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The Time is Now
by Pete Dolack
Starting in late spring, Anybody-But-Bush liberal friends, already showing early signs of panic, started asking me if John Kerry was ever going to go onto the offensive. “Sure he will,” I replied; “they know they need more than ‘I am not Bush’ to win.” As the summer wore on, I began to realize that I was wrong. It takes a certain perverse talent to run against arguably the biggest disaster that has yet occupied the White House and lose.
Kerry probably did win in Ohio and New Mexico, and perhaps in Florida, but let’s set aside that debate. Even if we concede that the Republican Party stole another election, it still won half the vote. Given that the Democrats’ main electoral activity was a savage attack on Ralph Nader, perhaps it was not realistic to think the Democrats would try to put forward any sort of positive program. Just to prove the party is incapable of learning anything, the Democrats have already anointed a new scapegoat—San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, for stirring up the Christian right by sanctifying same-sex marriages.
Greens must be part of a larger movement and not run in a bureaucratic, top-down manner. . .
A probable outcome of this trend is for the Democrats to move still further to the right. Such a development opens new opportunities for third parties. Will there be a third party to take advantage? While Anybody-But-Bush proved to be another step in the gradual disintegration of the Democratic Party, it has led to an implosion of the Green Party. A September headline on the CounterPunch website, “Cobb Polling at 0%, Exceeding Expectations,” says it all.
If the Green Party truly didn’t want to run a campaign, it should have done the intellectually honest thing and sat it out. The party’s membership, however, largely did want a real campaign, in the form of a third Nader presidential run, while the party’s bureaucracy did not, and got its way. It’s widely said that if Nader had shown up at the Milwaukee national convention in June, he would have won the party nomination. He would have had it anyway, were it not for the skillful way David Cobb and his backers used the party rules to anoint himself against the obvious will of the rank and file.
How is it that a party that is supposed to be a grassroots expression of engaged activists using electoral campaigns to promote ideas and not personalities became the captive of a bureaucracy in which candidate decisions are based in large part on personalities? Can such a party have any future?
To provide a painful example, the New York State Green Party began imploding well before the 2004 presidential campaign debacle. A fierce ideological struggle intensified after New York Greens gained automatic ballot status in 1998. The activists in the party tended to form a left wing within the New York Greens and sought to maintain the tradition of it being the party of activists with a grass-roots organizational structure to allow as many as possible to have a voice in the shaping of the party.
Democrats and opportunists began pouring into the party and formed a bloc with the more cautious Greens that sought to convert the party into a strictly electoral-only operation. This coalesced into a right wing. (That term is used in a relative sense.) Other activist veterans of the party tended to form a center between these two wings, first vacillating between the two, but eventually uniting with the right for the purpose of creating a state committee based on state electoral law designed by Republicans and Democrats to centralize power and shut out any grassroots initiatives. A bureaucracy was born, dedicated to arrogating power to itself and pushing out the activists. The results were the New York Greens losing their ballot status in 2002, dwindling vote totals for local candidates, and a failure to get Cobb on the 2004 ballot.
Greens must be part of a larger movement and not run in a bureaucratic, top-down manner, or they are destined for irrelevance. It was a sad spectacle to see United for Peace and Justice channel the anti-war movement into becoming an adjunct of a pro-war candidate’s campaign. It was deeply perplexing when well-known Greens such as Medea Benjamin decided to jump on the Kerry bandwagon as well. The Democratic Party shows signs of continuing to be unable to learn anything. Must third parties replicate this? The only way forward is to be an alternative.
The strategy of running an irrelevant campaign [ . . . ] served only to reinforce Anybody-But-Bush.
The movement needs to become an independent vehicle instead of continually hitching itself to the Democratic Party, and any third-party grouping that purports to be of the movement must be independent, even when liberals get mad and attack Ralph Nader instead of, say, George Bush. The strategy of running an irrelevant campaign only in states where there can be no effect on the outcome served only to reinforce Anybody-But-Bush.
Kerry based his campaign on support for Bush policies, arguing Americans should vote for him because he would carry out the policies more effectively, thereby giving approval to them. The bureaucratic forces that put forth Cobb then endorsed Anybody-But-Bush liberalism, adding another crucial endorsement of Bush policies and thereby further confusing and demoralizing anybody seeking an alternative to those policies and making it all but impossible for those just beginning an attempt to politically educate themselves to find an articulation of an alternative, anti-imperialist platform.
