Support Kerry Doesn’t Deserve
John Kerry is pretty hard for any leftist to take. There’s the painful conflict between his super-privileged, Harvard pedigreed background and his comically stiff attempts to sound like a working peoples’ populist. There’s the recurrent obsessive campaign reference to glory days in Vietnam, when he “served” two tours of “duty” in a mass-murderous United States invasion – a vicious superpower assault on a small peasant nation that was conducted with so many atrocities that Kerry became an antiwar activist. There’s Kerry’s related imperial refusal to acknowledge tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan victims in his critique of George W. Bush’s foreign policy (see Kerry’s statement “George W. Bush: Mission Still Not Accomplished,” available online at http://www.johnkerry.com/features/mission/). There’s his call for a “muscular” U.S.-led “internationalism,” unilateralist when “necessary,” enunciated in a disturbing campaign tract titled A Call to Service, which exhibits the same sickeningly selective use of history and the same revolting national narcissism that permeate the speeches of Bush the Second.
Then there’s his recent policy record, a monument to the long rightward drift of what passes for Democratic Party “liberalism” in the United States. This record includes support for the punitive Clinton-Gingrich “work-first’ version of “welfare reform,” which stripped disadvantaged children and mothers of entitlement to cash assistance on the vicious theory that the capitalist labor market is the best institution to meet the basic needs of the nation’s most vulnerable people and families. Kerry backed the all-too-bipartisan “No Child Left Behind Act,” which assaults the nation’s embattled, under-funded public schools with a new battery of reactionary standardized testing mandates but fails to provide the resources necessary to boost achievement measured by any standard. He signed on to Congress’ pathetic surrender of its own constitutional war powers to give a Bush II a free hand in Iraq. He voted for the paranoid, neo-McCarthyite Patriot Act, a terrible threat to justly cherished U.S. civil liberties passed under the false pretenses of fighting terrorism. He backs globalization on the toxic U.S-imposed corporate-neoliberal model, meaning state protection for U.S. multinational corporations and savage, so-called “free market” discipline for the majority of non-affluent nations and people at home and abroad.
After saying all this, it might seem anomalous to say that I will almost certainly vote for Kerry and encourage others on the left to do the same. No, Kerry doesn’t deserve my support. He gets it nonetheless for two unpleasant reasons that have nothing to do with fairness. The first reason is the horror known as the Bush administration. The second is the sheer impossibility of electing a president to Kerry’s left under current U.S. circumstances.
But “Bush Heavy” is Really Heavy
It is fashionable among some on the left to say that the difference between Kerry and Bush II is analogous at best to the slight variation between “Coke and Pepsi” (see John Pilger, “Bush or Kerry? Look Closely and The Danger is the Same,” New Statesman, March 04, 2004, available online at http://www.zmag.org/ content/ showarticle.cfm?SectionID= 33&ItemID=5083). This formulation contains no small measure of truth. Kerry most definitely is imperial, corporate-capitalist Coke. Call him “Bush-Lite,” if you like. He’s committed to the same basic underlying system of authoritarian corporate domination, domestic inequity, and racist/national-narcissist U.S. imperialism that sparks the real Bush – let’s call him “Bush-Heavy” – to new heights of arrogance and criminality at home and abroad.
The analogy breaks down, however, with Bush II. Dubya’s White House is neither Coke nor Pepsi. It is the American imperial plutocracy on crack cocaine, smoked with a Christian fundamentalist pipe and cooked on an at-least partially fascist stove. Eliot Weinberger captured some of what I mean last fall, noting that the current White House “is, quite simply, the most frightening administration in modern times, one that is appalling both to the left and to traditional conservatives. This junta is unabashed in its imperialist ambitions; it is enacting an Orwellian state of Perpetual War. It is dismantling, or attempting to dismantle, some of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy; it is acting without opposition within the government, and is operating so quickly on so many fronts that it has overwhelmed and exhausted any popular opposition.” (Eliot Weinberger, “What Happened to America?,” Covert Action Quarterly, no. 75 [Fall 2003], p. 2). As I wrote last October:
During its narrowly and illegally attained reign, the Bush White House has overseen the loss of more than three million American jobs – a new record. The poverty rate has risen for both of the years for which we have complete data during the Bush administration, with 1.7 more Americans pushed below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level in the second of those years (2002). In the face of this mounting need, which results to no small extent form its policies, the Bush administration has transformed a federal budget surplus into a massive, record-setting deficit that promises – and is consciously designed – to cripple government’s capacity to meet the needs of all but the privileged few for an untold number of years. It has advanced gargantuan tax-cuts for the already wealthy, starving government’s ability to provide ever-more-necessary social programs and services and even “homeland security” while feeding a military machine and an imperial campaign that increases the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.
