The Dead-End of Lesser Evilism
As this is being written, in the spring of 2004, John Kerry's advisers, according to the New York Times, are "struggling to find a focus," a "defining theme" for his campaign; meanwhile they are "being regularly outmaneuvered by the White House." At first glance, this might seem surprising. The Bush team is managing to run rings around the Democrats precisely at the moment when the President has never been more vulnerable, with the Clarke revelations and the continuing investigations of the 9/11 commission, U.S. atrocities in Falluja, mounting American casualties, exposés of torture used on Iraqi prisoners, and a badly floundering "transition" in Baghdad. Public opinion is sickened by the stories and pictures of vicious sadism and bizarre sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison, increasingly uncertain about the occupation of Iraq and repelled by the lengthening tissue of lies produced by what is undoubtedly the most cynical and mendacious administration in U.S. history.
Polls show Bush's popularity is falling, but not by very much. The President's approval rating might well decline a good deal more if his opponent could really exploit the public's doubts about
On March 15, 2004, The Nation editorialized: "Ralph Nader got a lot of things right" when he appeared on "Meet the Press" to say that the election of 2000 had been stolen, called Bush a "giant corporation in the White House masquerading as a human being" and called for the impeachment of the President over his lies about Iraq. "But," the editors continue, "he got the important thing wrong when he announced he would run for President." Meaning, apparently, it's great to speak the truth as long as you don't run for president, as long as you don't use the highly visible platform that a presidential campaign affords to broadcast these truths and use them to educate public opinion. It must be extremely embarrassing for The Nation and other liberal Kerry supporters that their candidate is incapable of speaking those truths -- not because he's a shameless liar like Bush and his gang, but simply because he is as much a part of the Establishment as they.
Kerry can be expected to take a few rhetorical swipes at the corporations and the rich, but this is just for the benefit of the riffraff; he and his wife are two of the fattest of fat cats, his campaign depends on the largesse of corporations and wealthy individuals and he has a long record in the Senate of servicing some of Massachusetts' most powerful businesses But there's no reason to put it in terms of venality; Kerry is no cynical lackey. He believes in the fundamental rightness and necessity of corporate power and a government whose first priority is to serve corporate interests. Equality, an end to poverty, a decent standard of living and economic security for all -- these are utterly utopian, and the only possible answer to the malcontents and political innocents who dream of a different, a better world is Margaret Thatcher's famous taunt: "There Is No Alternative."
On some level he knows, of course, that Election 2000 was stolen by the Republicans; he might, therefore, even allow himself to consider that smirking, strutting, dimwitted baboon in the White House to be the usurper that he is. But just as Gore and
In an "Open Letter to Ralph Nader" (
A Poverty of Expectations
The problem is far greater than Bush and his coterie. Progressives need a strategy for fighting and defeating not just Bush, but the policies he stands for: imperialism and war, greed run amuck, uncontrolled corporate pillage, a new garrison state at home, and neoliberalism abroad. It makes no sense to support a milder version of the same thing. Even in the limited areas where Democrats differ significantly from Republicans, they tend to cave in over and over again; it never works the other way around. So the political center, and therefore the whole political spectrum, moves steadily right -- and this will continue at a faster or slower rate as long as no principled, radical alternative to the Democrats emerges to their left.
In the absence of a serious progressive third party, there is no countervailing pull on this center. In the current electoral campaign the left is so desperately committed to "Anyone But Bush" that it has virtually no programmatic expectations. Apart from a few wistful platitudes in the liberal magazines, nothing is asked of Kerry, except that he win, please, and very little is expected of him if he does. No liberal in his right mind thinks that a Kerry presidency would reduce the military budget, advocate universal health care, put pressure on
Most liberals, if they are honest, are quite frank about all this. No, they do not expect any reforms from Kerry, any new initiatives to address the problems of empire, militarism, poverty and joblessness, starved social programs, millions without medical insurance, and so on. All they want, all they expect, is that Kerry will "hold the line" (on existing rights such as abortion, and social entitlement programs), and that he will "keep things from getting worse." That's their Maximum Program.
