Voting for Peace? A Democratic Dilemma

EDITORIAL, 5 Jun 2023

#799 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

I recently had occasion to discuss the foreign policies of the Biden Administration and the U.S. Democratic Party with a long-time friend in the peace movement.  He agreed with me that to call these policies “imperialist” was, if anything, an understatement.  As a result, he declared, “in the American two-party system, there is no lesser evil to vote for or support.”

No lesser evil? The phrase reminded me strongly of my days in the movement against the Vietnam War, when there seemed no significant difference in global policies between Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party and the Republicans led by Richard Nixon. Even today, in a nation hyper-polarized by conflict between white nationalist Republicans and “woke” liberal Democrats, there are striking and discouraging similarities between the two parties’ views and actions on war and peace.

Ever since Lyndon Johnson, the self-declared “peace candidate” of 1964, manufactured a phoney “Tonkin Gulf Crisis” and dispatched half a million U.S. troops to Vietnam, the Democrats have combined relatively progressive social programs at home with ultra-violent military interventionism abroad. The Biden administration has continued this bellicose tradition by approving a military budget which spends more on weapons than the next ten nations combined and more than three times as much as all of America’s alleged adversaries. The administration’s skyrocketing support for Ukraine now includes advanced weapons formerly denied to the Zelensky regime on the ground that they would risk a major escalation of the war by Russia. Its unprecedented military buildup against China has gone hand in hand with efforts to create a NATO-type anti-Chinese alliance in Asia. With treaties regulating nuclear armaments torn up or in tatters, and a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis declared a “non-starter,” these hostile activities have almost certainly increased the likelihood of a third world war between nuclear-armed great powers.

Under such circumstances, some peace advocates have argued, one might just as well support the Republican Party as the Democrats.  Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, a revival in some ways of old-line Republican isolationism, steered the country toward economic struggles with competitors like Russia and China and away from military confrontations. Trump promised, although he did not deliver, peace negotiations with North Korea.  And there are a few Republicans libertarian enough to view the Pentagon as an example of the “big government” that they wish to eliminate.

The problem with these anti-imperialist postures, however, is that they cannot disguise most Republicans’ passionate advocacy of increased military spending and nuclear “modernization,” their deep hatred of “Communist China,” their ultra-patriotic glorification of all things warlike, and their current tendency to call the Biden regime “cowardly” for failing to supply the Ukrainians with weapons capable of striking deep into Russia. The recent agreement by Republicans and Democrats in Congress to slash federal expenditures contains a 4% increase in military spending and focuses on cutting federal welfare programs for poor and working-class civilians instead. Thus do the pro-war policies of both parties generate poverty and crime at home as well as death and destruction abroad.

This returns us to the original question: how should peace activists behave in a political universe dominated by two parties, each of which, dominated by an ideology of “peace through strength” and financed by giant military-industrial corporations, pursues policies aimed at securing U.S. global hegemony?  One response that long influenced my own political behavior is to break with the major parties. One can refuse to support either Republicans or Democrats and work instead to strengthen the credibility and potential power of some smaller party or organization working for peace and justice.

The advantages of engaging in this sort of politics include not only the pleasure of acting in accordance with one’s beliefs, but also the opportunity to focus on the causes of war and to advocate methods of eliminating the unsolved social problems and military-industrial profiteering that generate mass violence. The disadvantages, however, are overwhelming. Having participated in such “third party” activities for many decades, I can testify both to the emotional satisfaction one feels working with genuine political comrades and the deep frustration and feelings of powerlessness produced by isolation from the mass-based parties and the continuing disunity and fragmentation of pro-peace forces.

In the U.S., where there is not even the equivalent of a French or German “Left” party, the fate of third parties is either to disappear without a trace, to have their programs absorbed by one of the major parties (as some Socialist initiatives were absorbed by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal), or, in a cataclysmic crisis like that which produced the U.S. Civil War, to take power as Lincoln and the Republicans did in 1860. This history suggests that a peace activist in America would do best to function as a member of a dissenting faction of a major political party.

It seems to me that this conclusion has two immediate implications:

First, in the United States, the party with which one works must be the Democrats. This, despite the fact that the history of that party, like that of many European social-democratic parties, has been marked by repeated betrayals of its core constituents. “Peace candidate” Woodrow Wilson (like most social democrats in Western Europe) committed the workers and farm boys who had voted for him to fight and die in the trenches of World War I. Harry Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, defined the American role in the Cold War, and fought its first hot battles in Korea. Lyndon Johnson gave us the disastrous war in Indochina, which killed an estimated 5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were Republican led, but Mr. Biden, a long-term hawk who voted as a Senator to authorize the Iraq war, justifies increasingly risky escalations of violence against Russia and China under the banner of “defending democracy.”

