Left democrats should not mourn the Iowa debacle and possible unraveling of Howard Dean’s supposedly populist Democratic presidential campaign. There are at least two reasons for them to hold back the tears. First, there’s Dean’s abrasive on-edge and “know-it-all” personality, which understandably irks voters. It’s easy to see this persona as the creation of the right-wing “mainstream” (corporate-state) media, with its sorry focus on individual candidates’ character, appearance, and personal behavior rather than their policy positions. But Dean really does have an unpleasantly arrogant way about him that is not simply manufactured by the media.
It is strongly related, no doubt, to his medical career and to his aristocratic upbringing and socialization in the home of a wealthy New York investment banker and at Yale University. American society makes overlords out of doctors, the rich, and Ivy League graduates – these groups rarely have to explain themselves to anyone – and it shows with Dean.
Then there’s the frankly bizarre part of Dean’s psychological make-up, revealed in a curious post-Caucal scream that became instantly famous on the late night talk shows.
Dean garnered passionate early support from angry Democrats partly because his “Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore” image channeled early, unapologetic criticism of a Republican president who is loathed by much of the Democratic Party’s base. But how do you best act upon contempt for George Bush the Second and his corporate-capitalist and crypto-fascist cronies – by putting up the most outwardly bigheaded, pissed off, and wild-eyed candidate or by running the contender most likely to win in a flawed, reactionary electoral-media system? Democratic Iowans opted for the second choice.
…But Not a Left-Wing One: “To the Right of Many Republicans”
Second, there’s the question of moral-ideological credibility and the related matter of Dean’s record in Vermont. A recent Chicago Tribune article titled “Vermonters See One Dean; Nation Quite Another” notes the confusion many Vermonters have felt as they’ve watched Dean promote himself as the populist representative of what he calls” the democratic Wing of the Democratic Party,” placing himself at the left end of the party’s spectrum. “Is this the Dean,” writes Tribune reporter Stevenson Swanson, paraphrasing Vermonters he’s interviewed, “who preached fiscal responsibility to restive liberal legislators, insisting that state taxes be cut and holding down spending to balance the state’s budget for 11 years? Is this the governor who courted out-of-state business to move here [with massive corporate tax breaks that contradicted his fierce allegiance to fiscal conservatism P.S.] and fought environmentalists? Political observers, allies and foes,” Swanson notes, “recall the physician turned politician as a careful centrist in line with the ‘New Democrat’ approach of the Democratic Leadership Council and former President Bill Clinton, both of whom Dean criticized during his campaign.” According to University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan, in fact, Dean “was to the right of many Republicans in the state. The Howard Dean that people are getting to know [supposedly, P.S.] nationally is not the Howard Dean that we know here.”
In an interesting comment, former Vermont Democratic state Senator Edgar May told Swanson that “the place where you determine values is the budget.” May recalls that Dean was “the most [fiscally] conservative” of the four Democrats to have served as the state governor in contemporary times. When Dean became Governor in 1991 (via the death of Republican Governor Richard Schnelling), indeed, he agreed to raise Vermont’s income taxes only to close a $65 million deficit and combined this increase with social spending cuts. When the increases expired in 1993, he rejected many Democrats’ plea to rebuild and expand social programs by letting the higher taxes stand. Dean voiced standard corporate neo-liberal doctrine by claiming that the retention of an adequate revenue stream for social services would render Vermont “uncompetitive.”
The Right Breeding: The Rich Will Still Run the Country
Don’t take it from the so-called “Peoples’ Republic of Vermont,” home to the only openly socialist member of the United States Congress (Bernie Sanders). Listen to Dean himself, being interviewed for a recent page-one profile in the nation’s leading business newspaper The Wall Street Journal (January 5, 2004). “I’ve always considered myself a centrist,” Dean told the Journal, hoping to attract potential campaign contributors from the financial sector that paid for his breeding atop the steepest national-socioeconomic pyramid in the industrialized world. Dean reassured Journal readers that “he had been unfairly tagged as a leftist because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his signing of a Vermont law sanctioning civil unions of gay couples.” “I want people to know I can run the country,” Dean told the Journal, using code language to promise that THE RICH WILL CONTINUE TO RUN THE COUNTRY (as usual) in the event of a Dean presidency. “I am pro-business,” Dean told the Journal, citing his well-documented record of “iron fiscal discipline” at the reins in Vermont – a rather different message than what he was giving to farmers and labor union members in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and leftish students in Grinnell.
