|27/10/04||US Presidential Elections: A View from the Left by James Petras|
The most significant aspect of the US Presidential elections is the dramatic shift of the entire political spectrum to the Right. Fundamental reactionary changes in the US constitution, social legislation, international politics and law, as well as historical experience have become the common language of both major candidates in this election, without any mass popular demonstrations or intellectual protest from the majority of the Left.
The Patriot Act in its original and revised versions effectively eliminated the Bill of Rights, and the protection of citizens from arbitrary arrest by the State. Both major candidates and Parties endorse it. The National Security State is the centerpiece of both parties’ Presidential campaigns.
Neither candidates nor parties have addressed the problems of Afro-American or Latino-American workers. They are effectively excluded from the public debates. The programmatic exclusion of “minorities” is much more serious than the voting registration exclusion which has been publicized in the mass media. As a result, experts estimate that nearly 60% of the voting age population of these minorities will not vote. De facto exclusion results in national voting participation only marginally greater than during the period of legal exclusion in the South.
The center of the economic debate between Bush and Kerry is the question of the US Federal budget deficit, not the poverty, housing, health care, minimum wage or household deficit. Both candidates and parties defend fiscal austerity while increasing military spending; while the Democrats add on small increases in education spending, their insistence on deficit reduction and increased military expenditures makes a sham of their electoral promises.
There is a total absence of any promise of new labor legislation to facilitate trade union organization of the 91% of the private sector which is subject to the absolute control of the capitalist class. Despite the total indifference of the Presidential candidates, the major trade union confederation, the AFL-CIO, is spending ten times more money to elect Democratic Party millionaire John Kerry than it spends in an entire year to organize poor workers. The AFL-CIO’s so-called “Solidarity Institute”, spent more money financing the anti-Chavez golpistas than they spent protecting the right of the highly exploited farm workers in the USA.
The last remaining social reform from the past, the state retirement program, Social Security (SS), is now subject to privatization: Bush openly supports privatization while Kerry claims that SS is in ‘crisis’ and needs ‘revisions’. The previous Democratic President Clinton began the process of privatization by appointing a bi-partisan commission which opened the door to “partial” privatization and supported increasing the age of retirement to 67 years.
Even in the face of an immediate health crisis – such as the impending influenza epidemic and vaccine shortage – neither candidate is willing to go beyond “market solutions.” As millions of vulnerable US citizens face sickness and tens of thousands of additional preventable deaths will occur among infants, pregnant women, the elderly and chronically ill, neither Presidential candidate proposes state intervention to protect public health! Even Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, wrote that the state had a duty to protect public health.
Both major parties and Presidential candidates defend colonial wars and occupations, not only today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti, but future wars in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan and anywhere else that the empire demands. Both parties and candidates defend US and Israeli violations of international law, illegal and arbitrary mass arrests, extra territorial kidnapping and assassination by secret “special forces” and military assaults on civilian population centers. Lawlessness has become the norm for being “presidential” in the US today. The difference between the two candidates is over managing the public image of the Empire, and consulting European allies. The entire public Presidential debate was not over the legal, moral or political basis of colonial wars, but how to engage in colonial wars, how to defeat popular resistance, how to increase military effectiveness. In other words the entire political spectrum has become enclosed in a colonial ideological framework, where the only concern is US cost effectiveness and not the millions of homeless, unemployed, murdered and wounded colonized victims, the hundreds of thousands of terrorized families living in rubble in Iraq and Gaza.
There is little debate on Latin American policy: both parties support Plan Colombia, Plan Andino, more US military bases and ALCA. The difference between the two candidates is that Kerry wants to combine greater US protectionism of uncompetitive US producers with the so-called “Free Market” for Latin America.
It is clear that the right wing shift in US politics, combining economic liberalism and imperial militarization, began with Carter’s war in Afghanistan, and domestic de-regulation; it deepened with Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, the invasion of Grenada and massive military spending; Bush, Senior extended imperialism via the Gulf War and Clinton invaded the Balkans and dismantled the welfare programs for single mothers and dependent children. The current Bush regime has codified, formalized and made explicit the domestic liberal and imperial militarist policies practiced by the preceding Presidents, Democrats and Republican. Each time the Left chooses the “lesser evil” the political spectrum moves further to the right.
This election campaign occurred in the midst of two prolonged colonial wars in which the US faces mass resistance and increasing casualties, and mounting trade and budget deficits. Yet there is a total absence of anti-colonial political opposition. The dramatic shift from a formal bourgeois democracy to a colonial national security state has taken place in the absence of significant political opposition either within the two parties or from the “social movements”.
