April 30, 2005


U.S. Politics Since September 11: Perspectives for Rebuilding the Left (SHARON SMITH, March–April 2005, nternational Socialist Review)

MORE THAN three years after September 11, it is now possible—and necessary—to define the political character of U.S. politics since this turning point. This article aims to draw some general conclusions about the political period since 9/11 and to suggest some key strategies for rebuilding the Left.

Social polarization and squandered opportunities

The 2004 election took place in the context of sharp social polarization. Roughly equal proportions of the U.S. population stood on opposite sides over the Iraq War, tax cuts, and the Bush administration itself. But the Democrats squandered the opportunity to define themselves as an opposition party—even though opinion polls showed a majority of the U.S. population thought the country was headed “in the wrong direction” and Bush was shown to have lied about the justification for the Iraq War.

This sharp polarization offered an opportunity to strengthen and rebuild the Left among the millions opposed to Bush. Nevertheless, virtually the entire U.S. Left collapsed into supporting the Democratic Party candidate—leaving those against the war and Bush’s domestic policies with no organized expression to the left of the Bush Lite program of John Kerry. Indeed, the Anybody But Bush (ABB) Left assisted the Democrats by policing the movement against the only genuine electoral alternative, accusing the Nader/Camejo campaign of “helping” Bush to get reelected.

The Democrats spent months of effort and millions of dollars to keep Nader’s name off ballots in states across the country. As a result, Nader’s half-million votes had no influence on the outcome of the 2004 election. The reasons for Kerry’s defeat lay elsewhere.

In reality, Kerry’s defeat exposed the reverse logic employed by the ABB Left—when Kerry’s “electability” (that is, his similarity to Bush) failed to get him elected. That is how, in a country where a majority of the population views the Iraq War as a mistake, the man who led the country into that war on false pretenses managed to eke out a victory.

The resulting Bush victory predictably emboldened the Right, while demoralizing the Democratic Party’s most prominent left-wing supporters—who interpreted Bush’s victory as a major breakthrough for the Christian Right. Although the Christian Right has grown modestly in size, its influence in mainstream politics is magnified by the absence of a genuine Left opposition, due to the collapse of the Left into the Democratic Party.

The dynamics of the 2004 election were merely an acceleration of those already in place since 9/11. The terrorist attacks in 2001 provided the excuse for the U.S. ruling class to pursue its imperialist aims more aggressively abroad while escalating its war on the working class at home. In both cases, the U.S. Left has proven both unable and unwilling to build a viable political opposition. [...]

Bill Clinton represented a new breed of Democrat. As a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he aimed to shift the party away from the Democrats’ -traditional voting base (liberals, Blacks, and labor) to appeal to “swing” voters (white middle-class voters torn between Democrats and Republicans). This strategy required the party to lurch to the right, adopting positions that were unique to the Republican Party during the era of Reaganism.

Clinton’s “I feel your pain” campaign slogan soon proved to be smoke and mirrors as he stole the Republican’s thunder in dismantling welfare, and passing both the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (which paved the way for Bush’s more draconian federal ban on gay marriage proposal) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which preceded the yet more repressive Patriot Act).

Clinton’s approach to Iraq, likewise, differed little from his Republican predecessor. He continued the murderous sanctions put in place after the 1991 Gulf War that claimed over a million Iraqi lives—half of them children under age five. In addition, the U.S. and Britain conducted a continuous bombing campaign over Iraq’s “no-fly zone” throughout Clinton’s two terms in office, interrupted only by the more vigorous “Operation Desert Fox” bombing campaign in 1998. Clinton signed the “Iraq Liberation Act” in 1998, calling for the “regime change” carried out by George W. Bush in 2003.

Had Clinton been a Republican, liberals would have protested many of these policies. Because Clinton was a Democrat, however, liberals continued to support Clinton as he embraced a range of conservative positions during his presidency.

The feminist movement never protested against Clinton, even as he allowed the erosion of legal abortion and dismantled welfare for poor women and children. Most gay rights organizations maintained their loyalty even after Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Many antiwar activists who had opposed the Gulf War in 1991 remained silent during Clinton’s subsequent “humanitarian” invasions.