The Journal provided some interesting social-historical context. It approvingly noted that “Mr. Dean's roots on Wall Street stretch back four generations to Issac Dean, a Manhattan sugar broker in the 1870s. As a child, Howard Brush Dean III took the bus from his family's Park Avenue apartment to the private Browning School, where one of his classmates was Winthrop Rockefeller, grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. and now Arkansas's Republican lieutenant governor.” Dean’s father “thrived on a Wall Street that valued bonhomie and connections.” It is true, the Journal noted, that Dean angered his father by choosing medicine over investment banking. Nonetheless, the Journal happily observed that “Mr. Dean's upbringing and frugality were evident when” the new Vermont Governor “adopted “ his Republican predecessor’s “deficit-reduction” and “austerity program as his own.” Further: “one of his first acts as governor was a trip to Wall Street to woo bond-rating agencies. The agencies were ‘pleasantly surprised,’ says Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, then a top aide to Mr. Dean.”
The Journal’s profile of Dean cheered a centrist web site named “Economists for Dean.” Writers at this neoliberal blog note that Dean’s “whole record shows him to be more mainstream than the rest of the [Democratic] field.” As one “economist for Dean” accurately observed, the Republican political machinery headed by Karl Rove will “try to smear ANY Democrat as a screaming leftwing nut” but Dean is a responsible, well-bred capitalist who is called a leftist only because he is unafraid to “fight back” against the Bush administration.
“Four Hundred Dead:” All About U.S.
Also anomalous for the notion of Dean as a leftist is the consistent absence of Iraqi war victims from his criticism of Bush’s invasion. Those victims were invisible in a pivotal address Dean gave to the Council on Foreign Relations last June. Dean proclaimed his desire to restore America to its proper, supposed historical role of the world’s moral leader. He identified that role with Harry Truman, who ordered the two most barbarian acts in human history (the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), grossly exaggerated the Soviet threat to solidify America's conversion to a permanent war economy, and launched a half-century campaign of hyper-militarization and global devastation called the Cold War.
A February 2003 Dean speech bearing the nationalistic title "Defending America's Values, Protecting America's Interests" made an interesting reference to Dean's medical background in connection with his criticism of Bush's then-imminent invasion. "As a doctor," Dean noted, "I was trained to treat illnesses and to examine a variety of options before deciding what to prescribe. I was worried about the side effects and took the time to see what else might work before proceeding to high-risk measures." During and after the invasion, however, we did not hear the healer-turned-antiwar-candidate say anything of substance about the 20,000 injured and 8,000 dead Iraqi civilians, tragic "side-effects" of a murderous White House "prescription,” not to mention the larger number of dead Iraqi conscripts (including many poorly equipped teenagers). Dean did not speak out against the absence of any US program specifically designed to help injured Iraqi civilians or even to account for civilian damage. The "side effects" that concerned Dean were all about us.
It was depressing for anyone who has followed the excellent research conducted and disseminated by Iraqi Body Count (IBC, available online at www.iraqbodycount.net/) to read the following Dean remark on the front page of the New York Times (November 4, 2003): "There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn't be dead if we hadn't gone to war." Repeat that phrase to yourself and then go to the IBC web site, which shows quite definitively that more than 7800 Iraqis died during the initial military phase of the American invasion. To this day, Doctor Dean has opposed the invasion of Iraq not because of the terrible harm it has inflicted on real people in Iraq but because of the black eye it has given to imperial America. Real leftists take a different stance on murderous, racist imperial adventures that shred international law and the fragile bodies pf small children.
Rhetoric Versus Reality
Of course, Dean is not the only Democratic presidential contender running to the left of both his record and his policies were he to reach the White House. Only the marginalized Kucinich seems willing to seriously confront the party’s captivity to corporate neoliberalism and its narcissistic nationalism.
