In his essay “The 2004 Elections and the Collapse of the Left,” Thomas Harrison in New Politics claims that the left and the anti-war movement have collapsed—and he is wrong.
The central argument in his piece is that working within the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential election was an error. The author asserts that if the left had done politics the way he prefers we would now have a viable third party effort. But he provides no evidence.
Movements have ups and downs. The movements against the Viet Nam war, against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, and others, each of which I participated in, had times of growth and times of re-organization. There were major ups and downs in these movements, as there are now. We went from growth to dispersal many times. Often the Nixon administration saved us from obscurity, as with the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. The Reagan Administration did the same by blockading the harbors of Nicaragua and funding the death squads in El Salvador.
In “normal” times, a very small percentage of the population pays attention to politics, often less than 5 percent. However, in the electoral season, many more pay attention, at times up to 50 percent. Prior to 2004 a minority in the U.S. opposed the war. At present, some 53 percent of the U.S. public believes that Bush was wrong to go to war. This is quite an increase. Participation in the presidential election was a vehicle for spreading the anti-war message.
There is a new weakness in the anti-war position that was caused in part by the elections in Iraq in January, not by the U.S. elections. We have a changed insurgency. The new insurgency includes a large number of sectarian thugs, not freedom fighters. They have, for example, targeted civilians, particularly Shia civilians. They murder Shia because the Shia are a majority and want to run their own country. The nature of the insurgency—not the Kerry campaign—is the primary reason that anti-war work is now more difficult. And while I agree with some of Harrison’s analysis of Kerry, note that Kerry came within two percent of winning. We came close to defeating Bush. And, yes, we would have still needed an anti-war and anti-imperialist movement if Kerry had won. But Condoleeza Rice would not be Secretary of State, terrorist John Negroponte would not be Director of National Intelligence, and Paul Wolfowitz would not be nominated to the World Bank nor John Bolton as Ambassador to the United Nations. Election outcomes matter.
Harrison’s essay continues the debate over left-wing electoral strategy. I will not repeat all the arguments here. But because of the structural constraints of the U.S. two party system, leftists such as myself are trying to build a left inside and outside of the Democratic Party—and in a real sense the class divide in the U.S. runs right through the middle of the Democratic Party. This can be clearly seen in the recent decline of the Democratic Leadership Council. (Self disclosure: I ran as a Kucinich delegate in California and I am currently working to build a local of Progressive Democrats of America.)
The debate over third parties is an important one for the left. However, note how Harrison describes the leaders of the civil rights, women’s, environmentalist, and labor movements:
“The antiwar movement’s semi-hibernation was, in a way, bizarre. The leaders of the labor, women’s, civil rights, and environmental movements are longtime Democratic Party serfs; their prostration before Kerry was no surprise. Kerry could throw them a few symbolic concessions and get away with leaving it at that. But what could a frankly pro-war candidate concede to the millions who had come out against the imperialist occupation of Iraq? By what twisted logic could Kerry, who repeated over and over again his commitment to ‘finishing the job’ in Iraq, whose minions quashed any hint of a peace plank in the Democratic Party platform, be considered an antiwar candidate? There were no bones for him to throw.”
Now, if you agree with this position, then certainly go off and try to build a third party. I agree with his description of the Kerry war policies, but I don’t agree with his description of the leaders of labor, civil rights and other movements. And I have strong reservations about working with people who do accept this. Each of the movements criticized are in a re-thinking phase. They are having to adjust to Bush’s victory and Republican control of the House, Senate and Presidency. If the Democrats had won, the agenda would be different. Before I accept your description of the decline of these social justice movements, please tell me, what have you organized? Show me the organization and the structures with a million-plus people in them which you have created.
As for the anti-war movement, we have to recognize that at this state what we have is a loose network of local groups. The excellent coalition, United for Peace and Justice, is after all just that—a coalition. It can encourage broad participation by a very diverse series of groups and rallies. Some of the larger parts of the network, such as Peace Action, actively stayed out of the two-party election contest in 2004. Did such groups grow as a result? Show me the data.
I do not think that either side of the electoral politics debate has figured out how to deal with the corruption of the Democratic Party. I am confident that the strategy of third party advocates failed in 2004. But if you want to build a third party, please do so. There are some significant reasons why a third or fourth party is needed (in California it would be a sixth party). While an independent party effort is important it also faces some real problems. Among them are single-member congressional districts which tend to ensure a two-party system. I can guarantee that you will have to build your party through organizing and activism—not by blaming others for your failures to organize. You failed to organize in 2004. You failed to recruit others to your cause. Until you recognize your own failures you will remain a marginal footnote in real politics. Blaming others for not following your lead is not leadership, and it is not organizing. It’s only crying in your beer. Get over it.
So, what can the left do—what is to be done? Analyze the current array of forces, pick our battles, and fight these battles. After one battle is completed (such as the 2004 elections) we go on to the next. In each effort we try to bring new people to a leftist perspective—a socialist, anti-imperialist perspective. The various movements, including electoral activity, are educational processes and training opportunities for building a future left.
Duane Campbell lives in Sacramento, CA and is the chair of the Anti-Racism Commission of the Democratic Socialists of America.