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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #103, December 2003. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

The mess we're in

After the Newtmaniac Republican sweep of 1994, LBO quoted Murray Kempton's observation that it probably meant the demise of the Democrats, since they had nothing to their name but incumbency. Clinton's re-election two years later, and his subsequent high approval ratings, made Kempton's prognosis look excessively gloomy. But after last month's election, it looks once again that Kempton had a serious point.

It's easy to dis the Dems for their lack of spine, but that character critique overlooks the party's structural role as an institution loyal to capital that sometimes has to pretend otherwise to appeal to its base. That's not to say the parties are identical - two cheeks of the same derriere, Christopher Hitchens, George Bush's latest fan, put it a few years ago - they're not. Democrats in Congress are more likely to support unions and reproductive freedom and to oppose free-trade deals and reactionary judicial nominees than Republicans. Clinton appointed far more tolerable people to the NLRB than Bush has and will. But Clinton also got NAFTA through, ruined prospects for a sensible public health care financing system, had his Treasury secretaries roam the world prying open capital markets, and presided over one of the great profit and asset inflations in world history. And if they're doomed to fade, as Kempton argued, what then?

Which is where the argument for independent politics comes in. But it seems harder than ever now. Most third party enthusiasts want to efface the difference between D and R, arguing either that th