The Dead End of ABB
By Anthony Arnove
ABB—Anybody But Bush—is one of the most harmful slogans progressives have put forward in decades.
The slogan tells John Kerry and the Democrats that they don’t need to do anything to win our vote.
As the satiric Onion newspaper joked, Kerry can safely run on a “one-point program”: that he is not George Bush.
But even that one-point program is in question. Kerry said he supports Bush’s policies on Israel “100 percent,” his tax cuts “98 percent,” and the Patriot Act (which his aides boast he helped to write, in addition to having voted for it) “94 percent.”
On Iraq, as we now know, Kerry says he would have voted to authorize the invasion even if he knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
Kerry’s real argument with Bush is over how best to have run the invasion and occupation, not over its logic or morality.
Kerry thinks he can oversee the “war on terror” more effectively, with more international support, and, as Arundhati Roy has noted in a recent speech, with “Indian and Pakistani soldiers to do the killing and dying in Iraq.”
As Ali Abunimah argued on Electronic Iraq web site on April 29, “What Kerry’s plan boils down to then is this: he is more charming than Bush.”
ABB tells the Democrats that they can ignore the vibrant antiwar movement we have built over the past two years; that they can take workers, trade unionists, women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans—and anyone else who rejects Bush’s policies—for granted.
ABB also leads to apologetics for Kerry and the Democrats: the deliberate downplaying of their role in passing the Patriot Act, supporting the invasion of Iraq (and before that the brutal sanctions and the regular bombing of the country), and justifying wars in the name of humanitarianism.
Perhaps worst of all, ABB creates a false sense of how change happens: at the ballot box and through the Democratic Party.
In fact, history suggests the opposite: that we have achieved substantive change only when collectively acting outside “official” institutions to force politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, to meet our demands and to make concessions that they otherwise would not have made.
This is not to say the left should call for a vote for Bush or that “things must get worse before they get better.”
That is a caricature of the argument against ABB.
The truth is, we will have to wage many of the same battles regardless of who wins November 2: against the occupations of Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, against the ongoing attack on the basic rights of workers, immigrants, and the poor in this country, and for abortion rights, for environmental protection, for civil rights.
If Kerry wins, we can reasonably expect that we will also face some new challenges: many of the people who marched with us on February 15 and March 22, 2003, and last week in New York will tell us to “give Kerry a chance” and that we can’t do better than what Kerry has on offer.
Many liberal organizations will accept under Kerry what they otherwise would have opposed stridently under Bush.
People say “this time will be different than when Clinton is elected,” and that we won’t get fooled again, but there’s little reason to think that the dynamic of the Democrats’ ability to co-opt and contain social movements will suddenly change, especially given the prevalence of ABB arguments that are sowing illusions about the kind of change a Kerry administration will bring.
In reality, the Democrats are likely to keep shifting the goalposts to the right, allowing the Republicans to then beat their chests even harder and expose the Democrats, who have accepted their warmongering assumptions.
On August 26, Todd Gitlin revealed the real dead end of the ABB position.
In a debate with journalist and global justice activist Naomi Klein on Democracy Now!, Gitlin argued, “My position is that John Kerry is the possibility of restarting politics. Right now, we have no possibility of politics because we have a one-party state.”
If we have a one-party state, it is because the Democrats, with Kerry prominently among them, have not acted remotely as an opposition party.
So this is hardly an argument for a Kerry vote.
Rather, it suggests the need to support a third (or, more honestly, “second” party) effort, since the Democrats and Republicans are in effect two wings of the same corporate party.
More importantly, contra Gitlin, politics did not stop with the election of George W. Bush, anymore than it stopped with the election of Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon.
Gitlin’s argument is an insult to people who have been building opposition to racist attacks on immigrants, to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to U.S. funding of Israel’s apartheid wall and expansion of its settlements, and to the many social costs of the “war on terror” on home during the last three years.
Gitlin also ignores the victories we have won under the Republicans historically and even under Bush: including victories against the death penalty (notably in Illinois, under Governor George Ryan, a Republican, and even at the level of the Supreme Court) and in restricting the scope of civil rights rollback attempted by this administration.
It was under the Bush onslaught that the largest coordinated protest in human history took place, on February 15, 2003.
Millions of people—including military personnel and their families, and targeted groups such as Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants—have stood up against intimidation to oppose war and occupation.
History does not support the thesis that the Democrats are more open to pressure from below. They resisted the movement against the war in Vietnam every bit as viciously as the Republicans, escalating the war after running on a peace platform.
Under Clinton, we saw the end of welfare, a severe rollback in worker’s rights, a major spike in the number of people without any health insurance or underinsured, declining real wages, and the indiscriminate bombing of Iraq, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.
Much of the left was satisfied with the illusion of “access” to Clinton, actively undermining genuine mobilization against his agenda.
And Kerry’s program stands even to the right of Clinton.
To those who suggest Kerry is just talking right to get elected, as many progressives have asserted (in a left version of faith-based politics), three questions must be asked.
First, when has a politician ever talked right and governed left? The history of the Democrats is that they talk left, and govern right, a frightening prospect in Kerry’s case.
Second, why should we support a candidate whose election strategy is to chase Bush’s social base, while ignoring the majority of people in the United States who now say they oppose the invasion of Iraq?
And finally, to whom is Kerry accountable? Us, the antiwar movement, the social movements, or his backers on Wall Street, many of whom prefer to have the less provocative Kerry at the helm of U.S. imperialism than the bridge-burning Bush?
Regardless of who you plan to vote for in November (if anyone at all), the assumptions behind ABB stand in the way of building movements that can bring about political change.
We need to chart a course that looks beyond the election to long-term efforts that will necessarily have to be independent of—and oppositional to—the Democrats, as well as the Republicans.
We can’t do that while shilling for the Democrats, and letting them off the hook.
Anthony Arnove is co-editor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People’s History of the United States, from Seven Stories Press.
- September 14, 2004