Beware of Politicians Co-opting Your Movement: Another Parade Passes Me By
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are attracting thousands to their rallies and setting records for voter turnouts in the Democratic Party primaries. Reports abound that millions are infused with hope and optimism.
This 2008 election reminds me of my generation of radicalizing youth being courted in 1968 by Democratic Party “peace and reform” candidate Eugene McCarthy. The experience was repeated in 1972 when Senator George McGovern and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm vied for the Democratic Party nomination.
As you may recall, New York City Congresswoman Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for President in a Democratic primary. But even with significant civil rights and feminist credentials, Chisholm didn’t get much attention back then and she dropped from the race with 162 delegates. As a labor and social activist, I have to ask: Was the Democratic Party worth our support back then and does it deserve our support today?
I don’t think so.
This is really not being talked about much today. Young people don’t seem to be asking too many questions before rushing head long into both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. In many respects, the 2008 youth generation is quite different from 1968. Today’s young people have not achieved the enormous self confidence gained from organizing massive antiwar protests of millions, shutting down universities and high schools to establish Black, Chicano and Women’s Studies programs, fighting for free speech rights, and forcing schools to stop cooperation with draft boards and military recruiters. Our culture has since been steadily depoliticized.
Instead of a political youth culture infused with dreams of building a new society, we have a cacophony of media white noise promoting obsession with celebrities and wealth. Emphasis on the rich and famous is not limited to Hollywood; undeserving politicians in Washington, DC also get star billing.
Looking back forty years, it is not only the youth culture that has changed. Democratic candidates are also quite different. In the earlier years, they projected a far more progressive image than either Clinton or Obama today.
McGovern’s memorable rebuke to conservative Senator John Stennis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would hardly be repeated by today’s poll-driven, consultant-crafted Democratic candidates: “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight,” McGovern defiantly declared. “If he wants to use American ground troops in Cambodia, let him lead the charge himself.”
Toned-down rhetoric is a sign of the times. Democratic Party candidates today are playing to the disenchanted while the candidates of 40 years ago were appealing to the rebellious. The current candidates of the two major parties, however, do share in common with their elder predecessors the invocation of that abstract and time-tested mantra about “change.” Barack Obama offers “change we can believe in.” Clinton reminds us she’s a lifelong “agent of change.”
When I hear this, I’m reminded of French journalist and novelist Alphonse Karr who is credited with the oft-quoted observation that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” In fact, not much has changed in Democratic Party campaigns: Image and personality continue to substitute for genuine discussion of policies that would actually lead to changing people’s lives.
Working inside or outside the Democratic Party
Notably, radicalized young social activists in 1968 were far less impressed with authority and celebrity figures. We hotly debated whether to support McCarthy, McGovern, or Chisholm. In 1968, I was the chairperson of the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle) Committee to End the War in Vietnam and in 1970 of the Chicago Citywide Strike Council formed immediately after the Kent State and Jackson State massacres. These committees were enormously successful. We mobilized thousands of students in Chicago and aggressively reached out to peace and religious groups, unions, and to the Black and Puerto Rican communities. Our purpose was to build broad popular coalitions of action around the pressing antiwar and social justice demands of the day.
We were confident our actions were making a big impact on American politics. I supported those who believed we should stay in the streets building an antiwar movement independent of the two major political parties and government. I didn’t support the Democratic Party because I believed then as now that the Democratic Party was itself part of the problem.
Contrary to his sanitized image, it was liberal President John F. Kennedy who approved the first major escalation of the Vietnam War. Kennedy sent 15,000 troops to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson just kept it up. Appealing to the Democratic Party for help in ending the Vietnam War didn’t make sense to me.
Especially after the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, traditional politicians were beginning to speak out against the war. This was welcomed. But some of us did not appreciate a focus on their election campaigns as an alternative to building mass protests. We saw this as undercutting the heart of the movement’s strength, which was in the streets, independent of control by the political establishment.
Eugene McCarthy encountered this debate all around him and accurately described antiwar activists like me as “doing their own thing. In fact, some of them were a little upset when we started the campaign saying we were draining off energy; they were more radical.”
Yep, that was me. But alas, I was in a minority then just as I am in a minority now. Most of my fellow students supported the Democratic Party national election campaigns in 1968 and 1972.
As a mass action campus activist arguing against diverting the resources of our movement, I sadly observed the predictable negative consequences. The powerful “Confront the War Makers” protests of 250,000 in San Francisco and 500,000 at the Pentagon in Washington, DC occurred on October 21, 1967. But major national actions were not rescheduled for another two years. Why? Because of the focus on the 1968 elections.
Rebounding after the elections, the October 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protests drew an estimated two million. The BBCreported it as the “largest demonstration in U.S. history.” Little more than a year later on April 24, 1971, hundreds of thousands returned for massive national demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Antiwar demands for “immediate withdrawal” were rapidly gaining majority support.
