Ride This Donkey
Why The Left Needs A Fundamental Realignment

by Joel Wendland

November 15, 2004   


(Swans - November 15, 2004)   Polls, polls, polls. The pulse of America. Everyone wants to know what we're thinking. A recent British tabloid called the majority of Americans idiots because they voted for Bush. Whether or not the fact of simply pulling the lever for Bush reflects one's mental capacities is a subject up for debate. More important is the need to get a clear picture on political and ideological trends among US voters. Given the hubbub about god, gays and guns, readers may be surprised.

Aside from emerging stories about voter fraud, intimidation, suppression, and bad machinery, let's assume -- I know it's a stretch -- the outcome reflected the intent of voters on November 2. Bush's hatchet man, Karl Rove, is claiming this election as a "fundamental realignment" of the electorate akin to the liberal shift in the 1936 election. The neocon theoretical journal, The Weekly Standard, jubilantly described the election as a referendum on neoconservatism. Corporate executives are urging the administration to go for the gusto on trade, economic and tax policies. Right wing gurus are calling for the use of this slim majority to conduct a "revolution." They want to see Social Security privatized, ensure health care remains unreformed, expand unrestricted free trade, cut deeply into social spending, block raising the minimum wage and continue a unilateralist foreign policy.

Do Americans agree with this agenda? The answer is no. Research done within days of the election by the Institute for America's Future (IAF) reveals some interesting results. Believe it or not, most Americans don't support the top items on the Bush agenda. After four years of Republican rule, more than half of voters generally see the country as going in the wrong direction. A solid majority of 55 percent of self-described "moderate" voters voted for Kerry. A larger majority, 57 percent, support keeping Social Security as it is and maintaining current benefits over creating private individual accounts. On trade, 58 percent favor labor and environmental protections in trade agreements. When given the opportunity to raise the minimum wage, a large majority of Floridians voted for it -- even as some of them pulled the lever for Bush, apparently. Three of four Americans agree that the health care system needs fundamental reform and are not confident that the market alone can keep costs down. Two out of three favor federal funding for stem cell research. For voters who listed education and health care as their most important issues, 75 percent voted for Kerry.

On the issue of gay rights, according to an analysis offered by the Human Rights Campaign, "Exit polling suggests that moral values increased as a priority for evangelical voters (who are one in five of all voters), not among the entire electorate." As many as half of people who support civil unions for same-sex couples (as distinct from marriage) voted for Bush. HRC concludes that the issue by itself wasn't a decisive factor in the election nor is it foremost on the minds of the vast majority of voters. Why then did anti-gay ballot initiatives pass so overwhelmingly in 10 of the 11 states in which they passed? Lukewarm opposition (except in Oregon where resources and people power were focused and where the margin was very tight) and a distortion of the issue by the right accounts for most of this. It should be noted that a lot of the people who voted for banning gay marriage and civil unions voted for Kerry.

On the question of war and terrorism, Bush's strongest point, 49 percent (to 45 percent), according to IAF's research, believe the war in Iraq has made us less safe. Most voters do not support the war and occupation unconditionally. Three of five would favor an Iraqi referendum on whether or not to keep US troops there. Clearly, when the issue of war is discussed on a more complex level such as around Iraqi sovereignty and the larger global picture, Bush's rigid "decisiveness" and unilateralism get less support.

The war and the issue of terrorism did generate the strongest source of support for Bush. Repetitive talk of the importance of "moral and cultural issues" in the corporate media obscures the decisive character of the promotion of the terror issue by the Bush campaign. Within one of the largest voting blocs, union households (1/4 of the electorate according to recent surveys), 24 percent stated that national security and terrorism were among their top priorities. Of those voters, about three of four voted for Bush. It isn't clear that had terrorism not been on the popular mind in this election that those union voters would have automatically sided with Kerry, as only a slightly smaller number cast their votes for Bush in 2000.

But this is where the picture gets murky and deserves more thought. Kerry won 65 percent of union votes. Forty-two percent of union voters identified jobs and the economy as their top issues and voted for Kerry by nearly a 70-point margin. Even when they identified Iraq as their top issue, they voted for Kerry by a 50-point margin.

But, no matter how you shake these numbers, there is still a portion of the voting population -- in and out of unions -- who were not moved by the Bush campaign's resounding psychological terrorism or its promotion of wedge issues but who still sided with Bush. Vote theft is probably responsible for a fraction of this; lies and misleading campaigning another. Yet, one still is left with the impression that a large enough portion of the voting population simply did not regard the Democratic Party's messages on jobs, Social Security, social welfare, health care, war, and other "class struggle" issues as meaningful alternatives or believable. Clearly, the vast majority of Kerry supporters understood the importance of defeating Bush and this was, as it should have been, the dominant unifying element for Kerry voters.

The solution to this problem isn't to scrap the Democratic Party as the main electoral vehicle for defeating the extremists who now dominate the government. A national organization with people and financial resources, automatic ballot access, name recognition, central coordination and ties with the traditional constituencies is definitely needed and cannot be built overnight or even in just a few years. Third-party experiences, unfortunately, prove that, and the immediate necessity of producing some victories against the far right for the time being highlights the limits of focusing the left's energies on reinventing the wheel.

