Learning from 2004
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Elect George W. Bush. The book is an analysis of the 2004 presidential campaign. Franks writings appear regularly in Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, and Antiwar.com, among others, and he is a contributor to the book Dimes Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of CounterPunch. In this interview we examine what the anti-war movement can learn from the 2004 presidential election and how the movement should be approaching the 2006 election.
Kevin Zeese: First, tell me about your new book Left Out!. What did you learn about the 2004 campaign while writing it?
Joshua Frank: I learned a lot from the 2004 elections and this book is my attempt to put it all together and make sense of what went down. In Left Out! I shovel through the muck of our current political arrangement, where progressives and those on the left are continually told that we have real options within the so-called two-party system. Many told us during the 2004 elections that George W. Bush was so darn bad that we had to, just had to, vote for John Kerry. There was no other choice. The polluted climate, as you well know, was Anybody But Bush. Or better put, Nobody But Kerry. Hatred of Bush drove the support for Kerry. We had buses to Ohio, we had DVD parties, and all were targeting Bush rather than trumpeting Kerry. That should have been sign number one that the Democrats were on the wrong path. The candidacies of Ralph Nader and even that of the Green Partys David Cobb were seen as far too dangerous to support in the states that could have actually put pressure on Kerry (i.e. swing-states) to take on issues we believed in. The strategy, endorsed by so many respected activists and intellectuals on the left, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Medea Benjamin, Norman Solomon, to name just a few, was all about expediting the process of removing Bush from office. Not issues.
Their strategy was a miserable failure, however. The Democratic alternatives were grossly inadequate. The left asked absolutely nothing of Kerry and guess what? They got absolutely nothing in return. Thats what you get when you give someones candidacy unconditional support, despite the fact that the Democrats mirrored Bush on so many crucial issues -- from the economy to civil liberties to trade to foreign policy to the environment. It was textbook lesser evilism and it was a loser. The left had succumbed to the plague of ABB. Their unconditional support made Kerry worse and undermined everything the left supposedly stood for. And this is where I think we must be crystal clear as to what the costs of expedient choices are, even if the benefits seem predominant. As I argue in Left Out! backing the lesser evil, like the majority of liberals and lefties did in 2004, keeps the whole political pendulum in the US swinging to the right. It derails social movements, helps elect the opposition, and undermines democracy. This backwards logic allows the Democrats and Republicans to control the discourse of American politics and silences any voices that may be calling for genuine change.
Despite all this, there are still many that are not convinced that the Democrats are virtually identical to their Republican counterparts. So to argue this point, I focus a bit on one Democrat whom many argue represents the liberal end of the respectable mainstream Democratic Party -- and th
Zeese: What happened to the anti-war issue in 2004? We had developed a large base of activists, massive demonstrations, the war was going down hill -- indeed all of our worst predictions were coming true during the presidential campaign -- yet the anti-war issue was not on the agenda during the presidential race. What happened?
Frank: What happened was the anti-war movement supported a pro-war candidate, which not surprisingly, was an utter disaster. How can a movement back a candidate that supports everything it opposes? There is no question that during the campaign John Kerry was a relentless warmonger, as William Safire put it; Kerry was the newest neocon who even out-hawked Bush. True enough. Most people that supported Kerry didnt support his position on the Iraq war, which was shown by a USA Today poll taken during the Democratic convention in Boston.
If you mentioned this paradox in mixed company during the campaign you were likely to hear all sorts of tepid excuses. Like, oh, Kerry really isnt for the war, hes just being tactical, or, well, at least hes not a neocon, they are really dangerous ya know! Or something ridiculous like that. All these excuses, despite the fact that Kerry during the 1990s supported the Iraq Liberation Act, which endorsed the military removal of Saddam Hussein. All this despite the fact that Kerry continues to support some of the most violent and grisly US military ventures in Colombia and elsewhere. This, despite the fact that Kerrys key foreign policy advisor Richard Holbrooke, played a significant role in perhaps the largest US backed genocides of the last century -- as Holbrooke helped supply Suhartos bloody regime in Indonesia with bundles of illegal weapons. Apparently it didnt matter at all to these supposed anti-war folks that Kerry stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush claiming that Iraq had those pesky weapons of mass destruction hidden under its turbulent soil. None of this mattered in the least. Talk about the collapse of a movement.
How can you stand for something and yet completely capitulate your ideals? The answer is simple: you cant. Again, this gets back to the main point: you cannot support any candidate sans specific demands. You cannot profess to stand for issues you know to be just, and still surrender those stances and convictions at crunch time. Its like training to run a marathon for a year or two and then getting inebriated right before the big race. All the training you did up to that point is now irrelevant. Youre bound to fail. And its safe to say the anti-war movement was drunk on ABB last year. All the good work they did up to that point was irrelevant. They should have stuck to their issues despite the alleged consequences -- which turned out to be ill founded anyway. Not only did the anti-war movement not elect the man they wanted, John F. Kerry, they in fact helped reelect the very man they wanted to defeat, George W. Bush -- simply because they didnt ask anything of the candidate they supported.
Zeese: So what should the anti-war movement done during 2004?
Frank: The anti-war movement should have backed a candidate that embraced their call to exit Iraq at once. They should have forced Kerry to either take this position or risk losing their support. The best way they could have done that was to support a candidate that was willing to put pressure on Kerry in the states that mattered most to the Democrats. They should have supported Ralph Nader in swing-states, plain and simple. They should have told Kerry that he wouldnt get their votes unless he took on their positions. Of course, some of us were saying this during the election, but few in the anti-war movement were listening. They thought that supporting Nader could tilt the election in favor of Bush. They were wrong. What they didnt realize was that by curbing their own important anti-war convictions, they were making Kerry unaccountable. They were making Kerry worse than he already was. By not opposing his Iraq position, they helped tilt the election to Bush.
Remember how Kerry just couldnt get anything right? He was constantly in flux. Thats why more people were mobilized against Bush than for Kerry. If we learned anything from 2004, we should realize that hatred of an incumbent is not enough to elect a challenger. Had the anti-war movement mobilized behind an anti-war candidate, despite who he or she was, and despite the alleged consequences -- Kerry would have felt tremendous pressure to differentiate himself from the Bush agenda, and particularly Bushs position on Iraq. But Kerry couldnt do it. Nobody was pressuring him. So he wavered, collapsed, and lost a monumental election. In the end it wasnt just the election that was lost, the soul of the anti-war movement was lost too.
Zeese: What do you think the anti-war movement should do in 2006 during the congressional elections?
Frank: Well, the anti-war movement should do what they didnt do in the 2004 elections: hold candidates feet to the fire. The body count in Bushs illegitimate war on terror seems to be almost exponential at this point. Every month there are more deaths than the last. Each day the resistance fighters in Iraq seem to be gaining more and more control. There is no end to the occupation in sight. If candidates do not embrace the exiting of US led occupation forces at once, they must be opposed with the full force of the anti-war movement (or whats left of it).