mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Left in the wings

Fights over a political party’s future are common after the party
loses a big election. But John Kerry figures to face a fight over
control of the party from fellow Democrats even if he beats George W.
Bush on Nov. 2.


Influential figures on the party’s left wing are planning a long-term
campaign to move the Democrats to the left, just as right-wing
activists took over the Republican Party and moved it to the right
over the past 30 years.

If the left’s campaign is successful, it could transform the political
landscape of the United States, changing the terms of debate and
bringing dramatically different policies on local, national and
international issues.

After George McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, some
centrist Democrats argued that Democrats had become too liberal to win
national elections.

The accusation was repeated after Michael Dukakis’ lopsided loss to
George Bush in 1988. Leading the charge was the Democratic Leadership
Council, a group of centrist Democrats who subsequently pushed the
party rightward on crime, economics and foreign policy during the
presidency of Bill Clinton, himself a council supporter.

Now, leftist Democrats are planning to challenge the centrists’
control. The leftists argue that many Democrats, especially the party
establishment in Washington, have become too much like Republicans and
too afraid to stand up to right-wingers like George W. Bush.

In the short run, the left-wingers are working hard to elect Kerry,
even though they regard him as representing the party’s cautious
center. In the primaries, most of the left preferred Howard Dean, the
former Vermont governor, whose populist, anti-war candidacy threatened
to wrest the nomination from Kerry, to the horror of the party

The left is uniting behind Kerry out of a widely shared conviction
that a second Bush term would be an unmitigated, perhaps irreversible,
disaster. Four more years of George Bush would destroy the country,
Dean said in announcing last summer that he would campaign hard for

If Kerry defeats Bush on Nov. 2, the left will probably demand
significant roles and influence in the new Kerry administration — a
Cabinet position for Dean, for example, or Kerry’s acceptance of the
left’s position on trade, health care and other issues.

To support its demands, the left will argue that Kerry could not have
beaten Bush without its help. And it will have a point, on both
ideological and organizational grounds.

After all, it was Dean’s clear, forceful criticism of the war and
other Bush policies that taught Democrats that standing up to the
president and the right wing was not only possible but popular with
voters. Without Dean’s example, it’s doubtful Kerry would ever have
found his voice against Bush.

And left-leaning activists are mounting an unprecedented grassroots
campaign to educate and turn out voters for Kerry.

The nation’s largest labor union, the Service Employees International
Union, has joined with the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the National
Abortion Rights League and other groups to organize the largest voter
mobilization in American history through the newly minted alliances
America Coming Together and America Votes.

Other supporters to Kerry’s left include Democracy for America, the
organization Dean created after the primaries to channel the energies
of his grassroots constituency, and the AFL-CIO, whose
get-out-the-vote work was crucial for Al Gore in winning the popular
vote in 2000.

And perhaps no one has attracted more attention than MoveOn, the
Internet- based group whose television ads and in-your-face opposition
to Bush has driven right-wingers crazy, even as its small-donor
fund-raising model has challenged Big Money’s hold over democracy.

Call them the Beat Bush Brigades. Collectively, these groups boast a
combined budget of perhaps $100 million and tens of thousands of staff
and volunteers. And as much as they may obey federal laws that
prohibit them from coordinating with Kerry, in effect they operate as
an unofficial Kerry for President campaign.

Whether they succeed in electing Kerry or not, key leaders see the
newfound unity among these groups as a first step toward building the
kind of political movement any president, whatever his party, must

It’s self-interest that’s bringing us together, says Deborah
Callahan, the executive director of the League of Conservation Voters,
a nonpartisan environmental organization that has endorsed Kerry.

If we don’t cooperate, we’ll certainly fail to put a progressive in
the White House in 2004. But if we succeed, we can build relations and
trust that will continue beyond the election and result in something
much larger than ourselves. Look at how the right-wing took power in
this country: By following a long-term vision of building a movement
of like-minded organizations. We’re finally doing the same.

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, argues that the
Dean campaign has already pushed the Democratic Party — and thereby
the national political debate — to the left.

Speaking in May to an auditorium of cheering activists from MoveOn and
kindred organizations, at a conference titled What We Stand For,
Trippi said, The Democrats weren’t really going to take Bush on in
this election.

They only did so, Trippi told the crowd, because of what you did —
that is, because they saw how Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war and
the right- wing agenda gained him a huge surge in poll numbers,
grassroots energy and financial support.

We had to show Kerry and the Democrats how to stand up to Bush in the
primaries, and now we have to show them how to win in November, added
Trippi. If we have to, we will carry John Kerry on our shoulders
across the goal line.

With Bush vanquished, the Democrats’ internal battles will begin.

We’re going to celebrate with John Kerry the night of Nov. 2. But the
morning of Nov. 3, we’re going to start organizing to take the party
away from him, because we have serious disagreements about what the
party should stand for and where this country needs to go, said one
activist at the What We Stand For conference, Bertha Lewis, co-chair
of the Working Families Party in New York state and a leader in the
grassroots antipoverty group, ACORN.

In 2004, we have to elect anyone but Bush, said a veteran labor
strategist working to link unions with other progressive groups. But
if we keep working and build on the lessons learned and the
partnerships we’re forging during this fight against Bush, we can
elect somebody we really like four or eight years from now.

All this signals a historic shift in the American left’s approach to
national politics. In the past, left-wing groups and individuals would
moan about a Democratic nominee’s perceived deficiencies and defect to
a protest candidate, such as Ralph Nader or Jesse Jackson.

By contrast, the Beat Bush Brigades are showing a new patience and
maturity. They are working in the short term to elect a Democrat they
see as imperfect in order to build their movement’s strength over the
long term.

Ironically, the left’s strategy is consciously modeled on the campaign
that right-wing activists mounted to take over the Republican Party,
explained Robert Borosage, the director of the Campaign for America’s
Future, at the What We Stand For conference.

Beginning in 1964, said Borosage, after conservative Republican Barry
Goldwater’s landslide loss to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, key right-wing
figures decided to rebuild the conservative movement from the ground

They recognized the importance of thinking big, planning long-term and
building enduring institutions. Thus they went on to invest in think
tanks like the Heritage Foundation and grassroots organizations like
the Christian Coalition.

By 1980, the right had gained sufficient influence within Republican
circles for its champion, Ronald Reagan, to win first his party’s
presidential nomination and then the general election.

Soon, the combination of Reagan’s charisma and the right’s continued
activism — and especially its subsequent creation of a right-wing
media infrastructure dominated by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh — had
shifted the entire nation’s political center of gravity to the right,
in ways that remain obvious today.

The left now hopes to copy the right wing’s success.

If Bush wins on Nov. 2, the battle for control of the Democratic Party
will probably come quickly. Leftists will argue that Kerry and the
centrists forfeit any right to leadership if they cannot defeat the
most vulnerable incumbent since Jimmy Carter.

If Bush is defeated, the battle will unfold more gradually. The left
will probably cooperate with Kerry on some issues and fight him on
others, while it focuses on building the media, research and
grassroots institutions that can swing the party in its direction.

In any case, none of this new thinking and activism on the left would
have happened if Bush had not pursued such an extreme course as

Thus the threat of four more years of Bush may end up calling forth a
genuine American left for the first time in a generation — an ironic
accomplishment for this most right-wing of presidents.



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Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.