WHAT WE THINK
February 6, 2004 | Page 3
"SUPPOSE YOU go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce...The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States."
Sounds like Karl Marx, right? Or at least Ralph Nader? This was the comment of Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson's words are as true now as they were a century ago--that Washington politics revolves around big business and serving its interests.
This is partly because the politicians depend on big business money to get into office. During the 2000 elections, for example, it cost on average $7.5 million to run a winning campaign for the U.S. Senate. The price tag on a seat in the House of Representatives was about $850,000.
Where does that kind of cash come from? According to Federal Elections Commission statistics, business contributed more than 75 percent of the total donations to candidates and political parties during the 2000 election cycle. Unions accounted for just over 5 percent. You can bet that Corporate America expects something for its money--and they get it.
But there's more to it than that. The people who serve as elected representatives at the national level typically come from the same narrow group that shuttles back and forth between corporate boardrooms and offices, the heads of government bureaucracies, Washington think tanks and law offices, the media, the Pentagon. This small band can be counted on to put the interests of those with power and wealth--people like themselves in fact--before all else.
Both mainstream parties--Republicans and Democrats--rake in the corporate cash and draw their leaders from this elite. Together, they rig the system in favor of the status quo. No wonder, then, that the U.S. Congress is pushing through a series of pro-corporate, anti-worker policies--the omnibus spending bill with its giveaways to Corporate America, a bankruptcy "reform" bill written by the banks and credit card companies that will take away the last hope of people drowning in debt, legislation allowing corporations to escape their pension obligations--with barely a peep from the Democrats.
This is despite all the media attention seemingly on "politics" with the primary race for the Democratic Party presidential underway. Even the most conservative contenders are piping up with harsh criticisms of the Bush administration and its right-wing agenda.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who has carefully crafted his appeal to copy Bill Clinton's appeal to Southern conservatives, talks about the "two Americas" of rich and poor created by Bush's economic policies. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a political insider who has held office in the Senate without interruption since the Reagan administration, claims to be the "scourge of special interests."
This only highlights something that everyone who is considering a vote for the Democrats in 2004 needs to remember. The Democrats will say one thing to get your vote--and do another once in office, to serve their real masters.
This bigger picture of what really takes place in Washington usually gets lost at election time--because the whole logic of elections narrows the discussion. One of the most striking thing about the Democratic primaries is the gap between the depth of frustration and anger that many people feel on a range of issues--from health care and jobs, to the occupation of Iraq--and all the talk about picking the most moderate and "electable" candidate to run against George W. Bush.
Liberals like Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton were never given a snowball's chance of winning the nomination--even though their beliefs are much closer to what the Democratic Party's liberal base among labor unions, African Americans and others actually thinks. Even Howard Dean was tagged as too "radical"--though if you look at where he stands on the issues, he is anything but.
Instead, John Kerry and John Edwards scored the biggest successes in the early primaries, and their main appeal to many voters was that they seemed most "electable"--translation, least likely to offend conservative "swing voters," and therefore more likely to beat George Bush.
Some people to the left of the Democrats will see this and reject the "party of working people" as phony and spineless--and either join the majority of Americans in not voting, or seek a third party alternative. But many more will accept the logic of elections--and line up behind a Democratic candidate who they don't agree with on many issues. That's the pessimism of "lesser evilism"--lining up behind the Democratic candidate in order to prevent the greater evil of a Republican victory.
Missing from this view of things is any sense of where real change comes from. As Howard Zinn once put it, "[T]he really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories."
They problem with elections isn't that they necessarily stop people from ever taking part in struggles--from being the people who "sit in." The problem is that they teach people to tailor their positions and look for what is most acceptable--which can only weaken those struggles. Socialist Worker urges all its readers not to fall for the pessimistic logic of "lesser evilism"--but to build a concrete alternative to the two parties of the status quo.