THE LIZARD STRATEGY: How To Defeat Bush Without Losing Our Souls

How to Defeat Bush Without Losing Our Souls

"Now we get to go out and lie to our members once
again," a union staffer recently complained to me. She
was referring to the 2004 presidential election, and
her frustration is understandable. Like most of
organized labor she, and her union, are convinced that
the Bush administration must go, and that the only way
to make that happen is to persuade their members, and
millions of traditional non-voters, that Senator John
Kerry represents their interests. This is a thankless
and difficult task since, like the sister says, it's a

It's also not very effective. What follows is a
proposal for how radicals and progressives can have an
impact on the 2004 elections in the short run, while
keeping our eyes on long-term goals.

To take advantage of the opportunities offered by the
presidential race we will have to view the political
landscape with fresh eyes and overcome ingrained
habits. We will need to intervene in the mainstream of
U.S. politics, without lying to our members.

To put this proposal in context I should state that my
own political history lies firmly in the camp of
independent politics. On the one hand this means
believing that grassroots power is built in the
streets, in communities, and in workplaces. The
importance of elections is most often determined by
what happens in those arenas. Elections can reflect,
and in turn can impact, the course of social change,
but do not determine its course. (In my occupied
homeland of Puerto Rico, the struggle to evict the U.S.
Navy from Vieques was carried out by people who are
barred from voting in presidential elections, but the
persistence and organizing reach of the movement forced
the powers in Washington into retreat.)

It has also meant using my vote to encourage long term
movement building by supporting third party candidacies
whenever possible. In the seven presidential races that
have transpired since I came of voting age, I have
never voted for a Republican or a Democrat. This is
not from any "vote your heart" sentimentality (a
prerogative of the overly comfortable). I make
political choices to have an impact in the world, not
to make myself feel good. At one time I was prepared
to vote for a "lesser evil" out of concern about
Supreme Court appointments, but gave my vote to a third
party when it became clear that my state would
overwhelmingly vote for the "lesser." At each juncture
we need to weigh present risks against future
possibilities and make the choice that will put us in
the best position possible ten miles down the road.

Every strategic choice contains within itself a tension
between the future and the present. This can be
illustrated in the comparison of two electoral
strategies. A third party strategy calls for investing
in the future, in long-term base building and
accumulation of power, even though it will likely
result in victories along the way for the more
reactionary mainstream candidates. The objective here
is to develop the organization and support base that
can ultimately pose a genuinely pro-people alternative
to the corporate parties. The lesser-of-two-evils
approach seeks to stem the erosion of people's rights,
resources, and the environment by supporting the
candidate likely to cause the least damage. It also
hopes that we can pressure a leader whom we helped
elect to at least respond to our concerns in a way that
a more openly hostile politician would not. Each of
these strategies emphasizes one side of the
present/future equation, often at the expense of the

Who Wins? Do We Care? Let's start by looking at the
short-term side of the equation. Is it important that
Bush be defeated? This is by no means an obvious
question. President Bush has managed to shatter the
credibility of the U.S. Empire. Along with it has gone
the illusion of U.S. military superiority equals
invincibility (and that in a uni-polar world!) This
has had repercussions on many fronts, including a
growing resistance on the part of small nations to the
free-trade globalization juggernaut. His
aggressiveness has unleashed an unprecedented global
anti-war movement and undermined the recruitment
ability of the U.S. military. For those of us who do
not share the vision of a triumphal United States
Empire, these are not negative achievements. On the
other hand the Bush crowd is convinced that its mandate
comes from God, and would take an election victory
(however slim) as a green light to pursue its reckless
ambitions. This has the potential to cause tremendous
human and ecological devastation.

The Democrat, John Kerry, is a reactionary career
politician with a history of accepting labor support
while undermining our interests. He supported
Clinton's draconian "Welfare Reform", has been a
champion of corporate "Free Trade" treaties; and is
committed to escalating the illegal war in Iraq (and
dragging the United Nations deeper into it). He
supported the repressive Patriot Act and the march to
war. A Kerry presidency would work to rebuild the
unity of the "international community" (a euphemism for
an ugly consortium of neo-colonial nations).
Multi-lateral co-ordination with European and other
industrial powers on the international stage would not
be good news for the weaker, resource-rich countries
caught in their crosshairs. Kerry is vying to become
the richest president yet. The Heinz family fortune
(which he married into) extends throughout the economy
and is heavily invested in sectors that benefit from
corporate free trade, weaker unions, and less
regulation of capitalism.

