|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Can the US Democrats be ‘changed from within’?
ON DECEMBER 11, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 presidential contest with a blast of criticism at the pro-war leadership of his party. "Democrats were swept into power on November 7 because of widespread voter discontent with the war in Iraq", he argued. But, "instead of heeding those concerns and responding with a strong and immediate change in policies and direction, the Democratic congressional leadership seems inclined to continue funding the perpetuation of the war".
Kucinich is putting the issue of the war, which dominated the midterm elections, front and centre in his campaign. Recently re-elected to the House of Representatives, he is calling upon the new Democratic majority to cut off spending for the war and push for US troops to be withdrawn within six months.
He also makes numerous demands that, if implemented, would stand to benefit millions of ordinary workers, such as universal healthcare, repealing the Patriot Act, withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), universal free preschool, free college tuition at state colleges and universities, and a public jobs programme to restore infrastructure.
His condemnation of the heads of the Democratic Party will certainly stir hopes and excitement among many left-wing, anti-war, and labour activists. Heading into the midterm elections, 75% of Americans, including 92% of Democrats, believed a Democratic-led Congress would withdraw troops more swiftly than Republicans (New York Times/CBS News poll). Exit polls found that eight in ten of those opposed to the war voted Democrat (New York Times, 8 November).
A vast gulf stands between the American public’s anti-war sentiment and the Democrats elected to Congress, who are complicit in Bush’s war drive through voting for the initial invasion and then repeatedly voting to fund the carnage in Iraq. Kucinich’s call to cut off the funding for the war stands in sharp contrast to these recently-elected Democrats, who have made post-election reassurances to Bush by vowing to not cut off funds.
Kucinich promises his campaign "will change the direction of the Democratic Party, the war in Iraq, and our nation". But how far will he get in the party’s primaries? Will the Democrats nominate him as their presidential contender or, if not, adopt a ‘Bring the Troops Home Now’ platform for the 2008 campaign? Or, will Kucinich’s demands fall on deaf ears, squashed under the heel of the pro-war, big-business Democratic Party tops?
Kucinich ran on a similar left-wing programme in 2004. Promising ‘A Workers’ Whitehouse’, his platform included withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, universal single-payer healthcare, and increased rights for workers to form unions without interference from the bosses. He stayed in the race all the way until the Democratic National Convention, while many other candidates quietly withdrew and supported frontrunner John Kerry.
Kucinich promised rank-and-file Democrats, many disillusioned with the pro-war/pro-corporate policies of the party, that he would take his message to the convention floor. However, Kucinich broke his promise and, instead, threw his support behind the pro-war and corporate-backed Kerry, with absolutely no mention of Iraq in his convention speech.
Rather than "changing the direction of the Democratic Party", Kucinich’s campaign served to funnel left-wing anti-war activists into Kerry’s campaign. Kucinich’s endorsement and campaigning for Kerry provided a radical face that obscured the right-wing, big–business, and pro-war character of the Kerry campaign. Using his left-wing credentials, Kucinich played an important role for Kerry by campaigning against activists breaking from the Democrats and supporting the insurgent anti-war and pro-worker, independent campaign for president of Ralph Nader.
Even with the best of intentions, such a role flows directly from the logic of working within the Democratic Party. The internal life of the party is anything but democratic, and compels even the most left-wing Democratic candidates to toe the leadership’s big-business, pro-war line. Undoubtedly, Kucinich’s programme is one of the most radical possible within the confines of the Democrats. However, history shows again and again that to actually see this programme implemented would require breaking with them.
Howard Dean’s short-lived bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination also illustrates the limits of progressive politics within the narrow confines of a big-business political party. Dean’s sharp anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric drew the eager support of millions disillusioned with the cowardly, Bush-lite approach of the party leadership. Fearing that he was emboldening progressive workers and youth and that the leadership would then have to make concessions to them, the party leadership swiftly moved to crush his campaign with the trusted assistance of the corporate media.
While Kucinich is raising many progressive demands that deserve support, they cannot be achieved within the rotten framework of the Democratic Party. Instead, they require a fundamental break from the dead-end trap of the Democrats and the building of an independent political voice for working people and the anti-war movement.
Some on the left, including the leaders of the labour, women’s, and anti-war movements, scoff at this idea as utopian, saying that the only ‘realistic’ way to get elected is to run as a candidate of one of the two major parties. What is really utopian is to think that we can reform the Democrats into actually representing the interests of workers, women, and people of colour.
The lessons of Kucinich’s own 2004 campaign show this to be the case. The policies of the Democrats are at odds with the vast majority of the population for a reason. They are funded and backed by the same major corporations that demand continual attacks on the living standards of working people and perpetuation of the war in Iraq to salvage the prestige of US imperialism. Progressive-sounding rhetoric and a few token ‘stand up to Bush’ votes aside, at the end of the day, the Democrats side with their corporate backers and sell out the rest of us.
What we really need in 2008 is an independent candidate who stands on a genuine anti-war, anti-corporate platform, similar to Ralph Nader’s insurgent presidential bids in 2000 and 2004. The labour, anti-war, immigrant rights, and other social movements, along with the Green Party and socialists, should unite to run the strongest possible presidential candidate on an anti-war, pro-worker platform against both the Republicans and the Democrats. Such a campaign would be a step towards building a new political party in this country, based on workers and young people, to fight for the interests of the exploited majority.
Undoubtedly, many have concerns that running as an independent, Kucinich or any other candidate would stand little chance of getting elected. However, we saw in 2004 how the Democratic Party leadership colluded with the corporate media to ensure little was heard about his campaign and demands.
What is necessary to reach ordinary people is building new channels and machinery to carry out an effective campaign. By organising mass rallies, publishing independent newspapers, and going directly to workplaces, unions, campuses and communities, millions could hear why they should break with both pro-war, pro-corporate parties. The organisations of the labour, anti-war, and women’s movements could also use their influence, organisers, funding and publications to promote this campaign.
In his announcement speech, Kucinich correctly stated: "Trust in the Democratic Party is on the line… What kind of credibility will our party have if we say we are opposed to the war, but continue to fund it?" By continually showing their true colours and faithfully carrying out the wishes of big business, the Democrats do stand to lose the support of anti-war and labour activists.
This is an inevitable process, given the imperialist and big-business character of the party. Rather than trying to delay this development, Kucinich should leave the corrupt Democratic Party and use his influence to support and build for an independent campaign in 2008.