This being understood, it seems not only impossible for peace activists to support today’s Republican Party, but also imperative for them to assist the Democrats to keep Donald Trump or someone like him from regaining the Presidency.  George Bush’s Afghan and Iraqi wars were disastrous, but today’s Republican Party, now converted to white nationalist conservatism by Trump and his servitors, makes Bush look like a wishy-washy liberal. The drumbeat of right-wing extremism that began in 2017 with the newly elected president excusing the racist, anti-Semitic violence of a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, became louder and more menacing in subsequent years, culminating in the violent attack on the U.S. Congress by super-patriots convinced that the Democrats had stolen the 2020 election.  It seems highly likely that, if defeated for the Presidency in 2024, Trump or a Trump clone will again refuse to accept the result and call on his supporters to overturn it.  If, on the other hand, the Republicans win the election, they can be counted on to further undermine social equality, workers’ rights, racial justice, women’s and LGBT rights, and democratic norms, as well as escalating conflict with China, their particular bete noire.

Whether the Trump-dominated Republicans are already fascists or merely on the road that leads to fascism, a relevant authority, it seems to me, is Leon Trotsky, who wrote in the 1920s and early 1930s about Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It (Pathfinder Press, 1996, also available as an Audiobook). With Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party rising step by step to power in Germany, Trotsky excoriated the Stalinist-led Communist Party for failing to work with the Social Democrats against the Nazis. (The Communists, then supporting Stalin’s militant “Third Period” policies, branded the Social Democrats “social fascists” and refused to cooperate with them, instead adopting the motto, “After the Nazis, us!”). Trotsky recognized that the Social Democrats’ inability to solve Germany’s social and economic problems had turned many workers and middle-class people toward Hitler’s Far Right nationalism and ultra-militarism, but he insisted that a popular movement for peace and social justice could not survive with the fascists in power. First, join with the Social Democrats to stop Hitler, he advised. Then implement your own policies to eliminate the causes of fascism and war.

The second implication of my conclusion that U.S. peace activists must work as a faction of a major party is contained in this last sentence. While supporting the Democratic candidates against Trump and his MAGA followers, those seeking peace and justice must not surrender or bargain away their anti-imperialist ideas and demands.  On the contrary, their role is to educate the party about such matters as the inefficacy of military solutions to diplomatic problems, the fallacy of forcible deterrence, and the potential of apparently intractable interstate conflicts for peaceful resolution.  They are called upon to organize implacable opposition to the military-industrial complex and to call for the conversion of what some have called “Pentagon socialist” industries to desperately needed peacetime production.

A classic lesson on how not to behave in this regard was provided by last October by thirty members of the Democrats’ Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, who first issued a moderate, entirely reasonable statement to the White House on the need for peace negotiations in Ukraine. Their letter strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and supported helping the Kyiv regime to defend itself. It then continued:

Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world, as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict. For this reason, we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.  

This was hardly an extremist appeal, but when attacked as traitors to the Ukrainian cause by White House officials and leaders of the Democratic Party, the Caucus ignominiously withdrew its letter less then 24 hours after sending it. The chair, Representative Pramila Jayapal, “explained” the about-face as follows:

Every war ends with diplomacy, and this one will too after Ukrainian victory. The letter sent yesterday, although restating that basic principle, has been conflated with GOP opposition to support for the Ukrainians’ just defense of their national sovereignty. As such, it is a distraction at this time and we withdraw the letter.

In fact, there was and is virtually no “GOP opposition” to Biden’s and NATO’s massive armament of Ukraine. This was just a smokescreen laid down to obscure the fact that the Progressives were too peace-oriented for an administration that sought a Ukrainian “victory” in order (as the Secretary of Defense earlier declared) to “weaken Russia.”  Why these Representatives decided to submit to party discipline in this case is not entirely clear.  With midterm elections only weeks away, did they fear retaliation by the Democratic National Committee or the voters?  We don’t know the answer, but we understand that this is not how peace activists conduct themselves when acting as an antiwar faction of a major pro-war party.

The possibility of functioning effectively in this sort of dissenting role may seem utopian to some, but history provides inspiring examples of “peace factionalism” as well as the takeover of major parties by political movements formerly considered too radical to win mass support.  Political power is never as concentrated and unobtainable as it sometimes seems.  Militant peace activists need to take a deep breath and plunge as a dedicated group into major party politics.  And they need to do this before a third world war makes all our efforts moot.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Jun 2023.

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One Response to “Voting for Peace? A Democratic Dilemma”

  1. Patricia Margitson Waiser says:


    Been there done that