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Thursday, November 04, 2004

It was supposed to be different this time around. After all, September 11th changed everything. The Iraq war changed everything. A new generation of Americans, of potential voters, understood that things mattered now. The fashionable cynicism of earlier years was replaced by the belief that the President, his Cabinet, and the rest of the government were directly responsible for life-or-death choices. And if you didn’t like those choices, well, the most important thing was to vote the President and his Cabinet out.

Thus, the antidote for March 18th, 2003 was supposed to be November 2, 2004. Protests were given up on quickly after the massive February 15th, worldwide movement failed to sway the Bush Pirates at all in their march to war – as if Vietnam were pre-empted by three or four marches, and the Civil Rights Movement achieved the victories it did based on nothing more than the March on Washington. Maybe the anti-war protest movement would have failed to achieve any victory over time. But we’ll never know now, as popular protest was replaced by popular voting as the primary tactic of progressives.

It’s an understandable mistake to make. We know, when voting occurs, whether we win or lose within a few hours. Fifty protests may not make any obvious change, but one day of voting may make George Bush leave office. Since that was the most obvious goal, it became the most important goal. Progressives entered the anti-Bush electoral fray, the world of the Democratic Party. This was a world of compromise, playing by the rules, and Ralph Nader being more evil than the Project for the New American Century. After all, one of those is a conspiracy theory, whereas the other one is an insidious device for destroying truth, justice, and the American way under an innocuous front. Which led to the first true love of electoral progressives: Howard Dean.

Dean was, of course, nothing special. He was no progressive, leading Vermont in the manner of a Clintonian centrist. His anti-war stance was based on killing the terrorists in places other than Iraq. After all, he advertised that he had supported the first Gulf War. But he could make a good angry speech, and he wasn’t a woman, black, or Dennis Kucinich (so he could win!), and that was good enough for progressives to deposit piles and piles of money in his coffer, and inflate him to the status of front-runner. But his moderate anger over Iraq was too much for the Democratic Party mainstream, and that made him “unelectable.”

Why John Kerry was more electable is a mystery to me, but the media and Democratic establishment, decided he was, and so he won the primaries, no questions asked. From that point on, he became the savior of the anti-war movement. Even though he supported the wars of the American empire, and indeed, spoke of expanding the military and winning the wars better and more violently than George Bush did. In other words, progressives believed in him despite the fact that he directly stood against them. The man had voted for every reviled piece of legislation in the Senate over the past decade (NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Iraq force authorization) save one (the Defense of Marriage act).

But they got out the vote. You couldn’t go anywhere with reasonably involved young people for the last few months without being begged to vote for Kerry. Actually, they would rarely say “vote for Kerry.” They would say “You have to vote!” and “We have to beat Bush!”

So a generation of young activists, mobilized by the war in Iraq, desperate to achieve victory, placed their bets in the pool of mainstream, electoral politics. And they lost. But it wasn’t just a loss. It was a completely mainstream, boring loss. It was as if the last four years didn’t exist. The election played out exactly the same as in 2000, except with slightly more voters. The energized Democratic “base”, which apparently is not a word that means “corporate donors and beneficiaries,” was supposed to have gotten out the vote, especially amongst youth made unhappy by the Iraq war. Eminem and Bruce Springsteen supposedly pulled in hip-hop and working-class voters. And all that was gained was New Hampshire. How many billions of dollars, how many thousands of hours, how much mental energy over a switch of New Hampshire a few million more votes?

I was supposed to get excited about that candidate and that election strategy? New Hampshire? That was our movement?

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In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee initiated the “Mississippi Freedom Summer.” Hundreds of radical organizers would enter Mississippi for several reasons, but the most overt was to organize a political party – the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – that would provide an alternative to the lily-white Dixiecrat electors sent to the Democratic Convention in 1964. Though progressives lined up to support this goal initially, however, the great liberals of the Democratic Party – Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and President Lyndon Johnson – stood opposing SNCC and the MFDP. They had the choice between appeasing the racist Dixiecrats, who were already deserting to the Goldwater Republicans, or supporting racial justice. Naturally, they chose the racists, attempting to push the MFDP into a pathetic compromise behind closed doors. That compromise proved too much for the racists, who left the convention. It proved too little for the MFDP, who also left the Democrats behind.

1964 caused a generation of young radicals in the 60’s to desert the Democratic Party. The loss of 2004 was not so dramatic, or unjust, but with luck, the same lesson will be learned by a new generation, my generation: Mainstream politics fails those outside of the mainstream.

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The argument can be made that I am too pessimistic over a recent setback. Perhaps I should react rationally, instead of with anger and depression? I reject that logic for the reason that emotion is what caused me to vote the way I did. I did not vote for John Kerry because I agree with most, or even many, of his policies. I voted for Kerry out of the fear of seeing George Bush’s smirk at another victory speech. My mind told me to vote for Nader, but my gut—and a symbolic, see-through white sticker removing Ralph’s name from my Ohio ballot—pushed me into a vote for Kerry.

Those progressives smart enough to realize that John Kerry was not their greatest hope for a just White House spoke of a November 3rd movement. This movement, after getting John Kerry elected, would put pressure on him not to govern from a center-right, Clintonian stance. Loss was not considered. I recommend a different November 3rd movement. This movement should be dedicated to finding a movement that won’t waste our time, energy, or ideals on a candidate that neither respects nor deserves them in the crapshoot that is American national politics.


- Rowan Kaiser, 1:23 PM
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