If we are going to evaluate the candidates on the basis of their rhetoric, the most genuinely populist person among the serious Democratic contenders might be John Edwards, who speaks in (Franklin) Rooseveltian terms about the division of the United States into “Two Americas, with “One America that does the work” and “another America that reaps the reward” and the like.” For his part, John Kerry waxes eloquent against “the economy of special privilege, special favors and tax giveaways for those at the top” and the need to “drive the forces of greed and privilege from the precincts of power.”
It’s good, standard Democratic “red meat” campaign rhetoric, but don’t look for an Edwards or a Kerry White House to do all that much to level the playing field on behalf of the ordinary working people they feel compelled to put at the “heart and soul” of their speechmaking. As a skeptical voter told Kerry before the caucus in Vinton, Iowa, “we hear about these issues [from Democrats] every four years. How do we know you’ll be any different? Everyone [in the Democratic Party] talks about health care, everyone talks about jobs.”
The Unmentionable Downside of Clintonomics
Perhaps she was thinking of Bill Clinton, who ran an outwardly populist campaign against Bush I in 1992. The Clinton presidency ended without the passage of a national health insurance plan and without any significant new presidential initiatives to protect the beleaguered rights of workers or to increase the woefully inadequate minimum wage. “Both the average wages for non-supervisory workers and the earnings of those in the lowest 10 percent of wage earners,” notes Robert Pollin in his excellent Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and Landscape of Global Austerity (Verso, 2003), “not only remained well below those of the Nixon/Ford and Carter administrations, but were actually lower than that even than those of the Reagan/Bush years. Moreover, wage inequality – as measured by the ratio of the 90th to the 10th wage decile – increased sharply during Clinton’s tenure in office, even relative to the Republican heyday of the 1980s.”
To make matters worse, the percentage of Americans living at or below the poverty level during the Clinton administration (13.2) was only minimally smaller than the corresponding statistic for the Reagan/Bush era (14.1). The circumstances of the officially “poor” population actually worsened under Clinton. This partly reflected the Clinton administration’s neoliberal slashing of federal family cash assistance for jobless single mothers and its related reliance on the capitalist labor market to improve the conditions of society’s most vulnerable.
As Pollin shows, following the testimony of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the leading explanation for the exceptionally low level of wage growth that occurred even amidst a tightening labor market during the 1990s was the reluctance of workers to demand higher incomes. This reluctance emerged from the weakness of labor’s bargaining power in an increasingly global economy where employers widely and quite credibly threaten to close their shops and relocate if workers voted to unionize. It also emerged from the neoliberal pro-corporate-globalization stance of the Clinton administration, which did virtually nothing to enhance workers’ bargaining power vis-à-vis business, thereby making it certain that the “traumatized [American] worker” (as Greenspan described American working people to Congress in 1997) would accept historically minor wage increases during the 1990s boom.
Clinton’s heralded fiscal transformation (from deficit to surplus) was achieved only at extraordinary public cost. The single leading factor behind this transformation, Pollin shows, was neither faster economic growth nor the Clinton administration’s modest reversal of massive Reagan-Bush tax cuts for the wealthy but the significant reduction of federal government spending as a percentage of American GDP from 22% in 1992 to 18% in 2000. While post-Cold war cuts in military spending explained apart of this reduction, a bigger share came through significant declines in federal spending on education, poverty-reduction, environmental protection, economic regulation, and equity promotion – all while wealth exploded at the top and the “poverty gap” (the amount of money required to bring all poor people exactly up to the official poverty line) rose from $1,538 to $1,620 from 1993 to 1999. At the same time, Pollin notes, the U.S. military budget remained “more than the amount spent by all the rest of NATO plus Russia, plus all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel, combined.”
Finally, the significant, albeit limited and uneven, economic expansion that occurred under Clinton was purchased against the future. It was fueled primarily by an inherently tenuous, debt-financed stock market bubble that fueled primarily upper class consumption and which inevitably burst, with recessionary consequences passed on to the presidency of Bush II. The dramatic and dangerous over-escalation of stock prices could have been stemmed with elementary regulatory measured the Clinton administration refused to undertake because of its allegiance to neoliberal prescriptions against government intervention in the workings of the supposed “free market” to limits the excesses of private economic elites.
