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WHAT WE THINK
Why Kerry and the Democrats don't deserve the left's support
The greater evil of "lesser evilism"

September 10, 2004 | Page 3

THE ANYBODY BUT BUSH bandwagon is filled to capacity for Election 2004--and the passengers aren't only liberals, but a majority of the U.S. left. On board is a long list of people known for their commitment to struggles for social justice--Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Medea Benjamin, to name a few.

Meanwhile, the antiwar movement is at a standstill. Washington's justifications for its war on Iraq have been exposed as a massive fraud, and the U.S. occupation has been in continual crisis for months, yet there will be only one major national antiwar mobilization between the anniversary of the invasion last March and the end of this year.

And that demonstration was in New York City, at the Republican National Convention. The enormous turnout again showed the depth of anger with the U.S. war, but because of the setting, the march could easily serve as purely an anti-Bush demonstration--with pro-Democrat sentiment among marchers going mostly unquestioned.

Of course, it's obvious why opponents of war and injustice are desperate to beat Bush. His four years as president have been a disaster for working people, and Bush has used the Pentagon's military machine to wage war more aggressively than at any time in the 30 years since the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. The Republican convention itself was infuriating--a sickening display of flag-waving bluster and bigotry, interspersed with pot shots at John Kerry.

Actually, if Kerry were half as radical a departure from the Bush agenda as the Republicans claimed, the case for voting for him would be a lot stronger.

But Kerry isn't any of the things that the Republicans denounced him for being. He hasn't rejected the Bush Doctrine of waging "pre-emptive" wars--in fact, he boasts that he will use more U.S. soldiers to win the "war on terror." He isn't about to "cut and run" from the U.S. occupation of Iraq--actually, he promises to carry out the occupation for oil and empire more effectively. He's not for raising taxes to pay for "big government" spending programs--he's for more tax relief for U.S. corporations (sure, in the disguise of a program to reward businesses that keep jobs in the U.S., but we've heard that one before, and should know by now that the trickle-down effect didn't work, whether it was promoted by Ronald Reagan or the NAFTA-loving Clinton administration).

Kerry has devoted his campaign to rejecting almost everything progressives believe in--and in spite of that, millions and millions of people will vote for him because he is Anybody But Bush.

The ABB argument grows out of the belief that a second four years of Bush will be so catastrophic that nothing else matters but defeating him. Eric Alterman, the liberal Nation magazine's most reliably pro-Democrat columnist, typifies the tunnel vision about Election 2004. In a column bemoaning Kerry's strategy of being the second-most enthusiastic pro-war candidate, Alterman still manages to abuse independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader as a "political kamikaze bomber" suffering from "uncured self-delusion."

And yet, what is Nader's crime, according to Alterman? He is the election's only significant antiwar candidate. Nader, therefore, could win the votes of people who oppose the occupation of Iraq--thus taking votes away from Kerry, who supports the occupation.

This is the perverse logic of "lesser evilism." It accepts the unwritten rules of the two-party system--that the candidates of the two mainstream parties, Republicans and Democrats, are the only acceptable choices, and anyone who stands outside the incredibly narrow spectrum of views that pass for political debate in American politics represents the greater threat.

If you accept this limitation set out by the U.S. political establishment, then the case for voting for Kerry is a strong one. On many issues--not all, but a majority--Kerry is to the left of George Bush, however small the difference. But this narrow view of Election 2004 misses a wider reality that only becomes visible when you look at the bigger picture.

First of all, focusing on their differences obscures the way that the two parties act as separate wings of a single political establishment. By presenting a more palatable and usually less extreme version of a political program acceptable to America's ruling elite, the Democrats prepared the ground for U.S. politics to shift steadily to the right over the last 30 years.

Thus, the Clinton administration's scapegoating of the poor--culminating in welfare "reform"--took the assault of Clinton's Republican predecessors to a new level, and laid the basis for Bush Jr. to go even further. On the world stage, Clinton's promotion of pro-free market neoliberalism and his use of the "humanitarian" cover for U.S. military intervention opened the way for Bush Jr. to use American power more boldly.