The collapse of liberalism during the Clinton era allowed mainstream politics to shift rightward in the years before Bush took office.

The Democrats don't recognize yet that 9-11 worked to their political advantage, forcing them to resuume the national security mantle they'd worn uneasily during the Cold War as well and disguising many of the internal incoherencies of the party. Just imagine a John Kerry nominating convention where he couldn't present himself as the Deer Hunter or Rambo but had to talk about issues? He'd have had to say what he really wanted to do and alienate middle America, or try to fudge to the Middle and infuriate the Party base.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2005 9:54 AM

Clinton "stole the Republican's thunder" in passing welfare reform?

He drank the 'kool-aid' from Dick Morris and signed the bill.

Who would want a byline in the International Socialist Review?

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 30, 2005 10:15 AM

The analysis may be supported by quite a few in the Democratic Party. But very few will be willing to stand on those beliefs in 2008 and not support Hillary for the nomination, based on the idea that whatever additional liberal beliefs she holds would be offset by the Clinton triangulation the far left despises.

Basiclly, it's setting the socialists up to remain in denial at least through 2012, if not longer. But if you're writing for and/or reading the International Socialist Review, odds are there's not much of anything that's going to alter your reality about how much of a chance you have of getting elected by saying exactly what you believe to the American public.

Posted by: John at April 30, 2005 10:43 AM

"The 2004 election took place in the context of sharp social polarization. Roughly equal proportions of the U.S. population stood on opposite sides..."

As opposed to 1992 when Clinton won with 43% of the vote. Or 1996 when he failed to break 50%.

Only two Democrats in over 100 years--FDR and LBJ--won more of the popular vote than Bush in 2004

Wilson, Truman and John F. Kennedy did not win a majority. Carter squeaked in with 50.1%.

Posted by: David at April 30, 2005 1:21 PM

"Heading in the wrong direction" poll stats aren't good news for the party of blacks, homosexuals and schoolteachers. I think the country is headed in the wrong direction--have thought so for years--and I should like to see more course corrections beyond the few crumbs thrown out by the Republicans.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 30, 2005 2:16 PM

The Democrats during the 70s decided to jettison working class voters, especially white ones, and appeal to the trendnoids of the trust fund left and Hollywood. So, they turned their backs on 'traditional values' and on their historical support for a militarily powerful America and became the party of sucker moms and metrosexuals. The collapse of the Soviet Union made this a no-cost strategy. However, 9/11 has changed all that making it very costly to appear to want to weaken America's defenses or engage in appeasement.

The Democrats have yet to understand this dynamic and their courtiers in academia and the MSM are even more clueless. Moreover, their donation base remains heavily skewed to the trendnoids, queers, Eurotrash and metrosexuals who hate America. Even the AFL-CIO, once a bastion of leftwing anti-communism, has gone over to the darkside, as most of its funding and membership today are from the public sector.

The spike in energy prices, combined with a trip by the head bandit of Saudi Arabia to the Crawford Ranch where it was at least even money that Bush pimped out the twins to the SOB, does not help the GOP and neither does the non-stop pandering to religious extremists. However, if the Democrats continue to play inside baseball like the filibuster and nominate another candidate who panders to Michael Moore, it won't matter and the GOP will gain seats in 2006 and hold the Presidency in 2008 with ease.

Posted by: bart at April 30, 2005 3:45 PM

"a majority of the population views the Iraq War as a mistake"

Too bad for the author's thesis that a signifant part of that majority thought the mistake was not reducing Baghdad to cinders in 1991--or any convenient time thereafter.

Posted by: ray at April 30, 2005 4:56 PM

The majority of the population does NOT regard the war as a mistake. The last poll I saw had 60- or 70-something percent say they approved of it and wanted to stay the course, and this was after more than a year of the yelping anti-war propaganda of the MSM.

And that poll was months ago. Even more significant is the fact that the MSM doesn't release such polls any more, a sure sign that they give results the MSM doesn't like. Think about it-when was the last time you saw a poll in the mainstream media on Americans' view of the war? I haven't sen one in literally months.

Posted by: Tom at April 30, 2005 9:25 PM