US after the Elections: Never Mind the Ballots

Issue section: 
(291)

The re-election of Bush depressed the world, but now the anti-war left in the US is regrouping.

So much for the commentators who thought George Bush was going to mellow in his second term. His new attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, is the man who called the Geneva Convention 'quaint' and doubted whether torture restrictions applied to 'enemy combatants'. He has also made Condoleezza Rice secretary of state. Bush was sending out a signal - in his view he has political capital to spend.

Bush's re-election is frightening for everyone and it is a setback for the movement, particularly in the US. But the president has less money in the bank than he thinks. American society has not been overwhelmed by a wave of reaction or religious fanaticism. Bush's election mastermind Karl Rove has been briefing hard that Bush has won a mandate like no president before him. But we need a sense of perspective here. About 30 percent of eligible voters backed Bush. If just 68,242 people in Ohio had voted for Kerry instead of Bush, Kerry would be sitting in the White House in January. It is true that Bush won more popular votes than any previous presidential candidate, but then Kerry won the second biggest tally. Kerry won overwhelmingly in cities (58 percent of voters), among trade union families (60 percent) and among black Americans (90 percent). More eligible electors didn't vote than voted for either candidate.

Frail rival

Democratic analysts are putting the result down to a demographic, the growth of the suburbs and the 'exurbs' as a counterweight to a declining urban vote. Others are talking about the rise of a new Christian fundamentalist bloc. The reality is more complicated.

It is true that the Republicans gained votes in white working class and lower middle class areas in heartland states like Ohio, especially outside urban centres. And some white communities in 'middle America' have rallied round the flag and the Bush worldview. But the right only managed to make these gains because they were able to foreground their 'moral' agenda over economic issues and because the counter-arguments were never properly aired. One voter in a poor Appalachian county of Ohio explained, 'This is the Bible belt. The election fell back to moral and social issues: gay rights, prayer in schools, the right to bear arms, and abortion.' But areas like this in Ohio are politically volatile. They have a history of labour agitation and high Democratic votes. They are also areas that are hurting. Many Appalachian counties are suffering double digit unemployment.

The truth is Kerry lost the election more than Bush won it. As US columnist Marc Cooper said, 'A real-life opposition party would have been insulted to be matched with such an unworthy and frail rival.' Kerry could not connect with the poor in America's heartlands. For one thing he reeks of wealth and privilege. More importantly, his core economic policies were pro-business. His promise of a $7 per hour minimum was the real terms equivalent of the level set 40 years ago. None of that was going to light a fire in the hearts of workers or the unemployed.

Worse, Kerry's plan to chase conservative 'swing' voters meant fighting the election on Bush's terms. In the last weeks of the election Kerry was actually attacking Bush for not fighting the war on terror efficiently! He came out as personally against gay marriages and he was equivocal on abortion, promising not to make support for abortion rights a condition for the appointment of federal judges. So he let the right set the agenda and then he didn't take on their arguments.

The Republicans ran the best organised and most detailed campaign ever to get their vote out. Karl Rove spent the last two years recruiting an efficient network of activists across the southern and central states. The Democrats didn't match that because their policies couldn't inspire an activist base. Earlier in the year Howard Dean's slightly more radical campaign during the primaries tapped the energy of the anti-war movement. Hundreds of thousands of people emailed to offer help. But the Democratic machine dumped Dean and threw that potential away.

Kerry's underlying strategy was to offer an alternative to sections of the ruling class who were fed up with Bush. As always the Democrats prioritised appealing to big business before mobilising a progressive base. In this, if nothing else, Kerry was very successful. During the campaign he managed to raise an unprecedented $187 million. He won endorsements from a string of business leaders including executives from Chrysler, Levi Strauss, and the Bank of America.

A September National Election Survey opinion poll showed 53 percent of the population thought the Iraq war hadn't been worth it, as against 43 percent who thought it had. On abortion the majority of polls show more Americans are pro than anti choice. In a post-election Associated Press survey, 61 percent thought only judges who support current abortion law should be appointed. Any analyst could see that a well argued, more radical programme would have beaten Bush. But the Democrats weren't interested. They thought that if they mobilised actively around the war or took Bush's moral panics head on, their business backers would abandon them.

