Learning from the Loss
A transition to a new generation of leadership is needed if the massive outpouring of activism of the past year is to flourish and be funded for the future.
51 percent is no mandate.
Maybe the Republicans were confusing the outcome with a mandate from heaven (more on that later), but as soon as the polls closed their propaganda machinery began repeating the mantra of mandate, using the mass media as an echo chamber. By the next day, Grover Norquist was announcing that America is a “Republican majority country,” and you could hear him squelching the urge to say “love it or leave it.”
This mandate talk is nothing less than orchestrated state propaganda. America is as fundamentally divided today as it was last week, as divided as the ‘60s, as divided as it has been since the last civil war.
John Kerry, almost nobody’s candidate one year ago, won 49 percent, or 55 million votes — the largest number of votes against an incumbent in history.
But Republicans are trying to consolidate their power over every branch of government in excess of their 51 percent popular mandate.
Kerry could have won, According to a compilation of exit polls, the Democrats squandered their usual gender gap, beating Bush by only 51-48, even among working women. The Democrats’ cultural elitism won them the post-graduate vote 55-44, while handing Bush 52 percent of high school and college graduates. The eastern Democratic establishment’s relative disinterest in Latinos let Bush win 44% of those votes. The accurate perception that John Kerry is given to “flip-flopping,” or “nuanced thinking” if you will, was so magnified by Republican advertising that only 40 percent of voters thought Kerry said what he believed (unlike the president’s flat-out lies about weapons of mass destruction).
But the Democrats’ unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort worked. Seventeen percent of the 18-29 year olds turned out, an increase of seven percent, with 54 percent supporting Kerry. Those undecideds who made up their minds on either election day or the last three days voted for Kerry by margins up to 55 percent. Among first-time voters, who were 11 percent of the turnout, Kerry topped Bush 53-46. Over 1,500 community-based organizations threw themselves into this election. Mark Ritchie of nationalvoice.org was quite right in feeling that “we are in the first stages of creating a [new] pro-democracy movement in the United States, one that draws on the best of all our political streams.”
So what lessons can be sifted from this bittersweet experience?
1. The anti-war movement now must assert its opposition everywhere.
Despite the Democrats’ hawkish rhetoric, the anti-war movement stayed the course against Bush. Among the 45 percent of voters who disapproved of going to war, 87 percent voted for Kerry.
The two-year rise of anti-war opposition has been under-reported but unprecedented. Beginning with marches of 100,000 or more in fall 2002, and millions in February 2003, the anti-war forces inevitably flowed into electoral politics through the Dean and Kucinich campaigns, just as many went “clean for Gene” McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968. The new movement still produced 500,000 marchers at the Republican convention in New York while absorbing over 1,000 arrests, and remaining steadfast to the strategy of maximizing the anti-Bush vote on Nov. 2.
2. Now, however, the movement must reassemble, attack and expand.
A U.S. military offensive against Fallujah and Ramadi may begin at any moment. From an anti-war viewpoint, it was unforgivable that Kerry and other Democrats assented to this pending assault. Bombing and killing civilians is hardly the way to build democracy, and only intensifies the irreversible Iraqi demand for self-determination. Even worse, the U.S. strategy being prepared by Ambassador John Negroponte — whose previous assignments included the Phoenix assassination program in South Vietnam and the U.S. war against the Sandinistas — is aimed at either (a) rigging the Iraqi electoral outcome by unifying a coalition of U.S.-backed parties of former exiles, or (b) bypassing the elections altogether in the name of a “security” crisis of U.S. making.. Mass suffering will continue to increase in Iraq, especially among women and children.
Unfortunately, the American peace movement could not accelerate its pace rapidly enough, in large part because of lingering public anxiety over the 9/11 attacks. But the rapid grown of protest was still significant compared to the Vietnam era, when just 25,000 showed up for the first Washington march in early 1965. It took three years of war and conscription, 500,000 American troops, and 200 body bags per month before a majority of Americans judged the Vietnam war mistaken and immoral. In half that time, and with far fewer casualties, a near-majority of Americans has come to disapprove the decision to invade Iraq (45 percent-51 percent) and a larger number of Nov. 2 voters felt the war was going badly (52 percent). But those numbers were not enough to propel John Kerry to the presidency.
However, the role of the anti-war movement remains crucial to ending the occupation of Iraq. The bloody quagmire is likely to deepen. So is the strain on US combat troops, especially the reserves. Already 14 of 32 countries in the “Coalition,” or almost half, have withdrawn, reduced their force numbers, or signaled their intention to do so, In every case, domestic anti-war movements have been crucial in persuading their governments to resist the imperial American attempt to conscript their people to fight our war. The only exceptions so far are England, Italy, Australia and Japan, where massive anti-war movements have shaken, but not yet toppled, their regimes so far.
