It has become a cliche that every election is a ‘critical’ one, but the election of 2002 showed that that is indeed the case. This country is led by an administration that stole the 2000 election, has enacted numerous laws to benefit the rich and hurt working people, and is poised to start a war for oil. The labor movement and people’s organizations made Herculean efforts to elect worker-friendly candidates and stop the ultra-right. In the end, however the Bush forces regained control of the Senate and added seats in the House. Republican governors, like George Pataki in New York, were re-elected (though Democrats won in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).
There are many reasons for the Republican triumphs, but four stand out: 1) the influence of money; 2) the role of the media; 3) the ‘me-tooism’ of the Democrats; and 4) the low voter turnout. Each of these presents the progressive forces of our country with a huge challenge.
The website www.opensecrets.org has an interesting analysis of the elections: ‘Just over 95 percent of U.S. House races and 75 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money.’ The money spent on Senate races totaled just under $275 million, while in House races the figure reached more than $480 million. Needless to say the vast majority of those sums came from big business. The AFL-CIO reported that corporations ‘outspent worker-friendly advocates’ by a 12-1 margin. This was the most expensive off-year election in history.
The role of the media continues to be that of a cheerleader for big business, the military, and the Bush administration. No matter where one looked, the media played up Bush’s role and favorably portrayed the administration’s plans for war against Iraq. Nothing could more clearly show the incestuous relationship between the media and the Bush administration than a dinner of the Fortune Global Forum on Veterans Day, carried on C-SPAN. The main speaker, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was introduced by Richard Moore, chairman of AOL-Time Warner (which owns CNN and Headline News).
One gets the feeling that the Democratic Party may soon be the Washington Generals of politics. For those who do not remember, the Washington Generals were the foils for the Harlem Globetrotters, and they never won a game. The sole purpose of the Generals was to provide an opponent so the Globetrotters could play basketball. Could the role of the Democrats become nothing more than to provide opponents for the Republicans so there can be ‘free’ elections?
For several decades the Democratic Party has abandoned its liberal image and tried to stake out the political center. In 2002, the party leadership went out of its way not to offend the administration. The Democrats boasted of their ‘patriotism’ and support for the ‘war on terrorism.’ They made little effort to embrace the issues important to working people and the poor: national health insurance, Social Security, jobs and above all, peace. Individual candidates, however, spoke out and addressed these issues, none more forcefully on the issue of peace than the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. The challenge for the future is clear. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, ‘There’s a clear message coming out of this for Democrats: they have to have a strong economic message for 2004.’
In some places, progressive forces made strides. The Working Families Party (WFP) in New York received 82,000 votes for its support of Carl McCall for governor. The WFP presented a program calling for a living wage, a raise in the minimum wage, reform of workers compensation laws, a progressive tax program and affordable housing. On a shoestring budget, the party was able to mail out hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature and put thousands of volunteers on the streets and on phone banks to get its message out.
There are millions of people in New York and around the country who could rally around a program like that of the Working Families Party, but it is a challenge to get to these people. Only 40 percent of the electorate voted on Election Day and the turnout trend in recent years has been downward. We must get to the remaining 60 percent. If we could encourage most of them to register and vote, we would see a revolution in U.S. politics almost overnight. The only ones who benefit from the status quo are the capitalist class. They have free, multi-party elections and they use the system to their advantage.
The next two years will be ones of great battles. The progressive forces in the U.S. must work around a common program that puts people before profits. We must oust the ultra-right and turn our country in the direction of peace and progress. If we do less, we shirk our duty to humanity and to posterity.
David Cavendish is a New York City teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org