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Two parties of big business
Washington's rotten system

November 8, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

GOING INTO the 2002 midterm elections, the pundits and insiders who handicap Washington politics as if it were a horse race couldn't have been more excited. Control over both houses of Congress, plus the governor's mansions in the states, was in question, with Republicans and Democrats battling for an edge in tight elections everywhere.

But the frenzied speculation in Washington was in stark contrast to the disinterest of most voters. ALAN MAASS looks at Election 2002--and what it says about the U.S. political system.

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AS USUAL, the hand-wringing pundits of the media establishment blamed us for not showing more interest in Election 2002. "If you consider that the nation today is potentially on the brink of war [and] in the midst of tough economic times…you might think voters and the news media would be paying attention," wrote three of ABC News' political analysts. "But ask consultants of either party, and they'll say voters just aren't worked up over the high stakes of this election."

In reality, the politicians of both parties didn't give anybody anything to get "worked up" about. For Republicans, this isn't surprising. With the exception of the "war on terrorism," they stand for political positions that are unpopular with most ordinary people, so GOP candidates avoided talking about them--trying, instead, to exploit George W. Bush's inflated popularity.

Meanwhile, Democrats complained nonstop that Republicans were dodging the issues. But the Democratic leadership itself refused to mobilize a fight on the main political issue of this fall--Bush's drive for a new war on Iraq--handing the White House virtually unlimited congressional authorization for military action.

And on the issues that Democrats claim they want to talk about--the state of the economy and so on--they didn't offer an alternative. "It's too easy to blame the post-September 11 mood and the incipient war with Iraq," wrote liberal columnist Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe. "The country is not aflame with war fever, and Bush's support is shallow. The Democrats' larger problem is lack of nerve, not just on the Iraq issue but across the board."

This campaign season showed why elections matter so little in determining the direction of U.S. government policy. As controlled by the two mainstream parties, elections are more about perpetuating a common political power structure in Washington than choosing between real alternatives.

Republicans and Democrats have both participated in rigging the system to favor the status quo. Thus, in the last two elections for seats in the U.S. House, an incredible 98 percent of incumbents won re-election.

Most of the media's attention during campaigns is on the differences between the two parties. But this obscures the bigger-picture issues where the Republicans and Democrats agree.

Why do the two parties have so much in common? The most important reason is that they both get most of the money that fuels their campaigns from the same source: Corporate America. Unions and liberal organizations do donate a significant sum to political campaigns. But big business dwarfs their donations many times over--which is why it typically calls the shots in Washington.

Of course, politicians have to get elected, and that means appealing to ordinary people to win their votes. Thus, even Republicans talk about "justice" and "helping ordinary people." But this is a fraud--a fraud that reflects the basic nature of government under capitalism.

The politicians are the public face of a system that's set up to serve those at the top of society. The job of Republican and Democratic Party politicians is to say one thing to ordinary people in order to win their votes--and then do another in order to serve their real masters.

Should we back "good Democrats"?

AT THE memorial rally for Paul Wellstone in Minneapolis last week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) brought the crowd to its feet when he paid tribute to Wellstone as a "true [Democratic Party] liberal, who constantly reminded those of us who are Democrats of the real center of gravity of our party."

To see a Democrat taking pride in "liberalism" was certainly a change of pace. Most of the party's leaders are desperate to avoid that label. But for many people, Wellstone and other liberals like him--such as Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) or Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)--represent the "true soul" of the Democratic Party.

Should we support these "good Democrats"? The truth is that the Democratic Party tolerates these figures--utilizing them to build support among the party's base in the labor movement and liberal organizations, while preventing them from accomplishing much. And Paul Wellstone is a prime example.

Coming from a background of grassroots political activism, Wellstone was the upset winner of the 1990 Senate race in Minnesota--an election that party leaders didn't think he could win. He began his senate career by voting against George Bush Sr.'s Gulf War, and he earned the scorn of the political establishment when he tried to expose the administration's wartime lies.

But with every step that he took to become "relevant" in Washington, Wellstone had to compromise. For example, he came to Washington as an advocate of a single-payer universal health care system. Yet in 1994, he supported the Clinton administration's bogus pro-corporate health care reform proposal--as the best that could be achieved.

Wellstone had the courage to cast some tough votes, for example, against Clinton's welfare "deform" law in 1996 and Bush Jr.'s war drive last month--over the objection of party leaders and with a re-election fight looming. But he also went along when he shouldn't have--voting last year, for example, for the civil liberties-shredding USA PATRIOT Act.

And when it came to what Wellstone accomplished in Washington, sadly, the list is very short. The very first piece of legislation that he sponsored to pass Congress--a measure requiring insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental health problems as for physical ones--was still awaiting President Bush's signature when Wellstone died.

