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