November 2000: Can We Do Better?

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

The Editors

THE RESULT OF the 2000 presidential election is perfectly predictable: The greatest amount of money will be expended to bring about the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history.  Is there a chance for independent forces on the left to forge a decent alternative?

Our objection to George W. Bush is not that he used hard drugs, but that the experience has done him no good at all. Getting away with it as a rich white boy hasn’t caused a moment’s reflection on W’s part on the obscenity of incarcerating thousands of non-affluent and minority drug users.

Add to that the assembly-line Death Row operation in Texas prisons, and Bush’s vacuum-cleaner approach to sucking up corporate contributions, and you already know the two essential facts you need about the near-certain Republican nominee: (1) that Bush lacks any moral restraints on a consuming drive for political expediency and power; and (2) that his policies represent-from the death penalty to the destruction of welfare, privatization of education and unchecked corporate power-what is called “mainstream consensus.”

In both respects, Bush is the very model of today’s new Republican moderate, just as Bill Clinton perfectly represents the New Democrats, with nearly identical programs packaged differently to appeal to their respective voter bases.

Republican hopes rest on holding onto Patrick Buchanan’s voting base-even as Buchanan himself tries to graft his racist and anti-immigrant “culture wars” politics onto the Reform Party of Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura.  The conflict among Republican leaders over whether to force Buchanan out (McCain) or beg him to stay (Bush) is in itself revealing: The “moderates” are more conciliatory toward this repulsive figure than are the self-described conservatives.  (It’s also interesting that Jesse Ventura is showing considerably more political principle than Ross Perot, to say nothing of former leftist Lenora Fulani, over whether to welcome Buchanan into the ostensibly-libertarian Reform Party.)

On the Democratic side, the contest between Al Gore and Bill Bradley matches a conservative liberal against a liberal conservative, or possibly the other way around.  So deep is the vacuum of options on the liberal left that the editors of The Nation (September 7, 1999) felt impelled to write a lead editorial titled “Bradley, the Progressive?”

While acknowledging that Bradley’s “history has been as a Democratic centrist” and that he “could tack rightward-just as Bill Clinton did-should he somehow win the nomination,” The Nation finds his recent statements on race and his sympathies for working people to be highly encouraging in comparison to Gore.

The Nation‘s editorial language is most peculiar, we believe, in praising Bradley’s stance “on the class front,” where “despite an ideological commitment to so-called free trade, he has been unabashedly pro-union.” No evidence is cited that would even remotely back up the glowing adverb “unabashedly”-but that isn’t even the main point.  The left shouldn’t be looking for a candidate sympathetic to workers, but rather for one (at a minimum) who has demonstrated, by proclamation and action, loyalty to working people’s struggles and interests.

In a more detailed and balanced analysis, writer John Nichols in The Progressive (April 1999) applauds Bradley’s “courageous and uncompromising” statements on racism and opposition to the vicious Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform, but notes also his switch to supporting aid to the murderous Nicaraguan contras in the mid-1980s and his votes for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 budget and the line-item veto.

Not An Option

The fact of the matter is a “progressive” candidate is not going to somehow materialize from the “dead center” of bourgeois politics.  It’s not that Bill Bradley is a fraud: It’s simply that he is not part of the labor movement or left, no matter how broadly defined, never has been, never claimed to be.

Whereas Bill Clinton unfailingly preaches feeling-your-pain pie-in-the-sky and carries out corporate bidding-the method that Christopher Hitchens has called Clinton’s triangulation”-let’s assume that Bradley actually believes what he says. As a representative example, take Bradley’s new-old pledge to ensure health care to everyone: There’s no reason to doubt he means it, but there is no way to do it without profound inroads on corporate power and the obscene for-profit health insurance industry in particular-precisely what Bradley’s politics exclude.

That’s why Bradley floated the ridiculous and reactionary notion of requiring families to purchase their own insurance-including the newly unemployed?  The working poor?  Minimum-wage workers kicked off the welfare rolls?

