No doubt, some of you are thinking, “This loss may not be the end of the world, but I can see it from here.” Look again.
George W. Bush’s reelection signifies defeat only if one defines victory as winning this election, or any other. Of course, if progressives are ever to govern — create a more just society through exercising legislative control — they must first win elections. But electoral victories are not the starting point; rather, they are the natural outcome of successful political organization.
By that measure, progressives succeeded in 2004. An anti-Bush movement coalesced outside of the Democratic National Committee and its conservative surrogate, the Democratic Leadership Council. For the first time in recent history, progressives established viable national political groups like internet powerhouse MoveOn, coalition-built 527s like Americans Coming Together, and independent political initiatives like Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. The results, including John Kerry’s vote total (he recieved the second most votes of any presidential candidate in history), were impressive.
The last time a political campaign mobilized the progressive electorate was in 1988, when Jesse Jackson sought the Democratic nomination. Millions of voters rallied around his Rainbow Coalition banner, but no lasting political organization was built. Jackson dropped the ball, progressives failed to pick it up and the movement dissipated.
There were lessons to be learned then, as there are lessons to be learned today.
The 2004 election proved that the Democratic Party needs leaders — not poll-driven consultants, who too often sacrifice principle for what appears expedient.
For example, Kerry voted for Bush’s Iraq war resolution, following the “guidance” offered by Democracy Corps, a non-profit “dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people.”
On October 3, 2002, prior to the Iraq war resolution votes, Democracy Corps (founded in 1999 by James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum) advised Capitol Hill Democrats: “This decision [to support or oppose an Iraq war resolution] will take place in a setting where voters, by 10 points, prefer to vote for a member who supports a resolution to authorize force (50 to 40 percent).”
Imagine if Kerry and the 109 other Democrats in the House and Senate had voted against Bush’s plans for war. The national media would have been forced to take notice and there would have been a vital public debate over invading Iraq.
Then there is the question of “values.” Kerry was right to ignore Bill Clinton’s advice that he endorse the 11 anti-gay ballot measures, but he could have attracted values voters by running as an unabashed populist. Writing in the New York Times, Tom Frank put it this way:
To short-circuit the Republican appeals to blue-collar constituents, Democrats must confront the cultural populism of the wedge issues with genuine economic populism. They must dust off their own majoritarian militancy instead of suppressing it; sharpen the distinctions between the parties instead of minimizing them; emphasize the contradictions of culture-war populism instead of ignoring them; and speak forthrightly about who gains and who loses from conservative economic policy.
That’s good advice, but will the Democratic establishment follow it? As “New” Democrats in Washington rush to imbue the party with “values,” progressives would do well to heed MoveOn.org, which sent its millions of members this post-election advice: “Our journey toward a progressive America has always been bigger than George Bush. The current leg is just beginning — we’re still learning how to build a citizen-based politics together. … Today, we’ll take a breath. Tomorrow, we’ll keep moving toward the America we know is possible.”
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.