By David Swanson
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 fuckers. 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.
Do Democrats like peace? Well, most elected Democrats won’t risk much for it. And neither will most American citizens. But most people who identify themselves as Democrats (as well as those who identify themselves as individuals but often vote for Democrats) would prefer peace to war. And of the few elected representatives who will work for peace, they are almost all Democrats. Of the serious intra-party movements for peace in recent decades, they have all been among Democrats. It was Democrats in Congress who were finally compelled by a popular movement to end the war in Vietnam. While Perrin offers a useful but simplistic tale of how a whole Party is evil and murderous, he turns around and volunteers to work for John Kerry, not just a member of that Party, but a war-supporting member to boot. Why? Because he understands the more complex picture that he fails to present.
We all would like to see a better party than the Democratic Party as it is today. We all see how incredibly difficult it is to create a new party, as well as how difficult it is to reform the existing one. In many cases, the same action – that of supporting a progressive outsider candidate – can BOTH help to reform the existing party AND help to build a new one. It’s not always necessary to choose at the level of grand theory in order to act. And any grand theory aboout parties is a mistake.
The important shift we need is one away from all parties, away from acceptance of dictatorial power in the White House, and away from the emphasis on elections. We need non-partisan movements to compel individual representatives to represent us. That is where 90% of our energy should go, and where most of us can find agreement on how to act.
But elections are not without their importance. And it would be a shame for someone to reject the best candidate in a race because Andrew Jackson killed Indians. Similarly, it is discouraging to hear people fantasizing about how Senator Barack Obama is supposedly pretending to be less progressive than he really is, in order to get elected. That sort of wishful thinking leads to disappointment. The smartest choice might be to vote for Obama, but believing nonsense while doing so can discourage the more important work of building the necessary movement to compel him to represent us both now and after he is (if he is) elected.
We can always choose where to compromise, and even where to self-censor and not point out some uncomfortable fact. But we shouldn’t choose not to know. That very few people will blurt out the uncomfortable facts that Dennis Perrin has assembled should make you want to read his book and want to question exactly how extensive is our self-censorship.
The United States has always been soaked in blood and racism and sadistic cruelty, yet we’ve worked and worked and worked over the centuries to make it less so, and I don’t hear from too many people ready to give up on the country. Giving up on a party because of its criminal past makes no more sense. But learning to outgrow both nationalism and party-loyalty, and to be full-time engaged citizens (not just voters) both of our nation and of the world may be an idea whose time has come.