As the more sane and literate amongst you will know, the US Presidential election season is about to begin, with the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. I am in favour of arguing for a vote for the Democrat candidate in US elections under some circumstances, including this time around. Here is an article that I recently wrote giving some reasons why.
Why I’m supporting John Edwards – an appeal to the Left
At both of the last US Presidential elections, I took a stance that is not popular on the UK left – one of support for a crtical Democratic vote. For those of you who are unaware of my political heritage and who may be surprised that such an apparently uncontroversial stance would excite any kind of debate at all on the liberal-left, allow me to explain. The political background from which I come is one of the left in union and wider labour movement politics, where Trotskyist groups, all of which have a visceral loathing for the Democrats, have loomed large. Indeed, they were only ever really willing to call for a vote for the Labour Party in the UK based on a combination of recruitment raiding, and Byzantine theorising that attached an almost religious significance to the never-exercised trade union link with Labour. Both of these factors having withered on the vine over the past ten years, most of the left (barring a few real no-hopers) have pulled back from automatic support for Labour, and indeed have ended up in many cases in something of a state of confused hopelessness as a consequence. Some indeed have ended up wandering down blind alleys such as the laughably misnamed “Respect” coalition, following quixotic figures such as George Galloway in the desperate hope of being led to a new dawn. Of course, that dawn will transpire to be a mirage, and most have already seen it. But such is the myopic faith even of ex-trotskyists in their will to follow a “line” that some will continue to do so – even as they spend every passing day tearing each other to pieces and opening themselves up for widespread mockery on this blog amongst others. It’s hardly an edifying spectacle.
So in light of such an extraordinary fiasco, what on earth could a refugee from such a risible political community possibly have to contribute to a debate being held on a far larger arena, in the USA? One of the reasons is because I like to think that people can and do learn lessons, and that therefore they are not doomed to carry on repeating the mistakes of the past.
The classic leftist arguments against voting for Democrat candidates surround the fact that the Democratic Party has no organic link to the US working class, and further that it does not represent a movement of that class either. The first argument is not in dispute – many US trades unions do fund the Democratic Party, but they have no constitutional link into that party in the way that the old trades union link technically worked (or could work) in the Labour Party. The second is also not disputed, at least in the sense that the Democrats are not and do not pretend to be a left-socialist or Marxist group in the sense that Marxist-educated European left-wingers would understand one.
That having been said, I do not believe that either of those two points in and of itself gives anyone a reason not to advocate for a Democratic vote, if it is even temporarily in the interests of working people to do so. In fact, in the grand traditions of the left, both points are in fact tangential to that central question. The reality is that this Presidential election is one where principled fence-sitting will not do.
I advocated a vote for the Democrats in 2004, not because I held any great (or indeed any) faith in John Kerry’s ability to make or stick to a principled statement, but because I believed that in the midst of the Iraq war and in an atmosphere of whipped-up racial hatred towards Arabs and Muslims across the West, there was a need to put a brake on an administration increasingly blind to anything beyond overseas objectives directed by political fanatics, and domestic policies directed by religious fanatics. As flawed and weak as Kerry was, he represented the opportunity to put a brake on those political directions, and I still believe that the world would have been a better place if he had won. The left who refused to take that stance were left with the choice of supporting a far-left wacko from a selection of Stalinists (Workers World Party) and Barnesites (US-SWP), supporting little-guy-populist-without-the-popularity Ralph Nader, or abstaining. Most chose Nader or abstention. Kerry lost, and the rest is history.
This time, I am advocating for the same position, but for a different reason. 2008 I believe will be the first “post-war” election, in the sense that there is no longer the paranoid sense of post-9/11 siege that still dominated in 2004. National security is still an issue, but the Bush administration’s foreign adventures are now widely despised, and social libertarians are beginning to boil with resentment at the administration’s domestic security policies. Beneath those, the population continues as it always has to favour Democratic positions on welfare, healthcare, and sexual freedoms.
The precursor to the conditions in which we see the 2008 elections shaping up, was the 2006 congressional elections, which saw Democrats swept to power in the House of Representatives and eking a majority in the senate – both of which majorities are likely to rise in November of next year. The elections in the senate (which the Democrats were not expected to win, even by many of the DLC types involved in running the campaign) were particularly interesting. I was struck by Montana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota and Ohio. Three of these (Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Ohio) are bellweather states in Presidential elections, whereas the other two have historically been Republican. All of them elected Democrats, and all of them are now trending Democrat in other match-ups.
They were marked by a different kind of campaigning to the tacking, slick ad-driven machinery that usually characterises Democratic efforts in recent years. All of them were marked by a renewed populist style, that was not too much concerned with what had played well with DC focus groups prior to the campaign. In particular Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey Junior in Pennsylvania (both of whom won with huge majorities over hapless right-wing incumbents Mike DeWine and Rick Santorum) do not fit the Democratic stereotypes. Casey is pro-life and therefore would be automatically unlikely to pass muster at any North-Eastern Democratic gathering, ironically often composed of people who are broadly speaking more right-wing than he is. If that example leaves progressives a little queasy then let us move on to Brown, who had one of the most left-wing records in the Ohio congressional delegation, and who was swept along as a Senatorial candidate on a tidal wave of cheers and applause from the left-wing “netroots” of the Democrats such as those at the famous Daily Kos. The same flavour could be seen to Jon Tester’s campaign in Montana and Jim Webb’s in Virginia, alongside other factors (both had opponents with serious credibility problems, and both states were already beginning to trend Democratic, having elected Democratic governors within recent years).