It has launched an illegal, unnecessary, expensive, and bloody war of occupation that has massively alienated world opinion and squandered the sympathy the world felt for Americans in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. The occupation has dramatically failed to live up to the White House’s grandiose promises and cost the lives of at 300 American troops, two thirds of whom have died since Bush declared the end of major hostilities on May 1, after landing on a conveniently placed offshore aircraft carrier in what The New York Times called “a powerful Reaganesque finale to a six-week war.” It has failed to turn up any substantive evidence to support the Bush administration’s hysterical, distorted claims about the threat supposedly posed by Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam’s supposed connection with extremist Islamic terror networks – mysterious menaces never taken seriously anywhere outside the United States.
Meanwhile, the Bush Team has conducted the most dangerous assault on domestic United States civil liberties to occur in half a century. It has taken the practice of political deception to new heights, so that tracking the systematic mendacity of the current White House – seen in a spectacular accumulation of false and duplicitous statements about far more than just Iraq – is a nearly exhausting enterprise (for a useful compendium, see David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception [Crown Publishing, September 2003]). It all stands in grotesque conflict with cherished principles of the Republic, including the Declaration of Independence’s claim that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Building on that revolutionary ideal, the Constitution required the federal government, representing “We the People of the United States,” to work to “establish justice,” “promote the general welfare,” “provide for the common defense,” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” It codified charter civil liberties the Bush team is seeking to rollback, in the name of unity against external danger.
“Bush Heavy” is really heavy.
Telling Testimony From a Key Insider: “Hard To Imagine Another President Making That Choice”
Would a Democratic (Al Gore) White House have used 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with the jetliner attacks? Some on the “Coke/Pepsi” left seem to think so, a judgment based on the Democrats’ all-too-real history of out-hawking the more explicitly imperialist Republicans and the likelihood that a Democratic White House would have faced significant right wing and related media pressure to attack Saddam. The judgment is probably wrong, however, thanks in part to the certain absence of such influential dark post-9/11 actors as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz from a Democratic administration. For these and other key players in the Bush II White House and Pentagon, the invasion of Iraq was a key objective since before Bush II’s inauguration.
Consider the telling testimony of the former key Bush-Dark high state operative Richard Clarke, Bush II’s former counterrorism czar. Clark is a registered Republican and career White House civil servant under Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, one of very few national security experts retained from the first Bush administration. His recently released book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror makes for fascinating reading. During an opening chapter showing that he essentially ran the federal government’s initial response to 9/11, Clarke relates his troubled amazement at Bush II, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s bizarre determination to respond to 9/11 by leaping beyond the genuine threat (al Qaeda) and attack “not a country that had been engaging in anti-U.S. terrorism but one that had not been, Iraq,” (Clarke’s words). He finds it “unconscionable” that Bush II and Cheney – who Clarke considers to be a “right-wing ideologue” – decided to “manipulate public opinion” (Todd S. Purdum, “An Accuser’s Insider Status Puts The White House on the Defensive,” New York Times, March 23, 2004) after 9/11 to advance “a hell-bent war policy” that ignored and deepens the real terrorist threat to Americans. A longtime Washington insider and a veteran of three presidencies, Clarke finds it – listen carefully – “hard to imagine another president making that choice.”
He also gives us reason to wonder if 9/11 would even have occurred under a Democratic White House in the first place. The Bush administration, he shows, ignored numerous specific warnings about likely al Qaeda attacks, including urgent admonitions from the outgoing Clinton administration.
Clarke’s dark reflections are accompanied by disturbing recollections of Bush himself trying to “intimidate” top White House officials (including Clarke) into disregarding actual evidence and blaming Iraq for 9/11. They come from a mature, conservative, and highly successful, indeed legendary top national security bureaucrat who shares most of the basic imperialist premises behind modern U.S. foreign policy. Clarke is one of Weinberger’s “appalled” “traditional conservatives” – albeit an amazingly well-placed one who knows from incredibly close experience that Bush II is a right-wing threat to democracy of no small order.
“Bush Heavy” is really quite heavy.
