There is, in America, a potentially powerful, but presently only nascent (if even that), force for positive change. I submit that if that force is not unleashed in the coming months, there is no hope for reversing a catastrophic path toward what will be the final world war. The political terrain is now littered with explosive devices and our government, all of it, carries around the ignition engines, just looking for an opportunity to push the little buttons.
That force is the American political Left. At present, though, it's just a sleeping giant. What will it take to wake it up, feed it, and unleash its power to drive positive change?
For new readers here, let me clarify that by "American Left" I do not mean the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" wing of the Democratic Party. There are indeed several members of Congress, such as Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, and John Conyers, who take a decidedly leftist position. For the most part, however, those who now call themselves "progressive" are really classical, middle-of-the-road politicians who have consistently supported the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies.
Keeping abreast of the new Congress's plans for the upcoming session, it is clear that the Democrats will not take up the issues that the "Hard Left" sees as critical priorities: an immediate exit from Iraq, demilitarization of our society, rescinding the PATRIOT Act, reversing the attack on civil rights, rescinding tax breaks for the richest citizens and corporations, and impeaching Bush and Cheney.
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In my opinion, it should be clear to those on the Left that spending the past two years hoping to reform the Democratic Party from within was a waste of time. To hope that it will just take more time (two more years? four? ten?) is a mistake, because we don't have more time. I submit that if we do not form a vital and vibrant third-party alternative, with a known and attractive presidential/vice-presidential ticket and strong candidates for Congress, in the next two years, we will be beyond the brink.
Rather than moving an inch or so leftward as the result of a slim Democratic Party majority, the Bush administration will spend the next two years escalating their efforts to forward their agenda. How can we think otherwise? Bush/Cheney have shown just in the past two weeks that they are prepared to ignore any resistance, even from the military leadership. The commander of the war in Iraq, General Abizaid, who has supported Bush unequivocally until recently, has just resigned because he can not influence the President to take a more prudent course. Insiders in Washington report that a thorough shake-up in the military command structure is imminent. And rather than withdrawing troops, the government, with Democratic Party collusion is about to send thousands more troops into harm's way, as well as growing the arms services with the possible reinstitution of a military draft.
At the same time, there is much evidence that the government may soon take even more disastrous military measures in the Middle East, possibly including nuclear strikes.
In order to pull all of this off, I predict that the administration is prepared to pull out all the stops for a domestic counteroffensive against what will surely be a growing protest and resistance. The technology to do this is pervasively in place and we cannot ignore the fact that "detention camps" are being built as you read this. This administration has already proven that they will not countenance any effective opposition to achieving their goals.
So I ask, "What will it take?" What will it take for the Left to abandon the Democratic Party as an agent of real change? What will it take for the dozens of leftist parties, independents, and the unaffiliated and disenfranchised to organize and unify, negotiating common principles and values? And what will it take for this movement to educate the people about what is really happening?
I'm asking because I don't know. In the past, I was a community organizer affiliated actively with Mobilization for Survival, as well as the Democratic Socialists, led by the late Michael Harrington. Although the Left was as much fragmented as it is now, we consistently were able to find common ground in a sustained effort to have our voices heard against the Vietnam war and later against the US military and CIA interventions in Central and South America. We didn't just show up at the semi-annual marches; we worked hard all the time, bringing unrelenting pressure against the reactionary forces of the Right.
Somehow, over two decades, that movement has been discredited. In my recent essay "Just Because It's An Old Idea Doesn't Mean It's A Bad Idea" I wrote that we seem to have left behind many old ideas simply because they're old. We have succumbed to fashion, assuming that these old ideas, principles, and actions won't/don't work anymore.
The Reagan onslaught of the 80s decimated the liberal presence in our government. I remember several liberal members of congress, notably Bill Bradley and Pat Schroeder, simply retired. There is, by the way, a significant body of scholarly work on this issue. Unfortunately it is in Political Science journals for which you need a membership to read on-line. When Bill Clinton, a neoliberal centrist, was finally elected, after twelve years of Reagan and Bush I, the true left was at best moribund, at worst dead.
In "Name That 'Toon: Why There's No Still No Vital Third Party" (here), which I wrote in late October, I explored briefly (and somewhat satirically, I might add) the present state of third parties in the US. Wikipedia lists over sixty third parties, admitting they probably don't have all of them.
Clearly not all of these parties are lefties. Of those that are, many are localized, single issue, small, and/or probably so radical that, as parties, they would be difficult to mobilize. However, if a third party could actually be generated, it might be able to attract many members of these parties.
There have, of course, been third-party and independent candidates in recent elections, Ralph Nader for example. But they have not really been anything except vehicles for celebrity candidates. And some of these candidates rely mainly on endorsements by existing third-parties. In effect, the candidate runs the party, rather than the other way around, so the party disappears and its allies become once again invisible as soon as the election is over.
The Left and its many parties does not have a good track record in organizing. The history of forming a "circular firing squad" is well known. The effort would have to be very principle, value, and goal driven. The main obstacle to overcome is the extreme resistance of many of these parties, mostly on the fringes, to concede some of their ideology in negotiations for common ground. Frankly, this behavior is intransigent and, under the present circumstances, very destructive. Some of these parties have openly and steadfastly held to the line of, "We'll just wait until all else fails and people see that we're right. Then people will flock to us." That just ain't gonna happen.
Although I'm convinced that this path is the only one which might save us, I have neither the expectation nor the influence to lead such a movement. I do, however, have some suggestions:
- people must contact the leaderships of the various parties and groups and encourage them to reach out to other parties
- after some initial negotiations, these parties must meet at a "summit" at which consensus must be reached as to principles, tactics, and strategies
- those parties who currently espouse violence must by all means reject that. Parties and groups who continue to embrace violence must be excluded
- there absolutely must be a spirit of cooperation, flexibility, and some degree of selflessness. Focus on what can be done, rather than what can't
- the movement must be multi-racial and cultural. It must not be exclusive
- the urgency of the situation must be recognized and turned into a powerful force for mobilization
- principles must drive candidates, not the other way around. To simply endorse Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader is defeatist, although fielding candidates with some name recognition is important. Once principles are negotiated, appropriate candidates will appear
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