Every four years, liberals unhitch the cart and put it in front of the horse, arguing that the only way to a better tomorrow is to vote for the Democratic nominee. But unless the nominee and Congress are pushed forward by social currents too strong for them to ignore or defy, nothing will alter the default path chosen by the country’s supreme commanders and their respective parties. In the American Empire of today, that path is never towards the good. Our task is not to dither in distraction over the lesser of two evil prospects, which will only turn out to be a detour along the same highway.
As now constituted, presidential contests, focused almost exclusively on the candidates of the two major parties, are worse than useless in furnishing any opportunity for national debate. Consider the number of issues on which there is tacit agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties, either as a matter of principle or with an expedient nod-and-wink that, beyond pro forma sloganeering, these are not matters suitable to be discussed in any public forum: the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; the role and budget of the cia and other intelligence agencies (almost all military); nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; roles and policies of the World Bank, imf, wto; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; energy policy; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; the corruption of the political system; the occupation of Iraq. The most significant outcome of the electoral process is usually imposed on prospective voters weeks or months ahead of polling day—namely, the consensus between the supposed adversaries as to what is off the agenda.
To be sure, there are the two parties who vituperate against each other in great style, but mostly this is only for show, for purposes of assuaging blocs of voters in the home district while honouring the mandate of those paying for the carousel. In the House, on issues like dumping the us Constitution in the trash can of the Patriot Act, there are perhaps thirty representatives from both sides of the aisle prepared to deviate from establishment policy. The low water mark came on September 14, 2002, when a joint resolution of Congress authorizing the president to ‘use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001’ drew only one No, from Barbara Lee, the Democratic congresswoman from Oakland. A stentorian July 2004 endorsement of Bush’s support for Sharon’s ‘peace plan’ by the House of Representatives elicited 407 ayes and 9 lonely noes.footnote1
On the calendar of standard-issue American politics, the quadrennial nominations and presidential contests have offered, across the past forty years, a relentlessly shrinking menu. Back in 1964, the Democratic convention that nominated Lyndon Johnson saw the party platform scorn the legitimate claim of Fannie Lou Hamer and her fellow crusaders in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be the lawful Mississippi delegation. The black insurgents went down to defeat in a battle that remained etched in the political consciousness of those who partook in or even observed the fray. There was political division, the bugle blare and sabre slash of genuine struggle. At the Chicago convention of 1968 there was still a run against lbj, albeit more polite in form, with Eugene McCarthy’s challenge. McCarthy’s call for schism was an eminently respectable one, from a man who had risen through the us Senate as an orthodox Democratic Cold War liberal.footnote2
Four years later, when George McGovern again kindled the anti-war torch, the party’s established powers, the labour chieftains and the money men, did their best to douse his modest smoulder, deliberately surrendering the field to Richard Nixon, for whom many of them voted. And yet, by today’s standards, that strange man Nixon, under whose aegis the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed, Earth Day first celebrated, diplomatic relations established with Mao’s China and Keynesianism accepted as a fact of life, would have been regarded as impossibly radical. Of course, it was the historical pressures of the time that moulded Nixon’s actions—the Cold War context, the rising tide of Third World struggles (Vietnam foremost among them), labour victories, inner-city insurgencies, the counter-culture. The same goes for judicial appointments, often the last frantic argument of a liberal urging all back under the Big Democratic Tent. The Blacks, Douglases, Marshalls and Brennans were conjured to greatness by decade-long movements for political and cultural change, and only later by the good fortune of confirmed nomination. The decay of liberalism is clearly reflected in the quality of judges now installed in the Federal district courts. At the level of the us Supreme Court, history is captious. The best two of the current bunch, Stevens and Souter, were nominated by Republican presidents, Ford and G. H. W. Bush.
