By Johnathan Rickman
DC Progressives Join Heads
How can progressives and political activists best work together to build a viable third party that adequately expresses their shared values and convictions, and what is the best way to oppose another four years of regressive Bush administration policies both domestic and foreign?
Those questions were debated on November 11 between rows of fold-out chairs in a church basement in the nation’s capital at a public forum hosted by the DC chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO).
The forum featured four speakers from four different organizations: Ben Dalbey of the ISO, Jay Marx of the DC Statehood Green Party (DCSGP), Niyi Shomade of the Ralph Nader 2004 presidential campaign, and Shahid Buttar of the DC Spokes Council.
Coke Vs. Pepsi
Ben Dalbey kick-started the event by asking rhetorically how on earth a president with only a 49 percent approval rating could waltz to victory.
“We need to understand what happened with this election because as Falluja is getting pounded with bombs, we are getting pounded with lies,” Dalbey said.
“We are being presented with a twisted distortion of what Americans think that is actually designed to preserve the illusion of democracy in this country as well as to provide for the continued justification for the United States’ actions in Falluja,” Dalbey added.
Dalbey took pains to shed light on the media’s reaction to the election on November 3 and afterward, saying exit poll responses are not etched in stone and that the red state vs blue state phenomenon “hides the reality that Bush and Kerry agreed on far more than they disagreed on.”
The electoral map and the blue/red phenomenon continue to sideline and make irrelevant the progressive ideals that were ignored by the so-called opposition candidate, Dalbey said.
Ever since it chose to back the 2004 presidential ticket of Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo back in June, the ISO has put forth a fervent effort to illuminate the pitfalls of succumbing to the Anybody-But-Bush and lesser-of-two-evils arguments — describing it as a moral retreat and as a type of pragmatism that only serves to move U.S. politics further to the right.
Dalbey eloquently voiced his organization’s disagreements over Senator John Kerry’s positions on the war and gay marriage, and echoed the new Thomas Frank book “What’s Wrong With Kansas,” which urges Democrats to actually stand for something and not simply stand in opposition to its rivals.
“In this last election, the least lesser-evil lost because Kerry ran a race of Coke vs. Pepsi and people voted for the real thing. Saying hope was on the way was simply not enough,” Dalbey said.
Jay Marx viewed the last presidential election as a sign that progressive campaigns are likely to be more viable on a local level — despite having received only 8 percent of the vote in his most recent campaign for DC city council on the DCSGP ticket — “not a huge mandate by any stretch,” Marx admitted.
Marx viewed local issues such as the lack of local recreation centers, vague promises about riverside development, and the bilking of DC taxpayer dollars towards the construction of a new baseball stadium as tangible issues that progressives could use to galvanize voters.
However, Marx also touched on the difficulty progressives face nationally, saying third-parties must find a way to counter the “martial mindset” of the Right, and seek out exciting, charismatic leaders that can motivate and mobilize people.
Marx also called for more regular strikes and other means of protest that hit powerbrokers where it hurts them most — their pocketbook. Tell the government we’re not going to pay for the war anymore via your tax return, Marx said.
Niyi Shomade, a native of Nigeria and the finance officer of the Ralph Nader 2004 presidential campaign, expressed frustration with American complacency in regards to politics. “Bush ran the economy into the ground, the war in Iraq is unpopular, the deficit is out of control — people say it can’t get worse, and yet he wins.”
“The fact is it was worse when women and Blacks couldn’t vote,” Shomade said. “It was worse when slave labor in Africa and Asia was a dominating force,” he added.
As a resident of Nigeria, Shomade was not allowed to vote in the last election, but he said he felt it was important to get involved politically somehow because what happens in the United States ultimately effects his country as well as the rest of the world.
“We need to start seeing each other as one people and start making more connections,” Shomade said.
Shomade also described voting as the lowest form of political expression. It’s important that every vote count, but issues like poverty and health care trump electoral issues, he said. It’s more important that people participate politically all the time instead of only participating when it comes time vote, he added. “Ralph Nader says you can’t have democracy without daily citizenship.”
Lastly, Shomade also called for some form of organized “economic sabotage” — showing up an hour late for work, boycotts — something more than just rallying and protesting.
Movements vs. Organizations
Shahid Buttar of the DC Spokes Council — an umbrella group of local activists — also expressed dissatisfaction with electoral politics. By all means vote, but if we accept that as our only means of expressing ourselves, then we must accept our marginalization, Buttar said.
“It’s crucial to recognize that movements shift what this country is about, not candidates or political parties — movements come from individuals — people acting in their own private capacities,” Buttar said.
He urged individual progressives to circumvent political parties and non-governmental organizations, describing them as disempowering and symptomatic. Striking at the causes of our problems instead of the symptoms is essential, and requires forming alliances and coalitions, Buttar said.
Buttar, who is also a member of a local “guerrilla poetry insurgency,” said progressives could build alliances by attending a variety of events and meetings and sharing with others the messages and lessons learned. “Political activists should throw more parties too,” Buttar said.
The attendees had lots to say in response to the panelists’ comments, but by no means was a consensus reached. A Latin American woman in the audience said she too couldn’t vote but felt movement-based politics empowered her with a kind of indirect “vote”. Others expressed dissatisfaction with protests and rallies, saying they were largely ineffectual.
Others still seemed unable to shake the 2004 election and expressed confusion as to what to do about the passionless politics of the Democrats. Nevertheless, with the debate having occurred just nine days after the elections, the progressives in attendance seemed united in their resolve to make sure their values and issues set the tone for the next four years and beyond.