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Election 2004: Why the Left is Behind?

Sunil K Sharma and Josh Frank
Date Published: 
March 01, 2004

Our position is not that third parties in principle do not have a right to take part in the political process and field a presidential contender; but that in the present lousy situation, such an effort would do more harm than good. Sunil and Josh explain...

President-select George Bush and his coterie of neocon-artists is arguably the American Left’s best organizer. After all, the Bush regime’s drive to invade Iraq brought some 15 million protestors to the streets of cities all over the world before the war began, a display of dissent hitherto unseen in history. A plethora of international polls and surveys reveals Bush to be the most detested political figure today. The wave of worldwide solidarity and sympathy the US attained in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities soon turned to opposition and revulsion, as wars against and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, defiance of international law and treaties, and threats of further imperial wars have convinced the vast majority of the world that America clearly is the world’s biggest menace.

Here in the US, the Bush regime has compiled an impressive catalog of scandals: the energy industry’s exclusive role in designing Bush’s energy policy; the pre-9/11 ignoring of clear warnings of terrorist attacks on US soil by law enforcement agencies; conflict-of-interest giveaways of contracts to US oil and construction companies to plunder Iraq; the exposure of every pretext used to wage war on Iraq as lies designed to deceive the public into supporting a war that was pre-ordained long before 9/11; the felony outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, and more.

As we write this, a Newsweek poll shows 52% of respondents oppose a second Bush term in office, while other surveys point to an ongoing precipitous decline in the emperor’s approval rating. Meanwhile, the collusion of the (loyal opposition) congressional Democrats in supporting Bush’s wars, the USA PATRIOT Act and kindred assaults on a battered Bill of Rights, and their failure to make hay with the aforementioned scandals, highlight the soundness of third party arguments against the two-party duopoly.

Bummer year

Given all the above, you’d think election year 2004 would be a choice time for the Left, especially as the cry of “Anybody But Bush” reverberates across the land and among the grassroots movements arrayed against the regime. And yet it’s precisely because of this pervasive “Anybody But Bush” sentiment that 2004 looks to be a bummer year for the Left and any third-party challenge to the Demopublican juggernaut.

First, an important bit of translation is in order. It’s clear from peering out over the oppositional landscape that “Anybody But Bush” doesn’t mean anybody remotely Left (real or not) of an ever rightward shifting center. The most progressive Democratic presidential candidate is Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich is no radical lefty. He is essentially a New Deal Democrat in the mold of FDR, which in today’s world – where a conservative Democrat like Howard Dean is widely portrayed as a flaming liberal – is considered ultra-left.

Kucinich’s polling numbers remain stuck in the low single digits due to the failure of many erstwhile liberal and progressive organizations to back his alternative platform. And despite the fact that many Clark and Dean supporters admit they personally prefer Kucinich, they have concluded he can’t win, thus contradicting the oft-repeated claim that the best way to advance a progressive agenda is to run within the Party as an insurgent candidate. The Democratic Party is, as has long been the case, the graveyard of progressive and Left politics.

Though not usually articulated in these terms, what is really meant by “Anybody but Bush” is support for another business-as-usual, corporate puppet, but with a kinder and gentler face, who can pass some kind of “viability” (read, mainstream appeal) litmus test. Alas, the current political climate suggests there is much truth to this logic. Nevertheless, the Left need not mimic the (un)comical caricature of author, filmmaker and progressive pied-piper Michael Moore by supporting a war criminal and man of questionable Democratic Party allegiance (Wesley Clark), pretending said candidate is really anti-war and harbors progressive tendencies. You don’t have to eat crap and act like you enjoy it.

Any advances the Left and third party efforts can hope to achieve must follow from a clear picture of political reality. That reality doesn’t at the moment favor us, but all is not bleak. Despite the correctness of Green Party candidates Peter Camejo’s and David Cobb’s arguments in support of a third party run for the presidency in this issue of Left Turn, such an effort is doomed to fail and would be an unwise waste of precious resources.

To be clear, our position is not that third parties in principle do not have a right to take part in the political process and field a presidential contender; but that in the present lousy situation, such an effort would do more harm than good. Tactical choices are not at all divorced from moral and principled considerations. The American Left is in a weak position at the moment, and the central question is how do we strengthen our movements in a way that structural changes can be achieved, in a sustained effort that goes beyond mere election year politicking?

The Nader problem

Ralph Nader recently declared he will not run for the White House on the Green Party ticket, and has yet to decide if he’ll run as an Independent. Nader was the Greens’ most high profile candidate, and the Party currently lacks someone of similar public stature and name recognition (former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was courted by many Greens, but has decided to forgo a run on the Green ticket for 2004). Even if Nader stayed with the Greens and they decided to field him as a presidential candidate, his run would surely hurt them and progressive third party efforts for years to come.

