The prospect of hanging, Dr. Johnson said, concentrates the mind wonderfully. The threat posed by George W. Bush’s right-wing reaction has organized the left for Kerry, just as Clinton galvanized the right for Bush.
As a referendum on Bush’s failed agenda, Election 2004 can help toll the end of the conservative era that has defined our politics for the past quarter-century. For progressives, this election has revealed the growing power of their arguments and the sophistication of their activism. That energy, at the base of the Democratic Party, provides hope that victory in 2004 may mark the beginning of a movement that can transform American politics.
1. The Collapse of the Conservative Era
Bush is in trouble, and the reason is simple. With the right controlling both the White House and Congress, he has pushed through much of the right-wing agenda–and it has proved bankrupt once again.
Pre-emptive war and an arrogant unilateralism produced the debacle in Iraq, which has left America more isolated, more reviled and more vulnerable. Pre-emptive top-bracket tax cuts have run up record deficits as far as the eye can see, while generating the worst jobs record of any President since the Great Depression. Bush’s policies have worsened our Gilded Age inequality, while working Americans find it harder to afford healthcare, college, retirement security or even to keep up with the rising cost of food and gas. Privatization and deregulation contributed to the worst corporate scandals since the 1920s, symbolized by the collapse of Enron, one of Bush’s leading contributors in the 2000 race. Corporate looting reached new shamelessness in Iraq, led by Dick Cheney’s Halliburton.
The Administration’s assault on workers has helped to hike corporate profits to their highest portion of GDP since the 1920s. The rollback of environmental regulation has enhanced the threat of global warming, which even Pentagon planners now suggest is more destabilizing than terrorism. And the Bush White House has encouraged the religious right’s jihad against family planning, reproductive rights, even evolution. In the midst of an AIDS pandemic, this Administration continues to enforce its gag order muzzling doctors from providing common-sense information that can save lives. In stem-cell research and elsewhere, it has crippled science to cater to the evangelical right. In its assault on affirmative action and judicial nominations, it practices a race-baiting politics of division, wholly at odds with the diversity that is America’s strength.
2. The Democratic Contrast
Across the country, progressives are rightfully muttering about the uncertain trumpet represented by John Kerry. Since winning the nomination, Kerry has surrounded himself with former Clinton policy advisers, reaching out to the money wing of the party, represented by the Democratic Leadership Council. He’s tempered the populist language on corporations and trade that helped him fend off the Howard Dean challenge. Kerry had to be pushed to open his Wonder Bread campaign staff to minorities. And he has seemed content to practice rope-a-dope politics, letting Bush self-destruct without offering a clear choice or challenge.
But as even Ralph Nader sometimes acknowledges, for all Kerry’s temporizing and backsliding, Bush’s extremist agenda insures that the differences between Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards are stark–and for progressives, compelling. Though Kerry voted to give Bush the authority to make war in Iraq, and has failed to call for an end to the US occupation, he challenges the pre-emptive war doctrine of the Bush Administration and promises a foreign policy that will be tempered by alliances, international cooperation and the rule of law. He offers Americans an administration that surely would be more effective in isolating and pursuing terrorists abroad, more able to revive America’s influence and enlist its allies, and more willing to address the broader threats to US security–from catastrophic climate change to the trade in loose nukes.
Kerry assails the Bush tax cuts, and vows to roll back the top-end cuts and close egregious corporate loopholes. Despite his embrace of former Treasury Secretary and Citigroup strategist Robert Rubin’s finance economics, Kerry pledges to use that money to invest in healthcare, education and energy independence. He vows to bring the budget deficit under control but depends largely on growth to achieve that rather than deferring needed social investments. He supports holding corporations accountable and empowering labor. He has pledged to push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to create unions when a majority of the workplace signs up. He favors expensing corporate stock options and cracking down on corporate corruption. He rails against offshore tax havens. And in choosing Edwards as his running mate, he has selected, as Nader noted, the candidate most ardently standing up for work rather than wealth, and holding corporations accountable to a greater good.