With Jimmy Carter came the omens of neoliberalism, whose hectic growth was a prime feature of the Clinton years under the guiding hand of the Democratic Leadership Council. But in the mid-to-late 1970s Carter had to guard his left flank, whence he sustained eloquent attacks from Barry Commoner and his Citizens’ Party in 1976, and then in 1979–80 from Senator Edward Kennedy, who challenged Carter for the nomination under the battle standard of old-line New Deal liberalism. The fiercest political fighting of the 1980s saw Democratic party leaders and pundits ranged shoulder to shoulder against the last coherent left-populist campaign to be mounted within the framework of the Democratic Party: that of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. As JoAnn Wypijewski pithily resumes Clinton’s payback to the Rainbow forces:
By a brisk accounting of 1993 to 2000, the black stripe of the Rainbow got the Crime Bill, women got ‘welfare reform’, labour got nafta, gays and lesbians got the Defence of Marriage Act. Even with a Democratic Congress in the early years, the peace crowd got no cuts in the military; unions got no help on the right to organize; advocates of dc statehood got nothing (though statehood would virtually guarantee two more Democratic Senate seats and more representation in the House); the single-payer crowd got worse than nothing. Between Clinton’s inaugural and the day he left office, 700,000 more persons were incarcerated, mostly minorities; today one in eight black men is barred from voting because of prison, probation or parole.footnote3
All for Clinton
By the time Clinton launched his run for the presidency at the start of the 1990s resistance from the left, inside the Democratic Party and beyond, was at a low ebb. It stayed that way throughout his two terms. Battered from his first weeks for any deviation from Wall Street’s agenda, Clinton—like Carter before him, who also had a Democratic majority in Congress—had effectively lost any innovative purchase on the system by the end of the first six months, and there was no pressure from the left to hold him even to his timid campaign pledges. By the end of April 1993, Clinton had sold out the Haitian refugees; handed Africa policy to a Bush appointee, Herman Cohen, thus giving Jonas Savimbi the green light to butcher thousands in Angola; put Israel’s lobbyists in charge of Middle East policy; bolstered the arms industry with a budget in which projected spending for 1993–94 was higher in constant dollars than average spending in the Cold War from 1950 onwards; increased secret intelligence spending; maintained full Drug Enforcement Agency funding; put Wall Street in charge of national economic strategy; sold out on grazing and mineral rights on public lands; pushed nafta forward; plunged into the ‘managed care’ disaster offered as ‘health reform’ by Hillary Rodham Clinton and himself.
Year after year the women’s movement, labour unions, the mainstream environmentalists, civil-liberty watchdogs, liberal advocacy groups and public-interest networks stayed mute, as Clinton triangulated Republican positions and sold poor single mothers, working people, forests, mountains and constitutional protections down the river. A representative figure was Marian Wright Edelman, a friend of the First Lady, head of the Children’s Defence Fund and a Democratic Party loyalist stretching back to the savage wars on Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom people in 1964. In May 1996, Edelman organized a Save the Children rally at the Lincoln Memorial. She pledged commitment to building a just America. She invoked Lincoln and obliquely criticized George Bush Sr. The name of the current occupant of the White House, who had just endorsed a Republican programme in Wisconsin proposing to end welfare as an entitlement and putting a five-year cap on lifetime benefits, never once passed her lips.
The collapse of the liberal advocates for children was matched by kindred surrender across the entire terrain of public policy, from budget balancing to civil liberties, crime to health care. Pressed for explanations for their pusillanimity, the liberal advocates explained that the Republican hordes who had swept into Congress in 1994 were so barbaric, as was the prospect of a Dole presidency, that they had no choice but to circle the wagons round Clinton.footnote4 Liberals were aghast when, during his 1996 re-election campaign, Clinton took for his own the Republican proposal for ‘welfare reform’—but they did nothing. There was no insurgency, no rocking of the boat, no ‘divisive’ challenge on that or anything else. The Democratic Party, from dlc governors to liberal public-interest groups, mustered around their leader and marched arm-in-arm into the late 1990s, along a path signposted toward the greatest orgy of corporate theft in history, deregulation of banking and food safety, rates of logging six times those achieved in the subsequent Bush years, a vast expansion of the death penalty, re-affirmation of racist drug laws, the foundations of the Patriot Act and the criminal bombardment of Yugoslavia.