The fact is, Nader is widely seen as having spoiled the 2000 election and being responsible for Bush’s ascendancy to the White House. Of course this is flat out false, as even Howard Dean and Democratic Leadership Council chair Al From point out. Bush lost the popular vote and his nesting in the White House came via Supreme Court fiat. Further – and more damning – the Democrats refuse to take responsibility for the fact that they are to blame for Bush II. According to exit polls, Bush earned more Democratic and self-described “liberal” votes than Nader did in Florida and New Hampshire, two states Democrats point to in blaming Nader for Al Gore’s defeat. More than half the number of Nader voters were first-timers who said they wouldn’t have voted at all if Gore and Bush were the only contestants. Dreary Gore failed to win his own home state of Tennessee, which would’ve given him the electoral vote margin needed for victory.

Consequently, the Democratic Party did not contest the Supreme Court decision, nor did they at all protest the Republican shenanigans that effectively disenfranchised black voters in Florida, who would’ve mostly voted Democrat. Were it the other way around, you could be sure the Republicans would have fought a similar Democratic coup tooth and nail.

Nevertheless, the myth of Nader the spoiler remains deeply entrenched and that’s not going to change anytime soon, especially when many liberals, like warmonger Michael Tomasky of the American Prospect, exhorts fellow Democrats “to ferociously and immediately“ launch pre-emptive strikes on Nader and the Greens to keep them from running in 2004 (on-line edition, 7/23/03). Such a disgusting anti-democratic rant has, alas, received much support, if not so crassly stated. The widespread sentiment now is that a Green presidential effort would be quixotic and self-indulgent, a perception that would likely harm GP efforts to expand its membership and support base.

Within the Green Party itself, there had been roughly an even split over whether or not to draft Nader. Some high-profile Greens, such as San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, declared they would not support a Nader candidacy in 2004. From conversations with many Greens, it looks like even more of the GP rank-and-file are opposed to fielding a candidate now that Nader is out of the party. As Nader correctly pointed out in his letter to the GP Steering Committee declaring the withdrawal of his name as a possible GP nominee, the viability of a Green campaign is seriously hindered by the fact that the Party doesn’t even select a nominee until June 2004, only five months before the election. They have no national campaign infrastructure in place.

How can the Greens seriously consider a viable run in only five months given their limited resources, relative lack of serious media coverage, exclusion from the debates, the overwhelming “Anybody (‘Viable’ enough) than Bush” sentiment among popular movements, and lack of party consensus on even the question of whether or not to mount a presidential campaign? An independent Nader run is even more doomed to fail without the Green Party’s nationwide resources and cadres. Nader would likely win fewer votes than in 2000, which would only serve anti-third party forces’ depictions of such efforts as futile and perhaps ego-driven.

The Greens would aver that the solution is to focus on getting undecided and eligible non-voters, roughly half the voting population, to turn up at the polls. But again such an effort is virtually impossible with only five months to go before the election, no high profile candidate, and no campaign infrastructure in place. The Democrats themselves are having a difficult enough time making their case against the Bush administration, and they’ve been attempting to conjure an opposition for the past six months.

Many others argue that a progressive presence in the election will keep the political discourse from shifting too far to the right and/or will keep causes dear to progressives on the radar screen, such as a national single-payer health plan. While there is some truth in this, it’s hard to quantify what that actually translates into in terms of votes. Doubtless, the anti-war positions of Kucinich and Dean (nuanced and unprincipled in the latter’s case) have affected the stands of the other candidates (excluding Lieberman), tactically narrow as these stands might be (most disagree with Bush’s prosecution of the war and occupation, and argue that more troops should be sent to Iraq to “win the piece” . . . remember Vietnam?).

Kucinich’s forceful advocacy of a single-payer health plan has to some extent affected Howard Dean’s half-baked, Clintonian solutions to the health care crisis. It’s an observable fact that in the Democratic debates, Kucinich’s progressive stands on repealing NAFTA and the WTO, implementing single-payer health care, scaling back corporate power, and withdrawing US troops from Iraq have garnered the biggest and most vocal audience applause. Yet despite all this, Kucinich’s poll numbers remain extremely low and his prospects look dim mostly because of the overwhelming fear of four more years of Bush. As the first Democratic primary in Iowa showed with its record turnout of voters – people are irate over how Bush has handled his tenure.