In the same way, domestic anti-war pressure at the Congressional district level can complicate the Bush administration’s efforts to secure the $75 billion it seeks, with no strings attached, to subsidize the status quo, or perhaps expand the war to Iran or Syria. Already anti-war rumbling has forced Bush to announce “no new draft,” a commitment which either ties his hands militarily or will provoke a massive uproar if he breaks the pledge. Now that the Democrats are out of power, they should be forced by their rank-and-file to become more staunchly opposed to the Iraq policy, just as occurred after Nixon’s victory in 1968.
How can the war be ended? While a majority may see the invasion as a mistake, many will ask how the Unites States can leave “now that we are there”. That of course is how quagmires are become quagmires, and why the end game so often turns ugly, as in South Vietnam in 1975, because the politicians and generals are afraid to “cut and run,” While personally I am not persuaded that there is any moral justification for shedding one more dollar or drop of blood on an Iraq that hates the occupation, politically the anti-war movement should be calling for an exit strategy. If and when the US government makes an internal decision that the occupation is a lost cause, from that time the possibilities of peace will open up.
For example, the United States could manipulate its clients in Baghdad to thank us for toppling Saddam Hussein, invite us to leave, and quietly assure our supply of oil. The vast majority of insurgents would be happy with a U.S. withdrawal, Iraqi control of their economy and natural resources, along with parallel U.S. commitments to a real Palestinian state and a re-examination of the “special relationship” with the Saudi royals. The United States will have to allow Iraqis a real transition, towards a governing arrangement that follows the natural contours of their culture, probably an elected confederation with a Shiite majority plus guarantees for its Kurdish and Sunni minorities. Such an outcome would do more to lessen the danger of terrorism than anything the Homeland Security Agency will ever accomplish.
3. A revival of progressive populism is the key to winning back America.
As Thomas Franks and many others have pointed out, the Democratic Party and numerous single-issue groups have lost their traditional roots in populism, leaving a vacuum that cultural and religious issues fill. The starting point is the fight to assure the right to vote against the conspiracy of forces – employers of weekday workers, elites in college towns, makers of electronic machines that leave no paper trail, local officials who cause four-hour waiting lines, prosecutors that knowingly disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of former convicts and present parolees, incumbents of both parties, etcetera – who still believe that voting is a privilege they can restrict.
Beyond voting rights, the most obvious populist issue is the need to turn the Democratic Party away from its decade-long devotion to the chimera of “free trade” — which usually means corporate welfare – while millions of manufacturing jobs were being lost and replaced with lower-wage jobs with no benefits. For 30 years, the “party of the people” has failed to make its core issues the disappearance of the American middle class. The result is that places like Ohio and Kansas (Frank’s homeland) turn to the consolation of religion as their small town economies and way of life are shredded. That is why Kerry captured only 51 percent of the working women’s vote to Bush’s 48 percent, and why Kerry took just 57 percent of voters with union members in their households while Bush grabbed 42% despite systematically trying to undermine the AFL-CIO.
Even Newsweek wrote this year of American workers “finding themselves working harder for less money,” citing expert analysis that “globalization clearly [exerts] a leveling effect on wages.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that since 2001, “the percent of structural [permanent] job cuts has doubled compared to previous recessions, and that new jobs are averaging 57 percent pay cuts.” Newsweek goes on to note that “layoffs are now socially acceptable in the corporate world, and last year there were a record number of suicides attributed to economic causes such as job loss and heavy debt.” When Newsweek is to the left of the Democratic platform, it is time for rethinking.
The difference over populism went deeper than the clashing personalities of Bush (the regular guy) and Kerry (the Brahmin). The Republican Party has become more populist than the Democrats because its faith-based version diverts working people from class struggle to “moral issues,” a painless populism for corporations. When Enron dominated the headlines before Iraq came along, Karl Rove made sure that a few indefensible corporate moguls were seen handcuffed. Meanwhile, the potential of the Democratic Party to emphasize economic or environmentally-based populism runs contrary to the Party’s “growth” ideology and dependence on corporate donors and wheeler-dealers. And while the Kerry campaign placated labor and global justice activists with promises to oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement and “review” other trade agreements after the election, these commitments were rarely if ever mentioned on the campaign or the debates. Never once was Kerry quoted as saying “sweatshop” even though he signed a pledge to end government subsidies for them.
The next immediate opportunities for populists are likely to be the privatization of Social Security, the deepening lack of health care coverage, and the tightening squeeze on middle class incomes and opportunities. But the Democratic Party will have to cast off its timidity to say what needs to be said. For example: Why should our guaranteed Social Security benefits be gambled on the stock market if there’s another way to protect the system? Why does our health care system promote Viagra while it cannot deliver flu shots to those who will die this winter without them? When will Halliburton executives be indicted for over-charging on the delivery of food to our troops? Why can’t we ban untested chemicals likely to cause cancer in children? Will the Democrats select a chairperson willing to say such things, or a chair who caters to big donors and incumbents?