On social policy, Kerry is a lifelong liberal, defending the advances made by the civilizing movements of recent decades–on civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the environment. On his watch, the courts won’t be packed with zealots of the right-wing Federalist Society, intent on resuscitating states’ rights and limiting the power of the government to protect citizens, consumers and the environment. A Kerry victory would mean a repudiation of the right. It would enable progressives to go from defense to offense. Instead of fending off a concerted assault on their very existence, unions would be able to push for federal measures that could revive the right to organize and strike. Women and civil rights leaders could mobilize to extend rights, not simply defend the ones they have. Without a solid Democratic majority in the House and Senate, Kerry and Congressional Democrats will have to force issues that expose how extreme the right-wing leadership is. The corporate looting of Iraq and the blatant corruption of the GOP Congress can be targeted for investigation. There will be stark limits to what Kerry can accomplish, but the difference between facing a constant assault organized out of the White House and having an administration with no choice but to be responsive to the progressive base will transform political possibilities.
3. Progressives Rising
As has historically been the case, progressives gave Democrats their voice in the run-up to the 2004 elections. The campaign started with the unprecedented mobilization against the war in Iraq in 2002-03. Millions rallied around the globe, opposing a war that had not even begun. Although the Bush Administration spurned them, the New York Times heralded the demonstrations as signaling the rise of a new power in the world–global public opinion. And in the midst of that mobilization, progressive organizations here like MoveOn.org were expanding exponentially, building an Internet base of more than 2 million citizens.
When the lies and staggering incompetence of the White House were revealed in the war’s aftermath, the fury among progressives made itself heard. At a time when Beltway pollsters and pundits were warning Democratic presidential candidates that Bush was too popular to take on directly, MoveOn began publishing full-page ads censuring the President for misleading Americans. Howard Dean’s meteoric rise came because he tapped into that anger, realizing that Democrats were looking for a candidate who would challenge Bush across the board. “There’s a lot of recycling going on,” Dean complained as other candidates began echoing his aggressive stances. Edwards gained momentum from a populist speech challenging the “two Americas” of wealth and work. Kerry railed against “Benedict Arnold” corporations and began indicting the White House for its extremism.
In the primaries, progressives provided the ideas that candidates had to embrace: the Apollo project for jobs and energy independence, the challenge to No Child Left Behind and demand for larger investment in education, opposition to the shameless giveaway to drug companies, affordable healthcare, indictment of Bush’s war in Iraq, support for labor rights and environmental protections in trade accords, reaffirmation of the right to organize. Choice, affirmative action, environmental protection. These mainstream progressive positions defined the Democratic debate.
For decades, Democratic candidates have eschewed populist and anticorporate policies while they competed to raise money from Wall Street bankers and corporate fat cats. But in a potentially profound transformation of American politics, Dean and MoveOn broke the money primary, proving it was possible to raise millions through small donations over the Internet from committed citizens. For the first time, populist tribunes had no need to bite their tongues to attract big-money contributors. This change will have lasting effects, not only on presidential races but also down the ticket as well. For example, Progressive Majority is recruiting “the next generation of Paul Wellstones,” identifying candidates for state and local offices and providing them with training, campaign organization and progressive coalition endorsements in selected states across the country. MoveOn and Dean’s new organization Democracy for America have committed to asking their members to help provide early money for those campaigns, offering progressive challengers at the local level the opportunity to be financially competitive and independent from the start.
4. Progressives Building
Even as progressive activists were rousing Democratic Party leaders from their torpor, they were building an infrastructure independent of party institutions that, if sustained at scale, can provide the motor for political movement, like the infrastructure the right built in the 1970s and ’80s. As Howard Dean pledged at the Campaign for America’s Future “Take Back America” conference in June, “We’re not only going to take back the White House and elect Democrats to office, we’re going to create an independent movement to hold them accountable and keep them honest.”
