by Doug Ireland
June 16, 2003
I never tire of repeating Gore Vidal's pungent diagnosis that "America has elections instead of politics." That's never been truer than at this moment in our history. So here's my modest proposal: The left-progressive elements within the Democratic Party should bypass the 2004 presidential campaign.
Rather than engaging in the quadrennial charade of spending time, money and energy on a flawed "progressive," ego-trip candidacy that will leave no institutional residue behind, lefties should pump those resources into the tough, long-term organizing job of creating a grassroots-supported structure to reverse what the late Paul Wellstone used to call "the hostile takeover of the Democratic Party" by opportunists in thrall to Corporate America.
At this point it looks like Kucinich's electoral performance might be embarrassing to the Left.
The past insurgent presidential candidacies of that old fraud Jesse Jackson (who wound up as an apologist for the DLC-style triangulations of Bill Clinton) and Jerry Brown (now drifting rightward as Mayor of Oakland, where he governs on an agenda tailored to that of the business interests) both failed to leave any organizational basis for continuing the fight once their candidacies were over.
Things won't be any different this year. Howard Dean, around whom many progressives -- led by the politically illiterate Hollywood liberals -- have rallied in their despair over the Republican-Lite me-too-isms of the frontrunners, is, by his own admission, hostile to the left wing of his party. "I really have a healthy mistrust of the Left as well as the Right," he said under the probing questioning of The Nation's David Corn in a revealing interview published March 31. And, Dean added, "My M.O. has been to be in the middle."
Dennis Kucinich is a genuine left-populist, but despite his recent election-year conversion into a defender of a woman's right to an abortion, dour Dennis is hobbled by his past performance as co-chair of the House Right-to-Life caucus. He also insists on cleaving to the dangerous, anti-rational, New Age voodoo fantasies of his guru, Marianne Williamson, going so far as to organize a "peace conference" with her at the start of his campaign (for a dissection of Williamson's frightening views, see Wendy Kaminer's book, Sleeping With Extraterrestrials).
At this point it looks like Kucinich's electoral performance might be embarrassing to the Left; in the latest Iowa poll, taken for KCII-TV and released June 6, he's still at just 1 percent, despite weeks of campaigning there. Moreover, it's an open secret that Kucinich's presidential candidacy will terminate in March 2004, which is the deadline for filing for re-election to his House seat. So he won't even be present as a candidate to inject content into the predictably soporific national Democratic convention in Boston in 2004. And what is Kucinich building post-candidacy? As far as I can tell, there's nothing in his campaign plan. Should organizing stop just so Kucinich can go back to Ohio and continue to collect his Congressional paycheck?
The Democratic party Left should absorb the political history lesson from the takeover of the Republican Party by the Reagan-Goldwater brand of reactionary ideological conservatism, whose ultimate triumph was sealed by the installation of George W. Bush and Karl Rove in the White House. The hard-right conservatives won control of the GOP partly by being unafraid to run primaries to punish or evict so-called "moderates," and sometimes by running independent candidacies against them (as New York's Conservative Party did so effectively, even electing one of their own -- Bill Buckley's brother James -- to the U.S. Senate seat of the late "liberal" GOPer Jacob Javits).
The Democratic Leadership Council wasn't afraid to support primary fights, and the DLC's carrot-and-stick approach helped them corral the support of a raft of scaredy-cat incumbents whose natural inclination to scuttle away from left-liberalism (and thus harvest corporate campaign cash) was accelerated by the prospect of securing a place on the DLC's approval list. Democratic Left progressives should create a structure that combines the most effective tactics of the DLC and Christian Coalition models: Candidate recruitment, unambiguous ideological content at the top, along with coordinated fundraising (DLC) and a grassroots voter education and mobilization effort with the creation of a donor base at the bottom (Christian Coalition).
The problem is that, so far, nobody seems willing to engage in the hard, long-term work needed to build or finance such a primary-fighting structure. I doubt that in the current political context one can build such an operation without the labor movement. But the national labor leadership is on the defensive in the Bush era more than ever before. It faces a declining membership and hence declining funds, as America's industrial base has evaporated. Unions are also suffering the disastrous consequences of labor's failure to educate its members in politics during the Meany-Kirkland decades of AFL-CIO stasis; half of the unions' members now vote Republican. And finally, the labor leadership won't put its remaining muscle and money behind anything they can't control. In general, the leadership is afraid of a labor-citizen coalition in which the citizen component could gain the upper hand.
One can see this clearly in the labor-backed Working Families Party in New York, one of the few states that permits party cross-endorsements. The narrow, bread-and-butter legislative agendas of the labor leaders who control and fund the party dominates its endorsement process, and there's been a serious failure to try to build the WFP's civil-society, non-labor component. The result? The WFP has become little more than an adjunct of the Democratic party instead of an independent electoral pressure group. In too many cases it has endorsed trimmers, hacks and people who would not be considered in any serious way "progressives" (including some candidates who have accepted Conservative party endorsement).
There's another problem: the way in which, for a variety of historical reasons, progressive politics in this country evolved into single-issue politics. This has led to the establishment of largely Washington-based bureaucracies, characterized by jealousy and turf-paranoia, the husbanding of direct-mail lists with Chekist-like secrecy, and a refusal to participate in the real-world, bottom-up construction of political/electoral coalitions (except for occasional letterheads and press releases on this or that issue).
Given that the elements that could mobilize and sustain a serious electoral Left have been atomized, and labor leadership balks at jeopardizing its relationship with Democratic incumbents, it's hard to see how to coagulate the critical mass necessary to build the kind of electoral weapon I'm suggesting.
Consider three recent attempts by liberal Democrats to address the party's crisis. The "Take Back America" Conference, organized by the Campaign for America's Future last week, was a PR exercise and a feel-good rally for its participants that allowed liberals to vent their spleen at the DLC without proposing or working toward concrete organizational initiatives and alternatives of the kind I've described. One liberal Democratic strategist who attended called it a "nothingburger" that will leave no trace on the electoral picture a few months hence.
Labor is concentrating its efforts on a new organization headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal -- a boondoggle that reinvents the wheel by limiting itself to voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts (largely content-free). It does nothing to challenge the armlock the dominant Clintonite-DLC-opportunist Democratic wing has on the party's apparatus (Rosenthal's operation was designed primarily as a gimmick to allow labor to get around the national ban on soft money, and is already disabled by the withdrawal of black and Latino labor elements fearful of losing what little financial patronage they already have from the AFL-CIO's 16th Street headquarters).
And the just-launched American Majority Institute is headed by one of the chief Clinton triangulators, former White house chief of staff John Podesta, who was hip-deep in the 1996 campaign finance scandals as the chap in charge of filling political contracts for fat-cat influence-buyers (a process he continues to defend to this day as ethically pristine). No lefties need apply.
The prospects for left-progressive electoral politics will be not rosy, but black as night unless a primary-fighting effort of the kind I've suggested becomes reality. In its absence, we're in for a mighty long period of reactionary Republican dominance that will be fundamentally unchallenged by the "opposition" party, which nowadays amounts to little more than an incumbent protection racket. It's time to put politics back into our elections. The Left needs to focus its resources on a new electoral structure built on the ground from the bottom up. Otherwise progressives will continue to play an illusory role, supporting a doomed Democratic candidate with no hope of nomination in a 2004 election whose outcome -- the re-election of George W. Bush -- is not at this point seriously in doubt.
Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator. This article first appeared in Tom Paine.com (www.tompaine.com)