Is it any wonder then that so many people who voiced disapproval of Bush wound up voting for him? The Nader campaign also failed to provide a clear alternative, albeit for very different reasons. While the desire for a charismatic figure is understandable, it is counterproductive because such a campaign begins to obscure issues and become focused on a specific personality. When the personality, Nader, uproots himself from movements and parties and becomes unscrupulous in the party lines he runs on and the money he accepts, the only result is further confusion and obfuscation. The panic of Anybody-But-Bush liberals only partially explains the precipitous fall of Nader from 3% to 0.3%. Movement politics must be issue-based and not personality-based, and can only survive rooted in ideas. After three runs, it’s time for new candidates, with full acknowledgment of all that Nader has done.
Movement activism needs to be extra-electoral. That doesn’t mean ceding candidate selections to more conservative currents or staying aloof from elections. It does mean acknowledging that the movement can best marshall its strength as an inde-pendent force applying pressure from the left. It means being in the streets, organizing and providing the arguments against what will be an intensification of the Bush program. It means, perhaps above all else, learning to speak to Americans in language they can understand in order to communicate effectively. Can sending sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, to die so American oil companies can control Iraqi oil fields really be such a difficult con-cept to explain? Can Republican plotting (and Democratic capitulation) to take away Social Security in increments really be a hard case to make? For John Kerry, evidently it was, but for the rest of us, it should not be.
Emphasis on movement work will not yield in the short term to electoral success for third parties. What are short-term gains anyway? There was frequent amusement when, three years after the 2000 election, the same giant green banner proclaiming “Nader: 7% in Vermont” would appear at major New York demonstrations. That slogan is something around which very few are going to rally, or even take seriously. Electoral work should concentrate on local races, and the presidential race, given present political realities, should be measured by its effect on shaping the issues. Taking office on the national level is a long way off and placing the emphasis on vote totals will only lead to disappointment in the near term.
Electoral work should concentrate on local races, and the presidential race, given present political realities, should be measured by its effect on shaping the issues.
Another reason for keeping the long term in mind is that it is already possible to see the seeds of destruction within the Republican Party. If the United States were a parliamentary republic, there would be two parties each in place of the Republicans and Democrats, and probably one or two small parties that could win a seat here and there. Because of the iron-clad two-party system, designed to freeze out movements from below, both major parties have to be single-party coalitions, with all the attendant tensions. One striking, if little noticed, aspect of the 2004 campaign was the extraordinary number of GOP establishment figures — intelligence analysts, Reagan and Bush I officials, State Department veterans and conservative intellectuals — who united in condemnation of the Bush II administration. The ascendancy of religious extremists and other know-nothing elements must create discomfort in other parts of the party.
One day after the election, the religious extremist leadership already began demanding immediate implementation of its agenda. A bloc of leftists, liberals, and social moderates within the Republican Party and moderates and centrists who float between the two major parties is not only a necessity to preserve what freedom remains in the United States, but a clear defeat for religious extremists will likely introduce enough frustration that some of them will stay home, and that alone can tip the balance in future elections. A combination of the religious right voting in unprecedented numbers and widespread voting irregularities led to Bush receiving 51% of the vote and a sufficiently narrow win that a swing of 65,000 votes in one state, Ohio, would have meant a Kerry victory. Not exactly a landslide.
The formation of such a broad-based bloc needn’t, and shouldn’t, mean any dilution of progressive ideas. Given the enormity of the forces blocking any progress in the United States, it’s going to be necessary to sometimes link hands in order to defeat the hard-line right. First defeat the right, then deal with others; plus a defeat of the right might actually put a bit of backbone into liberals. At least clear victories followed by forward movement would pull liberals along.
The “me, too” rightward drift, including its Anybody-But-Bush manifestation, of Democrats over the last two decades is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Now is the time to go on the offensive. Push hard enough, and even a Nixon is forced to leave Vietnam and create the Environmental Protection Agency. If that doesn’t mean third-party electoral gains in the near future, so be it. A century ago, the long-time German Social Democrat leader Karl Kautsky famously declared that “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” We know where that ultimately led in the 1930s. Let us make the goal paramount, or we may be doomed to repeat history.
Pete Dolack is an activist, essayist and poet who has worked with several organizations in the past, including the Brooklyn Greens and the No Spray Coalition.
[27 dec 04]