The differences between Bush II and Kerry (or almost any other Democratic candidate in 2000 or 2004) are clearesr in the domestic realm. It is impossible, for reasons acknowledged, to be certain that a Democratic White House wouldn’t be in the middle of a bloody imperialist foreign policy fiasco (if not an invasion of Iraq) of its own making. We can be quite sure, however, that such a White House would not have introduced Bush II’s disastrous, super-plutocratic, and hyper-regressive tax cuts. It would not have intervened against affirmative action at the University of Michigan and it would not be appointing a series of dangerously sexist, racist and anti-civil-libertarian justices to the federal judiciary. It would not be pushing for the crass elimination of overtime protections for workers, advancing privatization of Medicare and Social Security, and seeking the rollback of nearly every environmental regulation it could target. It would not be reaching out to the crypto-fascist Bubbas of the Bible Belt by advancing the stomach-turning project of a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage. It would not be seeking to permanently bankrupt and eliminate nearly all social programs that serve anyone but the super-privileged few – the real and hardly “conservative” Bush II agenda, which seeks nothing less than the shredding of the American social contract.
“Bush Heavy” is heavy indeed.
Cocnentrated Power, God, and the Specter of One-Party Hegemony
Those on the left who want to believe that the differences are insignificant – a position that Ralph Nader rejects, it is worth noting – should tell it to the most truly disadvantaged Americans on the receiving end of the Republicans’ worst policies. They should realize that the (yes) all-too- “small” differences between the two finalists in the United States’ latest quadrennial presidential (yes) Wealth Primary are (yes) sadly all-too relevant in a system of supremely concentrated and interlocking private, public and military power such as exists in the U.S., with grave implications for all of humanity: in such a system, Noam Chomsky notes, such variations “can translate into large outcomes.” They might reflect that a Kerry White House would not be led by a Christian-fundamentalist, crypto-fascist moron – a truly complete “asshole” (as Hugo Chavez has observed) – who appears to believe that his poorly-informed “gut”-level decisions reflect the wishes of God and the spirit of Jesus Christ Our Lord. This last difference is not to be taken lightly given the awesome earthly power granted to those who occupy the oval office. Another factor not to be taken lightly is the specter of single-party Republican control of all three branches of U.S. government for the next generation (see Robert Kuttner, “America as a One-Party State,” American Prospect, volume 15 [February 2004], available online at http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/print/V15/ 2/kuttner-r.html) – a very real threat full of chilling implications in every area of American policy at home and abroad. But then perhaps some among the “Bush is Pepsi, Kerry is Coke” cadre are “backlash” theorists, believers in the toxic and dangerous notion that the way to make things better is to make them incredibly worse.
Circumstances, Choices, and Root Canal
The “Coke-Pepsi” argument would be stronger, of course, if the U.S. left had the slightest prospect of electing their sort of president in the near future. Any credible and honest assessment shows that no such opportunity even remotely exists. Under current U.S. conditions, which include a carefully crafted, corporate-plutocratic/polyarchic “Winner Take All” candidate-selection process that makes successful third-party campaigns next to impossible, the chief immediate electoral role that a genuinely leftist presidential candidate (a Nader) can play is to enhance the victory prospects for the more reactionary, repressive, and reckless of the two business parties.
“I don’t like being told,” a Howard Dean activist wrote me last winter, “that I have to vote for one of the two business parties.” Too bad. As Karl Marx once wrote, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” After asking the activist why he thought Howard Dean was outside the corporate-political duopoly, I responded that I don’t like being told that I have to go in for a root canal. I go in anyway because the alternative is just too awful.
Of course, any good dentist will tell you that Coca Cola will rot your teeth, setting you up for root canal and worse. That’s why corporate-Coke Kerry is nothing like a solution for what ails the rotting teeth of American democracy. But the solutions – anything but mysterious – are not forthcoming between now and next November. We are left with Mick Jagger’s reminder that “you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”
Right now we need to get George W. Bush off the center stage of world history. It doesn’t get much more basic than that, does it?
Paul Street ([email protected]) is an anti-racist social policy researcher and activist in Chicago, Illinois. His ZNet publications include “Big Brother Bush, “Suicidal” Saddam and the Homegrown Threat to Liberal Democracy,” (January 22, 2003) and “Sell Us A Story: To Elect George Orwell Bush in 2004″(October 15, 2003), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?Item ID=4353&SectionID=33.