How much "lesser" of an "evil"
May 21, 2004 | Page 8
ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at whether the left will be better off with a Democrat in the White House.
THERE ARE few reasons for activists to get excited about John Kerry's campaign for president. He's for the occupation in Iraq, just like George Bush--only for longer, and with more U.S. troops. He's for tax breaks to wealthy corporations. He's "fiscally responsible"--translation: he'll cut social services to balance the budget. He's against gay marriage, and for a back-of-the-bus compromise deal for civil unions.
For many people--especially activists who have protested against the U.S. war on Iraq, or in defense of civil liberties--the only exciting thing about voting for Kerry is that he's not Bush. They may be disgusted with how little Kerry has stood up to the Republicans. But they're even more disgusted by the prospect of another Bush administration.
The arguments in favor of voting for Kerry seem to revolve around some common-sense propositions. Won't the Bush administration be even more confident to roll over our rights if they win this election? Won't our side be more confident to protest if Bush is tossed out?
ZNet's Michael Albert made this point in an article last year. "Think about election night," Albert wrote. "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...[W]e want to have whatever administration is in power after Election Day saddled by a fired-up movement of opposition that is not content with merely slowing Armageddon, but that instead seeks innovative and aggressive social gains. We want a post-election movement to have more awareness, more hope, more infrastructure and better organization by virtue of the approach it takes to the election process."
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IT'S IMPORTANT to remember that Albert's case for voting Democrat isn't a new argument. In 1976, Michael Harrington of the moderate Democratic Socialists of America chastised then-Socialist Workers Party candidate Peter Camejo during a debate: "Don't you understand that defeat demoralizes people? Defeat convinces people that you can't beat City Hall.
"If Ford wins, it will be understood by every political person in the U.S. and the world as a move to the right, and people will act accordingly...[T]he conditions for a Carter victory are the conditions for working class militancy, and the militancy of minority groups, and the militancy of women, and the militancy of the democratic reform movement."
So what happened? Were the conditions for a Carter victory the conditions for progressive advances? The opposite was true.
Carter won the 1976 election, depending--as Democrats always have--on the votes of union members, African Americans and others in the party's liberal base to get there. Once in office, however, Carter sharply increased the military budget, reversed a long period of increases in spending on social welfare programs, cut capital gains taxes for the rich and increased Social Security taxes on the poor.
His administration's bailout of Chrysler opened the way for a wave of concessionary union contracts, and it used the Taft-Hartley Act to force miners to settle their 1977-78 strike.
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THERE ARE two questions that people who want to see a real change from the Bush administration's policies need to ask about Kerry's campaign. First, will a "lesser evil" Kerry administration's policies be that much different than the Bush administration's "greater evil"? And second, will a Kerry victory over Bush translate into a more confident left?
On the first question, the main goal of Kerry's campaign so far has been to try to show that he's just as tough--or tougher--than Bush on foreign policy questions. He has been desperate to tell Corporate America that he's an acceptable Plan B. As he told an audience in the typically Republican stronghold of Baton Rouge, La., this month, "I want Republicans in this state, independents, people disappointed in politics to listen and listen well: There is nothing conservative about this administration."
Historically, the Democratic Party has claimed to represent the interests of groups that the Republicans won't--women, Blacks, gays and lesbians, the labor movement. Democrats like Kerry depend on these groups to turn out and vote for them at election time--no matter what thin gruel they're promising. And they expect continued support once in office--no matter how disappointing the reality is compared to the rhetoric.
When Bill Clinton took over the White House in 1993, he swept in with a briefcase full of promises--legislation to outlaw the use of scabs during strikes, a Freedom of Choice Act to protect abortion rights, and most prominently a national health care plan. But instead of holding Clinton to his pledges, women's groups and union leaders sent the message to "give Clinton time."
Clinton took the time he needed--and bargained away the promise of health care in the interests of the drug companies and HMOs that helped to fund his campaign. Anti-scab legislation didn't get through Congress, even when both houses were controlled by Democrats. Clinton abandoned the Freedom of Choice Act and sat by as abortion rights were chipped away throughout his two terms in office--with bans and restrictions in states across the country.
Yet rather than invigorate activism, liberal leaders set all this aside and continued supporting Clinton against the "greater evil" of the Republicans. So when the Clinton administration tore up the social safety net by signing the 1996 welfare "reform" law, not one liberal group organized a protest--even though thousands mobilized around the country to dog Newt Gingrich when welfare "reform" was an issue being pushed by Republicans with their Contract on America.
In other words, the Democrats got away with more than the Republicans--and no liberal organization called a demonstration. As a Clinton administration aide commented, "If Ronald Reagan was doing this, they'd be dragging poor kids up to the White House in wheelchairs to oppose this."
This isn't to say that having a Republican in office translates into better conditions for movements to flourish--a sort of "the worst brings out the best" theory of activism. The key questions--confidence, the depth of mobilization, political understanding and determination--don't ultimately depend on one party or the other being in office.
The last years of the Clinton administration did see the growth of the global justice movement--with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999 marking a high point. People were radicalized and activists born out of the broken promises and disappointments of the Clinton administration. But this shouldn't be confused with the claim that having a Democrat in the White House makes activists more confident to fight back.
Already, we can see what the mainstream liberal organizations that could have called protests against Clinton--and Bush for that matter--have in store if Kerry wins in November. April's March for Women's Lives had the potential for taking the first, much-needed steps toward building a new grassroots movement for reproductive rights.
Instead, the message of march organizers to the unprecedented gathering of 1 million people angry about women's right to abortion being put in jeopardy was strictly limited--to casting a vote for Kerry and the Democrats in November. The critical task of organizing a movement to defend abortion rights--which will be vital no matter what party is in the White House--was left undone.
Lost in what passes for "political discussion" during an election year is an understanding of what makes fundamental change--and that's taking every opportunity to build pressure on the political system, from the ground up, whether it's against the occupation in Iraq or around the fight for gay marriage.
This type of opposition has to be built separately from the Democratic Party. Because rather than providing activists with the confidence they need to mobilize, a Democratic administration's first task will be to try to disarm that activism.
And how can asking activists to set aside their principles and vote for Kerry--who supports the occupation in Iraq, opposes gay marriage and is bending over backwards to appeal to Corporate America--possibly make movements for justice stronger? The answer is that it won't.
A Kerry administration would be just as committed to implementing the substance of Bush's policies on most issues--even if with gentler rhetoric and kinder form in some cases. Winning real change means organizing a political alternative to both parties of the status quo in Washington.