The Democrats’ New Scapegoat

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Ann Menasche

IN 2000, THE Democratic Party establishment and much of the left blamed Ralph Nader for the election of George Bush.  The “spoiler” label conveniently ignored the fact that Al Gore ran a weak campaign with no compelling message; that more registered Democrats voted for Bush than for Nader; and that the Democratic Party refused to challenge the removal of African Americans from the voter rolls in Florida.

The Democratic Party, of course, had no interest in avoiding the possibility of “spoiling” by assuring majority rule, through reforms such as instant runoff voting (“IRV”), which would allow people to rank their preferences and more easily vote their conscience. The Party establishment much prefers a Republican victory to the risk of opening up the electoral system.

In 2004, it is impossible to blame Nader for the Bush victory. Lacking the formal endorsement of the Green Party, Nader ran a much weaker campaign than in 2000. Moreover, Democrats spent millions keeping him off state ballots across the country. At the same time, much of the left, including some in the Green Party leadership, abdicated their independence in favor of an “Anybody but Bush” approach to the Presidential election.

Nevertheless, Bush ended up winning a majority of both the popular and electoral vote. Even with voting irregularities in battleground states like Ohio (where Nader was not even on the ballot), it is unlikely that a recount will change the result.

Overlooking the fact that John Kerry “not being Bush” might not be enough to mobilize the progressive base and convince undecided voters, Democrats have found what appears to be a new scapegoat — gays and lesbians — for the so-called “moral” issue of same sex marriage, which along with an abortion, the two principal obsessions of the Christian right, is being blamed for the Bush victory.

Too Fast, Too Soon?

Politicians like Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein point to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to marry same-sex couples last February as a significant factor in Bush’s victory. Feinstein recently described Newsom’s actions as “too much, too fast, too soon.”

Likewise, a November 4, 2004 editorial, entitled “What Happened” appearing in the New Dem Daily, the on-line publication of the Democratic Leadership Council, pointed to exit polls showing that “moral values” was the number one concern of voters. The editorial emphasized the importance of Democrats convincing “millions of voters” that Democrats “take their cultural fears and resentments seriously.”

Since Kerry was hardly pro-gay — supporting a State constitutional amendment in Massachusetts against gay marriage — one shudders to think how the DLC might further adapt to the bigotry of this constituency in future campaigns.

In contrast, Newsom’s decision to publicly support equality for same-sex couples showed an unusual amount of moral courage for a mainstream Democrat. In all likelihood, Newsom’s social conscience was nudged along by his need to regain the confidence of progressive San Franciscans, many of whom had thrown their support to Green Party member Matt Gonzalez in the Mayor’s race.

But what of the claim that the issue of same-sex marriage was decisive in throwing the election to Bush? The Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLT) explains on their website that in three battleground states where an anti-gay marriage amendment was on the ballot, Oregon, Michigan and Ohio, Kerry did better than Gore in 2000.

Two of these states, Michigan and Oregon, went for Kerry. The other eight with anti-gay amendments have gone Republican in most or all of recent presidential elections. The claim that gay marriage “lost the election” is as misleading as the claim that Nader caused Al Gore to lose in 2000.

What about the overall power of the religious right? Exit polls indicate that 17.9% of voters were evangelical Christians who voted for Bush (that’s about equal to the percentage of voters who said they were casting a vote against Bush). It’s hard to prove that without gay marriage, the religious right wouldn’t have had some other issue to whip up the flock.

At the same time, there is no denying that the Christian right has gained momentum. As Matt Foreman, Executive Director of NGLT, states: “The right wing was indeed energized…Frankly — the right did a better job of turning out their vote in key places. They’ve been building their machine — illegally, unethically, or both — through churches for 30 years. They have seized and occupied “moral values” for years…But to pin all of this on ‘the gays’ is wrong. Don’t buy it.”

Yet many Kerry supporters will end up “buying it,” or at least concluding that the American people are hopelessly reactionary. There is a danger that the next time around, many heterosexual progressives (and even some gays and lesbians) will attempt to silence the gay community (just as they tried to silence Nader), and sacrifice the issue of lesbian/gay civil rights in order to help defeat the Republican presidential candidate in 2008.

Real Moral Values

An editorial in the November/December edition of Tikkun magazine, written by Michael Lerner prior to the election, provides a different perspective: “I imagine that if George Bush beats John Kerry…liberals will again learn the wrong lesson: that Americans are either so stupid or venal that they could never respond to a peace-oriented worldview…But that is based on little evidence…Certainly the Democrats never emphasized global solidarity, social justice and ecological sanity…So if they’ve never heard an alternative politics advanced, how can Americans be faulted for not responding to it?”

Moral values are not the monopoly of religious fundamentalists. The problem is that no coherent vision of peace, social justice and equality, no vision was ever presented by pro-war, pro-corporate John Kerry of a society that takes care of its old and young; that provides health care, education and affordable housing for all; that guarantees all workers a living wage, that protects the environment, that emphasizes human dignity and solidarity; that in a nutshell puts the interests of human beings before profits and the greed of a few.

Thus, though Kerry ultimately criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq, a decision that he supported up through the early days of his campaign, he never called for ending the war, instead promising to pursue it more effectively.

As the Democratic Party leadership is incapable of putting forward such a moral vision and instead, it will continue to chase after the Republican party as both parties move further toward the right. Those progressive Democrats who might be capable of doing so, like Kucinich, are doomed to remain on the Party’s margins.

A progressive vision could potentially energize large segments of the American people, including many religious people who are not fundamentalists, and who can be won over to challenge traditional sexist and anti-gay views.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in the November 29 edition of The Nation, “Policies of preemptive war and the upward redistribution of wealth are inversions of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is for the most part silent or mysteriously cryptic on gays and abortion.”

The Green Party has the potential to put forth a compelling moral vision that could help move the country to the left. It won’t be quick or easy but it is a clear way out of the 2004 morass.

ATC 114, January-February 2005