Reflections on the Elections

by Paul Le Blanc

I began writing this amid the dramatic pendulum swings of the November 2 presidential election coverage on the television networks—as the predicted inconclusiveness slowly gave way to Republican triumph.

Of course, like each one of us, I have my biases. I identify with heroes of American dissent—such antislavery fighters as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, such women’s rights leaders as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida B. Wells, such labor socialists as Eugene V. Debs and “Mother” Mary Jones, and such anarcho-feminists as Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day. This shapes my feelings about both George W. Bush and John Kerry: neither would be my president. Yet this minority position, I believe, may have relevance for many on both sides of the Great Divide in the 2004 elections.

Roughly half the American people think the policies of George Bush favor rich elites at the expense of the poor and the working-class majority, are economically and environmentally irresponsible, pander to bigotry, and foster a destructive and immoral war. Many among the American people joined together to defeat these policies through a crusade—in many ways truly magnificent—to defeat Bush by electing John Kerry. They accomplished great things in this crusade, but their candidate did not have sufficient political clarity or consistency or depth or strength to overturn the immense power amassed by a right-wing Republican machine that has been many years in the making. Kerry was undermined by some of his own contradictions—for example, being both pro-war and anti-war.

This limitation was sensed by many who were disaffected with Bush’s policies but unable to embrace Kerry. There were some who saw the election as essentially a referendum on the policies of Bush, with a vote for Kerry simply being a way to defeat Bush. But many others were not inclined simply to vote against something in this election. They naturally hungered for something that would seem positive, decisive. For some of these people a vote for the “positive” Bush perpetuates policies that, in fact, are guaranteed to hurt them. This is hardly the first time such a thing has happened.

Those who rallied to Kerry tend to feel Kerry’s defeat as their own defeat. While it can be argued that a defeat for Bush might have been a victory for the American people, a victory for Kerry—in and of itself (disconnected from a Bush defeat)—would not have been a victory for the American people. A defeat for Kerry is not, in and of itself, our defeat. It is a defeat for Kerry (a once-young hero who “pragmatically” compromised too much of his better self over the years) and for the Democratic Party, which piece by piece has lost the trust of so many of the American people since its glory days of the 1930s. Even in those glory days, the Democratic Party never went far enough in support of “rule by the people” over the economy. Instead it balanced its base in the working-class majority with a loyalty to the interests of the wealthy. Roots of the 2004 defeat can be traced to this contradiction.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, and other founders of the Republican Party, not to mention such progressive Republicans as Robert M. La Follette and Gifford Pinchot, would have been sickened if they had been able to foresee what became of the organization to which they had committed their lives. That it has become the home of the descendants of the Confederacy and an unholy alliance of religious fundamentalists and “neo-conservative” opportunists has caused so-called “moderate” Republicans to speak of the need to battle for the soul of their party. Their contradiction: what they wish to challenge—a fanatical fixation on “culture wars” and a “hardball” viciousness, combined in its leadership core with breathtaking arrogance and greed—is responsible, to a large extent, for the triumph of their party.

Ironically, despite sharp differences in tone and particulars, the presidential campaigns of both the Democratic and Republican parties were committed to some of the same key negatives (continued domination of the U.S. and global economy by multinational corporations, the central role of the United States in the “Empire” being generated by globalization, an escalating U.S. involvement in the Middle East). The good news is that, despite the gap between rhetoric and reality, both also felt obligated to present themselves as favoring positive core values: democracy, human rights, economic justice, a decent life for all, the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and what the tough-minded British socialist George Orwell once called “plain human decency.”

This latter similarity is something that unites many of the people who voted for the Democratic and Republican candidates. The basic moral values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Muslim tradition, the Hindu tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the humanist tradition go deeper than the narrow partisan-party alignments and ideological inclinations that divide us. This is something to build on. It is at the core of multifaceted efforts and struggles in which we must engage. There is a need for staying power—and an ability to go deeper, reach out more widely, and be less compromised than the “mainstream” of the 2004 presidential campaign. We must reach out to what is best in all people, and we must not be limited by the current partisan divisions of the 2004 elections. Many can unite around the UN Millennium Development Goals campaign, seeking to do such things as cut global poverty in half by 2015. As we experience the difficult times that will inevitably be our fate, many people will change and grow. The political climate will shift, especially if we work effectively in building independent social movements. More and more of us can and must join together in the effort to resist the violence and injustices of our times and to help shape a better world.

To be effective we must have what some experienced activists have called “the long view of history.” There are many generations of fine people who have gone before us, engaged in this liberation struggle. More than three decades ago, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. posed the questions that continue to haunt us. He spoke of the need for Americans “ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” And he insisted that “there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.” And he made the same key point over and over again: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

November 4, 2004