The Bush threat

We certainly don’t buy into the “Anybody but Bush” posture. It’s a big mistake for popular movements to make Bush the personification of all that’s wrong and evil with the US, rather than confront the institutional structures that shape our political system. However, there is a legitimate reason to fear four more years of Bush as opposed to a Democratic Bush Lite. Third party aspirants for national office are making a critical error if they downplay that fear. While the American political framework has always been extremely narrow, where the two establishment parties agree in principle on the maintenance and expansion of the Empire of Capital, imperialist interventions, and the transcendent rights of corporations over the Common Good, the Bush junta represents an unusually extreme and dangerous segment of the ruling class.

9/11 has emboldened the Bush radical statists to advance a far reaching agenda to destroy the Bill of Rights; to wage war against any country it deems worthy of such horror, regardless of how transparently stupid the pretexts; to reverse every labor and economic gain won through decades of popular agitation; and to fully privatize (at taxpayers expense of course) every social program and government agency. While the Democrats during the Clinton-Gore years did much of the same, the Bush regime takes these efforts to an even more fanatic level, to the point that even many Republicans are fearful for the future, both for the country and their party, if Bush is re-(s)elected.

Particularly on the matter of civil liberties, we’re already on the road to fascism, and a second term in office will give Bush and Co. the drive to get us to the Fatherland faster than the Democrats could. If the Bushites can’t finish off the Bill of Rights openly, then they’ll do it quietly as they’ve already begun with elements of the PATRIOT II Act. (In mid-December, while all attention was focused on the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Bush regime snuck a provision into the House Intelligence Authorization Agreement of 2004 authorizing federal agencies to access the private financial records of businesses and individuals without court approval. There was scant press coverage of this stealth maneuver, a harbinger of what’s to come). The lack of significant popular protests to the PATRIOT Act and the plight of post 9/11 detainees, and what that entails, doesn’t leave us feeling sanguine that another four years of Bush will be met with significant opposition to these dreadful policies.

With the Democrats, we get a temporary stay of execution, which is better than an immediate death by Bush. Whether this perception is true or not doesn’t change the fact that many activists, commentators, and movement organizers feel this way. And with the media sparing Bush of any discomfort from the many scandals that have briefly appeared then faded away, it’s hard to imagine that perception changing in the months that remain before the election.

With all these marks on the negative side of the ledger, a third party run for the presidency would result in a loss of limited resources that could be better spent working on longer term progressive efforts, with perhaps local elections and 2008 in mind.

What to do?

The most important thing for popular movements to focus on is the doubling of efforts to implement Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) on both the local and national levels. As long as the “winner take all” system remains in place, third parties will face insurmountable odds in winning national victories, and they will be unable to shake the spoiler image made famous by Nader in 2000. IRV is steadily gaining support in cities and states across the country. Kristin Marr best sums up IRV:

    “Briefly, instant run-off voting involves voters ranking candidates on a ballot. For example, a registered Green votes for a Green candidate as his or her first choice. The Green candidate does not receive 50 percent of the vote. The registered Green’s second choice will then be counted. This process continues until a candidate receives 50 percent of the vote. The benefit for the Green and Democratic Parties is that Greens can vote for Green candidates and then, if their candidate does not win 50 percent, they have already chosen the next most progressive candidate as their second choice. So, when Greens vote Green, they still help elect progressive candidates.”

    “To the extent that the next most progressive candidate (from a Green voter’s perspective) is a Democrat, this helps the Democratic Party. Whatever the actual party affiliation of the candidate, this win-win scenario instantly unites the progressive vote. The benefit for our democratic process is great, because a true majority vote is required for a candidate to hold office. Thus, candidates and political parties would need to really encourage people to vote. The more voters there are, the more people watch the politicians. This one tool would do so much to help bring the power back to the people.”

The recent example of the November 2003 mayoral run-off election in San Francisco was a resounding victory for the IRV process. SF voters were able to vote their consciences, and GP candidate Matt Gonzalez lost only by a very slim margin (47%-53%) despite having been outspent 10-1 by his Democratic troglodyte opponent Gavin Newsome, and despite panicked visits to the Bay Area by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the final days to rally the troops. IRV gave a major impetus to the dedicated and inspiring grassroots base that organized behind Gonzalez, and would doubtless spur other such activity in support of progressive candidates elsewhere. (Learn more about IRV:

On the local level, the Green Party has achieved many victories. In tandem with the necessary IRV efforts, the Greens should set their sites on mayoral and congressional races, especially in Democratic “strongholds” as Gonzalez did in San Francisco. This requires a concomitant door-to-door educational effort to hold the Democratic candidate or potential candidate’s feet to the fire, by cataloguing and drawing attention to every non-progressive Democratic legislative vote and every clear instance of collusion with the Republicans on the issues. This in turn would also require technologically and media savvy activists to organize real-time protests and direct actions to put the Democrats on notice that their days are numbered if they don’t answer to popular demands.

