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Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Columnist

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestsellers, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005); His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 2000), which won the 1992 George Orwell Award; It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), which won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998). His most recent book is Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009).

Termed "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in the San Francisco Chronicle, Alterman is frequent lecturer and contributor to numerous publications in the US, Europe and Latin America. In recent years, he has also been a columnist for: MSNBC.com, Worth, Rolling StoneMother Jones, and the Sunday Express (London), a history consultant to HBO films and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. A former Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and Columbia, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

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As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.

Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.

There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.

The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.

D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."

D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."

D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.

Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.

When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."

To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.

In the aftermath of the Iran/contra crisis, one of the networks decided to make a docudrama about the life of Ollie North, loosely based on a biography by Ben Bradle Jr. Its problem was that once North joined the Reagan National Security Council staff, the story lost both its moral compass and empathetic value. The producers could not find a single real-life character among the top Administration officials who displayed the slightest concern about the moral implications of North's drug- and gun-smuggling, hostage-buying and terrorist-supplying enterprises. They solved this problem by simply inventing someone.

The producers of Thirteen Days, the new Kevin Costner/Cuban Missile Crisis $80 million extravaganza, have done something similar. Instead of inventing a new character, however, they have invented a new history for an old one. Special Assistant Kenneth O'Donnell, who was responsible primarily for presidential scheduling in real life, does not even register in respected crisis histories. In the nearly 700 pages of transcripts from ExComm, the ad hoc committee dealing with the crisis, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow and published by Harvard in 1997, O'Donnell rates exactly two insignificant lines. Yet here we see O'Donnell, played by Costner, saving the Kennedys from themselves and the world from self-destruction. One minute SuperKen is bawling out the President for going soft on the Commies, the next he's roughing up Mac Bundy for suggesting the same. A cross between an über-aide barking orders at quivering politicos and a shaggy dog who follows his master around with scotch-filled Waterford crystal, he instructs Adlai Stevenson to stand up to the Soviets at the UN and a fighter pilot to pretend he was not shot at in Cuba. Cynics looking for an explanation of this rather odd historical rewrite might point to the fact that the film was partially funded by O'Donnell's son, Earthlink co-founder Kevin O'Donnell.

Reviewers like the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern innocently term the film "a valuable history lesson." In fact, the film takes countless liberties with the documentary record. For instance, Thirteen Days

§ conveniently skips Robert McNamara's initial arguments that Russia's placement of the missiles should be ignored because Soviet long-range missiles made them strategically meaningless, lest this comment undercut the film's entire rationale;

§ ignores the record of US efforts to destabilize the Castro regime, including contingency invasion plans being readied at the time of the emplacement;

§ explicitly whitewashes the Kennedys' unconscionable McCarthyite plot to discredit the dovish Adlai Stevenson, whose recommendations they largely--and secretly--ended up following;

§ sans evidence, attributes a column by Walter Lippmann that contained the seeds of a crisis-ending missile trade to a leak direct from Jack and Bobby;

§ places the Kennedys' meetings that decided in favor of a missile trade inside the ExComm, when in fact they deliberately kept these secret from the "Wise Men," fearing the same attacks they themselves had leveled at Stevenson.

Of course, the level of accuracy is not too bad for a film whose credits include six tailors and seven hairdressers but not one academic historian. (Former CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, author of a fine book on the technical aspects of the crisis called Eyeball to Eyeball, is listed, but one hopes he had nothing to do with its story line.)

