On May 28 Cindy Sheehan sent a shockwave through the political establishment in Washington, D.C. She announced that she was leaving the Democratic Party, after the Democratic-controlled Congress handed Bush another $100 billion to continue the war in Iraq.

Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, has been the most prominent figure in the antiwar movement since protesting outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX in the summer of 2005. Writing in an open letter to the Democratic Congress, Sheehan expressed the outrage of millions: “You think giving him more money is politically expedient, but it is a moral abomination and every second the occupation of Iraq endures, you all have more blood on your hands.”

Sheehan announced that she was “calling all citizens who are as disgusted as we are with [the Democratic Congress] to join us in Philadelphia on July 4th to try and figure a way out of this ‘two’ party system that is bought and paid for by the war machine which has a stranglehold on every aspect of our lives. As for myself, I am leaving the Democratic Party. You have completely failed those who put you in power to change the direction our country is heading.”

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Sheehan said “If we don’t wake up in America and realize that we have to vote out of our courage and integrity for candidates who reflect our own attitudes, and not the attitudes of the war machine and the corporations … we’re doomed. And if we don’t get a viable third party – or some people say second party; you know, the Democrats and Republicans are so similar, and their pockets are lined by the same people – we are – our representative republic is doomed … We really need an opposition party in this country. But we vote out of our fear. We go and we vote for the lesser of two evils, and we always end up getting somebody evil.” (5/30/07)

Sheehan’s statements are symptomatic of the growing anger at the Democratic Party among a layer of radicalized workers and young people. Events over the past period have demonstrated, yet again, the real role of the Democrats as the second party of Corporate America and as an enormous obstacle in building the antiwar movement or any other movement fighting for progressive change. But there is a danger that some activists, having had their hopes in the Democrats broken, will feel frustrated and not see a way forward.

But we have to see, alongside the huge opinion poll majorities against the war and Bush, that there are a growing number of workers and young people who are starving for a political alternative. They want to stop the war, get the troops home, end the attacks on living standards but see no national force that will fight on these questions. Alongside the continuing campaigns against the war, against corporate attacks and for immigrants’ rights many will see, with the start of the 2008 presidential election campaign, that there is also a pressing need to give a political voice to this sentiment by beginning to build an independent challenge to the two big-business parties in the elections.

Sheehan’s original call for a meeting July 4 to discuss how to move beyond the two-party system pointed in the right direction. Prominent figures like Cindy Sheehan, Ralph Nader, left-wing leaders of the antiwar, labor, and immigrant rights movements, as well as the Green Party, have a responsibility to give a lead in bringing together the strongest independent antiwar, anti-corporate challenge for the 2008 presidential elections.

However, two days after declaring she was leaving the Democratic Party, Sheehan announced she was resigning “as the face of the American antiwar movement” and was returning home to spend more time with her family. Sheehan, who is clearly extremely dedicated and played a key role in building the movement, appeared exhausted from the stress of constant campaigning and the pressures of being in the media spotlight.

Sheehan also said another key reason was the vicious attacks she suffered from the Democratic Party establishment and their “left-wing” apologists. “I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party … However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the ‘left’ started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used,” she explained.

“Especially since I renounced any tie I have remaining with the Democratic Party, I have been further trashed on such ‘liberal blogs’ as the Democratic Underground. Being called an ‘attention whore’ and being told ‘good riddance’ are some of the more milder rebukes.”

This is only the latest example of how the Democratic Party will move to crush anyone who dares to break with them. Again and again, the Democrats have played a key role in pretending to be “left” in order to co-opt movements and their leaders in order to curb social struggle and keep the working class and the oppressed from forming our own independent political party. But when someone challenges the Democrats from even a mildly anti-corporate and working-class viewpoint, then all hell is let loose. The Democratic leaders turned their dogs on Sheehan because they saw her call for a new political alternative as a threat, in a similar way to how they viciously attacked and demonized Ralph Nader for the “crime” of standing for president as an antiwar, anti-corporate independent in 2000 and 2004.

Is fundamental change possible?
But Sheehan’s decision to withdraw from the antiwar movement also reflects a frustration and lack of confidence that fundamental, radical change is possible in the U.S. In an interview on Democracy Now! she said “I am just really devastated and frustrated with an American population … [that doesn’t] want to think about the death and destruction and the pain that’s being caused by the government that they’re giving their tacit support to by their silence … We care more about who’s the next American Idol … than the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives that have been sacrificed.” (5/30/07)

In another interview on the Alex Jones show, Sheehan further explained “After the Democratic vote, I thought: ‘Why am I killing myself trying to make this country better than it is? Why am I using up all my stamina, all my physical health, my money to help a country that doesn’t want to be helped?’”

Cindy Sheehan has tirelessly struggled and sacrificed to stop the war in Iraq. Her stand outside Bush’s ranch in the summer of 2005 had a big effect in reviving the antiwar movement and putting a human face on the war. Clearly, Sheehan’s decision to step out of public life reflects the tremendous political and personal pressure she has come under.

While totally understanding Sheehan’s personal situation, in our view she is politically mistaken to turn away from building the antiwar movement. Sheehan’s despair at the continuation of the war doesn’t sufficiently recognize the major effect she and the antiwar movement have already had, nor the huge potential for the movement to grow in the next period.

After Bush was re-elected in 2004, many became demoralized and thought that ordinary Americans were hopelessly conservative. Socialist Alternative explained at the time that Bush’s victory was not a reflection of a right-wing drift in U.S. society, but rather of the failure of John Kerry’s Bush-lite, pro-war campaign to appeal to the anger that existed. Since then, we have seen a massive shift against the war and against Bush on the part of ordinary Americans. Cindy Sheehan played a key role in this through her tireless campaigning.

