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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

Politics and Election

The Antiwar Movement and the 2004 Elections

by Steve Bloom, SOLIDARITY

A massive and unprecedented antiwar movement grew up in this country between October 2002 and March 2003. This was in response first, to George Bush’s war drive against Iraq, and then in protest against the war itself. In the wake of this experience, activists all over the country have begun to think about the 2004 elections. Is it possible to defeat Bush at the polls?

The answer is that it might be. There are, however, more profound questions, such as: What would it accomplish if we give up building an independent movement in the streets in order to campaign for a Democratic presidential candidate? How different would that Democrat be from Bush? This is an important discussion. To take effective action opponents of the war and occupation in Iraq will need to look at some recent history, and think a little bit outside the box of politics as usual.

What is at stake?

In general, activists are not wrong when they identify something new and dangerous in the Bush administration’s rhetoric about regime change and pre-emptive military strike. This policy amounts to a declaration that the US has the right to engage in naked imperial conquest whenever and wherever it likes. The new danger, however, does not reside in the program of regime change, pre-emptive military strike, or naked imperial conquest per se. These things have been around for a long time.

In the 1950s, US marines overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala. In the 1960s, the US invaded the Dominican Republic and overturned the results of an election there. In Vietnam, three different administrations in the White House engineered a series of regime changes, backed up by thousands of US troops, and still lost that war. In the 1980s, President Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada. Then his predecessor, President Bush Sr. invaded Panama to overturn the Noriega government. These are just highlights, or we should probably say “lowlights,” of recent US history.

[A]ll of the concessions have been made to the right, in order to win the support of more conservative, white middle-class voters.

What makes the Iraq case new and different is that Bush chose to declare his goal of regime change and pre-emptive strike more or less openly. This was done with a mere fig leaf (which few really believed) about weapons of mass destruction, rather than a manufactured pretext for intervention—such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam—or taking advantage of a real incident—like the coup against the Maurice Bishop government in Grenada.

The ability of Bush to simply declare his war aims openly in Iraq and get away with it, as well as the willingness of broader ruling circles in the US to let him try this approach, is only partially a reflection of who happens to occupy the White House. This is a relatively small part of the equation at that. A far bigger part is the overall ideological assumptions that underlie political discourse in the US today. These assumptions, in turn, have been developed over a period of decades as part of a joint campaign by both the Democratic and Republican parties to shift political discourse in this country increasingly to the right.

How we got to where we are today

At the dawn of the 21st century, mainstream politics in the US is further to the right than it has been at any time since the 1950s. If we look back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the contrast is stark indeed. The social policies followed by Richard Nixon when he was in office were miles to the left of those pursued by Bill Clinton, who was attacked effectively by the right and the media as a liberal. In the 1970s, we got an end to the Vietnam war, the Freedom of Information Act, and the formal dismantling of the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign against Black and left organizations.

Now we get the “war on terror,” unregulated detentions of immigrants, military courts, and Patriot Acts I and II. In the 1970s, there was an expansion of affirmative action programs. Today affirmative action is rolled back everywhere. Indeed, “affirmative action” and “quotas” have become dirty words, along with “liberal.”

The reason for this shift is the difference between what was happening on the non-electoral front, in terms of constructing an alternative politics in the US, during the 1960s and today. During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a dramatic upsurge of struggles on many fronts. This began with the civil rights rebellion in the South, continuing with the anti-Vietnam war movement, and then with the new wave of feminist struggles, the rise of the gay liberation movement, etc.

Today, these mass movements have subsided. There has been an exception during the last six months with a new round of antiwar demonstrations, which rapidly died away after the most direct military phase of the war in Iraq was over. One thing that happened during the late 1970s and 1980s in particular was the siphoning off of the energy of many movements into more “mainstream” forms of electoral politics. Instead of having real movements of people in struggle that could help set the political agenda, political discourse in the media and elsewhere was increasingly shaped solely by the concerns and conversations of Democratic and Republican Party politicians.

What makes the Green Party a real alternative is the fact that it is committed to building an electoral pole that rejects relying on the ruling rich...

In this context, whenever there was a presidential election campaign—and often at the state and local levels too when there were senatorial, or congressional, or state and municipal elections—many on the left decided that as bad as the Democratic candidate might be, (s)he was better than the Republican. As a result, they would organize people to vote for the Democrats.

A similar approach was taken by the organized labor movement. Indeed, the entire organizing strategy of the AFL-CIO leadership has been tied for many years to the idea of getting legislation through Congress, or state legislatures, that would make it easier to sign workers up to join unions, or to force employers to bargain. The fact that this strategy has been completely unsuccessful did not lead to any rethinking of perspectives. Many leaders in the Black and Hispanic communities also locked themselves electorally to the Democratic Party.

What has been the result? In each election, the less reactionary Democrat, secure in support from the left and from labor and oppressed minorities, has had no reason whatsoever to give the left or labor or minority communities anything that they wanted—either in terms of campaign promises or in terms of policies once elected. Instead, all of the concessions have been made to the right, in order to win the support of more conservative, white middle-class voters. With each election, the rhetoric has shifted to the right. Little by little, through this process, we have arrived at the point where “liberal” is now a slander and the need for social welfare is dismissed as something of concern only to “special interests.”

But what if Bush wins again?

Let us look briefly at history, to see whether the party in the White House really makes a decisive difference when we are dealing with issues like war and peace.

Avoiding the dilemma

There is an obscenity in the Democratic and Republican political discourse, of course. There is an even bigger obscenity in the process through which many activists have allowed themselves to become trapped within that discourse. They still see some difference worth supporting between the Democrats and the Republicans as the entire package of establishment electoral politics moves further and further to the right. Nothing will change in this process until we try a different approach. We need to let the scoundrels (both more reactionary and less reactionary) know that we will not support anyone electorally unless and until we get something we really want in return. Then, and only then, is there a chance to begin moving the electoral discourse back to the left again.

One key tool we have in this is the recent growth of the Green Party. There is nothing that will convince the “practical politicians” that masses of people are looking for an alternative more clearly and directly than masses of people actually voting for an alternative. What makes the Green Party a real alternative is the fact that it is committed to building an electoral pole that rejects relying on the ruling rich of the US for campaign funding. In this context we can discuss who will make the best candidate, and what the optimal alternative program might be.

Even if there is not complete agreement on that level, the Greens can still project the most essential basic principle: A political party that masses of working people, Blacks, Latinos, and other oppressed groups decide to vote for should represent them, not the reactionary layer of rich aristocrats who are only interested in how government policies affect their corporate bottom lines. The fact that the Nader campaign in 2000 posed such a strong alternative electoral option gives us a real opportunity to build on that success in 2004.

Clearly, antiwar activists are going to be divided on this question. Not everyone will be inclined to support the Greens or some other independent campaign. Some will certainly pursue an “anybody but Bush” approach. Still others will no doubt advocate an abstention. When we think about the kind of politics we advocate for a genuine antiwar coalition, the best approach will be for it to avoid making any electoral choice directly (that is, the endorsement of candidates), because doing so will split any real coalition right down the middle. We will have to simply agree to disagree, and continue to unite where we can—which will be to engage in education and street actions on those key issues that unite us.

[6 sep 03]

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