The snapshot of U.S. politics that we're presented with in Election 2004 misses the wider dynamic at work. In truth, the political distance separating the two mainstream parties today is tiny compared to how far the Democrats and Republicans together have moved to the right over the past three decades. And the logic of "lesser evilism"--of liberals and sections of the left falling in line behind the Democrats, no matter how far they move to the right--is one of the main reasons why neither party has faced a stronger challenge.

What we need is an alternative to a two-party system that, every four years, presents us with two presidential candidates who stand for corporate power and militarism. Building such an alternative will never happen if the long-term goal is always put off for the sake of the short-term "necessity" of supporting the lesser evil.

According to the Anybody-But-Bush view, this election is different--the stakes represented by Bush's re-election are simply too high. Thus, Election 2004, we're told, is the "most important election of our lifetimes." This is another symptom of historical amnesia for a left that, in fact, has declared every election in recent memory--or at least every election involving a Republican incumbent--in precisely these terms: the choice of a "lifetime."

Likewise, the Democrats have always relied--and always will--on lesser evilism to whip up support among their more liberal base. Given this history, to put off building an independent alternative today isn't a temporary holding pattern, but a step backward.

Among the Anybody-But-Bush chorus, probably the most left-wing case has been made by Naomi Klein, a leading voice in the global justice movement. Unlike most ABBers, Klein rejects the idea that Bush and Kerry have fundamental differences--or that those who want to see Bush and his policies defeated need to keep their criticisms of Kerry to themselves.

Her joining the ABB ranks seems to come down to two points. First, Klein argued at an International Socialist Review-sponsored forum in New York City during the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention that Election 2004 amounts to a referendum on Bush's wars, and people under the thumb of U.S. imperialism, particularly in Iraq, would view Bush's re-election as the "American people" ratifying the war.

But the election can't be viewed solely as a referendum to "fire" Bush if it also involves "hiring" Kerry. And if, as Klein has said herself in numerous articles, Kerry represents merely an "intelligent, sane and blissfully dull" version of the same agenda around the world, then a vote for Kerry is still a vote for war.

Nor is there any reason to believe that people in other countries can't understand the situation in the U.S. As Arundhati Roy argued in a California speech (click here to read), Washington's opponents in the developing world have their own experiences with differing brands of the same essential evil.

Furthermore, Iraqis won't have forgotten that the Clinton-Gore administration was responsible for horrific carnage during its eight years of continuous military and economic warfare against Iraq. The way to show Iraqis what ordinary people in the U.S. think of Bush's invasion isn't to elect a pro-war Democrat, but to build the antiwar movement's fight against the occupation.

Klein's other point is that the development of the left depends on defeating Bush--not because the left would enjoy greater influence under a Kerry administration, but because the bogeyman of Bush that has disoriented political discussion will be removed. The left's "Bush Blindness," as Klein termed it recently in the Nation, "causes us to lose sight of everything we know about politics, economics and history and to focus exclusively on the admittedly odd personalities of the people in the White House...Only with a bore like Kerry at the helm will we finally be able to put an end to the presidential pathologizing and focus on the issues again."

There is a lot of truth to this argument. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the U.S. left historically has been its capitulation to the Democrats at election time because there is no working-class alternative. Having a monster like Bush in the White House means that the Democratic "alternative," no matter how right wing, will seem more attractive.

But Klein's point begs the question: If the left needs to stop blaming Bush and come to grips with the need to challenge an unjust system represented in Washington by both mainstream parties, why not start now? Why join the ABB left in voting for Kerry? Why not challenge its illusions and political shortsightedness? Why not back the one candidate who represents a real alternative to the status quo?

There are reasons for the left be critical of Ralph Nader--his courting of the right-wing Reform Party's endorsement, for example. But the heart of his campaign--what he represents in Election 2004--is a left challenge to the two-party system. A vote for Nader is the best way to say no to the evil of the Bush agenda, in both its greater and lesser forms--and to contribute to the building of a future political alternative.

The minority willing to cast a vote for that alternative, though larger than the ABB left gives it credit for, is still small. It will only grow if the left gets over its cycle of caving to lesser evilism every four years and stands up for a real alternative.

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