From a historical perspective one of the striking elements of these Presidential elections – apart from the sharp shift to the right – is the collapse of the “Left” and progressive opposition movements. The center of attention of over 90% of the Left and progressives is the Kerry campaign.
The US progressive movement has fallen a long way since the days of the massive street protest in Seattle (1999) against the World Trade Organization, and the multi-million anti-war protests of February 2002. Today October 2004, the streets are empty of protest, despite the savage colonial wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Haiti. Where have all the protestors gone? Where have all the “libertarian” intellectuals gone? They have effectively channeled into supporting the pro-war, pro-Sharon candidacy of John Kerry. The transition from a vibrant principled and massive peace and justice movement to becoming the inconsequential tail of the electoral campaign of a multi-millionaire warmonger took place in the short space of two years. This “transition” is a result of the lack of courage and dignity of the Left’s foremost ideological leaders and their political myopia. “Anybody but Bush” is a short term “solution” which sacrificed the tactical and strategic possibilities of the mass movements of 1999-2002. What makes the capitulation of the Left intellectuals even more tragic is the fact that a bona fide third party choice does exist: Ralph Nader and Peter Comejo. Nader/Comejo are campaigning energetically and courageously for everything that Seattle and the anti-war movement fought for before their leaders capitulated to Kerry: opposition to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense of Venezuelan sovereignty against the Kerry-Bush promoted coup, powerful defense of the Palestinians against Israeli state terror, and for a national public health program with universal coverage. Faced with the opportunity to join with two or three million voters who will support Nader/Comejo, the “progressives”, the NGO’s, professors, journalists and intellectuals from New York, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere, not only support Kerry but slander Nader/Comejo with the most outrageous personal insults. A Left ashamed of its own capitulation to Power, seeks to destroy the only candidates, which reminds the activists of what principled Left politics are all about.
There is no opposition from the Left or Progressives when Kerry proudly defends his military feats during the US colonial war in Indochina. For many middle age progressives, who consider their successful opposition to the Vietnam War as a high point in their lives, this must be a most shameful capitulation to a grotesque revision of history. Black Democratic politicians and religious notables are silent as Kerry totally ignores black workers’ demands and channels all of his attention to what he calls “middle class” (white) voters. The feminist movement cheers Kerry, even as he promises to consider appointing anti-choice judges. The Seattle NGO’s, the leaders of the mass anti-war movement and the entire leadership of the “Not in My Name” movement have never protested any of Kerry’s pro-war statements, not even his proposal to send 40,000 more US troops to Iraq. Instead many of the supposedly “progressive intellectuals” have launched slanderous attacks against democratic leftist Ralph Nader for his anti-war candidacy. When Kerry declared his uncritical support for Israel [*], at a time when Sharon was killing scores of Palestinian children, and Jewish lobbyists were being investigated for spying in the Pentagon, the US Left remained silent. When all the major Jewish organizations in the US secured the support of Bush and Kerry to target Syria and Iran, and to supply Israel with fifty 2,000 pound bombs, the most prominent and prestigious critical Jewish intellectuals kept their mouths shut, or shouted down Nader’s opposition to Israeli savagery.
The spectacular collapse and disappearance of the Left during the Battle of the Two Rightwing Candidates is one of the most serious consequences of this presidential election. In previous elections, even among the left which preferred the opportunist politics of “lesser evil”, there was constant progressive pressure to include certain ‘peace’ issues and social reforms in the electoral campaign. In this election Kerry totally ignores the Left, accepts their support without even acknowledging their presence. The Left has discredited itself, and has set the stage for giving Kerry a blank check to deepen and extend military colonialism and regressive domestic policies, if he is elected.
In the post-election period, the Left has no claims on Kerry, because he promised nothing and he can in all honesty insist that the “progressives” knew in advance what he would do – “continue the (colonial) war to victory”.
If we accept the problematic assumption that the US is a democracy, and that the candidates explicitly and openly defend colonial wars, then we must admit that all the citizens and especially the progressive intellectual who vote for the war candidate bear a deep personal responsibility for the carnage and pillage which takes place in Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and elsewhere. It would be highly dishonest to claim later, after the elections that the colonial devastation which takes place is “not in our name”.
The collapse of the left in the US is not merely a question of a presidential campaign. Because if either Bush or Kerry win, they will pursue with renewed vigor the bloody colonial wars that they promised, and the Left would have lost its credibility and respect. Faced with a future of wars, repression and social regression the question becomes when, where and how long will it take for a new political generation to emerge which refuses to become complicit with imperial wars and speaks truth to power – about Palestine, the Iraqi resistance, the impoverished Haitians and the need for a new political-social movement in the US.
* See Alan Dershowitz' essay A Message to the American Jewish Community