My view is that anyone who takes Hollywood's history for scripture deserves whatever they get. As John Sayles has observed to Eric Foner, "Using [the word] 'responsibility' in the same sentence as 'the movie industry'--it just doesn't fit." Yet at the same time, Sayles noted, Hollywood can't help itself. Often the only way to sell a movie is for the ad to read "Based on a true story..." Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes not, usually depending on whose interests are served by the lies in question. When Costner and Oliver Stone offered up their loony version of the Kennedy assassination in JFK, the Washington media establishment reacted with such outrage the Capitol threatened to float away on hot air. No one wanted to see Stone's conspiratorial version of the assassination and the Vietnam War replace the official misinformation. On the other hand, some Hollywood lies are welcomed by pundits. Last summer, Mel Gibson and company came up with a version of the American Revolution in The Patriot in which the Americans, not the British, freed the slaves. No matter that the Southern revolutionaries fought to protect their "peculiar institution" while the British offered the slaves their freedom should they join the loyalist cause. William F. Buckley (surely a born loyalist if ever there was one) came forward to endorse Hollywood's fictional history. David Horowitz, displaying his patented post-Stalinist brand of hysterical ignorance leavened with personal dishonesty, complained, "Leftwing reviewers inwardly despising its patriotic themes have taken to faulting its alleged historical 'inaccuracies' as a way of dismissing its significance.... [But] isn't this what the American revolution was about--the promise that all men would be free? And didn't the new nation deliver on that promise in a generation and pay an even greater price in blood to do so?"

Well, no, Comrade Horowitz, it didn't. A generation after the Revolution, the slaves were still slaves, and Southern revolutionaries were still slaveowners. The Emancipation Proclamation (which freed only selected slaves) took nearly a century, and blacks were not given the right to a meaningful vote in the South for another hundred years after that. (Moreover, some, including quite a few thousand in Florida, are still fighting.)

Judged by the standards of JFK and The Patriot, Thirteen Days looks pretty good. At least it comes with a warning: "You'll never believe how close we came," its ad campaign promises. And I didn't.

If the absence of soldiers seizing cable networks is the ultimate standard of meaningful democratic empowerment, we're not doing half bad.

All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
      --John Lennon

Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.

Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?

Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.

The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.

The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.

Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.

A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.

In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."

* * *

Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.

Click here for Eric Alterman's latest dispatch on Florida.

Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.

Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university's graduate students' struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here's what I don't understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical "Tweedledee/Tweedledum" assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it's that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, "Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc."

Well, Nader's support collapsed, but not far or fast enough. In the future, it will be difficult to heal the rift that Nader's costly war on even the most progressive Democrats has opened. Speaking to In These Times's David Moberg, Nader promised, "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democratic candidates] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad." It's hard to imagine what kind of deal can be done with a man whose angriest rhetorical assaults appear reserved for his natural allies. (The vituperative attacks on Nader, leveled by many of my friends and cronies on the prolabor democratic left, were almost as counterproductive, however morally justified.) But a deal will have to be done. Nader may have polled a pathetic 2 to 3 percent nationally, but he still affected the race enough to tip some important balances in favor of Bush and the Republicans. He not only amassed crucial margins in Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon; he forced progressive Democrats like Tom Hayden, Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy and the two Jesse Jacksons to focus on rear-guard action during the final days rather than voter turnout. If this pattern repeats itself in future elections, Naderite progressives will become very big fish in a very tiny pond indeed.

Perhaps a serious Feingold or Wellstone run at the nomination with a stronger platform on globalization issues will convince those die-hard Naderites to join in the difficult business of building a more rational, Christian Coalition-like bloc to counter corporate power within the party. For now, we can expect an ugly period of payback in Washington in which Nader's valuable network of organizations will likely be the first to pay. Democrats will no longer return his calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike. Sadly, his life's work will be a victim of the infantile left-wing disorder Nader developed in his quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency.

* * *

Giving Nader a run for his money in the election hall of shame are the mainstream media. Media portraits of both candidates were etched in stone, with nary a fact or figure allowed to intrude upon the well-worn script. Bush was dumb and Gore a liar; pretty much nothing else was allowed in the grand narrative. Like Nader, reporters assumed the enormous policy differences between Gore and Bush--on Social Security, prescription drugs, education, affirmative action, abortion rights, the environment--to be of trivial importance, hardly worth the time and effort to explain or investigate. The media's treatment of this election as a popularity contest rather than a political one between two governing ideologies was an implicit endorsement of the Bush campaign strategy, as the issues favored Gore. But even so, Bush was usually treated like some pet media cause. With regard to such consequential questions as his political program, his political experience, his arrest record, his military service, his business ethics, Bush was given a free pass by media that continued to hound Gore about whether he was really the model for Oliver in Love Story--which, by the way, he was. I guess being a Bigfoot journalist means never having to say you're sorry.

