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The Brutal Education of a Neophyte: An Excerpt from Left Out!

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The following is the Introduction to Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush by Joshua Frank, which was recently published by Common Courage Press.

At the naïve age of 18, while still in high school, I had the pleasure of flying across the country to Washington, DC, for a weeklong youth workshop on leadership and democracy. I remember the teary excitement I had, knowing I was about to meet both of my Montana senators. Back then I was a proud registered Democrat. Having joined the party only two months earlier, the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a veteran of my party, I thought, was sure to be the highlight of the visit.

I've been on a bad trip ever since, culminating in the realization that the Democrats, like the Republicans, are on the wrong side of justice. I had hoped this episode was an anomaly. But unfortunately the anomalies began to stack up, one after another, and a new reality soon set in. What I've learned since is maddening: integrity and the Democrats don't mix. What the Democratic Party represents today is a train wreck of ideals that has been derailed deliberately. Too bad I had to learn the hard way.

The swank décor of the hallways on the Hill in DC mesmerized me as I winded through the legislative chambers. The bright carpet and attractive young interns meandering around the foyers made me think that perhaps politics had its subtle rewards. My intrepid journey from wing to wing led me to the bustling office of the Montana Senator who would change my life, Mr. Max Baucus.

Max wasn't in, however, so a cheery office assistant led me to a committee meeting that the Senator was attending. "It will be just a few minutes," she said, continuing to chat with me about the beauty and serenity of Montana. She had grown up in Great Falls or somewhere nearby, and missed the quiet open range and starry nights. I must have reminded her of what she was like before deciding to test the murky waters of Washington politics.

A few minutes later, Max scurried out and shook my hand as if I were the elected official he had traveled a thousand miles to meet. "So glad to finally meet you," he said. "How in the hell does he know who I am?" I thought. He didn't, of course. He was just politicking.


Max wasn't a good ol' boy like Conrad Burns, his Republican rival from Montana, who said during his first campaign in 1988 that he would help single mothers by "[telling] them to find a husband." But Max was sleazy in his own right. His gaudy single-knot tie and wing-tip shoes caught my eye immediately. I remember wondering how long Mr. Baucus had been away from the Big Sky Country. I didn't really care, though. He was the Democrat I had come to see.

I asked Max about Washington life, and we poked fun at Conrad Burns, whom I had met earlier in the day. Whereas Baucus' busy over-packed office was full of citizens who seemed to care, Conrad's quarters were filled with wide leather couches, southern blonde assistants, and trophy animals that hung on his plush papered walls. We joked about Burns' assistants who were advising him on how he should vote on specific legislation even though they had never even traveled to Montana. I thought to myself, "Man, Democrats really are a lot cooler than Republicans."

It didn't hurt that Max knew my uncle, who ran a little grocery store in Lockwood, a small town outside of the city where I grew up. It made me think Max was one of us, a regular guy who represented regular folks. I let the used car salesman attire slide; the guy was all right.

My trip ended soon thereafter. I had met some interesting people, seen a lot of monuments and museums, and was enthralled with how the system actually worked. Or at least I thought I understood how it all functioned. The runners, the lobbyists, the rookies, the senior congressional leaders, the reporters, and oh, those interns. I thought I had it down. I couldn't wait to get home to tell my family what I'd learned, whom I'd met, and how Senator Baucus knew my dad's brother. I was even contemplating the best way for me to help in his upcoming election campaign. As a Democrat enthusiast, I was much like Howard's Deaniacs, who canvassed my neighborhood daily with their cheeky grins and bouncy gaits. Yeah, I was annoying as hell.

It wasn't more than six months later that I was knocked to my senses. The fairytale had ended. I read in the newspaper that my buddy Max had supported the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a few years prior. By then, I was interested in environmental issues and came across the effects of NAFTA and the senators who supported it. Baucus was at the top of the hit list. I couldn't believe it. I felt as if I had been two-timed by a corporate fraud who used phony idealism to woo me. I was the victim of political date rape.

Upon further exploration, I learned that Baucus sat on influential congressional committees, including the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Environment and Public Works, and Finance and Joint Taxation. I learned how this man whom I had come to admire -- for no real reason other than his bashing of a Republican -- had succumbed to the interests of campaign contributors time and again. I found out how his seat on the Finance committee scored him bundles of cash from corporations I had never even heard of, including JP Morgan, Brown & Foreman, and Citigroup. I knew these guys weren't from Montana.