But trying to stand pat will only ensure that things will get worse. The idea that a sort of stalemate, a holding operation, can be achieved, is the worst kind of illusion. Under Clinton, as under Bush, dismantling the welfare state, deregulation, the erosion of civil liberties and abortion rights, widening of the income gap, the growth of unaccountable corporate power, increasing military interventions and arrogant superpower triumphalism proceeded apace. This drift will continue under Kerry, if only at a somewhat slower speed.
We need to change direction. But as long as the creation of an independent progressive party is postponed, rightward drift cannot be halted, much less reversed. The general political climate will become more and more congenial to the most extreme varieties of reaction and even neofascism, and therefore more and more dangerous. This is true whether or not Kerry is elected.
Graveyard of the Left
John Kerry is very much in the New Democratic mold, with a few liberal touches added on because of his
Much nonsense is written about the Democratic Party's "progressive soul," but the truth is that the Democrats have always been, in Kevin Phillips' words, "the world's second most enthusiastic capitalist party." The only reason they have been somewhat less openly enthusiastic about this commitment than the Republicans is that since the era of Franklin Roosevelt the Democratic Party has relied on a mass constituency of capitalism's chief victims: workers, the poor and racial minorities. The need to appease them has molded the party into a vehicle that attracts a fair number of politicians who have some qualms about the system -- although most of these doubters learn quickly that too many qualms can make it difficult to raise campaign money or ingratiate themselves to party leaders and powerful committee chairmen.
Democrats have long specialized in co-opting and taming potentially radical social movements, and thus preventing a left opposition from developing. This is not a plot; it just comes naturally to liberals who are committed Democrats. But the conservatism of the
The main reason why Kucinich did so badly in the primaries, and the reason that Dean collapsed so quickly and utterly, is that the fear of Bush drove primary voters to avoid or drop and candidate that seemed "unelectable." This year the politicians, fundraisers and corporate big shots who control the Democratic Party did not really have any use for a liberal pied piper to lead the disgruntled millions back into their "big tent." Even a John Kerry will do.
By performing this role, Democrats, including liberal Democrats, now and in the past, have helped make the United States the most politically monolithic, conservative and crudely pro-capitalist of all the world's industrial democracies. Nowhere are the putative virtues of the "free enterprise" system less questioned and radical change more feared even by those who would benefit most from it. This society is a medium in which rightwing extremism can flourish -- and succeed -- as nowhere else, mainly because it encounters almost no resistance. The Democrats either half agree with the right or else capitulate on the convenient assumption that it is too popular to resist. The natural constituents of a fighting left are muted and hobbled by their thralldom to the Democrats, or else driven into apathy and abstention from politics. The ultimate irony, then, is that the Democrats' most important accomplishment is to make
There was a time when the Democrats' efforts to shore up the system in times of crisis, as in the 1930s and 1960s, produced significant benefits for working people, African Americans and others. Tenuous but real relationships were forged with the labor and civil rights movements -- again, relationships meant to "manage" these movements and keep them from challenging the system from the outside -- that brought genuine progress through state intervention. This progress, however, was far less than might have been achieved had the Democrats not succeeded in thwarting, say, a labor or social-democratic party. Instead of miserably inadequate Social Security checks, retired Americans might be receiving decent government pensions. We might long have had universal health insurance and free higher education like
New Democrats like Kerry may be more liberal on cultural and social issues (tolerance for racial and sexual minorities, respect for women's rights) than their predecessors, but they are qualitatively worse on corporate regulation, jobs, health care, welfare and a host of other matters that deeply affect our lives. They agree with Republicans that large-scale social programs are futile and that global hegemony for the
Yet this Democratic Party can still manage to co-opt labor, environmentalists, feminists, blacks and Hispanics. It can count on their automatic loyalty without offering anything substantial in return, apart from a half-hearted commitment to protect abortion rights, offer civil unions (but not marriage rights) to same-sex couples, possibly protect Social Security from being privatized, at least for a few more years, and some other things -- all of which fall miles short of what is really needed to, for example, secure women's control of their bodies, extend equal rights to gays and lesbians and ensure a decent life for the elderly.
