The Pied Piper of Vermont

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US Democrats want to use anti-war feelings to boost their ratings.

The rapidly growing list of US casualties from the invasion of Iraq now includes the names John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and Wesley Clark. Not ordinary 'grunts' but official Democratic frontrunners, they were severely wounded, if not outright killed in action, on 9 December in Harlem when Al Gore endorsed the candidacy of Howard Dean, the anti-war insurgent from Vermont.

Gore's embrace of Dean, which seemingly caught the other Democrats by complete surprise, was remarkable in at least two respects.

Firstly, the winner of the popular presidential vote in 2000 broke ranks with both sets of his political parents: the Clintons, who have played a typically Machiavellian hand by encouraging the Clark candidacy; and the right wing Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) which fervently supports super-Likudnik Lieberman.

Secondly, Gore emphasised Dean's 'courage' in opposing the 'catastrophic mistake' of the Iraq invasion. The former vice-president has sounded more like a Nader voter than his old centrist self in recent months. He has warned of the 'police state' being constructed by the Bushites and has described the Iraq debacle as the worst US foreign policy decision in 200 years. Like Dean (another born-again DLCer) Gore clearly believes that the future belongs to MoveOn.org and the internet nation of young anti-Bush activists.

There is rich irony, of course, in the irresistible rise of the Dean campaign. After 9/11 the Democratic congressional leadership - Gephardt in the House and Tom Dashle in the Senate - abdicated any principled opposition to Republican foreign policy and the invasions of Afganistan and Iraq. Democrats left their scruples in the gutter as they rushed to support the Orwellian 'Patriot Act' and US aggression against Iraq.

The leadership's strategy, endorsed by 'Hillary Inc', conceded the war on terror to Bush as proof of Democratic patriotism while concentrating on fighting Republican economic policies on the homefront. It was a morally repulsive calculation, typical of the New Democrats, that quickly boomeranged against its authors.

Gephardt and Dashle badly miscalculated the response of Old Democratic constituencies - unions, African-Americans, Latinos and women - who, by and large, were suspicious of the Iraq adventure from the outset and, unlike their erstwhile leaders, easily made the fundamental connection between civil and workers' rights at home and neo-imperialism in the Middle East.

For almost two years, as a result, grassroots opposition to Bush mushroomed without a single major Democrat having the guts to side with the movement. Unlike the Vietnam War, there was no McCarthy, Kennedy or McGovern to shepherd protest into electoral channels or co-opt activists into the Democratic Party.

This was a dangerous moment for the Democrats and a rare opportunity for the American left. A national Green Party with a strong, class-rooted candidate might have seized the time. In the event, however, Ralph Nader was missing in action and along came Howard Dean.

There are, to be sure, two far more progressive Democrats than Dean running for the nomination: economic populist Dennis Kucinich and controversial civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton. But they have failed to ignite their own grassroots (rustbelt unionism and African-Americans respectively) or to capture the imagination of the college students and young dot-com professionals who constitute Dean's children's crusade.

Dean's principal asset, everyone agrees, is his consistent pugnacity in confronting the lies and crimes of the Bush regime. He has crafted a media persona - forthright and combative - that appears to be the opposite of the carefully hedged and mealy-mouthed style of the Democratic establishment. Most of all, he has embraced his young supporters and given them unprecedented leeway to organise his campaign as a New Model Internet Army.

As a result, much of the anti-war movement has rushed to Dean like an orphan greeting its long lost father. His inverted-Bushite bombast about 'taking back America' excites messianic hopes among a generation starved for heroes. 'Al Gore's endorsement', writes an editorialist on the influential CommonDreams.org website, 'gives Howard Dean a unique opportunity to build a new American majority...and transform the world.'

In fact, neither Dean's record as governor nor the fine print of his current pronouncements supports the extravagant hopes attached to his campaign. Vermonters remember the wealthy doctor as an anti-progressive indistinguishable from other New Democrats. More recently, he immediately retreated from a vague promise to be even-handed towards the Palestinians after the American Jewish Congress barked at him. Even his opposition to the war is compromised by his vague timetable for gradual US withdrawal.

More importantly, as he ventures into Southern primaries and comes closer to the Democratic convention, his positions will undoubtedly shift back towards the centre. The anti-war movement has been his launching pad, not his ultimate constituency. His followers see in him a populist hero, but more than anything else he resembles a postmodern version of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic firebrand whose demagoguery derailed the People's Party in 1896.

Dean's and Gore's true project is the renovation of the Democratic Party and a return to the happy days of 'normal' multilateral imperialism circa Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. American socialists, in turn, must fight like hell against the world of illusion bound up in the popular slogan 'Anybody but Bush'. A future column will consider the case for supporting Ralph Nader in 2004.


Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Dead Cities