Clinton presided over passage of nafta, insulting labour further with the farce of side agreements on ‘rights’ that would never be enforced. End result: half the companies targeted by organizing drives in the us intimidate workers by saying that a union vote will force the company to leave town; 30 per cent of them fire the union activists (about 20,000 workers a year); only one in seven organizing drives has a chance of going to a vote, and of those that do result in a ‘yes’ for the union, less than one in five has any success in getting a contract. Polls suggest that 60 per cent of non-unionized workers would join a union if they had a chance. The Democrats have produced no legislation to help labour organizers; on the contrary, they have campaigned against laws that might have done so.footnote5
There is no need to labour the details of Bush’s ghastly incumbency in these pages. His performance and personality have been etched well past caricature by dozens of furious assailants, culminating in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the Democrats’ prime campaign offering.footnote6 He came by his fortune and his presidency dishonestly. Official rebirth in Christ led him not to compassion but to vindictiveness. Genes and education turned into a Mendelian stew of all that is worst and most vulgar in the anthropology of the Northeastern and Texan elites.footnote7 But despite his unalluring personality and severe limitations Bush does not merit the weight of those hysterical comminations heaped on his head on a daily basis. Reagan was much worse. So, in some significant ways, was Clinton. Bush stands accused of killing some 3,500–4,000 Afghan civilians, and 12,000–14,000 Iraqis. On conservative estimates, Clinton supervised the slaughter, by direct military assault or by sanctions, of nearly ten times that number; many more if you throw in those who died in the Rwandan genocide, in part because Clinton wanted to keep the international spotlight on Yugoslavia.footnote8
The other cherished liberal myth, that a vast gulf separates Bush’s foreign policy from what Al Gore’s would have been, is belied by the latter’s own words—replicating his 1992 onslaughts on George Bush Sr for not having finished off Saddam Hussein. Gore proclaimed in the us Senate that Saddam was
a threat to regional and even global security . . . The threat he represents is so severe that responding with force is not only legitimate but could be unavoidable . . . Saddam Hussein has more troops than Hitler did in the early years of World War ii.
During the 1992 campaign, Gore wrote in the New York Times that ‘we can no more hope for a constructive relationship with Saddam Hussein than we could hope to housebreak a cobra’, that Saddam Hussein ‘is not an acceptable part of the landscape’ and that ‘his Ba’athist regime must be dismantled as well’. As he put it on Larry King Live: ‘We should have bent every policy—and we should do it now—to overthrow that regime and to make sure that Saddam Hussein is removed from power’.
The Kerry candidacy in 2004? As an inspirational candidate, he’s a dud, even damper a political squib than Michael Dukakis and, by dint of his chill snobbery, less appealing. Democrats know this in their hearts. Twit them about Kerry’s dreariness, reminiscent of tepid chowder on a damp day in Boston or of Weeping Ed Muskie amid the snows of New Hampshire, and one gets the upraised palm and petulant cry, ‘I don’t want to hear a word against Kerry!’ It is as though the Democratic candidate has been entombed, pending resurrection as president, with an honour guard of the National Organization of Women, the afl-cio, the League of Conservation Voters, Taxpayers for Justice and the naacp. To open the tomb prematurely, to admit the oxygen of life and criticism, is to blaspheme against political propriety. Amid the defilements of the political system, and the collapse of all serious political debate among the liberals and most of the left, the Democratic candidate becomes a kind of Hegelian Anybody, as in Anybody but . . .footnote9
Kerry’s inner emptiness is thus peculiarly appropriate. Insecurely positioned from childhood on the margins of the elite, a heavily calculating opportunism has been his life’s guiding compass, whether pursuing wealthy women or plotting his political career. His four months in Vietnam—during which he bagged five medals (see below), enough to get him transferred to a desk job as an admiral’s aide in New York, and to earn the soubriquet Quick John from the crew members he left behind—were followed, after a year and a half’s cautious consideration, by five months of high-profile media coverage as a leading spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the springboard for his first (unsuccessful) Congressional bid. His tour in Vietnam became the target of damaging campaign ads in late August 2004 that clearly rattled Kerry, who fumed at these onslaughts on his martial honour from a president so indifferent to the Call to Arms that he declined even to undergo a routine medical check to maintain his status in the National Guard. But Kerry has only himself to blame, since it was his decision to exploit what he once, with no less opportunism, repudiated, preening at Boston with the medals he so carefully declined to toss away during the anti-war rallies in which he insisted on a starring role back in the early 1970s.