In this context, to speak in terms of lesser or greater
evils is not clarifying. What we have are different
mixes of dangers and opportunities. Bush could cause
greater short-term damage and Kerry could engineer a
more stable long-term system of plunder. This holds
true across a whole range of issues from civil
liberties to affirmative action to war to the
environment. The Republicans drive an SUV and the
Democrats drive a compact but they're going the same
way. Clinton and Gore were able to stymie or roll back
environmental protections (suffice to mention PCBs,
toxic dumping in the oceans, pesticides in baby foods,
dioxins in paper processing, oil rights in nature
preserves, climate change and logging federal lands)
because they were assumed to be environmentalists.

The most important reason for making the removal of
Bush a priority has to do with our relationship to our
sisters and brothers in struggle around the world.
Public opinion polls across the planet show deep
opposition to the direction of international
developments, and identify U.S. policies as the driving
force behind them. Many are watching our elections for
a sign as to whether we support Bush's agenda. Why
does this matter?

A Global Precinct Residents of the global south are, as
Arundhati Roy says, citizens of the empire. The
decisions made in the board rooms and bureaucracies of
the U.S., impact and sometimes determine the life
choices of millions, but they have no opportunity to
vote for the decision makers. Whether you are
struggling to protect access to water, protect land
from confiscation, defend education, promote public
health, achieve a livable income, or resist brutal
repression, you will sooner or later run up against the
power and agenda of the United States.

The people of the periphery respond by organizing, by
individual struggles to survive, by becoming refuges or
immigrants, by lashing out at our tormentors. Our
options for struggle are shaped by our recent
histories. Poor peoples' movements have been
systematically crushed by local and international
systems of repression. Police and military terror,
bribery, covert action, and religious extremist groups
have all been used to prevent mass secular democratic
movements from threatening corporate investments. Will
the angry activists in these countries see themselves
as part of a worldwide struggle of the have-nots
against the greed of the haves, or as bin Laden and
Bush would have it, as participants in a global
confrontation between religions and cultures? This
will in part be determined by whether we who live in
the heart of the regime are seen as backers of our
Emperor, or as allies in the fight against him. If we
appear to give our endorsement to the regime, we will
seem to confirm the second world view and encourage the
advocates of "holy war". The implications of this view
can be seen in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

The election is a crude method that can only carry a
simple message. This is not because poor people of
color are not capable of subtle analysis. It is
because the medium of transmission, the global news
media, will not carry subtle communications on our
behalf. If Bush wins, the fact that Kerry is cut from
similar cloth is not likely to survive the
translation. If the Democrats and third parties
together outpoll Bush and yet he wins by plurality, it
will be the simple fact of his win that will be talked
of in the markets of Karachi and the taxis of Cairo.
The political choices we make (including, but not
limited to voting) must always take into account our
fellow subjects outside the walls.

Internees in Nazi concentration camps utilized the
symbolic potential of the vote in 1933, when faced with
a referendum on support for Hitler's foreign policy.
Wanting the largest possible vote, the regime
distributed ballots even to camp prisoners. After much
debate, progressive inmates in many camps decided on
the tactic of a unanimous vote for Hitler as a way to
signal the world that the process was a sham. Our
situation is considerably different but our message is
no less important, and we must be just as innovative in
getting it out to the world.

If our short term goal is to remove Bush through the
election then (barring the unforeseen) it will require
Kerry's ascension. However this does not require
joining the Democratic campaign or endorsing its
illusions. Much effort is being put into progressive
voter registration campaigns. These target the
millions of potential voters who have remained outside
of the electoral process until now. Many are young
people, people of color, poor folk and recent
immigrants. They are the people who have not viewed
the ballot as greatly affecting the problems of concern
to them. The Democratic Party chose Kerry because he
was considered "electable." That is to say, that it
would be difficult for the White House to attack him
from the right. In selecting a colorless right wing
candidate, they have chosen someone not likely to
inspire the marginalized populations who could
determine the outcome of the election. Even
registering large numbers of potential voters is no
guarantee that they will turn out on November 2. Kerry
is facing a ruthless campaign operation that is capable
of damaging his image considerably before the
election. His reactionary politics and slippery stands
will be particularly damaging with young people. They
are the age group with the lowest voter turnout and are
particularly sensitive to hypocrisy.

