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David Swanson – build an independent movement and break from Democratic Party

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

There’s a debate raging, you could say, in progressive political circles, particularly those who have been very critical of the Obama administration over the last four years, whether or not to vote for President Obama, especially in swing states. Some people have called for taking a stand, which amounts, essentially, in non-swing states to vote for third parties, like, for example, the Green Party, but in swing states, to vote for the president, Obama, and the Democratic Party.

Now joining us to discuss and give his take on this debate is David Swanson. He’s an author whose books include War Is a Lie. He blogs at and And he works as a campaign coordinator for the online activist organization Roots Action. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Thanks for joining us, David.

DAVID SWANSON, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thanks for having me on.

JAY: So, now, you work with Roots—let me get it right—Roots Action, and they have taken a position, and they sent out an email proposing, essentially, that people should vote in swing states for President Obama, and they said, do it without illusions, and went on to be extremely critical of the Obama administration, but take the position that a Romney administration would be even worse and, knowing that, people should vote Democratic Party in swing states, and then the moment after doing that, get back to organizing for building a movement, which would be for what they consider real change. But you don’t agree with that.

SWANSON: Well, my argument is multipart. One part of it is that the difference between Obama and Romney and what they would do is less than what many Obama supporters suppose. Many Obama supporters in fact are very uninformed about what he’s been for the past four years, and there would be greater activist resistance to a Romney administration.

Another part of the argument is that elections really are far less important than independent policy [incompr.] this so-called lesser evil choice, assuming we agree on what that is, every four years, and have the two choices be more evil four years hence, so something else is needed, and that being a lesser-evil voter, or even supporting the protection of the lesser-evil candidate in a handful of states where it matters, tends to make the movement less powerful and fundamentally corrupted year in, year out, so that even when there’s no election, we have activist organizations and labor unions going to Washington and asking the Democrats, what should we ask you to do, and turning their activists into props, essentially, for campaigns, whether there’s an election immediately coming up or not.

So we’re forbidden to say “single-payer” at rallies for the public option, which then, of course, guarantees we get neither. We are demanding that Obama pass the test of the tar sands pipeline, but with no contingency plan for what we’ll do when he fails the test.

So our position as activists becomes this incredibly weak one, that we will vote for you no matter what you do, but we really wish—it would be really nice if you would listen to us. Arguably, some Latino voters haven’t taken that path, have threatened not to vote for Obama, and seen some action, some limited action on immigrants’ rights out of him. The rest of us don’t [incompr.] no matter what, and it deeply wounds our activist movement in between elections.

JAY: So let’s take these things up one by one. If you start with not a significant difference—and I guess you could split this up into foreign-policy issues and domestic-policy issues, but you’re particularly concerned with foreign-policy issues in your writing, so let’s kind of focus there. Do you not think there’s the possibility, for example, given where Romney’s money’s coming from and the kind of support he gets on the far right and the pressures to bear on him, he’s—if there is a President Romney, the day he gets elected, he starts campaigning for four years hence, and so, clearly there are going to be enormous pressures on him to pay the piper, do you not think you could see a Secretary of State Bolton or something like that? Do you not think you’ll see the fingers of a Dick Cheney and his allies, or at least that type of a stance over Romney foreign policy? And do you not think that’s far more dangerous for the people of the world, whatever it does to activist movements in the United States? I mean, I think you could argue that it’s unlikely—I don’t think there’s any evidence that a Gore presidency would have invaded Iraq. He might have invaded Afghanistan. He might have been terrible in Afghanistan. But I don’t know there’s any evidence he would have invaded Iraq, and there’s hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis who might not be dead if that election had gone otherwise.

SWANSON: [incompr.] dead Iraqis, by every serious study, and I think it’s important that we get those numbers right. But we’re not here to vote for Gore or Johnson or Nixon or Lincoln or any past presidents; we’re here to choose between Obama and Romney and taking a stand for other choices that, of course, are forbidden to seriously contend in our elections.