* * *

One election development that had to gladden New Republic owner Marty Peretz's heart was how bad it was for the Arabs. I got a call one day from a Republican Party functionary telling me that Hillary Clinton supported a Palestinian state and took money from groups that supported terrorist organizations "like the one that just blew up the USS Cole." I told the sorry sonofabitch that like Israel's Prime Minister, I, too, support a Palestinian state. And, if there was any justice in the world, Hillary's "terrorist" friends would blow up Republican headquarters while we were still on the phone, so I could enjoy hearing the explosion.

This heavy-handed bit of racist manipulation grew out of a story published, surprisingly, not in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post but in the putatively responsible and nominally liberal New York Daily News, owned by Mortimer Zuckerman. It was inspired by the machinations of one Steven Emerson, a discredited "terrorism expert" last heard trying to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on the Arabs by noting that "inflict[ing] as many casualties as possible...is a Middle Eastern trait." Each actor played a dishonorable role in the tawdry drama: The Daily News invented the story. The Lazio campaign brazenly exploited it. Hillary Clinton's campaign capitulated to it. Together with the media coverage of the main event, this mini-drama will go down in history as further evidence of that unhappy nostrum of American politics that this year seems to have escaped everyone from the Nader die-hards to Palestinian militants: Things can always get worse.

Bernie Sanders is right. Ralph Nader is "one of the heroes of contemporary American society." How sad, therefore, that he is helping to undo so much of his life's work in a misguided fit of political pique and ideological purity. The Nation's election editorial is wrong in its recommendation of "strategic voting" in this election. Ralph Nader's campaign does not deserve a single progressive vote on November 7. Not one.

To listen to the Naderites--many of whom I admire--you might believe they were constructing a diverse, representative progressive movement with the possibility of one day replacing the Democrats. How odd it is to note, therefore, that this nascent leftist movement has virtually no support among African-Americans, Latinos or Asian-Americans. It has no support among organized feminist groups, organized gay rights groups or mainstream environmental groups. To top it all off, it has no support in the national union movement. So Nader and company are building a nonblack, non-Latino, non-Asian, nonfeminist, nonenvironmentalist, nongay, non-working people's left: Now that really would be quite an achievement.

Although Nader has said that he would not consciously work to elect Bush over Gore, "he is not keeping his pledges," according to his onetime comrades in Nader's Raiders for Gore. Nader has been campaigning aggressively in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. If Gore loses even a few of those states, then Hello, President Bush. And if Bush does win, then Goodbye to so much of what Nader and his followers profess to cherish. Goodbye, for instance, to affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control, campaign finance reform, minimum-wage raises, environmental protection, consumer protection, class-action lawsuits, worker-safety legislation and just about everything else the government can do to help the neediest and most vulnerable among us.

These are not the scare tactics of the "frightened liberals" that Nader and his fellow political puritans hold in such profound contempt. This is the truth. Nader supporters argue that his candidacy is likely to help elect a Democratic Congress. Oh really? In the first place, careful studies have never been able to identify the so-called silent progressive majority--the Nader voters who otherwise wouldn't make it to the polls but who once there would vote for lower-level Democrats--upon which this strategy rests. And wait a minute: I thought the Democrats weren't worth saving, anyway. The far more likely outcome of Nader's Pied Piper run is the election of a dimwitted right-wing President with Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey inaugurating an era of conservative reaction the likes of which Newt Gingrich could scarcely have imagined.

