What They Should Fight For

April 19, 2005
Harold Meyerson has an interesting article in the Spring 2005 Dissent Magazine called “Beyond The Consensus: Democrats Agree on How to Play Defense, but What Are They Fighting For?” http://www.dissentmagazine.org/

Meyerson encourages Democrats to “go to war against Democratic Wall Street elites,” to win back the white working class through progressive economic policies. I completely agree, but want to quibble with how Meyerson proposes we do this.

Meyerson begins by claiming that Democrats are all agreed that they presented a strong unified front in last year’s elections, that “minorities are not complaining that the party’s voter mobilization efforts were insufficient,” that “Kerry was surely the strongest candidate in the Democratic field last year.”

Already, before he’s begun his argument, Meyerson has lost a lot of activists. He goes on, quickly, before presenting data and arguments about economics, to prescribe positions on abortion, religion, and national security, without justifying them in any way.

But, if, as Meyerson claims and I believe, the largest issue in the election was national security, surely advising us to “be for” national security is insufficient. Surely no one could have done that in the way that most militaro-centrist liberals understand it any better than did John Kerry. And yet, he lost to the constituencies that place the most emphasis on that issue: veterans, active military, and white people. He won among non-veterans/military and non-whites.

Meyerson goes on to point out Kerry’s weaknesses on economics. Meyerson’s certainty that Kerry was “the strongest” candidate more than likely includes consideration of Kerry’s support for the war – albeit qualified support that Kerry himself was not opposed to differing with at those moments when he did not unequivocally stand behind or renounce it, with certain qualifications and considerations. But that contortionist’s performance was the result of trying to differ with an opponent while agreeing with him.

I would urge Meyerson, and really the entire staff of the American Prospect, to consider applying to foreign affairs the same idea he applies to economics. That is, rather than continuing to lose with Republican Lite, develop distinct Democratic ideas and see how they play.

The world, and our little corner of it, are being made measurably less safe by the Bush Administration. Terrorism has increased, not decreased. Illegal imperialistic ventures, whether launched with a Yippee Kai Yea or great reservations and careful diplomacy tend to DECREASE national security. So, yes, let’s be “for” national security by taking steps to reduce warfare, weapons buildup, and antagonism. Let’s promote alliances, build a department of peace, and craft agreements to eliminate arms. Let’s work to boost the living standards of those struggling in the world. Let’s make that “being for national security.” As long as being for national security is understood as whatever the Republicans do, then being for it and against Republicans is doomed.

On the economy, Meyerson comes halfway to where I’d like to see him. He supports strong stands against privatizing Social Security and against CAFTA. But he asks for a broader vision and has a hard time formulating it. Attempting to do so, he points to two likely gubernatorial candidates in New York and California, Eliot Spitzer and Phil Angelides. He praises them for taking on corporate power and abuse.

And rightly so. But the victories they have won, as Meyerson describes them, are too arcane to be called a broad vision. And it’s unclear what positions these candidates will take on many economic fronts. Before dumping our eggs in the baskets of two stand-ins for Kerry as our savior, we should develop what the platform is that we support. Then we can demand that our candidates support it, too, if they want to be our candidates.

Such a platform would need to include strong opposition to CAFTA, but also repeal of NAFTA and withdrawal from the WTO, the creation of new, fair, bilateral agreements based around workers’ rights and protection of the environment. Single-payer health care, restoration of the right to organize through the Employee Free Choice Act, restoration of value to the minimum wage, a jobs program building infrastructure and public transit and alternative energy facilities — these would all be part of such a platform. So would serious investment in education, including free preschool and college. A tax policy in which corporations and millionaires pay their fair share would be key.

Such a platform reaches beyond current debates and has the potential to attract the white rural working class, but only if they are part of developing and implementing it. And that will happen if we urbanites work with them to do so. Referring to “the God of justice” and banging our chests about national security will help us very little.

David Swanson is a Board Member of Progressive Democrats of America.

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