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 Iraq and offer a way out. That option is not available to Kerry, and not because he’s "unfocussed" or inept, though he seems to be a bit of both. By the time this issue of New Politics is published, his handlers will probably have found their "defining theme," but it is unlikely to be Iraq and will probably not be anything very many Americans care much about — apart from, simply, Bush removal, and it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to propel an otherwise relatively issue-free campaign to victory in November.


     On Iraq, as on many other critical matters, the gap between Kerry and Bush is so narrow that light could not penetrate it. As everyone knows, Kerry voted in favor of the Iraq invasion, and it’s important to remember that at the time the administration’s strategy was "shock and awe"; in other words, he was prepared to endorse a massively destructive assault on Iraq, far worse than what actually transpired before Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard collapsed. Since then, Kerry has had his criticisms, but he firmly supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For a while he was able to differentiate himself from the White House by calling for a greater United Nations role, but it didn’t take long for even Bush to recognize the cosmetic value of bringing in the international organization: nothing like a coat of multilateral makeup to soften the brute visage of U.S. imperial domination.


Bush Lite


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 Clinton acted like "statesmen" and counseled quiescence four years ago, Kerry will never publicly question this creature’s legitimacy. Nor will he countenance talk of impeaching this proven liar, whose crimes — deceiving Congress and the public in order to win support for a bloody war and occupation that might otherwise have been prevented — surely outweigh lying under oath about a blowjob. No, Kerry’s first loyalty is to the system; its stability matters far more to him than mere partisan advantage.


     In an "Open Letter to Ralph Nader" (Feb. 16, 2004), The Nation rashly predicted: "The odds of this becoming a race between Bush and Bush Lite are almost nil." Famous last words. Whether one calls him Bush Lite or a "kinder and gentler Bush," that is exactly what Kerry has turned out to be. And he more closely resembles the real thing with each passing day.


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 Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, cut back the country’s overseas empire of troops and bases, or pull U.S. forces out of Iraq any time soon.


     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 Massachusetts provenance. While far from the worst, he is nonetheless a fair specimen of the degeneration of the Democratic Party.


     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 Clinton years weakened the party’s ability to perform this function. Nader’s popularity in 2000, which was not at all adequately reflected in his vote, revealed the Democrat’s vulnerability on their left. The Kucinich and Dean campaigns were a response to this perceived weakness. A genuine liberal populist* (as well as a slightly wacky New Ager), Dennis Kucinich told the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "The Democratic Party created third parties by running in the middle. What I’m trying to do is go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy." Third parties must be prevented. And Howard Dean, whose liberal credentials are questionable at best, nonetheless succeeded, by attacking Bush’s Iraq policies and calling on the Democrats to stop acting like Republicans, in drawing masses of young antiwar activists into the Democratic fold — thus preparing them to take the next compromising step of falling behind the pro-war, pro-occupation Kerry campaign once the Dean bubble had burst.


     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 America safe for the Republicans and the right.


     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 Canada and Western Europe. In any case, the sort of "fighting liberalism" that could be found (along with rabid Southern racism) within the Democratic Party in its heroic periods, if one can call them that, is pretty much extinct. As is well known, few Democrats would accept the liberal label today — maybe a couple of dozen in Congress — and the vast majority dread it like poison.


     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 U.S. military and U.S. corporations is essential. At their best they’ve been the Republicans’ timid accomplices. And it’s important to realize that they are accomplices, not just cowards who fold under the slightest pressure. The New Democrats, as well as quite a few self-styled liberal Democrats, bear co-responsibility for regressive taxation, war, attacks on civil liberties, and a host of other retrograde developments. But most of the New Democrats are worse than accomplices; they are perpetrators.


     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 Clinton administration, and recall that, unlike Howard Dean, Kerry has never attempted to distance himself from that record (which would, in any case, require the repudiation of most of his Senate votes).


     As soon as Clinton took office in 1993 he proclaimed deficit reduction, rather than job creation, to be his number one priority, and his administration adhered to austerity policies from then on. The Clinton years saw the lowest level of government spending since Eisenhower, even after a budget surplus appeared in 1998.


     The administration’s biggest initiatives were on behalf of American business abroad: NAFTA and the "normalization" of trade relations with China. Wall Street never knew better times, of course. But the record-breaking economic boom of the Clinton