Kerry’s three terms since entering the us Senate in 1984 have left almost no footprints of interest. Karl Rove’s propagandists have been hard put to transform this utterly conventional figure into a seditious radical, hell-bent on putting the Pentagon out of business.footnote10 A seasoned staffer on one of the military appropriations committees described him deprecatingly to me as ‘the ghost senator; around here he doesn’t count for anything.’ Instead, Kerry’s time was more profitably spent, raising funds at a rate that put him in the top decile of incumbents. By 1990 he was already able to spend $8 million on his re-election, climbing to $10 million by 2002, though he had raised even more than this—$15 million compared to an average of less than $5 million for senatorial incumbents running for re-election during that year. The vast bulk of his money came from finance, insurance, real estate and lawyers and lobbyists.
Although once his nomination was assured he regularly hammed it up in photo-ops with the barons of big labour, as a senator Kerry voted for nafta, the wto and virtually every other job-slashing trade pact that came before the Senate. He courted and won the endorsement of nearly every police association in the nation, regularly calling for another 100,000 cops on the streets and even tougher criminal sanctions against victimless crimes. He refused to reconsider his fervid support for the war on drug users, and minimum mandatory sentences. Like Lieberman in 2000, Kerry has marketed himself as a cultural prude, regularly chiding teens about the clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the movies they watch. But even Lieberman did not go so far as to support the Communications Decency Act. Kerry did. (Fortunately, even this Supreme Court had the sense to strike the law down, ruling that it trampled across the First Amendment.) All of this is standard fare for contemporary Democrats, but Kerry always went the extra mile. The senator duly voted for Clinton’s 1996 bill to dismantle welfare for poor mothers and their children.
Kerry enthusiastically backed both of Bush’s wars. In June 2004, at the very moment Bush showed signs of wavering, the senator called for 25,000 new troops to be sent to Iraq, with a plan for the us military to remain entrenched there for at least the next four years. Kerry supported the Patriot Act without reservation or even much contemplation. Lest one conclude that this was a momentary aberration sparked by the post-9/11 hysteria, consider the fact that Kerry also voted for the Act’s two Clinton-era predecessors, the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.footnote11 In mid August a senior aide of Kerry said that his boss supported ‘96 per cent’ of the Patriot Act and indeed had drafted some of its language. In his 1997 book The New War Kerry wrote, five years before Guantánamo: ‘We now need to consider experimenting with our closest partners in a system that sets up special courts to try cases at home involving victims abroad’. He went on:
In dealing with states that are outright criminal, the United States may, at times, need to take unilateral action to protect its citizens, its interests, its integrity. This need not take as dramatic a form as our invasion of Panama and arrest of Noriega, though it would be unwise to rule out that option a priori. It does mean that we can and should punish countries that wilfully refuse to protect our citizens and in effect become state sponsors of criminality, as we now are doing with Myanmar and Nigeria.footnote12
Beyond his dedication to ‘seeing it through’ in Iraq, Kerry’s global policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of Bush—although his prostrations toward Israel have been slavish even by normal Democratic standards; expressing his understanding for Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Rantissi, for instance. His chief foreign-policy adviser, Rand Beers, worked first for Clinton, then Bush as a ‘counterterrorism’ official. Beers was one of the architects of Plan Colombia, ardently defending the coca-eradication programme that saw peasants and their farms doused with glyphosate. Kerry has lashed Bush for being soft on Chávez, and has accused the Venezuelan leader of aiding drug traffickers and being too close to Castro. According to Beers: ‘The Bush administration has a somewhat tainted record on Venezuela. They’ve been unprepared to do everything necessary to speak out on the issues of democracy.’
Internationally, Kerry offers himself largely as a more competent manager of the Bush agenda, a steadier hand on the helm of Empire. Domestically, the best that can be hoped for from him is a return to the disgraceful status quo ante on income tax, plus modest funding increases for Medicare/Medicaid and higher-end insurance claims—though these are unlikely to get through a Congress filled to the brim with loyal representatives of commercial health interests, and will anyway be subordinate to Kerry’s first task, lowering the deficit. Whoever settles down in the Oval Office next January will be facing a very serious economic situation, with the level of the national debt as a proportion of gdp at an all time high, and the distinct prospect of a break in the bubble in housing prices which would most likely shove the country back deep into the recession from which it has barely emerged.
