Sam Smith: Halfway To Nowhere
HALFWAY TO NOWHERE
By Sam Smith - Editor Progressive Review
We are now well over halfway through this dismal presidential campaign during which more money has been spent to less purpose than in any election contest in our history. At least some of Bush's expenditures can be credited to effective damage control since the public remains remarkably sanguine despite the disasters he has caused. What Kerry is spending his money on is far less clear. Given the opportunity to dismantle a truly despicable and incompetent regime, he largely argues that he would do it much the same way but more effectively..
Unfortunately, what appears to be driving Kerry is a political cowardice dramatically at odds with the military heroism he chronically infers. If the latter is justified then the descent to the former is without parallel.
Kerry has, for example, pronounced his support of one of the most dangerous men in the world, Ariel Sharon. Kerry's promises to Sharon, when combined with Bush's policies, comprise the deadliest imaginable invitation for another major attack on U.S. soil. To those who hate us it really doesn't matter who wins.
But to stand up to Sharon would take courage and Kerry is running scared, witness his vague positions on Iraq as well as his silence on Bush's destructive education program, the Patriot Act and numerous other offenses of the incumbent regime.
Kerry seems to drain the life out of every issue he touches, leaving nothing but a bad infomercial. The words of Peggy Lee return:
And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle. I had the feeling that something was missing. I don't know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, "is that all there is to a circus?
Such a campaign poses a dilemma to those who believe you should be able to vote for someone you actually like and admire. Supporters are enervated and voters who dislike both Kerry and Bush find themselves with little assistance in seeking temporary accommodation. Neither Kerry nor his aides have made the slightest effort to attract those in doubt, moral conflict or political disagreement. Instead, they are treated with contempt in words and with indifference in practice. Above all, their mere presence is considered an act of disloyalty to the divine principle that only registered Democrats get to define opposition to Republicanism.
This, however, is no normal year. The country is in a state of cultural, constitutional and political collapse unseen since the Civil War. There is widespread fear of another attack before November. And the political debate is angrier and more vicious than any of us have witnessed.
Whatever your own views, in such circumstances one should hardly be surprised if a noticeable minority feels both the ruling parties have failed and deceived us and seeks refuge in a clear alternative. To excoriate the dissenters for their mere existence is further evidence of the political psychosis that has gripped us.
In fact, the anti-Bush spectrum is far more varied and complicated than pundits and party politicians would have us believe. It offers both conundrums and possibilities. Here are some of its components.
THE SEASON TICKET HOLDERS
These range from liberal to conservative, from the lobbyist wondering how much he can get to the direct mail target wondering how much she should give. The unity of this group is not based on programs but antipathies. Some years back, I told a group of liberals that defeating the Bork nomination was not a policy but only a necessity. I realized by the expressions in the room that my words were not appreciated. I was surprised. I had been raised by liberals and thought they were meant to be for things more than against them.
But that actually hadn't been true for some years, in fact since about the time when Democratic majorities in legislatures began to dwindle. Today, one is hard pressed to find even a liberal Democrat who is actively pushing any positive idea at all, unless, like Kerry, it is one temporarily fabricated for the few months before an election.
It is one of the things that differentiates Democrats and Republicans. The latter, sadly, know what they want and they work for it - and not just during election campaigns.
The level of dilettantism among Democrats has become increasingly depressing. During the Clinton years, for example, there was hardly a murmur as the dismantling of 60 years of Democratic social policies began, the prison population doubled, the war on drugs - the prototype for Bush proto-fascism - expanded, and as corruption became rampant. In the bizarre political values of the time, Clinton became a hero to the season ticket holders for winning one election with 43% of the vote and another with 49.2%.
No one recalled that the last time a Democratic president actually won a sizable percentage of the vote he did so with some of the most progressive programs in the country's history - including civil rights, education, and the war on poverty. Now, as the conservatives played the game with vicious realism, the Democrats became content to sit back and deceive themselves as their leaders moved ever further to the right.
Among their fantasies was that it is enough to become aroused during a presidential campaign even though elections are, in many ways, only the scorecard of the previous four years. After an election the Democratic fundamentalists, like their religious counterparts, were content to rely on faith rather than works.
One of the problems with such a paradigm is that only the converted are courted. The agnostic, the apostate on this issue or that, the voter who needs help thinking about the right things, are dismissed as unworthy and, in the end, the church gets smaller and smaller.
THE ALIENATED AND APATHETIC
This is the largest untapped political constituency in the country. About 113 million people of voting age. No group could make more of a difference yet no group is so ignored by political campaigns and by the media. Only rarely, as in the Jesse Ventura race, does anyone make a conscious effort to find and energize the alienated and the apathetic.
If, for example, the turnout of the voting age population in the upcoming election was proportional to that of 1964, there would be 27 million more voters, an increase of more than a quarter. Even more dramatic, if registered voters were to vote in the same percentage as in 1964, there would be 92 million more voters at the polls.
Nonetheless, to even talk about such discrepancies is to admit how badly the American political system has disintegrated. Far easier to blame it all on Nader's paltry three million votes.
How would this untapped constituency cast its ballots? The data is not consistent but under certain circumstances it can be remarkably out of step with the status quo. For example, election expert Curtis Gans cites a poll in 1996 that found one-third of non-voters favoring Ross Perot.
THE BARF BAG BRIGADE
There is a sizable part of the electorate, many registered as independents, who strongly disapprove of what is going on in American politics yet, either out of tradition, sense of duty or reflection, go to the polls anyway. This constituency has never been properly studied but as our candidates and choices become worse, it would be worth spending some time on them.