Eight Wasted Years
When the Republicans are in power, they're so hideous that it's easy to forget how conservative the Democrats have become. But we should remember the atrocious record of the
As soon as
The administration's biggest initiatives were on behalf of American business abroad: NAFTA and the "normalization" of trade relations with
On the environment, differences between Democrats and Republicans are clear. In the first place, unlike most Republicans, Democrats at least acknowledge the reality of such threats as global warming. Yet
On abortion rights,
Democrats are obviously friendlier to gays and lesbians than Republicans are. But remember how
Toni Morrison may consider Clinton the "first black president," but he was no friend of African Americans. The Democratic Leadership Council, which he helped found, was created in the first place to combat the influence of Jesse Jackson.
The issue of court appointments is one of the strongest arguments for sticking with the Democrats. Like his father before him, and like Ronald Reagan, Bush tends to select not moderate Republicans but the most fanatical, authoritarian, bigoted rightwing extremists for the federal bench. These judges are extremely dangerous, of that there can be no doubt. What can we do about it? Elect Democrats? But when the Democrats controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee they waved through an Antonin Scalia (much to the surprise of this latter-day Torquemada, by the way) and would have done the same with just as much dispatch for Clarence Thomas had Anita Hill not stepped forward. During the first two years of the current administration they had enough members in the Senate to filibuster every one of Bush's outrageous appointments -- and not just judicial appointments; John Ashcroft's draconian fundamentalism was a matter of public record. And it matters that while
Neo-Cons and New Democrats
As much as the Kerry team would like to hide from it, foreign policy -- and especially
It is often said that had Gore won the presidency in 2000 there would have been no invasion of
As is well known, the Bush administration has faithfully carried out the program, proclaimed in the early 1990s, of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century: "maintaining global U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests." Less well known is the fact that Kerry and other New Democrats also believe in the aggressive use of American power -- what the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Clintonite Democratic Leadership Council, calls "muscular internationalism."
As James Traub observed in the New York Times ("The Things They Carry,"
This point is worth pausing over. The official military budget is now more than $400 billion a year. And when you include supplemental appropriations for
The New Democrats object to Bush not because he's an imperialist, but because he's an extraordinarily amateurish and unsubtle imperialist. Their main criticism of the White House team is that it has alienated
Kerry supports the brutal occupation of
Bush has achieved major gains for the American empire, removing an unmanageable dictator, extending U.S. power into Iraq, with its massive oil reserves, and Central Asia with its abundant natural gas, expanding the global network of military bases (now 750 located in 132 countries), and significantly lessening U.S. dependence on the troublesome, and possibly doomed, Saudi royal family. Kerry would not dare to renounce these gains even if he wanted to -- and there's no sign that he wants to. The empire is, and since World War II has always been, a touchstone of bipartisanship. No Democratic leader would consider dismantling it.
And now, no Democratic leader supports withdrawing from
A Third Party Constituency
The argument is often made that while the building of a progressive third party is a necessary long-term goal, this is not the moment to do it: Everything must be subordinated to beating Bush. Now in the first place, this argument is made by liberal magazines, pundits and politicians at every election, not just in 2004. And in the second place, it discounts the significant potential for a third party that already exists.
The past ten years or so have witnessed a vast disaffection from the two-party system and a receptiveness on the part of millions of voters to the idea of a third party. There is, right now, a mass base, as yet unorganized, for progressive independent political action. Polls show that on such issues as universal health insurance, increasing taxes on upper incomes, war and foreign policy and other matters millions of Americans, not just a radical fringe, are to the left of John Kerry. Huge numbers of people are disgusted with corporate crime, the control of politics by money, the celebration of greed and excess -- all of which have been glaring features of both parties' administrations over the past decade. They sense that something is terribly wrong, terribly unjust and dishonest about the system itself. In this restive climate, the message of the Greens, or some other radical, independent party, can have significant mass appeal.
