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Do Democrats Like Peace?

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In the forthcoming "Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War," Dennis Perrin argues that the Democratic Party (at least its elected officials, if not its loyal voters) is a party of war.  I have some significant disagreements with Perrin, which I'll come to below, but here is roughly the way this story goes:

Democratic presidents took us into two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.  A Democratic Senate authorized the war on Iraq.  Jackson and Van Buren were ethnic cleansers.  Polk lied us into a war of aggression against Mexico.  Wilson invaded Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and stripped away rights at home with Bushlike abandon after dragging us into World War I.  Franklin Roosevelt put Japanese Americans in prison camps during his world war.  Truman is the only person ever to have ordered the use of nuclear bombs, after which he started a war in Korea.  

Kennedy began the slaughter in Vietnam, narrowly avoided rushing the world into nuclear holocaust,  and backed the use of death squads in South and Central America.  Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnamese killing.  Carter funded and armed murderers in El Salvador, supported and armed the Indonesian military as it slaughtered the East Timorese, backed a military regime in South Korea that slaughtered thousands, and recruited reactionary Muslims to help fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Carter established war as the appropriate response to anyone other than the United States laying claim to Middle Eastern oil, saying:

"Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

Clinton killed the Branch Davidians in Waco, with blowback in Oklahoma City, which was followed by PATRIOT Act precursor the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.  Clinton sold arms to all sorts of murderous nations other than the obligatory Israel, including Colombia, while routinely bombing Iraq -- including civilian neighborhoods, even while imposing sanctions that killed a half million to a million Iraqis, not to mention bombing Yugoslavian civilians with cluster bombs in supposed response to killing that actually largely took place in response to the bombing, killing that was surpassed during the same period by that perpetrated by the Turkish government using weapons Clinton sold them.  And then there was Somalia.  As George Stephanopoulos recounts, Clinton  summarized the situation there in 1993 this way:

"We're not inflicting pain on these f*ckers.  When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers.  I believe in killing people who try to hurt you.  And I can't believe we're being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."

Perrin dismisses those within the Democratic Party who have spoken up for peace, including McCarthy, McGovern, Jackson, and Brown, as fringe elements who never really had a chance in the stall of the "Savage Mules."

Perrin presents this bloody history of the Democratic Party and riffs on it, making some important points, I think, and missing some others, and failing in the end to offer much useful guidance or advice.

Of course, you could tell a very similar tale of the Republicans (and Whigs) in the White House that would be at least as bloody.  And you could push back against the notion that presidents have always run the country.  Looking into the performance of congress members of various parties over the centuries would also leave the Republicans at least as soaked in blood as the Democrats, probably more so.  In fact, with few exceptions, you could tell somewhat similar stories of most political groups in most countries around the world.  Peace is fairly rare, and the way in which we long for its maintenance is fairly new - although war-making Democratic presidents for a century or so have gotten elected campaigning on peace platforms.

The most useful point that Perrin makes, I think, is in identifying the enormous gap between how Republicans and the media depict some Democrats, and how those Democrats actually behave.  While Clinton was blowing people up around the world, commentators were denouncing him as a leftwing pacifist, or defending him as a humanitarian who used force for the good of us all and only as a last resort.  Our kids' history books will present him that way, if their treatment of Wilson is any guide.  But we don't have to go back to Clinton to observe this phenomenon.

When the media erased Dennis Kucinich from the 2004 presidential race and promoted Howard Dean as a peace candidate, many believed that Dean wanted peace, even as he reassured the war powers that be in every interview that he wanted no such thing.  John Kerry tried the same trick much less skillfully.  In 2006 we elected Democratic majorities in Congress thinking that they would end the occupation of Iraq; and instead they escalated it - all the while advertising themselves as the best means to end the occupation after 2008.  Senator Barack Obama refuses to commit to ending the occupation of Iraq or even to not launching new wars of aggression, and yet he is almost universally seen as an antiwar candidate.

In fact, on all sorts of issues, from war to health care to energy, Democrats are often advertised in the media as holding positions far to the left of where they actually are.  This can hurt them in right-wing districts and help them elsewhere.  It's no good for a far-right district to believe you want peace and single-payer health care and citizenship for immigrants, but in another district it can be useful for voters to believe such things while funders know better.  And, of course, this leads to theorizing about vast conspiracies to fool voters into believing the Democratic Party is better than it is.  To some of those who think this way, the Democratic Party and Republican Party work together, the Republicans serving as the murderers for sadists and the Democrats as the murderers for arrogant humanitarians, putting a friendlier face on the same policies or worse.  In fact, by presenting the image of a peace party, Democrats may be better able to make war without public opposition.  This line of thought, however, can lead to believing that rightwing Republicans are coordinating their statements with leftwing Democrats.  It just doesn't work that way.  There is no such grand coordination.  There is no such thing as a belief shared by all members of a party, much less multiple parties.  In the end, there are only individuals, and their motivations are those of a party almost exclusively when they see supporting the party line as in their individual best interest.

An editorial cartoon recently showed a donkey Then and Now, and then he said "This war is just about cheap oil!" and now he said "Where's all the cheap oil"?  Of course, most elected Democrats and the leadership of the party have always fiercely resisted broaching the idea that the war has anything whatsoever to do with oil.  And peace activists claimed that the war would be, and has been, for control of oil and profits for oil companies, not - of course - for making gas cheap for US drivers.  Their view has been shared by Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the same congressman who has run   unsuccessful presidential campaigns promoting the majority positions that the media often attribute in cartoonish fashion to the Democratic Party.  

The conspiratorial suggest that someone like Kucinich serves as cover for the Democratic Party, as a way to make progressives and leftists believe they have some sort of voice within it, when really they do not.  When Kucinich recently introduced articles of impeachment against President Bush and backed sending the measure to committee rather than forcing a floor vote, I heard once again the rumor that his goal was not so much impeachment as a more Constitution-friendly image for a party.

The only image any congress member cares about is their own.  Kucinich worries (less than anyone else, but still worries) about how far he can go and still remain on working terms with the Democratic Party, but the furthest thing from his mind is how he can make the party look like something it isn't.  Of course, he could have that impact without intending it, but I've seen no evidence of it.  I don't refrain from devoting all my energies to building a third party because there are a few good Democrats.  I refrain because it's so damn hard to build a third party.  (Plus I'm not independently wealthy, and no third parties are hiring.)  In fact, Perrin recounts in his book having sworn never again to support a Democratic candidate, and later recounts volunteering to work for the Kerry campaign.  Swearing never to support anyone of a particular party can be as foolish as swearing never to support anyone of a particular race or gender, and caries with it many of the flaws involved in swearing always to support everyone of a particular party.

George Washington did not belong to a political party and did as good a job as president as the rest of them.  The people who wrote the Constitution did not mention political parties in it, and spoke and wrote often of their fear of "factions" acquiring too much power.  Today parties have tremendous power, and the shift of power away from individuals to parties feeds off and encourages the shift of power away from Congress to the White House.  Very few members of Congress care a fig about the power of Congress, but they're almost all obsessed with whether the next president will belong to their party (and what they'll personally be able to get out of that).  This shift of power to the White House and to parties also encourages a shift of focus on the part of citizens away from lobbying, protesting, and movement building to election-following, and above-all presidential election-following.  

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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