And for what? A party that polls single digits in national elections? Who needs it? While it has been salutary to see Nader speak some occasional truth to power on television, given the winner-take-all structure of national and local elections the US political system has no role for third parties other than that of a spoiler. Excluding the lunatic Reform Party, only one third party in the twentieth century, the Socialists, ran in more than two consecutive presidential campaigns. The Socialists are also alone in having won more votes in a second election than in their first. Yet as the democratic socialist founder of In These Times, James Weinstein, points out, "Even at the height of their influence they had no potential of becoming a major presence in Congress, much less of electing a president."

Nader's candidacy, moreover, manifests some of the least attractive aspects of the sectarian left. It demonstrates the old faux-revolutionary tendency to focus fire on one's natural allies on the center-left rather than one's genuine enemies on the right. Some Naderites have also displayed a streak of leftist McCarthyism in their attacks on those progressives who question their strategy of abandoning the Democratic Party to the corporations. And Nader has demonstrated extreme carelessness with his words in this campaign, calling the choice between Gore and Bush a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Given the obvious differences between the two parties (see "Bush or Gore: Does It Matter?" October 16), this posturing comes at considerable cost to the man's once unquestionable reputation for intellectual honesty and political integrity.

You don't have to like or admire Al Gore to vote for him. I sure don't. But elections are not therapy. Nor, as philosopher John Dewey reminds us, are they useful occasions for movement-building. If you have to start building your movement by the time Election Day comes around, it's already too late. Given the weakness of the left in America today, our elections are by definition a choice of the lesser evil. The mistake Naderites make is in their refusal to distinguish between those evils.

There is the Clinton/Gore evil where, yes, corporate power runs rampant and inequality is increasing, but minorities, gays, women and low-wage workers have made more economic (and in some cases, social) progress than at any time in nearly four decades. Then there is the Bush/Lott/DeLay evil where these same people will be pushed back to their traditional places, as the Republican Party revives its war against Social Security, progressive taxation, public education and the few remaining sources of democratic solidarity in America.

Had Nader taken a page from the Christian Coalition and challenged Gore and the party leadership in the primary process, he might have forced its center of gravity leftward in response to the organized populist anger we saw on display in Seattle last year. Indeed, I would have been happy to vote for him. A steady, patient challenge to the party's corporate domination at the grassroots and presidential level is just what both the party and its progressives need to build the kind of machine that can win tangible victories down the road. Instead, Nader has chosen to ape Pat Buchanan, leading his followers on a costly and quixotic march to nowhere. Too bad the poor and the powerless will be--as usual--the ones to pay.

Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the US media, in which "the Israelis have come through a miraculous alchemical formula to become the giants and everyone else is the David.'' What planet is this man living on?

Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The UN Security Council condemns Israel's "excessive use of force."

Yet aside from the Palestinians invited to speak explicitly for their own cause, the mainstream US media condemn the Palestinians and exonerate Israel with Soviet-like consensus. Editorial pages are unanimous in apportioning the blame exclusively to Yasir Arafat rather than the war criminal Ariel Sharon, who provoked the riots to advance his political career. Sharon was puffed up in extremely sympathetic interviews by Lally Weymouth published in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and held forth as well on the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Meanwhile, the members of the punditocracy who appeared during the weekend of Barak's ultimatum spoke as if channeling American Jewish Committee talking points.

While Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio battled one another to shower the Palestinians with higher and higher degrees of contempt in their second debate, the only American voices heard to speak to the larger context of the conflict were the twin electoral outliers, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, the former Crossfire host has forfeited any credibility he once had on the issue. Nader's criticism of Sharon, which he expressed on CBS's Face the Nation, was therefore far more valuable, especially in light of the relative scarcity of such voices on network television.

More typical, however, are the views of Charles Krauthammer, who has apparently contracted the same mental and emotional affliction that drove poor Abe Rosenthal insane. The pundit actually compared the phenomenon of Palestinian riots and rock-throwing to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Complaining of overly sympathetic coverage of Palestinian "frustration"--"frustration with what?" Krauthammer demanded in mock horror, as if the average Palestinian refugee lived next door in Chevy Chase--Krauthammer termed Israel's dovish leaders "feckless" for seeking an accommodation to create a nation where Jewish soldiers are no longer in a position to gun down unarmed 12-year-old boys.

