Last month, I reluctantly joined the Anybody But Bush camp. It was “Bush in a Box” that finally got me, a gag gift my brother gave my father on his sixty-sixth birthday. Bush in a Box is a cardboard cutout of President 43 with a set of adhesive speech balloons featuring the usual tired Bushisms: “Is our children learning?” “They misunderestimated me”—standard-issue Bush-bashing schlock, on sale at Wal-Mart, made in Malaysia.
Yet Bush in a Box filled me with despair. It's not that the President is dumb, which I already knew, it's that he makes us dumb. Don't get me wrong: My brother is an exceptionally bright guy; he heads a think tank that publishes weighty policy papers on the failings of export-oriented resource extraction and the false savings of cuts to welfare. Whenever I have a question involving interest rates or currency boards, he's my first call. But Bush in a Box pretty much summarizes the level of analysis coming from the left these days. You know the line: The White House has been hijacked by a shady gang of zealots who are either insane or stupid or both. Vote Kerry and return the country to sanity.
But the zealots in Bush's White House are neither insane nor stupid nor particularly shady. Rather, they openly serve the interests of the corporations that put them in office with bloody-minded efficiency. Their boldness stems not from the fact that they are a new breed of zealot but that the old breed finds itself in a newly unconstrained political climate.
We know this, yet there is something about George W. Bush’s combination of ignorance, piety and swagger that triggers a condition in progressives I've come to think of as Bush Blindness. When it strikes, it causes us to lose sight of everything we know about politics, economics and history and to focus exclusively on the admittedly odd personalities of the people in the White House. Other side-effects include delighting in psychologists’ diagnoses of Bush's warped relationship with his father and brisk sales of Bush “dum gum”—$1.25.
This madness has to stop, and the fastest way of doing that is to elect John Kerry, not because he will be different but because in most key areas-Iraq, the “war on drugs,” Israel/Palestine, free trade, corporate taxes-he will be just as bad. The main difference will be that as Kerry pursues these brutal policies, he will come off as intelligent, sane and blissfully dull. That's why I’ve joined the Anybody But Bush camp: Only with a bore like Kerry at the helm will we finally be able to put an end to the presidential pathologizing and focus on the issues again.
Of course most progressives are already solidly in the Anybody But Bush camp, convinced that now is not the time to point out the similarities between the two corporate-controlled parties. I disagree:
We need to face up to those disappointing similarities, and then we need to ask ourselves whether we have a better chance of fighting a corporate agenda pushed by Kerry or by Bush.
I have no illusions that the left will have “access” to a Kerry/Edwards White House. But it's worth remembering that it was under Bill Clinton that the progressive movements in the West began to turn our attention to systems again: corporate globalization, even-gasp-capitalism and colonialism. We began to understand modern empire not as the purview of a single nation, no matter how powerful, but a global system of interlocking states, international institutions and corporations, an understanding that allowed us to build global networks in response, from the World Social Forum to Indymedia.
Innocuous leaders who spout liberal platitudes while slashing welfare and privatizing the planet push us to better identify those systems and to build movements agile and intelligent enough to confront them. With Mr. Dum Gum out of the White House, progressives will have to get smart again, and that can only be good.
Some are arguing that Bush’s extremism actually has a progressive effect because it unites the world against US empire. But a world united against the United States isn't necessarily united against imperialism. Despite their rhetoric, France and Russia opposed the invasion of Iraq because it threatened their own plans to control Iraq's oil. With Kerry in power, European leaders will no longer be able to hide their imperial designs behind easy Bush-bashing, a development already forecast in Kerry's odious Iraq policy. Kerry argues that we need to give “our friends and allies… a meaningful voice and role in Iraqi affairs” including “fair access to the multibillion-dollar reconstruction contracts. It also means letting them be a part of putting Iraq's profitable oil industry back together.” Yes, that’s right: Iraq’s problems will be solved with more foreign invaders, with France and Germany given a greater “voice” and a bigger share of the spoils of war. No mention is made of Iraqis, and their right to a “meaningful voice” in the running of their own country, let alone of their right to control their oil or to get a piece of the reconstruction.
Under a Kerry government, the comforting illusion of a world united against imperial aggression will drop away, exposing the jockeying for power that is the true face of modern empire. We’ll also have to let go of the archaic idea that toppling a single man, or a Romanesque “empire,” will solve all, let alone any, of our problems. Yes, it will make for more complicated politics, but it has the added benefit of being true. With Bush out of the picture, we lose the galvanizing enemy, but we get to take on the actual policies that are transforming all of our countries.
The other day, I was ranting to a friend about Kerry's vicious support for the apartheid wall in Israel, his gratuitous attacks on Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and his abysmal record on free trade. “Yeah,” he agreed sadly. “But at least he believes in evolution.”
So do I—the much needed evolution of our progressive movements. And that won’t happen until we put away the fridge magnets and Bush gags and get serious. And that will only happen once we get rid of the distraction in chief.
So Anybody But Bush. And then let’s get back to work. This column first appeared in The Nation.