The strategy of mainstream labor and liberal groups
consists of promoting the message "Kerry Good, Bush
Bad!" This requires papering over how far to the right
the Democratic Party has gone. It is also a process of
diminishing returns: even if successful, it encourages
cynicism and disengagement as we are served a
predictable menu of betrayals. The slogan "Let's Take
America Back," being pushed by some well-meaning
populists should be buried immediately! Unless they
mean "back to 1491," it represents nostalgia for a
golden era that only makes sense if it is racially
coded to exclude vast numbers of our people. Whenever
that time was, I, for one, do not want to go back there
and am appalled that I'd be invited. The "good old
days" don't look so good from the other side of the

Doing it Our Way A social change strategy cannot be one
that simply lets people be sucked in and spit out. It
must contribute to a critical consciousness that will
help people determine and act on their own interests in
the future. The following proposal is inspired by the
Louisiana governor's race of 1991. That year the
Republican nomination was won by David Duke, the former
"Imperial Wizard" of the racist Ku Klux Klan. Duke's
neo-fascist politics galvanized a grassroots
opposition. Duke's opponent was the incumbent; a
corrupt, scandal-ridden machine politician. Governor
Edwin Edward's standing was so bad that it was not
possible to make a positive case for him. The
opposition chose instead to organize their campaign
behind such slogans as "Vote for the Lizard, Not the
Wizard," while bumper stickers reading "Vote for the
Crook, It's Important," flew off the shelf. This
permitted an ultimately successful campaign that did
not stoop to selling a bill of goods to the rank and
file voters. The message was that voting for the
incumbent was a tactical choice that did not require
promoting illusions about Edwards.

Adapting it to the different conditions of the
Kerry-Bush race, what would be the implications of a
Lizard Strategy?

* It would be a way to engage marginalized and
first-time voters without patronizing them. Young
people, people of color, poor people, and recent
immigrants are intelligent and quite capable of
comprehending nuance, complexity, and tactics.

* It would develop a voting block that would be largely
immune from dirty tricks against or self-inflicted
damage by, the Kerry campaign.

* It would give an activist framework to Bush opponents
who are prepared to "hold their noses and vote."

* It would not leave the people we organize vulnerable
to disappointment when they are forgotten after the
victory party. In fact they would enter the
post-election prepared for the need to force any
concessions we may hope for.

* It would allow people to effectively oppose Bush
while stating clearly their rejection of Kerry's
opportunist politics.

* It would present a model for creative intervention on
terms not dictated by the major parties.

* It would begin to loosen the ideological ties that
bind large sectors of voters to the Democratic Party
even as it offers them ever fewer benefits. These are
people who have grumbled for years but are not ready to
make a clean break in the absence of a "viable"
alternative. In a Lizard campaign they could begin to
test their muscles.

A slogan such as "Elect the Flake, Evict the Snake"
would express openly what many people feel. It also
injects an element of humor that can make the
mobilization effort fun.

Taking it to the Streets For this approach to work
requires reversing past assumptions. Some Greens, for
example, are waiting to see if Kerry will say enough of
the right things to justify their voting for him.
Ralph Nader is trying to move Kerry's positions toward
the left. This is akin to helping the wolf into a
sheep costume. To get Kerry to mouth progressive
positions does not do any favors to the constituencies
who might be fooled by it. There is nothing in Kerry's
history, or that of his New Democrats, to suggest that
he would feel committed by any progressive noises he
made during a campaign. It would be another case of
lying to our members and finding ourselves with fewer
of them to lie to the next time around. The enthusiasm
of many college students for Bill Clinton's campaign
led to widespread disillusionment when he abandoned or
gave only token support to all of his pledges except
for NAFTA.

A Lizard campaign allows us to disengage completely
from Kerry and his politics. Indeed it will elicit the
open hostility of the Democratic leadership and its
allies. If the emergence of a significant Lizard
voting block (in the current juncture any voting block
is significant!) causes them to adjust their positions
then so be it, but it is not the goal of the strategy.

