nov. 3. Until then, the anti-Bush effort is well-worth building in its own right, if only as realpolitik. It neednâ€™t be dressed up by pounding the iron necessity of beating Bush into a tin-plated virtue. Kerry supporters donâ€™t have to say the ridiculous or the indefensible on his behalf.
Of course, some critics of the Democratic candidate do offer a real-world model for Tomaskyâ€™s ravening beasts. John Pilgerâ€™s New Statesman screed, widely distributed over the Internet and on web sites, including ZNet, came illustrated in the original
What does any of Pilgerâ€™s biliousness tell us about politics and political choices? Nothing. Itâ€™s catharsis. Much of the same runs in Counterpunch, where Alex Cockburn and friends equate their Kerry bashing with political comment, or in one small left-wing paper that urges readers to â€œget off the Democratic Party train now,â€ in order to â€œfight for a new political party,â€ presumably one devoid of those pesky misleaders who seem to muck things up. This without explaining how a second Bush administration could possibly bring that goal of better trains and better leaders nearer.
Counterpuncher Phil Gasper lands a solid jab when he notes how â€œwhoever wins in November, weâ€™ll need the biggest and most militant social movements on the ground to fight their policies,â€ but then brings his knee up for a groin shot by saying that â€œwhenever activists get sucked into support for Democrats the movements are weakened and sometimes destroyed.â€ He calls noting differences between the two major party candidates â€œa mugâ€™s game.â€
At least the Greens bring some humor to the table, as when St. Louis Green Party organizer Don Fitz turns the question around, asking â€œShould the Democrats run a candidate for president in 2004?â€ and says, with some justification, â€œIf the Democrats were against the Bush program, why would they wait for the election to fight it?â€
Letâ€™s shovel away the accumulated sludge. Naderâ€™s take on corporate power is on target, as far at it goes. Crashing the Party, his account of the 2000 race, is a good statement of first principles as well as a fair treatment of how hard it is to raise political issues in a national campaign, especially absent a social movement running interference for you.
Nader also has every right to run for president, and those who know that defeating Bush is all-important have every right to say â€œRalph. Donâ€™t run.â€ But they have no right to chant, â€œunclean; uncleanâ€ or vilify his supporters.
Case in point: in 1985, then New York City Clerk David Dinkins, whose reputation then was as an attractive if unremarkable stalwart of the Harlem Democratic Party machine, announced plans to run for Manhattan Borough President. Now more ceremonial, the post was then a powerful one, not yet circumscribed by term limits and still with a big say in city budget and land use decisions, which constitute the bulging piÃ±ata of city politics. But Jerry Nadler, then a progressive Assemblyman from
The problem I have with Naderâ€™s run is not bad faith by the candidate or a belief in â€œthe worse, the betterâ€ on the part of his supporters. Neither has to be true. Itâ€™s how his brand of anti-corporatism doesnâ€™t mesh with a political campaign. While he can run a brilliant position-paper operation spotlighting big business domination of political and economic life, donâ€™t expect him to target the real dissatisfaction voters have with the
Everything Nader says will resonate as a critique of a bought and paid-for two party system, not a bash at Bush or even a synthetic look at what got bought. If he were instead to frame Bush as an acknowledged corporate tool, heâ€™d play a heroâ€™s role in bringing Bush down. But that would detract from building a third party, his acknowledged goal.
Now I want a left-of-center political party, too, one that can harness and represent working class politics in a way the Democratic Party in its big tent, corporate-dominated incarnation cannot. But the time and place to build that isnâ€™t a handful of months from November and on the national level, especially when you donâ€™t have 50-state ballot access or even a Green Party skeletal apparatus with which to run.
It also isnâ€™t fundamentally about bad Democrats and good independents any more. In 1966, Hal Draper, a founder of this magazine, could reasonably write that the destruction of
Any politics has to start from an analysis of social forces. Social movements are weak, but not because their leaders failed to resist the siren call of access to the White House or the governorâ€™s mansion. Idle chatter about â€œthe classâ€ or â€œthe youthâ€ or â€œthe labor bureaucracyâ€ and its misleaders only reinforces the leftâ€™s alienation from its own base because it substitutes assertions for analysis.
If the Democratic Party on the national level is dominated by corporate centrists in the Democratic Leadership Council, for example, why not take them on where they live? Or help those who can. Or at least stop chanting that the only function of a Kucinich is â€” as several left critics insist â€” as a shill for the party that eats movements whole. While the â€œprincipledâ€ left warms itself around a dying fire, the DLC is making history. Bad history, but history.
It writes policy papers that posit incremental improvements over the free market ravings of the right. But by giving token support for environment causes and backing some progressive social initiatives, the group serves as a lifeboat for aspiring officeholders â€” especially in the absence of any seaworthy lifeboats from the left from which to cling. It also grooms local candidates, understanding that the care and feeding of ambitious and entrepreneurial pols is a necessity. Its list of the 100 rising â€œNew Democratic Starsâ€ includes a slew of city mayors and county executives. These are people in the public eye who are responsible for producing for voters, and include such likely future Democratic superstars as
The DLC even puts out a â€˜State and Local Playbookâ€ it describes as â€œa â€˜menuâ€™ of effective, field-tested policy proposals from which model initiatives can be implemented in states, cities and communities around the country.â€ What is the left putting out â€” even that left that believes in realigning the Democratic Party? â€œU.S. Troops Out of Iraq,â€ or â€œSupport Gay Marriages,â€ or â€œDefend Abortion Rightsâ€ are reactive programs that do not get to the heart of the American empire, harm the war makers where they live or deliver a body blow to sexual fundamentalists.