I went to Chicago a week or so ago to a debate among four candidates shut out of the corporate-sponsored, polls-sponsored Commission on Presidential Debates debate, and I saw candidates from across the political spectrum, from those who want to make housing and a living wage and health care and education, human rights, to those who want to eliminate all of them and taxation along with it. And all of them, every single one, wanted to significantly cut military spending—never brought up between Obama and Romney—want to get out of Afghanistan immediately, want to cease threatening war on Iran immediately, want to end the policies of arbitrary, indefinite-detention imprisonment without charge and trial, assassination, rendition, warrantless spying, the war on drugs, the Patriot Act—universal agreement, along with the vast majority of the American public, on all of these fundamental issues—discussion of poverty, discussion of climate change—none of these topics even at issue, even mentioned in the debates.

JAY: Right. But certainly you agree that none of those candidates are going to be elected president. And the question I’m raising or other people are raising in this debate is that there is going to be either Romney or Obama elected, and in swing states, should people vote?

And let me just do a little segue here. I think this whole terminology lesser evil, it’s a terrible mistake to use such terminology. The problem is it’s turning this whole thing into some kind of moral debate, and neither Romney nor Obama are evil. They are the products of a social-economic system. They represent different sections of the elite. And those elite sections of the elite have fundamental interests in common, yet some differences. I mean, let’s talk about this in terms of class, ’cause this lesser-evil thing obfuscates the real nature of the problem here, which is: one section of the elite is going to win this election, and the question will be: is it any better for ordinary people that one section wins over the other?

SWANSON: That’s one question, and it’s a very useful and interesting question. It’s not the most important question, I contend.

I think the most important question is where we will be as a nation, in terms of policy, a few years and several years and many years hence. And it is my belief that it is more important, in answering that question, whether we manage to develop an independent force that is willing to take a stand as the people for the things we believe in, regardless of who is in office. It is not so much (as the late, great Howard Zinn said) who is sitting in the White House as who is doing the sitting-in.

This is not to say that the evil of Romney (if I may use the term, because I believe that it is evil to engage in these kinds of policies) will be outweighed by the greater activist resistance. I’m not making that sort of simple calculation. I am making a calculation based on a longer view that we need to develop an independent movement that doesn’t answer to, doesn’t seek patronage from, and doesn’t sit back and cheer for either portion of our government, either brand of elite that’s running our government.

JAY: But if you take the email that went out from Roots Action and you look at the interview Jeff Cohen—who I know is a friend of yours, but he supported that position that people should vote for Obama in swing states—it was more or less the same thing, essentially saying that the real important thing is to build an independent movement, but that it does matter which section of the elite gets into power, one shouldn’t have illusions about them. I mean, in the eight years of President Bush, it wasn’t like at the end of that eight years there was a massive movement. There had been a massive movement against the war before the war began. It didn’t stop the war. And two, the movement more or less, you know, petered out by ’08.

SWANSON: There was a major—reprehensibly small and weak, but a major and significant peace and justice movement by 2005 and 2006 (you read Bush’s memoirs, and the top Republican in the Senate is running to him secretly and saying, we must get out of Iraq, the public is turning against us), and as the Democrats came into power in Congress in ’07. And then it became a presidential election year in ’08, which always shuts down all useful activism. The movement faded away, disappeared, dried up, and was defunded. And it should not have. We should not go through these cycles of being willing to stand up in large numbers in serious ways for what we care about based on who’s in office and whether there’s an election [incompr.]

JAY: And you saw that during the Vietnam era there were massive demonstrations and protest movement against the Vietnam War under Johnson, a Democrat. So it’s not like you can’t build these movements when Democrats are in power.

SWANSON: Well, you can, you can do anything, but it’s very, very difficult. And, again, I’m not arguing that we should have President Romney so that we can build a movement. I’m arguing that we need to develop the capacity and the way of thinking that develops the movement regardless of who is in office [crosstalk] because both people—let me tell you that very, very few people are interested in this sort of strategic voting, because what you’re asking them to do is to go out and recruit their friends in their swing state to vote for Obama, advertise how great he is, encourage voting for him in a way that people can relate to who identify with that candidate as their hero and one of them and their party as part of them, and at the same time engage in the useful citizen activism of informing themselves about his crimes and abuses and resisting them in every possible way.