The tragedy is that, with some important exceptions, the left played into Kerry's hands. The trade unions, many leaders of the anti-war movement and most leading figures on the left - including Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore - backed Kerry and endorsed the 'Anybody but Bush' campaign. They used up untold energy trying to persuade people not to back Ralph Nader's principled anti-war, anti-corporate electoral drive. This campaign by sections of the left effectively ruled out a link-up between Nader's election drive and the anti-war movement. Worse still, the 'Anybody but Bush' people put no pressure on Kerry. Many of the leaders of the anti-war movement kept quiet on the issue for the duration - even the demonstration to the Republican convention in New York was not officially an anti-war event.

Corporate duopoly

The result was that Kerry swung to the right. For many passionately anti-Bush people the election was about being for or against the war, but the daily debate was dumbed down and right wing.

The argument that the Nader campaign would allow Bush in doesn't look very clever now. If the left had united around the Nader/Camejo campaign they could have at least forced the real issues into the limelight. They could have used the election as a platform to pursue the anti-war arguments and mobilised millions who felt excluded from the debate (the September National Election Survey poll showed 63 percent of undecided voters were anti-war). That could have shifted the election leftwards and forced Kerry to address the war more directly. And a united left ticket could have got a decent vote. In the summer, before the 'Anybody but Bush' people really started putting the boot into Nader, he was polling up to 7 percent. If a left platform had come out of the election with anything like that it would have been a sensation. It would have begun to break the mould of US politics and given a huge boost to the movement.

US politics is run by what Ralph Nader calls 'corporate duopoly'. The Democrats and Republicans are both parties of big business. If anything the Democrats have the more hawkish record on foreign policy. Most of the post Second World War US military interventions have been ordered by Democratic presidents, including the attacks on Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. It is true that the neoconservatives have coalesced around the Bush leadership. But Clinton's attacks on Iraq and Serbia in the 1990s form part of a developing pattern of increased US military intervention since 1989.

The left's support for Kerry was partly justified by a rosy view of the Democrats, and especially Clinton's record on social issues. The Clinton years were disastrous for the poor and minorities. The number of people lacking health insurance went up by 8 million, and the gap between rich and poor multiplied. The whole sorry affair confirms the warning made by American Socialist Hal Draper during the 1968 election campaign: supporting the 'lesser evil' only legitimises 'evil' politics.

But while every activist round the world must be disturbed by Bush's re-election, we mustn't forget he faces a host of problems. The economic situation is precarious. The US is importing much more than it exports and is living off the goodwill of other world powers. And it is not true that the right is hegemonic in the US. There is a very impressive mass anti-war movement there. The demonstrations at the Republican convention were among the biggest ever protests in New York. Go to www.sorryeverybody.com to see that huge numbers of Americans feel scared and angry and defiant.

Days after the election the United for Peace and Justice network issued a statement calling for 'much more focused organising on the Iraq war', saying they were 'working with local groups around the country on implementing plans to reach the people we don't usually talk to'. It also seems that the US movement is getting behind the call for international anti-war demonstrations on 19/20 March next year.

In Iraq the US is in terrible trouble. The massacre in Fallujah has created anger around the world. The more violent the coalition gets, the more resolute the resistance becomes. The US is increasingly isolated. The coalition of the willing has boiled back down to Bush, Blair and Berlusconi. This puts big limits on Bush's military options. It also puts a big responsibility on the movement here. Downing Street is briefing that it plans to follow Bush's example and fight the election on the issues of war and security. That may have worked for Bush, but the base of the Labour Party is largely anti-war.

Over the last year inside accounts have revealed how close we came to heading off British involvement in the war. In the weeks after the 15 February demonstration foreign secretary Jack Straw was frantically arguing with Blair not to commit troops. Secretary of defence Geoff Hoon phoned Donald Rumsfeld and told him that contingency plans might have to be made to 'disconnect' British troops entirely from the invasion.

As the Iraqi resistance grows, the splits over the war in the British establishment are becoming more public. The stakes for 19 March are suddenly looking very high.