I also learned how my hero supported welfare reform, Fast Track, and President Clinton's Salvage Rider Act, which raped the Montana forests I loved so dearly. And a year later in college I read an old article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in The Washington Post, which disclosed how actor Robert Redford had campaigned for Baucus by dropping letters into the mailboxes of elite Hollywood liberals, hoping to entice them to donate money to the Montanan for his astute convictions for environmental justice.

But as St. Clair and Cockburn put it so poignantly, "Across the length and breadth of Congress, it is impossible to uncover a more tenacious front-man for the mining, timber, and grazing industries...it was Baucus who crushed the Clinton administration's timid effort to reform federal mining and grazing policies and terminate below-cost timber sales to big timber companies subsidized by the taxpayers."

I was indignant. "How could he...?!" I pondered. "If the Democrats aren't saving our natural resources, who the hell is...?!?"

That anger has festered in me to this day. Max Baucus may still be the most corporate-entrenched, conniving Democrat in Washington, and Montana has suffered tremendously as a result. High unemployment. A broken public school system. A degraded natural environmental. The exponential evaporation of the once hallowed family farm. Montana's hurting, and the Democrats -- most certainly Baucus -- don't seem to give a damn.

The dangling tassels on Max's fancy wing-tip shoes will forever irk me. Those tassels and his decorative silk tie should have been the first sign that this politician didn't represent Montana. He was, after all, literally clad in the interests of the out-of-state corporations that lined his thick campaign coffers. I have hated the pretentious Wall Street pin stripes ever since Baucus' sobering eye-opener.

I doubt that Max has ever hiked, let alone driven through Montana's Yaak River basin, where a massive forest service sale has destroyed critical grizzly bear habitat. I'd bet he's never seen what the massive clear cuts have done to the region's ecosystem, as tributaries have turned a pale yellow from mud and debris. And I cannot imagine Baucus ever apologizing for the legislation he supported during the Clinton years that's to blame for it all. Many groups have challenged the illegalities of the outright pillage. But all of these suits have been defeated or dismissed because the Salvage law gives the forest service "discretion to disregard entirely the effect on the grizzly bear." All this from the party to which I once belonged.

I can't fathom that Baucus has sat down and spoken with the hundreds of poor single mothers in rural Montana who can't afford to put their kids in daycare because they are forced to work at places like Wal-Mart where they earn little more than minimum wage. I am sure they'd love to tell him how grateful they are for their newfound careers and Clinton's welfare reform that put them to work. Unlike many progressives who are preoccupied with the war in Iraq and US foreign policy, these Montanans have more pressing concerns. They are turned off by politics because they have trouble keeping food in the fridge and buying holiday gifts for their kids. For most of us, it's a luxury to be politically active.

People continue to believe it's only the Republicans who have undermined everything progressives have fought for. I once believed this to be the case. I hated conservatives for their outright disregard for the little guy. But my short voyage out east as a teenager turned into a life lesson, teaching me that political affiliation means little when talking about real life consequences of compromising ideals.

Occasionally I wonder how my grandfather, who I am told was a staunch Democrat, would feel about all this mayhem. He wasn't a flashy man, like the Democrats in Washington today, but a hardworking North Dakota farmer, who, as the story is told, even detested his neighbor for being what he called "one of those damned Republicans." Back then it was thought Democrats, although never progressive, stood for something genuine and were even elected into office because rural folk could discern the subtle difference between a donkey and an elephant.

Indeed there may still be minor variations, but when the donkey sprouts a trunk and has big floppy ears, and the deep doo-doo we are all in smells like elephant sh*t, we've got problems no amount of political rehabilitation will ever cure.

Whatever the Democrats call themselves, Mr. Baucus exposed the party's true face, and I now recognize a pachyderm when I see one.

***

The narrowness of our mainstream political discourse, and the continuing convergence of the two major parties in the US, is such that the Democrats and other liberals actually helped reelect George W. Bush for a second term. I certainly don't buy that this election was stolen like so many are convinced. But hypothetically, if election '04 was rigged, it should have never been close enough for Bush to steal. John Kerry should have won by a landslide. The Democrats simply failed to distinguish themselves on a host of critical issues.