So far, despite mass disaffection with the two-party system, only a fairly small number of progressive voters have taken the step of breaking from the Democrats. There are many reasons for this, but one decisive factor is surely the absence of bold, clear leadership. In recent years, the New Party and the Labor Party expressed the impulse toward political independence within the labor movement and among community activists, but neither was willing to incur the wrath of the bureaucracy of the labor movement and the big liberal organizations by actually running candidates in elections (the New Party only endorsed Democrats, some of whom were also members of the New Party). The Green Party, on the other hand, did this from the beginning, and in some parts of the country it has made remarkable strides.
The 2000 Nader campaign, when we look behind its very modest vote, indicated more clearly than ever before that there is an organizable constituency out there. Anyone who was active in that campaign, who attended the "Super-Rallies," such as the one in
So Nader's showing in 2000, far from proving the futility of third party politics, proves the opposite. It is often argued that the
Already, in certain localities the Greens have shown what can be done by a radical third party even under the extremely adverse conditions of our electoral system. Their most striking successes have been in
At the moment, it is easy to forget all this. "Anyone But Bush" panic has set in, and unfortunately much nascent third party sentiment will be channeled back toward the Democrats in 2004. In a sense this is an aberration, caused by the intense fear and revulsion aroused by the Bush administration, but if it is allowed to go unchallenged those who have been questioning their old lesser evil voting habits may simply decide that there really can never be an alternative to the Democrats. It seems inevitable that this election will prove to be a huge setback for the cause of independent politics.
The Nader Campaign
All we can do at this unpropitious moment is refuse to fall back into the corrupting and self-defeating patterns of lesser evil politics, and to continue advocating and arguing for independence from the Democrats. For those on the left who refuse to vote for Kerry, the likely choice is Ralph Nader. It is a choice about which many of us have very mixed feelings.
Nader's decision to run as an independent rather than a Green is understandable. The Green Party is divided on the very issue of mounting an unambiguously independent presidential campaign this year, and it may end up endorsing David Cobb, who advocates a "safe states" strategy: this would mean that the Green presidential candidate would only appear on the ballots of those states deemed "safe" for Kerry. Nader rightly dismisses this strategy as a capitulation to lesser evilism that contradicts the whole point of independent political action. Not unrelated is the problem that the party will not take any position on the elections until its convention in June, which is far too late to begin a serious campaign. On the other hand, had Nader actually joined the Green Party when he became its candidate back in 2000, and had he participated in its deliberations since then, things might be different. In any case, Nader always functions as a "star" who is averse to being democratically accountable to an organization.
Nor does Nader seem to have learned much in four years. While his formal positions on gay rights and same-sex marriage are miles ahead of Kerry's, his reluctance to talk about these issues recalls his contemptuous dismissal of "gonadal politics" four years ago. And he is still barely able to pronounce the word "abortion." Nader's willingness to associate with the unscrupulous cult run by Lenora Fulani and Fred Newman -- even if he considers them merely useful in gaining ballot access in the states where they control the Reform Party line -- can only damage his credibility.
With all his faults, however, Nader represents the only alternative -- that is, unless the Greens end up nominating a candidate like Peter Camejo who believes in challenging the Democrats across the board and at every level. The issues on which he is outspoken and eloquent -- corporate power, workers' rights, wealth and poverty, globalization, the environment, electoral reform, and many others -- are central and all-important. His fame, his unimpeachable honesty and integrity, are enormous assets.