Further, there is an increasingly evident fissure in the GOP vote between classic Reaganite minimal-state libertarians in the West, and the Christian, conservative, partly old Southern Democratic vote in the former confederacy. The current of opinion in parts of the west to oppose government intrusions in private life never did sit well with the Bush administration’s imposition of the Patriot Act, and their disinterest in overseas adventures (not to mention lack of outright hatred for Muslims) never left them quite as gung-ho for the Iraq War as other parts of the Republican coalition. However whilst they were faced with a Democratic “opposition” in congress that agreed with more or less everything the GOP said about these issues, and differed from them on the issue of taxes (the one issue were the libertarians did endorse the GOP), they remained as part of the Republican coalition, albeit a disaffected one. The 2006 elections marked an ongoing shift in that stance. From New Mexico to Colorado, to Montana to Washington State, rural western state have begun to trend Democratic. That trend has been sped up by the GOP’s alienation of Hispanic voters via its anti-immigrant stances on issues concerning non-certified workers in the USA. The Hispanic vote, of which 40% had gone to Bush in 2004, split over 70%-30% for the Democrats in 2006. For the first time in some time, an overall majority of electors in fact voted Democratic.
So… what to do in 2008? We are faced with a US electorate that is trending away from the GOP, and which is willing to listen to liberal social policies. We are faced with a working class who do turn out to vote, as in Ohio – when they think there’s something worth turning out for. And we are faced with the opportunity to break and destroy the Republican hegemony over US politics for a generation, in a way that Bill Clinton (who won with less than 50% of the vote in 3-way presidential elections, and who never won a congressional election as president) never could. I believe for that reason a Democratic vote is justified – it is a proven political fact of the past 20 years, certainly in the US and UK since the 1990s, that political space to the left only opens up when the right is not in power. This election gives us an opportunity to ensure that the right is not in power for a very long time.
Which moves me on to the question, what sort of Democrat? The old DLC tendency is represented in this election, quite clearly, by Hillary Clinton. No amount of waffle about the political significance of a female candidate for President can seriously make Clinton look like anything other than the right-wing machine politician that she is. Her right-wing record on foreign policy, even at times trying to come at Bush from the right, her track record of accepting corporate donations, or indeed her ridiculous claim to be the candidate of “experience” (due to having been married to Bill Clinton, presumably), all should leave progressive voters cold.
For some time, I felt that progressives should support Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who swept into office in 2004 on the back of an electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention. The only Black American in the US Senate, and with a proud record of having opposed the Iraq war from its inception, as well as a record of accomplishment in the state senate in Illinois, and with a talent for oratory that invited favourable comparisons with Jack Kennedy, Obama seemed like the ideal antidote to Clinton’s stale brand of “DINO” (Democrat In Name Only) politics. And yet, since initially blasting into the race, Obama has always seemed unsure of himself, and at times has made peculiar statements seeming to suggest that he would engage in pre-emptive military action against perceived security threats, even if they were to come from with countries that are technically US allies, such as Pakistan. On the other side, he seems to some degree to have lost his populist touch, instead beginning to play the game of celebrity endorsements and thin politics that lead one to wonder just how deep his commitment to progressivism really runs.
That of course leaves John Edwards. Edwards does not have an untarnished record – he was Kerry’s running mate during the failed election campaign of 2004, he was a one term senator from North Carolina who did not actually carry his home state in that election. He also voted to authorise the Iraq War.
However, he has, unlike Clinton, fully recanted that vote. Further, during the 2004 campaign, he consistently outpolled Kerry in terms of popularity. He faced the Republican spin machine down and came out unscathed. Since 2004 he has elaborated upon his theme of “two Americas”, which he has developed into a genuinely populist challenge to corporate power. Adding a second theme, “America Rising”, he has spoken out with clarity, fiery passion and consistency against a system which he himself says is governed by “corporate power”. He makes calls to fight that corporate power, and for people to “rise” by fighting to change a system that leaves 47 million people with no healthcare insurance, 37 million in poverty, 200,000 military veterans homeless on the streets, and 35 million people going hungry in any given year. He wants to reverse tax cuts for the rich, and to break the influence of drugs industry lobbyists over health policy. Again in a marked departure from normal Democratic politics, Edwards makes a big play out of “never having taken a dime” from any lobbyist during his time in Washington DC. Perhaps the most poignant story he tells is a single anecdote about a man named James Lowe, who could not speak until he had an operation for a cleft palate. He had no health insurance, but still had the operation. At the age of 50. It is staggering that a man in a western nation should go without a voice for half a century for want of a simple operation. Edwards thinks so too, and so supports universal health care.
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that (contra DLC wisdom) Edwards outpolls most Republican candidates by margins significantly larger than Clinton’s and on a par with Obama’s.
It may be that Edwards will not win the Democratic nomination, still less the presidency. He is currently running third nation-wide, and is in a three-way battle in Iowa that he absolutely has to win to remain in the race. But I for one hope he does stay in. Because sometimes someone comes along and refreshes a debate by doing something very simple. And he’s done that. By doing what? By telling the truth.
Sometimes we on the left would do well to remember just how big changes arise from such small beginnings. That’s why I hope Edwards wins the election, and that’s why you should as well.