The ground war this fall will be waged by independent organizations–called 527s for the tax-code provision they operate under–formed by progressive activists from labor, America Coming Together, Voices for Working Families and others. Perhaps the most important initiative was formed with little press notice by the AFL-CIO. Working America offered employees in working-class neighborhoods associate membership in the federation, enabling the association to provide them with its full political education and voter mobilization program. Citizen organizations like ACORN and USAction dramatically expanded voter registration and Get Out the Vote activities and sophistication. Progressives also augmented the think tanks and research institutions vital for challenging the policies of the right. The well-funded Center for American Progress provided aggressive daily challenges to the Bush debacles. The Institute for America’s Future launched initiatives on jobs, energy independence, education and kitchen-table issues that helped frame the alternative agenda. The Economic Policy Institute operated with new sophistication in challenging the Bush record on jobs and wages. MoveOn, True Majority and Working Assets are pioneering new forms of web-based activism, showing the ability to mobilize their members into action via the web and on the ground. MoveOn, ACORN, the National Education Association and the Campaign for America’s Future are organizing the largest mobilization on public education ever this fall.
MoveOn led the air war against Bush, with independent ad campaigns in selected states. When Bush spent $31 million in April seeking to bury Kerry before he got a chance to introduce himself to most Americans, MoveOn and the Media Fund jumped in to counter the Bush pre-emptive thrust. In the political culture wars, progressives are soaring; anti-Bush assaults topped the bestseller lists. The Nation is now the highest-circulation political weekly in the country. Web-based portals like TomPaine.com, AlterNet, Common Dreams and BuzzFlash gained ever greater readership and vitality. And of course, Michael Moore’s award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 shattered all box-office earnings records for documentaries and galvanized audiences nationwide with its searing indictment of Bush and the debacle in Iraq.
At the state and local levels, a new grouping of the Center for Policy Alternatives, Demos and the Center on Wisconsin Strategies provided a growing challenge to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing policy shop. In electoral politics, Wellstone Action and Democrats 2000 provide increased capacity to train campaign activists, as Progressive Majority builds a new generation of progressive leaders from the bottom up.
5. The Way Forward
The first imperative is to re-defeat George Bush in the 2004 presidential election. That will require fierce, passionate and smart efforts by progressive forces. Bush isn’t much interested in the world, and surely doesn’t concern himself with running the government. His passion is political campaigns, and, as a student of Lee Atwater, he is famous for running disciplined and vicious campaigns. The Republican attack machine will gear up to turn John Kerry into a Frenchman, Teresa Heinz Kerry into an alien and John Edwards into a cat’s-paw of the trial lawyers lobby.
While laboring for victory this fall, progressives should harbor no illusions about a Kerry presidency. This election will represent the defeat of the right, not the victory of a progressive movement. As the Clinton years taught us, progressives must gear up to hold the administration accountable and be prepared to fight pitched battles to forward progressive reforms and counter backsliding. Central to this effort, progressives must put forth their own bold reform agenda, and campaign for it. It should include kitchen-table concerns like affordable healthcare and high-quality education; challenges to the vapid national security debate; and strategic reforms to empower workers, challenge media concentration and reaffirm the right to vote. If MoveOn joined with progressive unions to drive the plan, we could hold candidates accountable to that agenda in 2006.
Real progress will depend on the left’s doing a far better job at forging coalitions across racial lines. Any enduring progressive majority must enlist enthusiastic leadership and participation from minority communities. Progressive organizations and activities must reflect the coalition we hope to build. Forging that coalition will enable progressives to begin targeting districts and states in the South and Southwest, where Republicans can be taught the perils of being a party of white sanctuary. The end of the conservative era is clearly in sight–even as the right uses its political machine to fight a rear-guard action to maintain power. Perhaps the worst legacy of that era is the shackles it has put on our imagination. The corporate domination of both parties suffocates possibilities. The staggering weight of our military budgets and global apparatus distorts America’s role in the world. The conservative assault on government still cripples our sense of what is possible.
But victory in 2004 can open a new chapter. That will require continued mobilization and continued invention and continued struggle. Conservatives say “TINA”–there is no alternative. But they are wrong. A better America is possible, and 2004 can mark the turning.