JAY: But that wasn’t what that email from Roots Action did. The email was quite a big denunciation of Obama, and then said, here’s why in spite of all this you should vote this way.

SWANSON: When Obama came to Charlottesville, VA, where I live and held a rally, some of us stood outside the gates with fliers and posters and talked to people and tried to determine what their opinions were on such policies as the maintenance of a secret kill list and an assassination program and the drone wars and all of the continuation and solidification of the Bush abuses—the spying, the imprisonment, the renditions, and so forth. And it wasn’t that they supported these policies; it was that they had never heard of them. They were absolutely oblivious. They had no clue whatsoever. We were reduced to protesting the war in Afghanistan because some of the people in the crowd had heard of it. Plus, if the president were a Republican, these people would be opposing with everything they had.

JAY: Yeah, but what I’m asking is: if Romney were to surround himself with the foreign-policy people—actual individuals, or if not, at least the same outlook as the Cheneyesque-Bush government did, do you not think that’s more dangerous than the Obama foreign-policy cartel? This is not to say that President Obama’s not willing to wage war, as he’s made it clear that he will, and he has in Afghanistan. Given that, do you not think it’s a more even dangerous crew that could be around Romney?

SWANSON: I think that when President Obama came in and kept most of the key figures from the Bush-Cheney administration, kept on Robert Gates, kept on David Petraeus, he set himself up for this argument carrying very, very little weight, that we’re going to switch back to what we never left. At least—at least—President Bush bothered to lie the Congress into wars. President Obama has completely avoided allowing Congress to have any say in Libya or in some 70 nations around the world where special forces, as we call them, are active any given day. We are cheering for the killing of Osama bin Laden, but we have special forces doing at least a dozen such raids every night with no accountability to Congress or us.

JAY: Yeah, I don’t think anyone who takes the position that, for example, Roots Action took thinks that any of this is justifiable. And, in fact, it’s essentially war crimes, which I think is now even being taken up by the UN rapporteur on war crimes, that the drone strikes should be looked at for—I shouldn’t say he already said they should be, but he’s saying they might be actual war crimes, and a lot of people argue they are.

SWANSON: There is a very small number of people who are very well informed about Obama’s crimes, and are even engaged in active resistance, who nonetheless say we should vote for Obama. I’m not slandering those people by suggesting they are ignorant or uninformed or not engaged in activism; I’m suggesting that the activist movement as a whole is dramatically weakened when its position is we denounce your war crimes and we will vote for you if you continue and escalate them, that that is a weak stand to be building a movement from.

JAY: And what do you make of the other argument, the issue on women’s reproductive rights, Supreme Court appointments, federal court appointments and such, that some of these decisions could be different, would be different, and that matters?

SWANSON: I think it does matter. I think you can make a plausible case that on some issues Obama would be better than Romney. I think most Obama supporters dramatically exaggerate that case. I think that as long as you continue these policies of concentrating wealth and dumping our funding into the military and into Wall Street and impoverishing men, women, and children here and abroad and ignoring the climate crisis, that we are not on a path to even survival. I’m not talking about dreaming of a better world or a utopia; I’m talking about sheer survival. And you can argue that one of these presidents and their surrounding staff would be more likely to accelerate the apocalypse faster than the other.

JAY: And doesn’t—if one could argue that, doesn’t it matter?

SWANSON: I’m going to try and say this one more time as concisely as I can, and you can disagree, but I’m going to say it because it is an answer to that question that I don’t think is coming through very well. I am not suggesting that it doesn’t matter, that there are not conceivable differences between the two and that one of them might not be worse than the other. I am arguing that something else matters more, that it matters more whether we build an independent movement willing to resist the horrendous policies shared in one degree or another by both of them, and that if we are [going to build a] movement, it’s critical that we build it even during election years, that we can’t go isolate ourselves in the 38 states that are devoid of candidates and journalists, that we have to build awareness of an independent movement, and that third parties can help in very limited ways in doing so and have throughout the history of our country.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, David.

SWANSON: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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