Some work on the principle laid out by James Farley's father. "Just remember," he told his son, "that behind every Democrat, no matter how bad, are other Democrats and behind every Republican, no matter how good, are other Republicans."
Some are a kind of political bulimic. They cast their vote and then want to throw up. The Democrats could provide airline barf bags labeled "Vote Kerry Anyway" to help voters of this ilk. I proposed something similar when it looked like Dean might win: a "Dean for a Day" campaign based on the argument that voting need be no more than the political equivalent of a one night stand. And the creation of a November 3 Movement - a coalition of those who do what they must to get rid of Bush and then become Kerry's main opposition - would be one of the best possible outcomes of the election.
THE REALLY PISSED OFF
This is the heart of the Nader vote and while the reasons for dissatisfaction are varied, it is easy for persons of diverse opinions to settle on someone like Nader as their temporary leader.
The air is filled with misinterpretations of the Nader phenomenon. It is, however, absolutely predictable that there would be at least a minority of voters who are angry enough over the absurdities of our condition that they wish to say so and loudly. There is nothing wrong or stupid about this; it is a normal part of human nature and for it to be berated and ridiculed merely adds sustenance to the protestors' belief, proving not how foolish Nader is but how corrupt or cynical his opponents are.
You don't have to agree with Nader to understand this. From early on, I disagreed with the idea of Nader running for practical political reasons. I know, however, that once someone like Ralph, who comes out of a far more rigid religious and cultural tradition than I, sees his path as a moral one, political considerations are discounted and trust in righteous action becomes paramount.
If I had had a leisurely opportunity to discuss the matter with Ralph I might have tried to undermine his moral certainty with a little Quaker pragmatism. On a more militaristic note, I might have argued that the fact that Nazis occupied both Normandy and Paris did not mean that the Allies had to invade the beaches and the French capital on the same day - that the presence of multiple evils requires not only morality but strategy, including some sense of sequence.
If none of that worked, I might have suggested he try a bit of proportionalism, the notion that even a wrong act can be acceptable if done in the context of a greater good, the classic theological case being that of the fetus being killed to save the life of the mother. It is interesting that many on the left - who never darken a church or synagogue - tend to be far more rigid on this score than some theologies. For example, the Church of England has declared, "We believe that abortion is an evil, but we also believe that to withhold compassion is evil. Christians need to face frankly that in an imperfect world the 'right' choice is sometimes the acceptance of the lesser of two evils."
On the other hand, while I disagree with Nader on this campaign, I do not believe the world would be a better place if he were silenced and his airtime given, say, to Terry McAuliffe. And I have been disgusted with the way he has been treated, my fear of which being one of the reasons I initially thought his campaign not a good idea. Ironically, in the end, an elite that so holds in contempt someone who honestly seeks to do the right thing in such a rampantly immoral time merely add force to the heretic's argument.
Finally, there are those who are attempting to build something to replace fetid, corrupt, cruel and increasingly fascist system in which we find ourselves. While Nader sees himself as part of this effort, his organizing is too centered on himself and insufficiently on creating the communities, organizations, and culture to make it happen.
The carpenters of a new America remain the Greens, weak and troubled as they are. Their own struggle with whether to stay with Nader or try something new has put a great strain on the party. The strategy of concentrating on non-battleground states inevitably has hurt their chances, some of the Naderites have been remarkably nasty, and the fundamental decency of the Green approach has not been reciprocated in any fashion by the Kerry campaign or given respect by the media.
The Greens, at the very least, deserve a vote or two at the state and local level from every Democrat who ever said a mean word about Ralph Nader's run in 2000. They deserve the admiration of everyone who believes we need not only to hate George Bush but to create something we can love. Green presidential candidate David Cobb deserves respect and praise for having weaved a humane path between moral absolutism and immoral acquiescence. And in states where either Bush or Kerry are preordained he also deserves a vote.
There are many things the Greens could do better, starting with a short hard-hitting list of populist goals that makes clear that Greens believe humans are part of ecology, too, but even with all their idiosyncrasies and shortcomings you're not going to get any closer to the color of hope than Green.
Almost all great changes in American politics and culture have had their roots either in the countryside or among minorities within the major cities. From the religious 'great awakenings' to the abolitionist movement, to the labor movement, to populism, to the 1960s and civil rights, America has been repeatedly moved by viral politics rather than by hierarchal change promulgated by the elite and its media. It has happened because of small groups of people discovering that they are not alone. Part of the job of the Green Party is to introduce these people to each other and giving them a home.
Successfully confronting the Bush disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our better selves - not only to provide an alternative but to create physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst, but offer witness for the better. And create places to live it. This, at their best, is what the Greens are about.
The political spectrum above is considerably at odds with that described by the conventional wisdom. But it is well to keep in mind that as the conventional have exercised their wisdom over the past 40 years some 71 million Americans became eligible to vote and never cast a ballot. Something was missing.
This spectrum is also considerably at odds with itself for both good and bad reasons. At one end, the season ticket holders could help considerably by showing some inclination towards reform, some remorse, and some hospitality towards those from whom they demand a vote. At the other end the pissed off Naderites and the carpenter Greens could quietly accept that they see politics somewhat differently and turn instead to how they might jointly oppose Kerry or Bush after the election.
There isn't much time. At the moment it's not going all that well and we already well past halfway to nowhere.
MAR 1, 2004
FROM THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW
EDITED BY SAM SMITH
SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial
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