Let’s accept that unlike the outgoing president, Bradley is not an inveterate liar or a personal scumbag; that he is an authentic antiracist not only personally, but also politically as much as a Democratic centrist can be; and that he is the best presidential candidate that the Democratic Party could possibly offer in 2000.  That’s the real point: Gore and Bradley constitute the limits of Democratic Party possibilities.  It’s a choice that must be rejected, not dressed up in the emperor’s new clothes.

Certainly Bradley also benefits, in contrast to Al Gore, from not having spent the 1990s promoting Clinton’s obscene acts, from eight years of sanctions against the population of Iraq and the bombing of Sudan, through the Waco massacre, welfare reform and the Effective Death Penalty Act. (Not that Bradley aggressively opposed most of them either.) In any case, let’s be clear: That does not make Bill Bradley a “progressive.” If he made such a claim, he would be lying; for the left even tentatively to portray him as such is self-deluding.

Most of the critical issues facing the population, at home and in the world, are undiscussed by anyone.  All establishment candidates embrace the promises of “globalization,” while in truth, for every few hundred thousand people whose salaries and investment wealth are boosted by the global capitalist economy, tens of millions are pulverized by it-in the United States as well as Indonesia, Mexico and the African continent.

Every pandering bourgeois politician tries to outdo the others about “the drug menace,” where in fact it’s the war on drugs that is destroying our society-filling prisons with non-violent drug users, disportionally minority youth; giving police an unchecked pretext to brutalize minority communities and to extort bribes; making criminal syndicates the largest employers of youth in economically devastated inner cities, and prison construction and administration the biggest growth industry in many states; and creating a public health disaster through consumption of shared needles that have been contaminated and prison overcrowding.

The campaign finance reform debate turns in endless circles, carefully ignoring the fundamental issue: that there is no way to prevent the unchecked power of corporate capital from translating into political domination.  Some of the proposed cures are even worse than the disease: Notably, the idea of banning “soft money” donations to political parties would simply make the parties even weaker than they already are, enhancing (if possible) the money-sucking mechanism of the candidates, and threatening to remove what counter-leverage-however badly it is used-that organized labor has to fight back politically.

A Possible Independent Choice?

This leaves activists in the left and the social movements a few choices: to support whichever centrist New Democrat comes out of the contest between the Clinton-splattered Gore and the relatively fresh face Bradley; to ignore the presidential election, knowing it eventually will go away; or to join in efforts to forge an independent alternative.

Of the organizing efforts currently in motion, the most hopeful appears to be a possible third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader.  While he ran on the Green party ticket in 1996, and did surprisingly well in some states in the context of a virtually unfunded and nearly invisible campaign, many activists hope that a 2000 Nader-Green campaign would not be a rerun but a qualitatively more high-profile project.

As a principled critic of corporate power, as an environmentalist and advocate of grassroots democratic institutions, Nader would have the potential to offer a genuine alternative voice as well as to advance the status of the Greens as a national force for independent politics.

Nader would also represent an authentic populist option, against the pseudo-populist Pat Buchanan with his vile nationalist-racist-sexist brew-a particularly important service, inasmuch as the AFL-CIO bureaucracy will be going all-out for the Democrats and no currently existing labor formation (such as the Labor Party) is yet prepared to present its own alternative.

Can this potential be realized?  Several meetings scheduled to occur within the next two to three months will help to determine whether the energy and breadth of support exist to justify these hopes.  In particular, it will be necessary to put together some semblance of funding for a campaign, and to work out frictions that arose in 1996 over Nader’s tendency to dismiss the importance of some key social issues, particularly reproductive rights.

Against the Current looks forward to covering these developments, and we hope to serve as one vehicle for activists of varying persuasions to discuss issues of the elections and the left. Meanwhile, the central problem remains-to force the issues that the capitalist parties won’t touch and to reject the miserable choices they present.

ATC 83, November-December 1999