This would simultaneously give impetus to a third party campaign infrastructure backed by grassroots movements who, if successful, will have gained enough public awareness to muster a serious run for office come election time. There is much unused talent in the (disaffected) student community and public at large, it’s a matter of putting in the time and effort to find and give them a political home. Internet campaigns like Howard Dean’s, and others are models that must be built on. Potential third party candidates should be selected as early as possible (i.e. NOW) given the greater obstacles they face in getting media exposure than what the duopoly candidates face.

Worthy candidate

If the Greens are to run a presidential candidate in 2008, they must immediately begin to nominate a worthy candidate rather than wait till the last year before the election. This would allocate time for the GP to build awareness of that candidate and his/her platform, while keeping the public informed as the Democrat-Republican plunder continues, so that it’s clear to people why the GP represents an obvious alternative. They must begin NOW the educational effort needed to activate the huge non-voting population.

Efforts to sincerely convince and include – not pander to – the Latino, Black, Women, and other voting blocs under the Green tent, long the Achilles heel of the GP, must commence immediately. Strong efforts to ameliorate longstanding differences between organized labor and the Green’s predominantly environmentalist constituency – an effort that highlights the mutual concerns we have as the people most screwed by the duopoly and our long-term prospects for survival – is absolutely critical.

The Greens or any viable Left third party effort must devote people and resources to individual progressive initiatives in order to be the party most identified with that cause. For example, recent polls show 60% support for a single payer health plan. 8,000 doctors recently signed on to an article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association endorsing such a plan. Popular discontent with the existing HMO system is at an all-time high. There couldn’t be a better time to agitate for this sweeping alternative. It’s an issue that affects everyone, both the over 40 million uninsured, and the millions more with poor coverage that are one major health malady away from homelessness. It’s an issue of great import to the labor movement, and it touches other areas of labor rights and corporate power (not to mention basic humanity). By taking the lead on this issue, we will finally have a significant political party people can turn to that’s committed to universal health care for all. The Democrats refuse and fail to be that party.

A similar effort to actively join movements seeking to dismantle NAFTA and the WTO, and implement Fair Trade polices that benefit workers and the environment, is another obvious current the Greens must prolifically tap into.

Crucially, the Greens must ally themselves with efforts to reclaim the civil liberties lost under Clinton and especially Bush. They must join forces with Libertarians, organizations like the ACLU, and the many Republicans (like Bob Barr) who are laboring to turn back the tide of police state fascism. There is no greater threat to what little substantive democracy remains in the US than the Bush-Ashcroft assault on the Bill of Rights.

There are many other issues where Greens or other Left third parties can forge alliances with likeminded groups and eventually take the lead in progressive movements, but such a devoting of resources and members to these efforts must begin immediately if there is any hope to run a serious national campaign beyond 2004.

Our call is to rethink the idea of supporting a third party candidacy in the 2004 presidential contest. Democracy in America at this time does not offer an equal opportunity for third party challenges in the electoral arena. Of course this does not infer that progressives should relent and continue to press the Democratic Party to rethink their failing policies. Many may be confused into believing that Bush’s exit by a Democratic victory indicates we’ll have won. If activists do decide to hold their nose and pull the lever for a Democrat, let it be known that it isn’t an endorsement of the Democrats, but a vote against the vile administration currently occupying the White House.

Democrats must be held accountable. This goes without question. By and large they have allowed the Bush team free access to rule as they have pleased. From supporting the PATRIOT Act, Iraq’s preemptive attack, Bush’s Forest Plan and the latest prescription drug bill, the Democrats have failed us miserably. We must know who and what it is we are choosing to replace Bush with. Our pressure must continue onward. We must force a Democratic administration to pull out US troops in Iraq. We must continue to press Democrats to abhor investor rights agreements (mislabeled “free trade”) and other reprehensible policies they have thus far embraced.

This pressure does not need to come from the top down, as a Green Party presidential candidacy would attempt to achieve. Rather grassroots action at the local level, pointing out the failing ruling class strategies the Democrats endorse wholeheartedly, is the best way to challenge the duopoly poisoning our murky political waters. Social change begins with us, not with the White House. Candidates like Matt Gonzalez know this. It must start at the lowest levels in order to one day have an impact at the national stage. A strategy must be in place – running a shotgun race against the two-party system as the Greens plan on kicking off over the summer is shortsighted and doomed for failure. It will not only sideline their efforts, it will also crush their party’s legitimacy. We believe this is a sad, but awful truth. Think global act local is a just axiom for our challenges of this campaign season. We need Bush out. Nobody contests that. Now we just have to agree on how best to do it.