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Is the left better off with a Democrat in the White House?
The politics of the "lesser evil"

October 17, 2003 | Page 8

IT'S A common-sense idea among people who stand for progressive causes that having a Democrat in the White House is better for our side. At least with a Democrat--however moderate--as president, activist voices are more likely to be heard, the argument goes. ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains why the common sense is wrong.

ALL SUMMER long, the warnings were circulating about how the left needed to support a Democrat to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. "Think about election night," wrote Michael Albert of ZNet and Z Magazine. "Think about watching the returns. Think of your heart and soul's reaction if Bush wins. Think of billions of other people plummeting into passivity from despair over the same picture. Think of Bush and his coterie savoring victory and deciding that they can do anything for four more years. We want Bush out."

The assumption is that if Bush is run out the White House by a Democrat in the 2004 vote, activists will come out ahead--first, because the immediate threat of four more years of Bush would be prevented; and second, because having a Democrat in the White House would give our side more opportunities to press our demands. Let's take these two arguments in turn.

First, would defeating Bush stop the threat of four more years of the kind of policies that Bush has carried out so far? There are differences between Democrats and Republicans--but the biggest differences are in their rhetoric.

Even moderate Democrats typically trumpet their support for liberal causes and claim to want to represent the interests of working people--at least while campaigning. And in the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a few candidates--Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean--are presenting themselves as the movement choice because of their opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

But once in office, Democratic politicians have much more in common with Republican politicians than they have with the people who formed the core of their support. This is because Democratic Party politicians, like their counterparts in the Republican Party, are bought and paid for, above all, by Corporate America--and therefore committed to maintaining the political status quo.

The consequence through history has been that a vote against the Republicans to prevent the threat of conservative policies dominating in Washington doesn't produce more liberal ones. Thus, for instance, in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson was seen by the young antiwar movement as the "lesser evil" to Republican warmonger Barry Goldwater.

After winning the election, however, Johnson thanked the activists who voted for him by escalating the U.S. war on Vietnam, launching the massive bombing campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder. Johnson, like John F. Kennedy before him, was just as committed to winning the "war against communism" in Vietnam as the Republicans.

It took an antiwar movement that was too large and too loud to be ignored--as well as the mass resistance of the Vietnamese--to force Democratic politicians to begin to question the war.

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WHAT ABOUT the second question--whether progressives are in a better position to win their demands when a Democrat is in the White House? Without organized pressure from below, there's no guarantee that Democrats will even listen to activists--much less follow up on the promises that they made during their campaigns.

A case in point is Bill Clinton. After 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., the expectations of activists were raised by the prospects of having a Democrat in office. Clinton promised health care reform, protection of women's right to abortion and more rights for gays and lesbians.

But rather than create a better climate for activists concerned about these issues, under the Clinton administration, activism was all but suspended--always with the excuse that the Democrat in the White House needed more time to carry out his promises. Mainstream liberal groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) refused to organize people to push for their demands--in order to give Clinton the "room" he needed.

But instead of coming through on his promises, Clinton took the opportunity to shift further to the right. He let the Freedom of Choice Act die on the vine. And he accepted the rotten "don't ask, don't tell" compromise for gays in the military and signed off on the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton knew that he could move to the right because he wouldn't lose support on his left--from organizations like NOW that had lined up behind "their" president.

The victory of welfare "reform" is the best example of this process. Clinton's punitive 1996 welfare law was far worse than anything his Republican predecessors had tried--forcing millions of recipients into dead-end, low-wage jobs in the interest of poor people taking "personal responsibility" for their lives.

The Clinton administration, not Republicans, managed to shred the idea that the U.S. government was responsible for the welfare of the poor. And no liberal organizations lifted a finger. "If Ronald Reagan was doing this, they'd be dragging poor kids up to the White House in wheelchairs to oppose this," said an unnamed Clinton aide in 1994.

Contrary to the belief that activism becomes more widespread under a Democratic president, past history shows that a Democrat in the White House can make activism weaker. That brings us back to 2004. Of course it would be a delight to see Bush run out of Washington on a rail. But his defeat in the 2004 election doesn't mean that our demands will be met any quicker.

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FAR MORE important than which party controls the White House is whether masses of people are mobilized to fight for justice. This underlying dynamic explains why some of the most important reforms that working people have won have come under Republican administrations--and why some of the worst attacks on working people have been carried out by the "lesser evil" Democrats.

For example, Richard Nixon's administration expanded civil rights, workers' rights and environmental protections far more widely than Bill Clinton's. During the Nixon years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created; a range of environmental standards, such as the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, were passed; and the Alaskan wilderness was expanded. A Supreme Court packed with Nixon appointees decided in favor of affirmative action and women's legal right to abortion.

Of course, this isn't to say that it's good for Republicans to be in office--on the reasoning that backward policies encourage people to fight back. On the contrary, the promise of more austerity and misery can deal a blow to workers' confidence. And the raised expectations of people when a Democrat takes office can lead to a radicalizing effect when "the party of working people" fails to measure up to the image it projected during the campaign.

But overall, simply looking at who is in the Oval Office is an extremely narrow way at understanding how social change is made. Other important factors come into the question--for example, will the resistance to occupation in Iraq increase? Will the U.S. economy take another nosedive?

And then there are the factors that we have some control over--the building of organizations independent of the Democrats and Republicans that take on the rotten policies of both parties. Eugene Debs ran for president five times at the turn of the 20th century on the Socialist Party ticket. His campaign centered on the idea of building an alternative to the twin parties of capitalism, the Republicans and Democrats.

That alternative was socialism--the idea that workers have the power to run society. "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage," Debs told a New York audience in 1905. "He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves."

The key is building an alterative to the Washington status quo that fights for our demands, no matter which party wins in 2004.

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