Obviously, this is worthy legislation. But compare this limited reform to the commitment to universal health care that Wellstone came to Washington vowing to fight for. Nothing better shows the gap between what passes for "political realism" in Washington's corridors of power--and what's needed to make real change in U.S. society.

Meanwhile, Wellstone played an important role for the Democratic Party--as the liberal figure who could command loyalty from the party's base and deliver their votes at election time. The Democratic leadership counts on its left wing--to give needed credibility to the "party of the people."

Who paid attention, for example, when Al Gore lectured liberal activists about why they should vote for him instead of Ralph Nader, who actually stood for their ideals? But when Wellstone made the case, activists listened.

Ultimately, the "good Democrats" always deliver for the "bad Democrats" when it counts. They may be critical of this or that policy, but when it comes to an election--or even a crucial vote--they can be relied on to support their party.

This doesn't mean that it's irrelevant when someone like Wellstone or Barbara Lee takes a stand against war. Their opposition can give ordinary people more confidence to speak out. And liberal Democrats can attract welcome attention to struggles when they participate in protests and other activities.

But we have to remember that these figures have another job--leading activists back to the Democratic Party. That's why we need to build a political alternative that's independent of the Republocrats--all of them.

The "lesser evil" is still an evil

IS THERE any difference between Republicans and Democrats? Of course. On any given issue, most Republicans are to the right of most Democrats.

There are exceptions. You'd have a hard time showing how Rhode Island's moderate Republican senator Lincoln Chafee is any more conservative than the right-wing Democrat Joe Lieberman from neighboring Connecticut.

But at election time, no one thinks about these cases--or the many ways in which the two parties are alike. And this is exactly what the Democrats want. Their most effective appeal for votes is that they're not Republicans.

It's astounding how often boosters rely on a negative argument for getting people to vote Democratic. For example, the AFL-CIO recently produced a David Letterman-style Top 10 list of reasons that people should vote for "labor-friendly" candidates. All 10 reasons were potential Republicans attacks on workers. Not a single one was a measure that we could expect "labor-friendly" candidates to work for.

This is the logic of "lesser evilism"--that people should hold their nose and vote for the Democrats as the lesser evil in order to prevent the greater evil of a Republican victory.

"Lesser evilism" can seem like common sense. But history shows otherwise. "Sombody told me [in 1976] that the reason I had to vote for Jimmy Carter was because if Gerald Ford was elected, women would lose their right to choose to have an abortion," Michael Moore wrote during the 2000 presidential election campaign. "So I voted for Jimmy Carter--and guess what? One of the things he did was to stop all abortions provided for women or wives in the armed services! He also stopped any further funding to birth control groups overseas that offered abortion as an alternative. And he ended all Medicaid payments for poor women in need of abortion."

There are many other examples where people who voted for the lesser evil ended up with the lesser and the greater evil. Why? The reason is simple: If Democrats know that they can count on support to their left, they'll never make any concessions in that direction.

On the contrary, if someone like Bill Clinton can take it for granted that he has the support of organized labor and liberal organizations, then he'll move to the right on the assumption that he can win a few more votes by appealing to conservatives.

Clinton is a perfect example of the cost of lesser evilism. During his eight years as president, he carried through policies such as welfare "reform" that Republicans before him only dreamed about.

Yet when the 2000 presidential election rolled around, the AFL-CIO and liberal groups lined up right behind Al Gore--even though Green Party candidate Ralph Nader stood for their ideals.

The way to pressure all the politicians, Democrat or Republican, is to build an independent political alternative--based on organizing at the grassroots. As the socialist Hal Draper put it, "[I]t is the question which is the disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice."

"But it must be a struggle"

WE'RE TAUGHT from grade school on that the only effective way to achieve political change is through the ballot box--by voting for the candidates who represent our views. But a look at history tells a different story.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is usually given credit for important New Deal reforms like Social Security. But Roosevelt's New Deal was a response to a massive upheaval in U.S. society sparked by the Great Depression of the 1930s. In effect, Roosevelt--and all the other politicians in Washington--were forced to make concessions, or face a wider revolt.

The same dynamic was involved in the struggles that achieved other reforms that we value--from civil rights for African Americans to a woman's right to choose abortion. In all these cases, whether the politician occupying the White House was a Republican or Democrat wasn't as important as the pressure of the struggles from below.

Elections do matter. Sometimes, in circumstances where ruling class opinion is split, ruling class parties really do represent different political alternatives. More importantly, there are political parties that don't represent big business. The Green Party campaign of Ralph Nader for president in 2000 was a lightning rod for grievances throughout U.S. society--and helped to bring together activists from different movements who had never worked together before.

But while elections do matter, struggle matters more. That's how our side has won in the past--and will again in the future.

As the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass put it, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle."

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