Nader is, of course, hated and feared by Democratic leaders, who patronizingly congratulate him for all the good work he did before he flipped out, went on an ego trip and organized an electoral challenge to them.** Nader himself often sows confusion by claiming that much of his electoral appeal will be to conservatives and libertarians rather than liberals, and that he may actually help Kerry get elected by taking votes away from Bush. But the Democrats certainly know that he is a threat to their base, even if, as is likely, he wins even fewer votes in this election than he did four years ago. That is why they will do anything to keep him out of the presidential debates, as they did in 2000. If Nader is allowed on TV to confront Bush and Kerry, his arguments -- impeach Bush, withdraw from
And this raises an interesting problem. Are Kerry's liberal supporters in favor of barring Nader from the debates? If they believe their apocalyptic warnings, if, as they say, so much is at stake in defeating Bush, how can they take the chance that Nader will hurt their candidate? Robert Kuttner (Boston Globe,
Hearts and Minds
Elections are not only about winning office, but also about getting people to think, raising consciousness and changing public opinion. Indeed, while radicals are still in a small minority it is the educational value of electoral action that counts most. In our relatively apathetic and apolitical society, election season is a time when interest in politics is suddenly heightened. For the left it should be considered a critical time for political education. Raising consciousness, obviously, is the only way the left will ever build a mass opposition that can take power. Moreover, unlike the right, the left needs to foster among its supporters a sophisticated critical understanding of history, social problems and structures of power. It cannot, like the right, simply declare its loyalty to existing conventions and traditions or appeal to prejudice and religious dogma; it must, to a great extent, swim against the stream, push against the enormous weight of deference to authority, passivity and fatalism with which we are indoctrinated from birth.
The Kerry campaign has a deadening effect on popular consciousness. What does it mean when on "Meet the Press" Kerry backs off from earlier charges of atrocities in
What is the effect when Kerry supports the occupation of Iraq at a time when so many are confused about it, fearing a quagmire, suspecting that the United States had no right to go in to begin with, yet feeling "we" have an obligation to somehow "straighten out" the country before leaving? It increases people's disorientation, making those who are uncertain bow to what looks like a consensus or else simply feel isolated and hopeless. It also demoralizes those who have already been in the streets fighting war and corporate power. That's why it's so empty when The Nation and other organs of liberal opinion advocate supporting Kerry without illusions and at the same time building independent movements to "keep his feet to the fire." Supporting Kerry undermines our ability to maintain and build movements by sapping the very sources of opposition in this country.
Lesser evil thinking is conservatizing. Fear of the "spoiler" factor means that millions of Americans do not feel free to vote for candidates who stand for what they actually believe in, and end up voting for politicians whom, for the most part, they despise. And then, having made that commitment, they often begin to discover hitherto unsuspected virtues in their chosen candidate. If, as is currently being rumored, Kerry selects John McCain as his running mate, you can be sure that liberal editors will reveal that the Republican senator from
If Not Now, When?
The politics of the lesser evil is a very tired old story, and it has brought us only worse and worse evils. Historically, it has produced an ever-downward spiral of defeat. Some Kerry supporters on the left will admit that this is true, but insist that 2004 is exceptional. One wonders, though: what do they think might happen four years from now, or eight years, or twelve, that would prevent them from making the same choice? It's mysterious.
The Greens are crucial to the early stages of building the base for a progressive third party, but it seems unlikely that they can grow, through small-scale accretion, into the party that we need, one that can really contend for power on a national scale. Still ahead is a major political fight within the labor movement and within the big environmentalist, women's, civil rights and gay rights organizations to liberate them, or large parts of them, from political enslavement to the Democrats.
Many on the left have already decided that radical change is simply not on the agenda, that radical politics are not "real" politics, and that they must make their peace with the two-party system. Those who are not prepared to give up on radical politics, but believe they are not being inconsistent in supporting Kerry this year, need to be persuaded that the logic of choosing the lesser evil, in 2004 and in the future, entails ever-greater compromises and inevitable defeat. The greater evil, the Republican far right, coddled, enabled and even assisted by the Democrats, will only get bolder and more powerful, and will continue dragging the lesser evil along in its wake. To escape this fate, we must build a powerful left opposition in this country, and it must take the form of a political party, not just a collection of separate movements. This is a job that cannot be postponed; the longer we wait, the worse it gets.