To show just how narrow the Democratic debate is I have dedicated Part I of Left Out! to the Howard Dean saga. You remember him, I am sure. For some time Dean appeared to be the candidate to take on Bush in November's election. Many progressive voters believed that Dean was a true anti-war maverick. With his campaign bringing in unprecedented amounts of cash so early, he seemed unstoppable. A sort of semi truck through the snow drifts. Dean had an active, if not overly eager, fan base.

But, whoa, hang on a minute there. How can it be that Democrats are a bunch of elephants when they have energetic insurgents like Howard Dean attempting to change the party from within? Sure, he didn't get the nomination for president, but he clearly represents a force within the establishment. Right?

Wrong.

Alas, by analyzing Howard Dean -- who purportedly represented the liberal end of the respectable mainstream of the Democrats -- we can clearly see just how much elephant blood races through the veins of the frail Democratic Party.

So why was Dean stopped if he wasn't even progressive to begin with? As I detail in Chapter Eight, the answer reveals a great deal about money and corporate power within the Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, following Kerry's embarrassing loss to Bush, Dean is again on the map as a potential contender to take on the Republicans (Jeb Bush?) in 2008. Sure Dean ran for the DNC post position, but was defeated at the last minute by an establishment stooge. Dean wasn't canned because of his positions -- this was never the largest of Dean's problems. Rather, his followers were to blame, as the Democratic enterprise doesn't appreciate the competition from within its own ranks.

Dean's adversaries are Beltway players, only accountable to their corporate paymasters, not the masses. They work hard to keep it that way and don't seem to learn from their mistakes. Just days after the election, there was already talk about rolling out the red carpet for Democratic stalwarts like John Kerry (again) or Hillary Clinton in 2008. In other words, if Dean runs for a second time he'll be faced with a party that seems to have learned nothing from the travesty of 2004.

Yet it is important to analyze what Dean represents within the broader context of the Democratic Party and recognize that such change is unlikely to come about even if waged by people like Dean and his grassroots base. While progressive-minded candidates may be able to infiltrate the Democrats at the local level, or even in the House, the assumption that the party can be taken over from the ground-up is a wasted proposition. The Democratic leadership in DC is simply too entrenched and too powerful.

Besides, the Democrats have turned their backs on their base for decades and shifted the party far, far away from its historic roots, which were never radical to begin with. Why change now? And as you will see, even if Dean had been elected, little would have changed.

As Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, explained in a New York Times editorial following Bush's reelection, "This year voters claimed to rank 'values' as a more important issue than the economy and even the war in Iraq.

"And yet, Democrats still have no coherent framework for confronting this chronic complaint, much less understanding it. Instead, they 'triangulate,' they accommodate, they declare themselves converts to the Republican religion of the market, they sign off on NAFTA and welfare reform, they try to be more hawkish than the Republican militarists. And they lose. And they lose again."

Although he is right, Frank fails to admit that the Democrats are not the remedy for what ails us. The truth is, no Democrat will ever spark a populist uprising. We are past the point of no return. Change will only come when genuine pressure is levied at the Democrats from outside the party.

So what shall we do? If not Dean, then who? If not the Democrats, then what? However hopeless you may feel, there are still many answers.

I offer Left Out! as a preliminary step: we must see the Democratic Party for what it is, not for what it claims to be. Sure we need electoral reforms, and undoubtedly we need more voices and choices in our political arena; third parties are imperative to a successful democracy.

Bottom-line: We must continue to build force against both political parties during George W. Bush's second term. We cannot wait until six months before the election to wage battle, cave to the Democrats, and still maintain our credibility and integrity as a movement. The war is already under way; our work against a corrupt political system begins now.

Over the course of the next four years we are sure to hear some tepid New Democrats tell us time and again that the only way to beat the Republicans is to outflank them to the right. Take on their moral values and surpass their fanaticism. In fact, following the defeat of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democrats quickly moved to replace him with Harry Reid, a right-wing Democrat from Nevada.

Reid, an admitted friend of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, was being tapped for the position well before Daschle's defeat, and quickly gained enough support to assure his appointment and confirmation. A conservative Mormon born and raised in Nevada, Reid could have run just as easily as a Republican when he first ran for office in 1982.

Reid is a strong opponent of privatizing Social Security, a position that has earned him the admiration of Ralph Nader, among others. But let us not be fooled into believing that Reid will offer up opposition to the Republican onslaught. His positions on trade, abortion, war, civil liberties, family values, and health care mirror those of the Republicans.

