What’s the Election For?

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

The Editors

ONLY ONE THING is absolutely clear about the outcome of the endless U.S. presidential race: George W. Bush will not be reelected in November, 2004.  Bush may very well remain in office, and might even honestly win the election.  Bush cannot possibly be reelected, however, since he was never elected in the first place.

This is a polarized, unpredictable and probably very close election.  How volatile and surprising it can be may be indicated by the Spanish voters’ response to the terrorist atrocity in Madrid.  Far from rallying around the right-wing war party, Spaniards furiously and unexpectedly tossed out a government that had dragged them into the unpopular Iraq war and lied to them about the consequences.

The Spanish election in any case is a sharp political blow to Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair.  Might U.S. voters respond similarly if offered an option—or do we reward our rulers for lying to us?

Be all that as it may, with a year down and only six months to go the presidential candidates of the two major parties are set. Finally it’s all over but the attack ads, the faked photos (Kerry with Fonda, maybe next with bin Laden?), the pandering (Kerry endorsing Ariel Sharon’s apartheid wall), the conventions, the debates (third parties need not apply)—oh yes, and finally the voting, the counting and maybe even the fraudulent manipulation thereof.  Tired already?

But it’s important to recognize the clear differences and distinct alternatives represented by the major party campaigns.  The choice facing the voters is nothing less a hard-right Republican administration headed by George W. Bush, or a moderate Republican administration headed by Senator John Kerry.

The former would continue with its ultra-aggressive militarist international policy and vicious anti-civil libertarian record at home; the latter would probably be somewhat more conservative than the Clinton administration of the 1990s.  As for what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”—represented in varying degrees by Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosely Braun, and vaguely by the tepid populism of John Edwards—all that was history before sundown on Super Tuesday, if not earlier.

Democratic primary voters of the left, right and center made their choice clear.  In 2004 it was all about “electability,” i.e. about electing anything or Anyone But Bush (ABB).  John Kerry’s actual record, notably supporting the Iraq war which most of the Democrats’ voting base detested, for the USA PATRIOT act, and his consistent backing of “free trade” which Democratic labor supporters loathe, make no difference.

If anything, Kerry offers something to suit every taste in the ABB crowd—his personal military record in Vietnam and subsequent antiwar activism, then his vote against the 1991 Gulf War authorization and support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed up by the claim that he was deceived.

We’ll return to the Kerry record, but it’s important also to note how strongly the Democrats have united behind a two-pronged agenda.  First, of course, is to recapture the White House—gaining control of either house of Congress would be desirable, of course, but unlikely since so few seats are contested in practical terms.  The Democrats’ real second objective is to drive into the ground, permanently, any option for independent politics challenging them from the left, with the agenda of movements for social justice.

That second objective explains the rage against Ralph Nader—not just political venom, but real personal hatred—spewing from the Democrats, and especially from those in the liberal wing of the party who are compelled to cleanse their sin in sympathizing with his presidential campaign in 2000.  “Spoiler,” “irresponsible” and “egomaniac” (as if Bill Clinton hadn’t personally set the standard in the latter two categories) are among the more printable epithets hurled in Nader’s direction.

In their mini-crusade to keep Nader out of the 2004 election, the Democrats enlisted a large sector of his backers in 2000, including the editors of The Nation, some of whom ought to know better.  Behind this No-Nader-in-2004 campaign, even if The Nation editors and some others and the left haven’t completely caught on, lies an agenda of “Never Again”—not only no Nader, but no third party of the left or the movements, let alone of labor.

For the Democratic establishment to pursue its preferred agenda—i.e. to win white middle class voters away from the Republican conservative and religious right with a “responsible” neoliberal program of corporate globalization, “multilateral” imperialism rather than “preemptive war”—requires that the Democrats’ own popular voting base among the working class and African-American communities have nowhere else to go.

For the Democratic loyalists, it’s not a question of finding “a better opportunity” for independent politics—it’s a matter of using the “emergency” posed by the savage “Bush agenda” to break the back of any indepenent progressive option now and forever.  Ralph Nader is 100%-correct in identifying the anti-(small d)democratic nature of this attack.

Within the Green Party a several-sided discussion is unfolding on whether to offer Nader the party’s presidential endorsement.  It is not our purpose here to analyze the complexities of this issue, for the Greens and for the broader movement.  In any case, it will be the membership of the Green Party that makes the determination at the party’s Milwaukee convention in June.

Beginning in this issue, we will also present a series of opinion pieces reflecting a wide range of views within the movements and the socialist left.

What Kerry Stands For

While our reference above to John Kerry heading a “moderate Republican administration” is obviously facetious, it is substantively pretty accurate.

Take the social issue that has so suddenly emerged in the last few months: same-sex marriage.  Bush and the religious right want a Constitutional ban; Kerry thinks that keeping gay/lesbian marriage illegal should be left to state legislatures.  A significant difference?  Absolutely: Entrenching bigotry in the Constitution is an authentic menace.  A difference worth throwing the movements’ support behind Kerry?  You make the call.