Kerry’s pedigree has all the appropriate quarterings. He was a founder member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the camarilla of neoliberals that reshaped the image of the Democratic Party as a hawkish and pro-business party with a soft spot for abortion—essentially a stingier version of the Rockefeller Republicans. dlc strategy has been to concentrate on the white-collar professionals and the corporations, particularly in the area of the ‘new economy’, whose ceos Clinton so successfully courted—layers capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing those of organized labour. The Democratic Party, the argument went, would always be able to count on the working-class vote—it had nowhere else to go. Targeting the New Economy billionaires has had its own, unstoppable logic. As David Friedman of the New America Foundation put it in the Los Angeles Times: ‘the cleansing of working-class concerns from America’s once-progressive politics’ reflects the interests of ‘a new, fabulously privileged elite—including website and computer gurus, actors, media magnates and financial power brokers’, who now exercise ‘unparalleled influence’ over mainstream liberalism and the Party itself.footnote13 In the categories of this year’s Democratic convention sponsors—Platinum Plus (over $2 million), Platinum (over $1 million), Gold (over $500,000), Silver (over $250,000)—even the largest organized-labour contributions are ranked way down in Bronze.
The great liberal silence
The obsessive ‘Anyone but Bush’ posture across the liberal-progressive spectrum has ensured that Kerry has not had his feet held to the fire by any faction of the Democratic Party. This has been the year of surrendering quietly. Dean’s candidacy expired in Iowa, its prime consequence having been to lure a large chunk of the anti-war movement into the Democratic fold—which, as Dean imploded, then agreed that abb was the bleach of choice and committed to the support of a pro-war candidate. Looking for evidence of active protests against Kerry on the liberal-left in America in the late summer of 2004 was like trudging through the grey ash around Mount St. Helens, after the eruption. In thirty years I can recall nothing like it.
One cannot fault Kerry on truth in packaging. In the months after his nomination became assured, he methodically disappointed one vital section of his liberal constituency after another. In April, organized labour was admonished that Kerry’s prime task would be to battle the deficit. In May and again in July, women were informed that the candidate shared with the anti-abortion lobby its view of the relationship between conception and the start of life, and would be prepared to nominate anti-choice judges. In June it was the anti-war legions, to whom Kerry pledged four more years of occupation in Iraq.
Touting his brief stint as a Massachusetts prosecutor, Kerry vowed to put more cops on the streets and promised there would be no intermission in the war on drugs. The grand total of those caught in the toils of the criminal-justice system is now nearly 6.9 million, either in jail, on probation or on parole, amounting to 3.2 per cent of the adult population in the United States. In many cities a young black man faces a far better chance of getting locked up than of getting a job, since jail is the definitive bipartisan response of both Democrats and Republicans to the theories of John Maynard Keynes. Blacks have got less than nothing from Kerry, aside from his wife’s declaration that she too is an African American, yet the Congressional Black Caucus cheers the man who voted for welfare reform and devotes its time to flaying Ralph Nader.footnote14
War in Iraq? A majority of the country wants out, certainly most Democrats. Kerry wants in, even more than Bush. When the Democratic National Committee told Dennis Kucinich what to do with his peace plank, the Representative from Ohio tugged his forelock and told his followers to shuffle back in under the Big Tent and help elect a man who pledges to fight the war better and longer than Bush. Feminist leaders kept their mouths shut when Kerry flew his kite about nominating anti-choice judges. Gay leaders did not utter so much as a squeak when Kerry declared his opposition to same-sex marriages. Did we hear a peep from Norman Lear and People for the American Way as Kerry, the man who voted for the Patriot Act, revived his Tipper Gore-ish posturing about the evils of popular culture and said he would draft laws to elide the constitutional separation of church from state, permitting ‘faith-based organizations’ to get some purchase on Federal funds?