In fact, his adversaries adore him for his conservative propensities. Fellow Mormon and right-wing Senator Orrin Hatch, a high-ranking Republican from Utah, said, "We all respect Senator Reid. He is one of the moderate voices around here who tries to get things to work."

NARAL, a pro-choice advocacy group, has awarded Reid a score of 29 percent on his report card. In other words, Senator Reid has voted against a woman's right to choose 71 percent of the time he has been given the chance.

Reid also has few qualms with expanding and implementing the racist death penalty. He voted in favor of rejecting racial statistics in death penalty appeals, and voted "yes" on limiting the number of appeals allowed for federal death row inmates. And the list goes on.

As Reid consolidates power and drives the Democrats further right we will learn a harsh lesson -- that the Democrats are doing the Republicans' work for them, and help elect them along the way. This should become all the more apparent with each passing election cycle.

To counter this shift we must adopt the positions we know to be just, not those that we think will win elections. We have learned the hard way that the latter strategy is a losing one. It is not our job to concede -- the Democrats have already done more than their fair share of that and look how far it has gotten them. Reid, not surprisingly, will prove to be the wrong choice as Democratic leader in the Senate.

Progressives, leftists, libertarians, populists, and others must speak to the needs of the disenfranchised, the silenced, the forgotten. A living wage would be a great start. Sure, loads of religious zealots flocked to the polls to cast their votes for Bush this year out of fear of the legalization of gay marriage and destruction of family values, but don't you think millions more -- all the ones who stayed home in 2004 (40-42%) -- would come out to vote if they actually believed voting would make a bit of difference in their daily lives?

Wouldn't a living wage bring out this vote? How about real universal health care? This by no means implies that other social justice concerns should be swept under the rug. On the contrary, there is no reason true populism cannot encompass labor rights as well as gay rights, for example (remember Harvey Milk?). The voice of the minority could one day be the voice of the majority. The key is to find a way to bring all these voices under the same tent with the same megaphone. However, the Democrats are not the ones handing out tickets to this celebration. In fact, they are turning people away at the door.

***

On the Election Day eve, I propped my butt on an uneven stool at my local bar here in Albany, New York, ordered a beer, and watched the tallies come in. The majority of my pals perched next to me that dark night, it is safe to say, had not cast a vote for a candidate of either party in many years. And 2004 was no different. My friends were more concerned with the lotto numbers rolling in, which may be worth more to them than the national elections. Sad, but true.

These are working class folks. Blue collar to the bone. They are not lazy or apathetic, but realistic and wiser beyond any degree some lofty Ivy League institution could award them. They knew it didn't matter who won the presidential election. Change wasn't on the way, even if John Kerry promised so.

They certainly don't care much for Bush, however. But his dishonesty does not come as a surprise. They don't trust politicians in general -- especially some elite New Englander like Kerry, whose toughest decision is which of his mansions to escape to for the weekend.

And why should my friends and millions of others like them care? They are not going to vote unless they are given a reason. It's time we gave them one. Or two.

Let's keep up our movements. For it is social movements that have historically been responsible for radical social change in this country, from the forty-hour workweek to the end of the Vietnam War. We are the force behind those principled tides. Not presidents. Not political parties. Perhaps we can use Bush to our advantage and continue our fight against injustice at home and abroad for the next four years and beyond.

This book is written for those people out there who may agree with a guy like Ralph Nader but are deathly afraid of a man like George W. Bush, and consequently vote Democrat out of fear, rather than optimism. This is for Howard Dean's followers -- people who want change and think the Democrats are capable of bringing it. This rationale in fact helped reelect the very man they so adamantly opposed.

So it is time for a wake-up call. I had mine some years back, thanks to Senator Baucus of Montana. Despite his pitfalls, Baucus deserves some credit for teaching me that Democrats aren't to be trusted any more than Republicans. In fact, as a thank you, I considered dedicating this little book to Max. He deserves it. Baucus surely influenced its political bent and my passion to expose the Democrats' fraud. Later, though, I realized what a huge waste this would be. Baucus, like so many of our other public servants, is not worth the recycled paper these words are printed on.

Senator Baucus will be in office until 2006, and he's not the only liberal imposter who will be. We are up against many. But if 2004 was our wake-up call, then the imposters themselves are also up against many -- we, the people.

 

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State (more...)
 
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