4. Taking back Jesus from the new Roman Empire.
Instead of “Jesus Saves,” we need to save Jesus. This is no time for the Democrats to begin pandering to any on the Christian Right who have turned Jesus into a symbol for a vast and potentially illegal political network of tax-exempt, church-based, right wing partisan activism.
Let’s look at the numbers. White evangelical born-again Christians, who were 23 percent of the total vote, gave Bush a 78 percent margin, and the very secular John Kerry 21 percent. White Catholics (like Kerry) provided 47 percent support. On the other hand, “white Jews” voted 75 percent for Kerry, voters who attend church “a few times a year” gave him 54 percent, and those who never attend religious services produced a 62 percent Kerry majority. People of color were Kerry’s strongest religious base.
In the wake of the election, many Democrats no doubt will begin repositioning themselves as born-agains. Instead they should articulate moral and spiritual values rather than misreading the separation of church and state to mean that such concerns are constitutionally out-of-bounds. They should also attack the transformation of institutional churches into de facto partisan agencies, and everyone, Christian or not, should battle take back Jesus from Empire.
Jesus was a dissident on the fringes of the Empire of his day. As Father Gregory Boyle says, “Jesus stood with everybody who was nobody. He made a beeline (always) to stand with those on the margins, those whose dignity had been denied, the poor and excluded, the easily despised, the demonized, and those whose burdens were more than they could bear. And they killed him for it.” Father Luis Barrios agrees, saying that the historical Jesus was ignored by the authorities until “he went downtown” to challenge the elite. As the Christian radical Cornel West writes in “Democracy Matters,” “prophetic Christianity” is being eclipsed by “Constantian Christianity”; that is, the very Empire that crucified Jesus later transformed him into the symbol of an expansionary state religion. This is what the Machiavellians like Rove and the neo-conservative non-believers have done through the Bush presidency: build the beginnings of a theocratic state just beneath the surface of the Republican Party, a shadow network of believers nesting in every crevice of bureaucracy available.
It is no accident that the young men and women killing, dying, being maimed and disoriented in Iraq come disproportionately from God-fearing families in small towns, or that the Pentagon hierarchy still supports a general who promotes the superiority of “our God” over the Muslims. For some conservative Christians, neither the Crusades nor the Confederacy are over. They continue in whispers, in code, covertly, awaiting the moment when the Good News can be proclaimed again, from Washington to Babylon. For these people, the second term of Bush is the Second Coming.
The only way to counter this trend towards state religion is by engaging the Christian community, especially the conservative evangelicals, in a moral and theological dispute about Jesus. Talk of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is not enough to break their paradigm. Pronouncements by liberal religious bureaucracies will not be taken seriously. The “people of faith” networks organized late in the presidential campaign are just the beginning of a populist spirituality as an alternative to the corporate-Republican cooptation of the faithful.
5. A Progressive Democratic movement must be strengthened inside and outside the Party.
Moving the Party to the right, pandering to “soccer moms” and “Nascar dads” without understanding them, distancing the party from its base (“blacks are no longer a good image for Democrats,” Jerry Brown once said), are symptoms of a political party confused about its soul. From the extraordinary efforts of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns and the independent 527 committees should come a groundswell of grassroots activism energizing progressive politics for the years ahead. Plans already are underway to form the Progressive Democrats of America, the Progressive Majority is supporting and training future candidates, and already 600 candidates have been generated by the Dean campaign, each continuing the tradition of the Rainbow Coalition. The inspired Move.On network, the independent media, the think tanks old and new, can be expected to grow and expand a progressive infrasructure. To build a truly populist movement, however, the traditional organizational cadres will have to recognize that the new volunteers, the “Deaniacs” and others, are more than “troops” to be commanded to do the work of calling voters, knocking on doors and sleeping on floors. A transition to a new generation of leadership – not a power rivalry between the generations, but a real transition – is needed if the massive outpouring of activism of the past year is to flourish and be funded for the future.
6. Finally, you can count on the Republicans to go too far.
When political parties become majorities, controlling everything after many years in a self-defined “wilderness,” they always go too far in rewarding their faithful. When Republicans dominate, they cannot control their lust for dominance. Where the superpower syndrome dominates, the coming possibility of defeat is invisible to them. Like the Nixon administration approaching the collapse of Saigon and the traps of Watergate, the Bush administration will be blinded by its own paradigms. It believes that a world that is interdependent can be dominated unilaterally, and that its numeric majority can impose a monolithic culture on a racially-divided America. Their excesses that inevitably arise from this arrogance will provoke wider resistance abroad, stronger social movements at home, and ultimately a disaffected majority. The only question is who will be organized and ready when the time comes.
Tom Hayden teaches on social movements at Occidental College.