There is no left national agenda to guide any elected officials, though municipalities from
Who is pushing for an electoral expression of the need to correct such gross inequities as seeing corporate profits surge 87 percent in two years, according to Commerce Department figures, while wages and salaries grew just 4.5 percent in the same period? If youâ€™re not in the market, you didnâ€™t benefit.
If the pro-Kerry folk tend to be unreflective or even somnolent about how bad the situation is: that in 2004, amidst war, joblessness and poverty, we soldier on and hopefully elect another centrist Democrat, then the self-styled revolutionary leftâ€™s sin is to act like lemmings, as though the sea were not instant death and Bush or Kerry do not matter. The candidate of one socialist groupuscule says he is running as â€œa voice for the international working class in the 2004
Holding to a â€œsocialist politicsâ€ without putting any forward means acting like Ã©migrÃ©s in your own country, when the truth is there is no socialist politics, principled or otherwise, unless you make it so. Independent political action does not mean independent of politics. Neither does it mean setting up Potemkin villages and calling them political choices. Stanley Aronowitzâ€™s ill-starred Green Party gubernatorial campaign of 2002 may have had legs. Naderâ€™s 2004 run does not. Itâ€™s dallying with failure.
What then constitutes success? For longtime supporters of New Politics, it means less invoking of first principles and more focusing on what makes those principles pertinent. What are the politics involved in continuing to support â€œthe third camp,â€ which was a historically contingent formulation that opposed rapacious capitalism and blood-soaked Stalinism. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, isnâ€™t it once more â€œsocialismâ€ that is the real manifestation of workersâ€™ power and autonomy? Similarly, why weep for a lost â€œthird partyâ€ when â€œworking class-based politicsâ€ in whatever form it takes is the real necessity? In
When Rosa Luxemburg trashed her German socialist opponents at the turn of the last century, she accused them in essence of repudiating politics. It was the evolutionary socialist Eduard Bernstein who she claimed separated â€œthe conquest of political powerâ€ from what Luxemburg saw as the equally necessary â€œimprovement of the condition of the working class.â€ She chided her opponents for saying working people â€œmust not expect to institute socialism as the result of a political and social crisis but by means of the progressive extension of social control and the gradual application of the principle of cooperation.â€ Luxemburgâ€™s genius, and the genius of modern Marxists who havenâ€™t looked for reasons to abstain from politics, is the understanding that socialists must do both, that one flows from and reinforces the other.
Absent these distinctions, propagandizing for a third party is harmless enough, especially if you valorize consciousness raising and think elections are an opportunity to peddle your wares. But using the election as a chance to establish a franchise or operate a fishing expedition to hook hapless Greens will be criminal if it leads to a Bush suzerainty. Differences like these wonâ€™t get resolved by talking or fighting from now until November. Instead of an arctic night of long knives, Iâ€™d rather see activists working their own sides of the street.
For those who know Bush must be defeated in November, it means stumping for Kerry. It means insisting that the social movements have a voice and face in the campaign and room to grow. It means running the ground war in media markets where the emphasis by the party pros will be on television saturation in the 17 battleground states. It means focusing on local races, where a few dedicated campaigners can make a difference in swinging control of state houses or Congress.
After November, leftists are going to need each other, unmaimed. If nothing else, we can at least dial the thermostat down and get to work. Anything else is a real mugâ€™s game.
* Hereâ€™s a short list: Kerry supported NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. He joined Bill Clinton in eviscerating public assistance. He hired Rand Beers, boon companion of Bush critic and one-note anti-terrorism Cassandra Richard Clarke and who worked for Bushâ€™s National Security Council until last year, as his foreign policy advisor. That might be a clever campaign move, but itâ€™s indicative of just how narrow gauged is American foreign policy debate. His stands on the drug war and the Israeli occupation will be only slightly more grounded than Bushâ€™s. Nor will he be no less indebted to corporate interests: Kerryâ€™s $115 million raised by mid-May pales in comparison to Bushâ€™s $200 million money machine. Despite support from Howard Dean, Kerry cannot expect to tap into the breadth of small contributions from the aptly named Deaniacs, though almost a third of Kerryâ€™s total has been raised through the Web.
His health care proposals are a fudge â€” health care transmutes into â€œhealth coverageâ€ and back again, on all his literature. If a single-payer health plan emerges, it wonâ€™t come from a Kerry administration, but because employers resist paying huge health care costs and unions refuse cutbacks, not because Kerry will lead or the corporations will come to their senses and turn on the insurance industry. The only special interests he is likely to stand up to are unions, the poor, and the uninsured.
There also isnâ€™t a startling small amount of daylight between Kerry and Bush even on campaign issues. As the Washington Post recently noted. both say they would preserve tax breaks while limiting non-military spending. Both prize halving the deficit. Both sell themselves as studiously pro-business and as backers of the Federal Reserveâ€™s monetary policies. Cultural issues aside, both are tailoring their campaigns to the centrist voter in the battleground states.
Michael Hirsch is an editor of New Politics. He ran as a Dennis Kucinich delegate in the March primary, outpolling the