In spring 2004 Kerry told James Hoffa of the Teamsters that, though he would not touch the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he would ‘drill everywhere else like never before’. There was not a bleat from the major environmental groups. He pledged the same policy again to the American Gas Association a couple of months later, throwing in the prospect of a new trans-Alaska–Canada pipeline for natural gas from the Arctic. Once again the big environmental organizations held their tongues. True, Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees, tossed a firecracker onto the Convention floor by confiding to the Washington Post’s David Broder that another four years of Bush might be less damaging than the stifling of needed reform within the party and the labour movement that would occur if Kerry becomes president. After a short period of re-education, however, Stern recanted and said he was ‘a hundred per cent’ for Kerry.footnote15 Thus ended labour’s great revolt against a candidate who has cast his full share of votes in Congress to ensure job flight from America, and whose commitment to the living standards of working people is aptly resumed in his pledge to raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour by 2007, far below where it stood in real terms nearly forty years ago.footnote16
Joblessness and war
From June 2004, a bet on Kerry as the winner in November rested on two conspicuous features of the political landscape: the war and the economy. Bush had landed the us in a costly mess in Iraq, press-ganging reservists into open-ended tours of duty, a widely resented tactic. The economic recovery, such as it is, has had the worst record in producing new jobs of any since 1947. What was the Democratic candidate’s response?
Kerry worked methodically to eradicate any hope that he might extricate the us from Bush’s war in Iraq. Back on the campaign trail after the flag-wagging in Boston, he administered yet another wallop to wan progressives trying to persuade themselves that he was more of a man of peace than Bush: he surrendered Saddam’s non-existent wmds as an election issue. Jamie Rubin, top State Department spokesman in the Clinton years and now Kerry’s foreign-policy flack, was the bearer of this huge gift to Bush. Rubin told the Washington Post that ‘knowing then what he knows today’ about the lack of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, Kerry still would have voted to authorize the war and, ‘in all probability’, would have launched a military attack to oust Hussein by now if he were president. (Previously, Kerry had only said, with typical forthrightness, that he ‘might’ have still gone to war.) Kerry himself then did some further clarifying in Arizona, where he told the press that, knowing then what he knows now, he would not have changed his vote to authorize the war, although he would have handled things ‘very differently’ from Bush.
In late August, with us forces engaged in heavy fighting in Najaf, and American casualties edging inexorably towards 1,000, Rubin apologized to the Washington Post for his ‘in all probability’ phrase. In more philosophical mode, he now explained that it was ‘unknowable whether Kerry would have waged the war. “Bush went to war the wrong way,” Rubin said. “What we don’t know is what would have happened if a president had gone about it the right way”.’footnote17 Equally unknowable is what Kerry’s ‘very different’ might mean. Under Bush, the un has given its full backing to the ongoing Occupation and its puppet government in Baghdad; fifty Islamic states have signed up in support; nato forces are hard at work inside Iraq’s borders.footnote18
On the economy, Kerry’s message at the Boston convention was dourly clear. Sitting next to Teresa Heinz Kerry during the candidate’s acceptance speech was Robert Rubin, ex-Secretary of the Treasury and Wall Street’s point man during the Clinton years, whose former subordinates are now running Kerry’s economic policy. Here we may as well state the obvious. As a political force on the national stage organized labour, manifested in the big unions of the afl-cio, is pretty much dead. As a fraction of the workforce, non-government union membership is now down to 9 per cent, and that number is sinking by a digit a year. In 1992, labour could still claim to have made at least a rhetorical input into Clinton’s campaign, with its pledges about ‘putting people first’. Clinton repaid labour’s ‘get out the vote’ efforts and money by selling out on health reform and failing to do anything on labour law; unless this changes, prospects for union organizing are bleak.
In 2004, organized labour has failed to elicit a single significant pledge from Kerry. His only concern is Wall Street and the bankers. His April statement that the deficit would be his first consideration meant goodbye to any decent jobs programme. Big labour’s prime political functions are, domestically, to rally its members and cash for the Democratic candidate and, internationally, to use the millions put its way by the National Endowment for Democracy and cognate operations to subvert radical organizing (as, most lately, in the efforts to oust Hugo Chávez). That is the story—just another mile-marker in the decline of labour since the late 1960s. Kerry will do nothing to arrest that decline, though his public-spending cuts, if his deficit-slashing is serious, may help to hasten it along.footnote19
Progressives who have touted the ‘Anyone but Bush’ standard (which reached its comical nadir with furious defences of Kerry’s record as an accredited war hero and winner of medals in Vietnam, accompanied by denunciations of Bush as a draft dodger) claim that the minute Kerry is sworn in as president they will be out on the streets, attacking from the left. One only has to look at the surrenders of the Clinton years, sketched in above, to predict with some confidence that these pledges of resistance are vacuous.