The November elections showed the American people are overwhelmingly against the war. There is mounting anger among working people at the super rich elite that arrogantly dominate U.S. society. The basis exists for a massive antiwar movement to be built if a bold lead was given. However, there is no mass political party or organization that has effectively galvanized this mood.

The war is not continuing because the American people support it, but rather because the new Democratic Congress has refused to cut off the funds and bring the troops home. The Democrats’ capitulation to Bush on the war funding bill is not just a question of political expediency and spinelessness. As a party of the U.S. ruling class, they fear the disastrous consequences that an immediate withdrawal would have for the power and prestige of U.S. imperialism. Even their proposed bill that would have funded the war but set a timetable for withdrawal still would have left around 75,000 U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, while the rest of the troops would move elsewhere to bases in the Middle East or to Afghanistan to continue to defend the interests of U.S. imperialism (see the article in the latest issue of Justice http://socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=537).

In her “resignation” letter, Sheehan writes that she “began this single-minded crusade to try and change a paradigm that is now, I am afraid, carved in immovable, unbendable and rigidly mendacious marble,” seeming to despair that the American ruling class is too powerful to be stopped. While it is true that they are enormously powerful, they are not invincible. The working class and oppressed in the U.S. and internationally, when conscious of their interests and organized, is even more powerful.

U.S. imperialism will, sooner or later, be forced to withdraw from Iraq in a humiliating defeat. The U.S. was defeated in the Vietnam War due to the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people and an antiwar rebellion at home, including a huge revolt of working class soldiers within the U.S. military. The labor movement itself, and many of the gains that today are under corporate attack, are the result of mighty struggles, particularly the building of the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s. We should also remember the massive struggles of the civil rights movement which demonstrated how the defenders of privilege and oppression can be defeated here in the U.S. And today, throughout Latin America we are seeing titanic struggles of the working class and the poor against neo-liberal capitalism and a growing discussion about socialism.

Since announcing her decision to step back from the antiwar movement, Sheehan has explained that she is looking to take a break, but plans to return to public life. However, this time it will be to form a “humanitarian organization to help the victims of U.S. corporate imperialism.” (Interview on the Ed Schultz Show)

But humanitarian or charitable organizations can only temporarily patch holes in a broken system. As Cindy herself recently pointed out “we can’t work on short-term band-aids. We need true solutions to the problem, to this corruptness, to the stranglehold the corporations have on our government” (Interview on Democracy Now!, 5/30/07). Clearly, Sheehan is giving serious thought to where her efforts would be most effective. We sincerely hope she will return to the movement and pick up where she left off in the struggle for real change in our society. While it may seem daunting at times, the only way forward is to fight for fundamental, structural change. This means working to build a massive movement of workers and oppressed people to fight against big business and their system of capitalism, which systematically breeds poverty, oppression and war.

With opposition to the war at an all-time high, now is the time to step up the struggle to build the antiwar movement. We need to translate the massive antiwar sentiment into an organized movement rooted in our communities, workplaces, and schools. Mass protests are an important tool to mobilize new forces and prepare the ground for more radical actions. Socialist Alternative is campaigning for a national student walkout this fall, which there is enormous potential for if the antiwar movement energetically builds for it. A mass national student walkout would be a powerful example of mass direct action that could spread within the military and among workers.

Building a Political Alternative to the Democratic Party
In announcing her break from the Democratic Party, Sheehan put forward a call for a meeting on July 4 to “try and figure a way out of this ‘two’ party system.” Unfortunately, Sheehan has stepped away from mobilizing for this meeting. Nevertheless, this was definitely the right idea.
The positive response to Sheehan’s call for the July 4 meeting shows the disgust which exists with the Democrats among many in the antiwar movement. These forces along with similarly minded people in the immigrant rights movement and the labor movement, the Green Party, socialists, etc. should organize conferences this fall at a local level to develop a left challenge in the 2008 elections based on the interests of working people. This means considering local and congressional candidates as well as the presidential race.

If Sheehan had energetically mobilized for a conference on July 4, and stepped forward to stand as an independent antiwar, anti-corporate candidate for president, it would have had a tremendous impact. A Sheehan campaign would have given voice to the antiwar movement in the presidential elections, providing a platform to reach a huge audience of tens of millions of Americans with a clear antiwar message. It would help expose the Democrats’ failure to cut off the funds for the war, massively increasing the pressure on the political establishment to bring all the troops home now.

An independent campaign for president would need to link the Iraq war to big business’s war at home against working people, calling for money for jobs, education, and healthcare, not war. Millions of working-class Americans would respond enthusiastically to a bold campaign for the reconstruction of New Orleans, for universal national healthcare, a living minimum wage, massive investment in public transit and renewable energy, full and equal rights for immigrants, policies against racism and sexism, among other issues.

While a radical independent campaign would only be able to win the active support of a minority at this stage, it could touch tens of millions who would be sympathetic but still feel compelled to vote Democratic to keep the Republicans out. But by clearly warning that a Democratic presidency would continue big-business, imperialist policies, important seeds could be planted for the future.

On the basis of experiencing the Democrats in power, most likely under conditions of an economic recession and managing the U.S. defeat in Iraq, there would be a huge potential to build an independent anti-corporate working peoples’ political alternative. Such a party would not take money from big business, but would consistently fight for the interests of workers and the oppressed, and base itself on the active, democratic participation of its members.

Unfortunately, while she has drawn the right conclusions about the Democrats, it seems unlikely that Cindy Sheehan is prepared to take the step of standing for president against the political establishment. Other figures and forces will need to come forward to take the initiative of organizing an independent left-wing presidential campaign as an important step toward building a political party that is independent of Corporate America and its war machine and instead stands up for working people.