But again, during the 1972 Democratic Party national campaign, no national protests were scheduled. As in 1968 election year, local antiwar actions took place throughout the country but with much reduced participation. Considering these experiences, I tell myself that sometimes suffering the ridicule of standing on the sidelines is better than playing a game stacked against you.
Putting hopes in the Democratic Party has, time and again, had a crippling effect on building independent movements for social justice. This is true on issue after issue. I do not believe this can be denied or ignored. Real power, for some of usthe power to change societyis not gauged by who wins the Democratic Party primaries. An alternative view is that real political power is measured by how conscious working people are of their own self interests and how well organized they are to promote these majority values through massive mobilizations.
Ultimately, an electoral response must arise from such mass protests but it will certainly be much different than either of the two current major parties. By this measure we find another reason to avoid supporting the Democratic Party. Unions, feminist and civil rights organizations self-censor their own voice to coincide with the compromised political positions of Democratic Party leaders.
In other words, the needs and interests of working Americans are repeatedly toned down for the sake of working with our Democratic “friends” in office. This is probably the most damaging aspect of support for the Democrats. Voices for social change modify their words to fit positions of a party that will never challenge the power and wealth of the super rich.
In one example on a critical issue, neither Clinton nor Obama proposes eliminating the parasitic insurance companies from health insurance. Most unions, with the grand exception of the California Nurses Association, AFL-CIO, shove into the background any sympathy they might have for single-payer health care to avoid embarrassing these candidates. Is it not fair to speculate that these same social forces who decline to take a “single-payer” position on health care also decline to loudly proclaim demands for “immediate withdrawal” from Iraq because it might embarrass Clinton or Obama?
Are we in or are we out?
It was exactly the same pattern 40 years ago. Neither McCarthy nor McGovern proclaimed the principle of self-determination and non-interference by a big power in the internal affairs of another country. They did not, therefore, support the slogan of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, the chief demand of the antiwar movement.
The “peace candidates” urged “Vietnamizing” the war by training South Vietnamese U.S. allies to conduct the war. They all supported negotiating with the North Vietnamese a “timetable for withdrawal.” As if the United States has the right to “negotiate” the internal affairs of another country. Sound familiar?
None of the current candidates stands for “Bring the Troops Home Now,” which is the slogan of today’s antiwar movement. None of the candidates renounce U.S. interference in the internal affairs of another country. On the contrary, all the candidates preach “training the Iraqis to take over the war.”
It is no surprise the 1968 script is now being followed in 2008 by Obama and Clinton. Personalities may change, but the Democratic Party has not. The duel between Obama and Clinton is a sideshow distraction from the real issues much like 1968 and 1972.
It is often pointed out that the Vietnam War ended and the troops brought home under conservative President Richard Nixon. Yet, most would agree that neither Nixon nor the insider Washington political establishment attained the peace. The evidence shows that unrelenting worldwide street protests combined with unyielding determination of the Vietnamese people forced the U.S. government to bring the troops home.
Yesterday and today
Of course, the Bush years have been bad. That’s why many liberals and progressives now are apparently lapsing into political amnesia when it comes to recalling the retrograde legacy of the Clinton administration. For example, Clinton’s welfare “reform” (i.e., gutting welfare benefits) was right out of the traditional Republican playbook. It’s Ralph Nader’s considered opinion that the Clinton years only produced one beneficial piece of legislation, the unpaid Family Medical Leave Act.
More recently, Democrats, by a large majority, voted for the Patriot Act, voted to authorize the Iraq war and voted repeatedly to continue funding the Iraq war. In other words, they have enabled the Bush administration in all its major foreign policy initiatives. The Democratic candidates are now telling us in so many words to focus on electing them, and then they will deal with the war. But neither Clinton nor Obama will guarantee to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by even the end of their first terms. Then there is the matter of their stated support for “counterinsurgency” needs, or maybe invading Pakistan or Iran.
Living through the incredible enthusiasm for the Obama campaign today leads me to relive the experiences of my youth. I’ve seen this before and it doesn’t get easier to take. It’s another front row for the two-party system while the antiwar and other protest movements once again take a back seat. I’m more disappointed than ever that the Democratic Party gets another undeserved infusion of new blood from another hopeful generation of youth. Meanwhile, our troops remain in Iraq well into the foreseeable future.
This is why I believe we should stay focused on building protest movements around issues rather than putting our energy into “protest” election campaigns around individuals. Especially when these candidates are products and promoters of the Democratic Party, which itself is co-administrator with the Republican Party of the “for profit over people” government.
We should learn from the past. Those who oppose the Iraq war should stay focused on building a strong, independent antiwar movement to bring all U.S. troops home from Iraq now.
Carl Finamore is President of IAMAW Air Transport Local Lodge 1781.
CounterPunch, February 13, 2008