Should the Left Care About the 2008 Election?

December 26, 2007

By Andrew Hartman

 Every four years, those on the left debate tactics regarding the presidential election.  This year is no exception, despite the singularly poor Bush administration, which would seemingly make any Democratic administration an important reprieve.  However, not everyone is inclined to agree.  Take, for instance, Penn political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr, who recently argued in the pages of The Progressive that we on the left should “Sit Out the 2008 Election.”

Reed’s article, which argues that the Democrats as currently constituted don’t deserve our support, sparked a heated debate on a listserv I edit.  Some argued that Reed was too pessimistic in disavowing the current Democratic candidates.  I argued that Reed was essentially correct.  Here is how I framed my argument.

 

I made four basic points:

 

1)     In response to those who think Reed is too pessimistic, it should be pointed out that Reed is NOT arguing that we should expect more out of the Democratic Party.  In fact, he’s making quite the opposite point, that we should quit dedicating so much of our time, energy, and money to national election cycles, precisely because we can’t expect the Democratic Party and its candidates to pay attention to our desires.  Instead, we should focus on building a strong movement that will compel the Democrats to take our demands more seriously.  This is the only method for success, indeed, the only instances of effective social reform in US history have been the products of such movements: the Populists compelled some regulation of the new corporate behemoths at the turn of the 19th century; the CIO and other working-class organizations forced the hand of FDR, and we got the New Deal; and the vast civil rights movement shut down de jure Jim Crow.  As Reed writes in the article:” Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort… [T]hat process cannot be compressed to fit the election cycle.”

It must be remembered that Reed’s audience is the left, progressives, radicals. He’s writing to those that struggle over whether it makes more sense to support the Democrats on the basis of them being superior to the alternative, the Republicans—which they undoubtedly are—or more sense to opt out of the two-party “duopoly,” as Ralph Nader has long referred to it.  It’s a question of tactics.  In the context of tactics, Reed might be wrong.  The United States is a deeply conservative country, and there is currently no real possibility for structural changes along the lines of the New Deal or Great Society minus a serious crisis.  And there’s no guarantee such a crisis would result in a leftward shift.  I think a rightward shift (democratic fascism!) is more likely.  In this context, perhaps we’re better off swallowing our pride and voting for the Democrats.  And by “our” I mean the left, what’s left of us. 

2)    This leads to my second point.  Despite the fact that Reed might be wrong tactically, this does not detract from how correct he is in terms of historical and political analysis.  If some Democratic partisans seem viscerally offended by Reed’s analysis, that’s probably because it’s spot-on.  I would suggest that partisan attachment to the Democratic Party has limited the ability of some to see the forest for the trees, to ignore the historical arc of US political history. 

The Democrats have shifted to the right since 1976, at least on issues of substance, like economic and social policy.  Now, you might argue, this makes sense since the nation itself has shifted to the right.  The Democrats have interpreted Clinton-style triangulation—tacking to the center, which has been moving to the right—as the only means to electoral success.  This is shortsighted and just plain wrong. The Democrats are locked into an electoral approach that is doomed to fail.  They’ve been cutting the rug out from under those who traditionally guaranteed them a majority, namely, unions. The triangulation approach that the party has pursued since Carter has never produced an electoral majority.  In fact, Gore and Kerry got higher percentages of the vote as the 2000 and 2004 losers than Clinton got as the 1992 winner and were very close in 1996. Minus Ross Perot, we would not have had a Democratic President since Carter (who, it must be said, was a conservative Democrat).  

3)    What is the evidence that the Democrats have shifted to the right?  Let’s examine the Clinton administration’s record in terms of economic and social policy.  Clinton is as much to blame as Reagan for the intense polarization of wealth that has grown larger than any such gap since the 1920s.  This is due largely to the fact that politicians have rewritten economic policy at the behest of corporations, who serve only one master: shareholders.  Let’s take NAFTA (1994).  This terrible piece of legislation benefited nobody other than powerful corporations, which were no longer restrained by pesky local and national laws.  NAFTA, among other neoliberal trade policies, decimated the industrial working class in the United States.  And yet, Democrats continue to ask themselves why the struggle to win in states like Ohio and even, sometimes, Michigan.  DUH!  And NAFTA has not exactly helped most Mexicans, either, made evident by the huge number of them, driven off their land, who come to the US to work in the service industry.  Wow—Lou Dobbs might have a point regarding the close connection between trade policies that benefit the filthy rich and “illegal” immigration.

After the Clinton administration oversaw trade legislation that gashed living wages, it then proceeded to sponsor the Welfare Reform Act (1996), which ripped apart the already-limited safety net for the poor.  The new safety net became the prison system.  As Reed asks us to remember, the Clinton administration was responsible for “two repressive and racist crime bills that flooded the prisons” and “the privatizing of Sallie Mae, which set the stage for the student debt crisis” and “ending the federal government’s commitment to direct provision of housing for the poor.”  Fallout from Clinton-era policy continues, including in New Orleans, as 4,500 units of low-income public housing were recently razed, to the dismay of protesters–this, in a city with the worst housing crisis in the country.