In the runup to Bush’s Iraq war, Kerry trumpeted most of the administration lies: Saddam Hussein was “attempting to develop nuclear weapons.”  “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.”  Iraq’s weapons programs “are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War,” and “these weapons represent an unacceptable threat.”

Based on no evidence at all, Kerry asserted that “Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents, which could threaten Iraq’s neighbors as well as American forces in the Persian Gulf.”  [Quotes from S. Zunes, “Kerry’s Deceptions on Iraq Threaten His Presidential Hopes,” August 26, 2003]

To a liberal audience at “Take Back America,” a conference organized by the Campaign for America’s Future (a coalition of the AFL-CIO, National Organization for Women and other liberal groups), Kerry presented the straightforward DLC case for the U.S. empire:

I say to you unabashedly that I come to you as a Democrat who is unprepared to [follow] those who reflexively oppose any U.S. military intervention anywhere or who see U.S. power as mostly a malignant force in the world, or who place a higher value on achieving multilateral consensus than necessarily protecting vital interests of our nation.  Americans deserve better than the false choice given by this administration between force without diplomacy and diplomacy without force.  I believe they deserve a principled diplomacy backed by our undoubted military might .  .  .” 
(see www.ourfuture.org/docUploads/kerry.pdf)

Despite expressing reservations about environmental and labor standards, Kerry remains firmly attached to corporate “trade policy.”  At the September 4 candidates’ debate, Kerry responded to a call by Dennis Kucinich to scrap NAFTA and WTO:

I am as strongly committed as Kucinich is to worker rights, but it would be disastrous to just cancel NAFTA and withdraw from the WTO. You have to fix it. You have to have a president who understands how to use the power that we have as the world’s biggest marketplace to properly leverage the kind of behavior that we want .  .  .”  (Democratic Primary Debate, Albuquerque)

As the notorious Charles Schwab brokerage house commercial put it a couple years back, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig.”  Kerry’s barely warmed over Clinton-era rhetoric is cosmetic cover for the U.S.-led corporate assault on workers’ rights, living standards, the environment.

Bill Clinton inherited the first George Bush’s “free trade” agenda, promised to “reform” it and then pushed it further.  The second Bush carried it on, adding the new agenda of preemptive war and massive tax cuts for the wealthy.  Kerry promises to partially undo the latter, i.e. to restore the sound budgetary principles of the 1990s—under which the Clinton administration and Republican congress teamed up to destroy welfare and make life almost unbearable for the working poor.

Clinton promised universal health care—a promise Kerry won’t even make. He proposes government subsidies that would extend insurance to “most” of those who can’t afford it now, and to “almost all” children (see www.johnkerry.com/issues/healthcare).  How vague is that?  And is it worth the movements’ energy to invest their political energy in a desperate struggle to return to the 1990s?  Again, you make the call.

Their Choices and Ours

Those who support corporate power backed by U.S. political and military muscle have the luxury of choosing between the two capitalist parties’ strategic agendas for governing America and ruling the world.

As for those on the short end of the stick in this country, i.e. the majority—labor, African Americans, Latinos, the women’s movement, the Queer struggle—we readily admit that so long as they perceive the choice to be made as between the Bush and Kerry agendas in 2004, the Kerry option represents the milder of two poisons.

We submit, however, that the harder political choice is the one facing the social movements and global justice struggle both in 2004 and beyond.  It is the option of choosing the capitalist lesser evil, or of taking the harder road of struggle for independent politics.

All choices entail consequences that must be honestly faced.  Choosing independent politics means abandoning respectability, facing the wrath of the mainstream and liberal establishments—<_>and in a close election, though it’s impossible to know ahead of time, possibly contributing to a right-wing victory by drawing votes that might have gone to the Democrats.

Many of the “spoiler” charges, to be sure, are bogus.  If you like, you can blame Nader for Gore “losing” Florida—but not for Gore losing Tennessee.  Even in Florida, whom do the Democrats have to blame for thousands of registered Democrats who voted for George W. Bush (the nationwide figure is estimated at 700,000)?  Still, it is possible that the Democrats might lose an election where a progressive independent option exists, which they might have won in a purely two-party race.

Choosing the option of “the lesser evil,” on the other hand, means that the movements—movements that filled the streets of Seattle and other cities against corporate globalization, that brought millions out barely a year ago against Bush’s obscene war, that resisted the right-wing agenda while the Democrats capitulated or worse—must remain, in the political arena, prisoners of the capitalist agenda.

In that option, the movements are doomed to play the role at best of a critical left wing of a rightward-moving corporate liberalism.  Is that an acceptable outcome?  What’s at stake ultimately is the proposition that “Another World is Possible.

ATC 110, May-June 2004