This performance made a mockery of Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “Putting People First,” which communicated a populist message Clinton rapidly abandoned once he attained the White House and his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (former head of Goldman Sachs) reminded him that extremely wealthy folks are the people who matter most when it comes to running the country. Even before Rubin’s reminder, however, Clinton was a veteran of the Republican-light Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed to increase the influence of big business and reduce the influence of labor and other progressive forces within the Democratic Party.
The Clinton’s Democrats basic commitment to business-class neoliberal values poisoned the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore could see nothing better to do with Clinton’s federal surplus than to pay down the national debt even as nearly 700,000 African-American children lived in “deep poverty” – at less than half of the nation’s notoriously inadequate poverty level – and beyond.
This sorry Democratic subservience to business is the main reason that genuine anti-corporate populist Ralph Nader ran an independent third-party presidential campaign in 2000. One can reasonably debate the wisdom of that campaign, which did contribute to the onset of the Bush administration (along with a host of other factors including the incompetence and centrism of the Gore campaign, massive felony disenfranchisement, and numerous voting irregularities covered up by the US Supreme Court’s criminal intervention on Bush’s behalf). It is wrong, however, to claim, as leading neoliberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently did, that Nader was motivated only by narcissistic “vanity.” Krugman, whose recent book trumpets the economic record of the Clinton years, made this charge in a column that seems a little silly in the wake of Dean’s Iowa debacle. Titled “Who’s Nader Now?,”it basically told the other Democratic presidential candidates to shut up and get on board with Dean – the people’s choice.
Why Vote Democratic?
Why should a respecting left democrat vote for any of the serious Democratic contenders? Because seemingly small (for radicals) moral, ideological, and policy differences between the two wings of the US Chamber of Commerce Party have a significant multiplier effect for real people at home and abroad in a system of highly concentrated political and economic power. Because the more reactionary of the two business parties is currently dominated by truly dangerous, harshly reactionary people – genuine threats to human survival, international peace, and ecological balance. Because it's necessary to survive to struggle for justice and peace and our chances for survival are greater with the current monsters of the nationalist right wing out of power. And because genuinely left candidates simply cannot win under the current narrow rules of the political game in “America, the Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” From this perspective, with no illusions about the “leftist” content of the Democratic Party, “our guy” in the short term is simply the most electable Democrat – not to be confused with the angriest or most fiery Democrat.
Whether “the guy” is Kerry, Edwards, Dean or Clark, the lesson for genuinely left voters and activists is clear. Keeping in mind the supreme evil that is the Bush administration and the hopelessness of electing our sort of president (someone with the positions of a Nader or a Kucinich) under the really existing U.S. democracy (better understood as a “polyarchy”), we should work as hard as we can for the candidate of the more socially responsible of the two business parties. After getting Kerry or Edwards or Clark or Dean in, however, we must have no illusions whatsoever about the new president being the friend of working people. He will be significantly beholden to the invisible dictatorship of capital and will be our job to keep his feet to the fire of the movement-building electoral power we display in November 2004 and to work to reform the American candidate selection process so that we might someday elect a president who truly deserves to be considered a populist tribune of ordinary, non-affluent people.
Along the way, we might learn a thing or two from supposedly less “developed” nations to our South. I refer to recent popular political struggles in Venezuela and Bolivia, where activists and citizens know that elections should not be seen as an endgame, an exercise where you get the "bad guys out" and then go home, saying "mission accomplished." Elections should be approached as occasions in the process of building deep, durable and richly textured movements for justice, peace, and high-intensity democracy based on the idea of equal policymaking influence for all people regardless of inherited distinctions of wealth, class, gender, race, and the like. Such movements have the immediate goal of lifting into power and defending the best possible and least harmful among the given set of predominantly elite candidates. At the same time, they embody, articulate, and act upon the long run determination to turn the social and political system into a democracy worthy of its name, one where candidates truly of and for the people will always be favored to win.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Essays on America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers) will be available next year. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm).
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