Safeguarding the duopoly
Always partial to monopolies, the Democrats think they should hold the exclusive concession on any electoral challenge to Bush and the Republicans. The Nader campaign prompts them to hysterical tirades. Republicans are more relaxed. Ross Perot and his Reform Party actually cost George Bush Sr his re-election in 1992, yet Perot never drew a tenth of the abuse for his presumption that Nader does now.footnote20 Of course the Democrats richly deserve the challenge. Through the Clinton years the party remained ‘united’ in fealty to corporate corruption and right-wing class viciousness; and so inevitably and appropriately, the Nader-centred independent challenge was born, modestly in 1996, strongly in 2000 and now again in 2004. The rationale for Nader’s challenge was as sound as it was for Henry Wallace half a century earlier.
The central political issue in America today is the decay of the political system itself, and of the two prime parties that share the spoils. Wherever one looks, at the gerrymandered districts, the balloting methods, the fundraising, corruption steams like vapours from a vast swamp. In the House of Representatives, only some 35 seats are in serious contention. The rest have been gerrymandered into permanent incumbencies. A key attribute for entry into America’s professional political caste is the ability, so well demonstrated by the Senator for Massachusetts, to cultivate the interests of a multi-millionaire donor base. Of course money has always played a decisive role in American politics, but these days the amounts required are truly vast. It was Rep. Tony Coelho of California who oriented the Democratic Party in the 1980s towards the mountains of cash available (given suitable pledges) from corporate treasuries, thus setting the compass for the Lincoln bedroom auctions of Clinton-time and Al Gore’s black-bag outing to the Buddhist temple.
There are plenty of campaigns here in the usa that pit idealism and the zeal for justice against the cruelties and oppressions of the system. They do not rise and fall in tune with the political cycle and have faced bipartisan obloquy from Democrats and Republicans. The struggle for Palestinian justice has grown from near invisibility in the early 1970s to a substantial movement active across the entire United States, notably in church and community groups and on campuses. Ralph Nader’s fierce denunciations of aipac, of the Anti-Defamation League and of the overall malign power of the Israeli lobby would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. The fact that Nader, a Palestinian, felt emboldened to break a lifetime’s public silence on the topic is testimony to the change wrought by thirty years of organizing.
If ever there was a long-haul crowd, it is the anti-death penalty organizers who saw their greatest recent victory come in Illinois when Governor Ryan conceded police torture and racism and took a dozen inmates off death row. Year after year, the anti-death penalty campaigns across the country offer vivid dioramas of the savageries of the state at every stage, from the biographies of those condemned to the death-house conveyor belts that run continuously in states such as Texas and Florida. Medical marijuana has been one important gateway in the long guerrilla campaign against the ‘war on drugs’, in essence a war on the poor, particularly minorities. The right of people in permanent pain to have their palliative of choice is one that has endless resonances, in combating the predations of the pharmaceutical industry and the iniquities of the law and its enforcement. The living-wage campaign, fought in city after city across the country, has kept a focus on building a movement that actually fights for the working class. Amid the decline of organized labour, these campaigns have created coalitions at the city level, below the radar of the vested powers operating through state and Federal legislatures.
Many attest to a slack political tempo this campaign season. A simple refusal to vote at all on the presidential candidate could see the turnout drop below 50 per cent, as bleak a register of popular cynicism about the realities of the democratic mandate in the us today as the Venezuelan turnout was exhilarating. The next us president could even be denied a majority ‘mandate’ from the sliver of those voters going to the polls. By the same token, the shape of resistance in the coming years will not derive from a vote for Kerry, or even one for Nader, but from the harnessing of those vital, idealistic energies that always move through the American firmament, awaiting release.