Sure Arafat is a corrupt, untrustworthy leader, and I wish he had somehow found the courage to risk his own neck and embrace Barak's surprising concessions at Camp David, if only as a foundation stone in a much longer peace process. The concessions were, unfortunately, the best offer the Palestinians are likely to get for some time. But it's not Arafat's indecision or Palestinian rock-throwing that lies at the root of the current conflict. Rather, as the Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco wrote on the Times Op-Ed page, it is the fact that "the proponents of the agreement, including the Clinton Administration, never fully informed the Palestinian people that the [Oslo] accord did not offer any guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation." Since Oslo, Pacheco notes, the quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has declined from terrible to nearly unbearable. Owing to the lack of good will on both sides, what is being constructed from Oslo is less peace than apartheid.

I have walked across open sewage in Palestinian refugee camps surrounded by children begging for candy. I have been served tea at the home of a Palestinian family whose 13-year-old son was killed days earlier by the Israeli Defense Force as a suspect in a murder that turned out to be the work of a crazed Jewish fanatic. I have stood in the rubble of Palestinian houses that the Israelis bulldozed as a warning to those who would continue to protest. Seven years ago, I stood on the White House lawn and listened, tearfully, to Yitzhak Rabin say "enough" to the killing on both sides. Alas, it was not enough. And given the realities on the ground, for every Israeli who loses a son or daughter, so too will scores of Palestinians.

It would behoove those in the media who hold forth on this issue to address themselves for once to its larger context. It is Israel that is oppressing the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who are doing virtually all the dying. True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus. He is a brave leader and an authentic soldier for peace. But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian "catastrophe," Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East.

Perhaps it's too much to ask a victorious people to offer genuine justice and material sacrifice to the nation it has vanquished on the battlefield--particularly when the hatred of the defeated nation continues unabated. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less.

I'm a Jew with deep emotional ties to Israel and strong sympathies with the Labor/Zionist project. My own words fill me with foreboding. But if it must come to war, then let us at least be honest about it. Like Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it will be a war that Israel has chosen because it could not countenance the alternatives. And it will be the Palestinians who, once again, will endure the lion's share of the suffering.

Neoconservatives are serial grave-robbers. Back in the early eighties, Norman Podhoretz tried to claim both Ronald Reagan and George Orwell as part of his meshuggeneh mishpocheh. Now, say what you will about the dimwitted defender of right-wing terrorism and the scrupulously honest symbol of the Anglo-American democratic left, they do not belong in the same political movement. Honest admirers of both men pointed out the fallacy in this transparent tactic, but two decades later, no cure has been found. Last seen in the neocons' trunk leaving the literary graveyard were the intellectual remains of the liberals' liberal, the critic Lionel Trilling.

Trilling never uttered so much as a sympathetic syllable about the neocon/Reaganite worldview to which his would-be inheritors became so attached after his death in 1975. Yet there he was, sitting atop a pyramid of Reagan-worshipers--people whose politics he never endorsed and whose style of argument he abhorred--in a chart accompanying a Sam Tanenhaus-authored encomium to the neocons in the New York Times a few Saturdays ago. The trick with Trilling is really no different from that with the refashioned Orwell. (Ironically, as John Rodden notes in his 1989 study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, it was Trilling's introduction to a 1952 reissue of Homage to Catalonia that was almost singularly responsible for securing the writer's reputation in the United States as a kind of secular saint.) Both men wrote witheringly of those intellectuals who gave their hearts and minds over to Stalinism, prescribing tough-minded scrutiny in the face of emotional appeals. In a foreword to a 1974 edition of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were inspired by "a particular political-cultural situation" he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." With Trilling safely unable to respond, the neocons twist these words in order to apply them to liberalism itself.

