Scapegoating the Protests

Election '04

What is the basis for the spreading assertion that anti-war protests at the Republican convention will help Bush? According to one observer, the protests may become "the Ralph Nader of 2004," implying that an August confrontation in New York will shift swing voters to the Republicans in November. A former New Left leader warns protesters to worry about street images of New York tipping the balance in the West Virginia general election. The media never asks the protestors themselves what they think of the war, or how they have managed to build the largest anti-war movement in history, only whether their behavior will help elect Bush.

The evidence for blaming the protestors is thin, since close elections hinge on multiple factors that might impact one or two percent of the vote. The reasons for the current concerns are rooted deeply in the conventional understanding of Chicago 1968 and the Nader/Green Party campaign of 2000. In both instances, the protestors have been blamed for Republican victories. But a clear assessment of 1968 and 2000 suggests that any single-factor interpretation is driven by subjective needs, such as scapegoating.

I (lamely) supported Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon as a lesser evil. I (passionately) supported Al Gore in 2000. But I do not blame protestors for either outcome.

The media-engraved memory of 1968 is one of police-bashing groovy long-hairs in the Chicago streets. But it is well to remember the realities that were not televised. First, the Democratic Party chose to escalate the Vietnam War and alienate the youthful protest movement and supporters of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. The Democratic president authorized the police tactics that August, which were desribed as a "police riot" in the official Walker Report review. The Democratic nominee supported the police against the protestors.

The margin of difference in November 1968 was a fraction of one percent. Many on the left that year, still furious, either did not vote or voted for a minor-party alternative to Humphrey. It would be accurate to say that their defection threw the election. But it is accurate but not fair, since the argument ignores what caused the alienation and how the Democrats could have addressed it by turning toward peace.

A few weeks before that election, Humphrey, trailing badly, gave a speech declaring his independence from Lyndon Johnson and proposing peace talks in Paris. Immediately, Humphrey's poll numbers started to climb vertically. But Richard Nixon worked frantically behind the scenes to dissuade South Vietnama's Nguyen Van Thieu from joining the Paris talks before the election. NIxon succeeded, and Humphrey lost by a handful of votes.

There is no objective certainty, but Humphrey's momentum could have succeeded if his break from Johnson had come earlier. Other factors that could have determined the outcome are never mentioned at all, for example, if George Wallace had taken one more percentage point from Nixon.

The outcome instead was blamed on "Chicago '68," on the young people who passionately stood up against the war and the police tactics, were gassed, bloodied, arrested, and falsely accused of communist conspiracies.

Why? Because scapegoating functions to shift blame from the powerful to the powerless, from the comfortable to the marginal. As far as I know, no national Democratic leader – nor the party – has ever taken responsibility for what happened in that year when the party lost its soul and direction. Instead, "Chicago '68" has become a metaphoric lesson about the dark side of protest, not that of power.

The raw feelings about Ralph Nader have intensified since 2000 among millions of Democrats, even including myself. In one sense, Nader is much more responsible for electing Bush – perhaps twice – than the street protestors of 1968. Nader and the Green Party, after all, went on proudly campaigning to take votes away from Al Gore even when polls showed his vote would impact the result.

Nader has failed to acknowledge or take responsibility for his part in the debacle, in part because he is defensive but also because he rejects the single-factor blame game. Indeed, the Socialist presidential candidate David McReynolds won thousands of votes in Florida in 2000, yet was never mentioned in the postmortems. Nor is the fact that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, for example.

I remain angry at Nader to this day, but wonder why he has become the exclusive focus for Democratic rage and revenge? Is it not because scapegoating involves a shifting of blame from oneself, or from a shared context, to an alien Other? Is it because it is so much easier to purge the scapegoat than reform the political culture that gave rise to his dissident voice?

The same questions now arise surrounding the Republican convention in New York. Even before the convention, protestors are warned of the consequences of their protests. Since it is predictable that Bush will improve in the polls following the convention, it is also likely that the protests will be blamed.

Another scenario is plausible, that loud protests at the convention will damage Bush's already-tarnished claim to be a uniter, not a divider. Voters are likely to reject a president who, having needlessly brought death and disorder to the U.S. standing in the world, would needlessly provoke disorders at home in a second term.

I believe John Kerry is open to persuasion by the pressure of a mass movement, while George Bush is not. But Kerry has positioned himself as favoring military occupation until Iraq is "stabilized." John Edwards has gone farther, declaring that Kerry will achieve "victory" in Iraq. Kerry is taking an incredible gamble that every single progressive, and every undecided vote tormented about Iraq, will vote for Kerry instead of Nader or not at all. Bush may neutralize Kerry in the debates by asking the tough question: What would he do differently in Iraq now? What will Kerry say to the wavering voter? Will he find himself in Humphrey's situation, offering too little, too late?

At this point, Bush's approval ratings are low, and Kerry's campaign is not making the progress it might. Kerry still has a good shot of winning, but clearly there still are many ways for the Democrats to lose. Blaming the peace protestors is not one of them.

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