The 2004 Elections and the Collapse of the Left

Thomas Harrison: “What a waste. All those liberals and radicals, including tens of thousands of young people, people who had marched in antiwar demonstrations, flocking to the swing states to leaflet, ring doorbells, sit at phone- banks, and register voters, all on behalf of a candidate who was promising them at least four more years in Iraq! The great outpouring to elect Kerry amounted to a veritable mass movement; though profoundly misguided, it exhibited enormous energy and idealism.

It would bode well if there were now at least some awareness on the left that working for Kerry was a fool’s errand, and that the impact on progressive politics has been calamitous. But so far the signs are not good…” (New Politics)

Clicking on the title, I looked forward to reading a perspective that shared my concerns about how progressives had handled themselves in ’04. I agree with him that many of those with a true progressive agenda who threw their lot in with the Democrats are guilty of losing their nerve and not holding Kerry accountable to leftist ideals. The left “…muzzled itself at election time, accommodating the Democrats’ move to the right precisely when people are most tuned in to politics”.

But Harrison goes further. He utterly rejects the logic of Anyone but Bush and minimizes the differences between Bush and Kerry. As someone who was passionate about the necessity of Anyone but Bush, I find it outrageous that Harrison does not seem to find it conceivable that people could both find the lesser-of-evils vote necessary and palatable in 2004 and be committed to and working toward a politics that transcends the two-party system in the longer term. This sort of holier-than-thou, patronizing arrogance of a certain kind of ur-leftist, refusing to compromise on principle, was the downfall of the left in decades past. It is an attitude which will not be its salvation now.

Moreover, Harrison writes as if he invented the notion that there is little to choose between the Demublicans and the Republocrats. I was proud of saying, up until Bush emerged as the Republican candidate in the lead-up to the 2000 election, that I was above electoral politics and that one’s choice in the presidential election could not make much of a difference. Many people had a similar conversion. The weakness of the Democrats’ ability to appeal to the left is that too many people whose inherent decency and morality put them above politics have to be enlisted. It was a triumph, not a disgrace, that these people were successfully mobilized in 2004. It was their conscience — not some conspiracy to quash third parties among the wing of the military-industrial complex that controls the Democratic Party machine — that recruited them to oppose Bush in 2004.

Harrison also ignores the fact that many were initially drawn in by Kucinich and Dean, whose names do not even appear in the essay because they would be awkward contradictions to his thesis. A politics of exuberant grassroots progressivism almost hijacked the Democratic Party in 2004 before it flagged and people made their conscientious lesser-of-evils choice. And it seems to me that the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party between those who feel it loses because it is not enough Republican-like and those who feel it is because it is too much so is not yet over.

In attacking the logic of Anyone but Bush, Harrison asks us if we suppose the Republicans will mount anyone less heinous in future years, and whether the “strategic” vote for Kerry will become a pattern every four years required by equivalent emergencies. His main concern is that this will forestall the effort to build a political alternative, i.e. a third party movement. It may well, for the near term. The Republican “emergency” is of course not Bush; he is the front man for a neo-conservative agenda of dismantling the social progress of the last century or so. It is an ongoing emergency that will continue to require realpolitikal compromises for a great while before we can rely on the upwelling of a Third Wave. Those of us who are disgusted with the current shape of the Democratic Party are at the same historical point as the reactionaries who felt betrayed by the Republican Party in the mid-60’s. How they responded was to carefully and methodically lay the groundwork for the hijacking of that party over the next twenty to forty years. Progressives can count on needing nothing less than an equivalent effort. In the meanwhile, there will probably be alot of Gore- and Kerry-like insipid, co-opted Democrats for whom many find it necessary to hold their noses and vote (for example [ugghh] Hilary Clinton in ’08?). Harrison argues that the last vestiges of difference between the parties, e.g. support for abortion rights, will almost inevitably evaporate over the continuing Republican onslaught of the next decade or so. This ignores the likelihood that defense of abortion rights may be a moot point long before the Democrats have to concede that plank in their platform, as Bush stacks the judicial system with reactionaries who will dismantle progressive velues by coup and not just slow attrition. This was what the Anybody but Bush vote was trying to forestall.

Harrison also feels blaming the American people for the choice 51% of them made is ‘blaming the victim’ and that it is a mistake to conceive of the electorate as permanently reactionary. He has the sort of naive faith in The People that I have seen in decades past, in defiance of the evidence, mostly in the dogmatic Marxist Left: ” …(T)he people we want to reach, the vast majority, having no fundamental stake in the perpetuation of the existing system, are capable of grasping the reality that they are plundered, exploited, and ideologically manipulated in the interests of a ruthless elite.” But the theoreticians of the left have always understood that overcoming the False Consciousness by which the ruled are made to feel that the rulers’ interests are their own is no trivial matter. His solution to turn mass consciousness around is “hard campaigning by an independent left,” with the emphasis on independent. Harrison feels, quite ridiculously, that beginning to model opposition to the Democrats now will align “millions of Americans who are sick of wars, insecurity, declining wages, worsening schools, racism, and homophobia and long for peace, equality, and social justice” behind a third party. He suggests that a declaration of independence by the left is the only thing that would avert a grim future.

The contradiction in Harrison’s thinking is to argue that, within the Democratic party, there is no hope to avoid the co-optation of progressive values by an inescapable False Consciousness, while at the same time arguing that in the broader plane of the electorate such co-optation to Republican ideals could be readily countered by some sort of vigorous movement to raise mass consciousness. He faults those of us who thought the electorate should have known better than to vote for Bush, but is contemptuous of progressive Democrats — the constituency his argument needs — because he thinks they should have known better than to vote for Kerry. He holds progressives to a higher standard of political enlightenment than he does the electorate while arguing that those he criticizes are guilty of a failure of faith in the electorate.

Remember my first posts after the 2004 Bush victory, in one of which I described the relevance of the stages of mourning? I know I talked about my reluctance to leave the anger stage, but this is ridiculous. Harrison is contemptuous of: the Kerry campaign, Democratic party hacks, progressives within the Democratic party, the Greens, other existing attempts at third party movements, Nader’s ineptitude, most of the Left. The only people for whom no scorn is reserved are the Bush folks and the folks who elected him.