A Lizard campaign is a coalition effort. It would not
present a distinct alternative platform that all its
participants would unite around. We should therefore
support the participation of Ralph Nader and Green
party candidate David Cobb in any public debates. We
need to amplify alternative perspectives in order to
increase our people's capacity for independent thought
and action. In the current context I think that a
Lizard vote will do more to build a constituency for
future third party efforts than voting for the parties'
presidential candidates, but under no circumstances
should we tolerate the Democrats' efforts to attack or
sideline them or other progressive voices (including
insurgent Democrats like Dennis Kucinich).

If it gets off the ground the Lizard campaign will be a
grassroots effort. We won't see endorsements or
funding from mainstream lobbying groups. Lizard
campaigners will not be invited to photo ops with Kerry
or given mic time at his rallies. What we can do is
capture the imagination of young people whose hearts do
not skip a beat at the sound of Kerry's voice. People
aged 18-30 vote less than any other age group. There
is no indication that this pattern will be any
different in 2004. Young people opposed to Bush are
less enthusiastic about Kerry the more they learn about
him. One of the greatest appeals of this strategy to
young people will be the lack of pretension. There
will be no need to disguise the nature of either
candidate. It would be difficult for the Republicans
to counter-protest at a Lizard rally since their
attacks on Kerry are not relevant to us but we could be
a magnet for media attention. We could expect speakers
from grassroots movements and communities who would
never be (nor wish to be) invited to speak at a Kerry
rally to voice the real issues confronting their
constituents. A movement rooted in people's real
issues and founded on telling the truth in all of its
complexity is tailor made for the participation of
poets, musicians and all artists. We would need to
capture the imagination of enough organizers for the
concept to be spread widely through our networks. The
support of a handful of community and campus
organizations, alternative media outlets and web sites
could be enough to get initial traction. If taken up
as a strategy it can be fine tuned through planning
conferences, e-mail discussions, and all the other
mechanisms at our disposal. A network of Lizard
committees in cities across the country could decide
this election and if there's one thing we know how to
do, it's organize!

The stakes in this campaign are high, although they do
not fall along the lines we are used to discussing. No
matter who is elected in the fall we must be prepared
to confront him with relentless organizing. We know
that we will be facing a President committed to
imposing a puppet government on Iraq which can only be
pursued by expanding a brutal and immoral occupation.
He will also champion so-called free trade agreements.
These are the cornerstone of a strategy to replace
national sovereignty with corporate sovereignty as the
centerpiece of global governance. To disguise the
significance of Kerry's stands on these issues is
unconscionable. Supporting free trade along with labor
"side agreements" and local union legislation is like
supporting slavery, but with a dental plan. It's a
nice touch but it misses the point.

Much as we should avoid exaggerating the differences
between the major parties, it also does not serve us to
pretend that the outcome of the race doesn't matter.
The Bush crowd has presented the world with an
unabashed declaration of supremacy and the world will
see this election as a referendum on that posture.
Lacking a parliamentary system we can only say no by
rejecting Bush at the polls.

At the same time we can honor our long term commitment
to social change with a campaign of independent
mobilization that summons the power of the
disenfranchised to defeat Bush without sowing illusions
about the current, stacked electoral system; and which
opens the agenda to a significant reassessment of that
system. We must refuse on principle--now and alwaysuto
lie to our people! To build real power in our
communities we must face today's dangers with a
commitment to honesty and respect for our people's
intelligence. We must organize for a future not of
more lessers and greater evils but of real hope and
meaningful change.


Feel free to circulate this article in any format so
long as you do so in its entirety and credit the
author. Ricardo Levins Morales is a political artist
and long-haul activist who works at the Northland
Poster Collective in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Northland Poster Collective
PO Box 7096 Minneapolis, MN 55407
(800) 627-3082


add a comment on this article

Election environment

pillenau 01.Aug.2004 09:33

I beleive that our habitat world wide is so polluted now that we have been brain damaged all together.So looking at candidates for election may sway due to the result of our brain damage.Cars,profit-based industry,consumer rage,shoppers pilgrim,low wages, oppression by WTO and chemical slipouts, nuclear energy...The list is endless-not to mention media brain damage.Words-..slogans.. had enuff of them...What are we fighting for and against?Stay close to home-with grassroots-yes-I suppose we are getting somewhere..slow..