Of course, if Democratic partisans ceded me (and Reed) these arguments—which I doubt they would—they would then argue that the current crop of Democratic candidates should not be judged by the Clinton administration.  I suppose this is a decent point.  However, for the most part, nothing the front-running Democratic candidates are saying indicates they will work to reverse the horrible economic and social polices of the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era.  (John Edwards sounds pretty good on economic policy, sometimes, which has led the media to lampoon his populist message.)  Yes, all of the candidates have a plan for universal healthcare.  But none of the “big 3” remove the insurance and pharmaceutical industries from the equation, which is not much of a plan as far as I’m concerned.  On this issue, Michael Moore is on the money.

4)    For me, foreign policy is the single most important issue in US politics, the issue that everything else branches out from.  And on this issue I consider the majority of the Democrats cowardly, especially those who committed the original sin of twenty-first century politics by voting for the war in 2002.  This is unforgivable in my eyes, no matter how hard any of them now try to explain it away.  The argument that everyone was working with bad intelligence does not fly.  Not only were plenty of people (such as Joseph Wilson, Hans Blix, and Scott Ritter) showing evidence that Iraq did not have WMD, the WMD issue is a true non sequitur.  It was completely and utterly beside the point.  Iraq was not responsible for 9-11, as everyone should have understood, and did not represent a threat to the US.  Even if the Hussein government had WMD, he was not a threat to the US because his one goal was to stay in power at any cost and the quickest way to achieve the opposite would have been for him to use WMDs against the US or its allies.

 

This is the central reason why I am unequivocally against the Clinton campaign.  Also, because she is so closely tied to the foreign policy establishment that has been such a poor steward of the nation for the past 60 years, the unbreakable chain from Truman to Bush.  (The legacy of Truman is the creation of this consensus.)  The fact that Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark, among others, support Clinton’s campaign is a huge strike against her.  The so-called war on terror reads to me like the past sixty years, when the US involved itself in a number of catastrophic wars and interventions, from Korea to Vietnam to Serbia, all based on objectionable rationales.  The US needs to wake from its dreams of delusion.  It cannot and will not control what other people do at the point of a cruise missile.  This is the lesson of the twentieth century.  The other lesson is that wars have unimaginable, unintended consequences that will haunt us for decades to come.  For instance, this current war will undoubtedly contribute to a huge wave of homelessness in the next forty or fifty years, platitudes about taking care of our veterans notwithstanding.

I will only actively support a presidential candidate who unmasks the war on terror for the sham that it is.  So-called wars on amorphous entities achieve one thing: fear… which then allow the powerful to run roughshod over the rest of us, which is what the Bush administration has done, predictably.  That the Democrats feign shock and indignation over Bush administration unseemliness is laughable.  It’s as if none of them have ever picked up a history book, as if none of them had ever heard of Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon (not to mention Truman, who was a clever scaremonger himself).

On foreign policy, Obama has a few advantages.  Most importantly he was publicly against the war before it began.  Of course, had he been in the Senate in 2002, he might have voted alongside Clinton and Edwards, we’ll never know.  Second, Anthony Lake is Obama’s main foreign policy advisor, and he seems better than the Clinton crowd, more chastened by past US failures in Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq.  That being said, I intend to vote for Kucinich in the primaries, when the pick-your-poison mentality of the general election does not yet apply.  In the debates, Kucinich is the only candidate (other than Ron Paul) who makes any sense on foreign policy issues.

 

In the context of presidential elections, it is important to remember the bipartisan consensus on US foreign policy.  I am one of the few people who thinks a Gore-Lieberman administration would have invaded Iraq.  Secretary of State Holbrooke would have not even have had Colin Powell’s minimal qualms about such a war.  And think about the pressure Gore would have received from the right, who still controlled Congress (not to mention the ever pervasive AM radio waves).  Gore would have been forced to show his toughness, his mettle.  I think our tendency to imagine Gore would have acted differently is us superimposing the new and improved Nobel Laureate Gore on the old politician Gore.  Also, let’s not forget that Lieberman, who is a clone of Dick Cheney on issues of substance, would have been vice president.  On a broader scale, let’s remember that the Democratic Party’s record of getting the US into stupid wars is abysmal: WWI (Wilson); Korea (Truman); Vietnam (Kennedy and Johnson); Yugoslavia (Clinton).  In other words, my counter-factual about Gore and Iraq highlights the problems with the current state of the Democratic Party, and goes to the core of our discussion. 

 

Andrew Hartman

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