The success of the Republican Party -- its command of resources to mold public opinion, to advance its issues in key areas, build consensus among its various constituencies, to generate a coherent and consistent (if inaccurate) message on what it plans to do, to mobilize voters, and have a clear national strategy -- also proves the importance of the continued existence of the Democrat Party. The GOP's success shouldn't be overblown, however, as important divisions and differences continue to simmer under the surface of its apparent consensus. The lesson here is that while the Democratic Party machine is turning knobs and flipping switches, the GOP is using remotely-controlled laser and satellite technology.

But the changes needed have nothing to do with the schemes of moving further rightward already being proposed by some on the Democrats' right fringe. Acceptance of that tilt would be a disaster. A principled and reasonable leftward push (not a careening sectarianism fueled by irrational and isolated reactions to the election outcome as some are wont to) is necessary, and here's why.

The polls don't provide a clear picture of those fractions of voters who seem to want a more coherent and definitive progressive message but who voted for Bush. One can speculate, though, that Democratic shifts to the right on economic and trade issues and compromising and "reformist" positions on social policy questions by the well-funded and most vocal sections of the Democratic Party leadership (notoriously the DLC) have convinced some voters that the Democrats won't or can't win victories on its traditional issues. The answer to why they turn to the Republicans hasn't received any attention other than facile explanations about deception -- though this shouldn't be discounted outright.

In order for the Democratic Party to win again, which it really hasn't done decisively since 1976 (Clinton's victories were not majority electoral wins), it has to reinvigorate its most advanced positions and progressive causes. It has to advance the social democratic policies that Roosevelt and the New Deal coalition fought for and won in the 1930s: a welfare state, a government that sides with unions, a projection of the state as an active, necessary and positive force in people's lives and directly bound to their freedoms and equality. Let the Republican Party be the party of war and imperialism, of repression and fear, of homophobia and sexism.

Well-funded and right-leaning sections of the Democratic Party won't stand for that and may even defect. This shouldn't be feared. A Zell Miller who organizes "Democrats for Bush" has already defected. Democratic Party loyalists who are afraid they can't win elections without the right's money and influence and ideological tilt ought to think about how successful they have been with it.

Let the Republicans also be the party of racism and discrimination. A key reason for moving left is the question of civil rights and social equality. According to Robert L. Borosage, co-director of IAF, "Mr. Rove's party remains the party of white sanctuary." With this election, the GOP has fully and publicly adopted the mantle handed down to it from the slavocracy, Jim Crow, and racial oppression, discarding any pretense about multicultural democracy. It convinced its grassroots base that white, elite Kerry with the backing of Blacks and other minorities could not govern them fairly. It blatantly exploited deep racial divisions in a manner not seen since Reagan spluttered about welfare queens. We can expect that the administration will rule from this position on the bulk of its domestic agenda.

The result? Seven of eight Bush votes came from white people; 90 percent of African American votes went for Kerry. Majorities of American Indians, Asian Americans and Latinos tried to dump Bush. White men, representing 38 percent of the electorate, voted for Bush three to two; white women, with a slightly higher proportion of voters, supported Bush 54 to 45 percent.

On a positive note, large majorities of union white men and women voted for Kerry. This suggests that organized working people have developed a higher level of class consciousness than they have generally been given credit for. While, as the Black Commentator points out, whites voted with people of color in larger numbers than since the civil rights era -- maybe even since Roosevelt -- it is evident that a principled, united effort across racial divisions is a sure way to win elections and the issues working people say are important. This means embracing superficially race-neutral issues like preserving Social Security and fighting for universal healthcare. But also consistently and coherently defending a broad form of redistributive affirmative action, comprehensive hate crimes legislation, effective accounting of and reductions in police brutality, opposing job, housing, health care discrimination by race, and so on.

A principled Democratic Party would willingly offer itself to be the vehicle for such a united effort. This requires, however, a rejection of the calls to move further right.

Above all, I don't think people on the left who are feeling the sting of defeat need to panic into irrational solutions and wild claims about how this election shows the immediate necessity of a third party. While a viable labor-oriented third party is the laudable and determined future goal of the left, such a move in the near term is asking for further isolation of the left and its continued political defeat. The kernels of such a party already exist in formations like the Labor Party, the Working Families Party, and (if it doesn't self-destruct) the Green Party. Such a move now, however, is the symptom of emotionalism and defeatism and should not be succumbed to. The most important lesson of the election is not to withdraw from struggle, but to broaden and extend the struggle and to continue to fight with and where the vast majority of the people are willing to fight.

It is interesting to me to note that when Al Sharpton spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer and told the crowd that African Americans planned to "ride this donkey" -- the Democratic Party -- as far as it would take them, he, perhaps unwittingly, echoed Lenin's argument that the left shouldn't discard or abandon institutions that the masses weren't ready to give up yet, but to keep on working in those institutions to help the people win victories, build social progress and develop a deeper political consciousness. There is little evidence that this donkey has reached the end of its rope.

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US Elections & Democracy on Swans


Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs, a monthly magazine of ideology, politics, and culture, and a member of UAW Local 1981 (national writers union) who has written for numerous publications. He also writes and maintains ClassWarNotes.

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Published November 15, 2004
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