Podhoretz has long been critical of his ex-teacher for what he termed his "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" he detected in anyone who failed to agree with him. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Nathan Glick notes that "besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor," these claims "have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion." In fact, as Glick points out, Trilling viewed liberalism as "a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." Nothing, however, could be further from the neoconservatives' creed--one that has served, in the view of Leon Wieseltier, editor of a generous new collection of Trilling essays called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, as "the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." By inventing a genealogy that goes back to Trilling, Wieseltier notes, "They enhance their intellectual self-esteem. They have this view that everyone to the right of the left is Neoconservative, or a Neoconservative who dares not speak its name."

In fact, the critics of the counterculture whose writings have held up best during the past thirty years are those who never gave themselves over to the neocon temptation--who never became apologists for Reagan and Bush, much less Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Liberal and socialist anticommunists like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin and Garry Wills led a relatively lonely intellectual life in the eighties, as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all toasting themselves at the Reagan White House. But contrary to Tanenhaus's apologia, it is their works--together with Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman extravaganzas--to which historians will one day turn to comprehend the combination of ignorant arrogance and small-minded self-delusion that captured both American extremes in the final decades of the twentieth century.

Another oddity of Tanenhaus's article was the news that the forever-ricocheting Michael Lind, who mimicked Podhoretz recently with his own McCarthyite tract on the Vietnam era, is writing a manifesto to try to revive the neoconservative creed he once savaged. His co-author is Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation. Here history repeats itself as farce. First-generation neocons hijacked liberal institutions like Commentary and Partisan Review (and, sadly, much of The New Republic) and gave them over to conservative purposes. Halstead's organization (with which I was briefly associated) now takes precious funds from progressive donors and redistributes them to the likes of the right-wing Lind and the conservative, isolationist, foreign-policy writer Robert Kaplan. Halstead has even boasted of trying to hire George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. "Fool me once, and shame on you," explained the sage engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Mr. Scott. "Fool me twice, and shame on me."

* * *

Babs in Toyland: The famously sensitive liberal icon Barbra Streisand recently played the first in a long series of "farewell performances" in New York and LA, gouging fans to the tune of $2,500 per ticket. The worthy cause? Another twenty million or so for the greater glory of Barbra Streisand Inc. Streisand herself destroyed the political economy of concert-going in the mid-nineties by charging in the hundreds for tickets. Today the Eagles and Billy Joel jack up prices to $1,000 apiece. The Stones routinely charge $350; the Who, $250. Both bands were a hell of a lot better in the pre-Streisandified seventies, when I saw them for about two-weeks' allowance. Yes, I know, markets, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. But could we please put an end to the deification of multimillionaire rock stars who shake down their own fans? (Rock critics rarely make this point, because they get free tickets.)

It has become fashionable of late to deny the relative importance of politics, on the one hand, and the fact of any important differences between Democrats and Republicans, on the other. Elections, therefore, are said to be merely another form of entertainment--on a par with, say, professional wrestling, but only marginally more consequential. ("Show business for ugly people" is the common phrase, cited recently by Dee Dee Meyers in the Washington Post.) This is not to say that people do not recognize the reality of conflicts between the two sides. But these are sliced and diced almost exclusively in terms of personality rather than genuine political difference. The result is that the only election events that engage the masses--primarily conventions and debates--are reviewed in the media no differently than if they were opening-night performances on Broadway. (Pay attention to the commentary following the upcoming Bush/Gore debates. Just for fun, count how many times network and print pundits talk about each candidate's "comfort level" and style of presentation compared with the number of times they attempt to delineate a significant substantive disagreement.)

Still, one can hardly deny the truth of many of the assumptions that underlie these twin notions. Much of what pretends to be "politics" today is undertaken exclusively for show. Politicians lie, posture and pretend to care about things in public they happily give away in private. They always have, of course, but the rise of cable TV and the subsequent explosion of the punditocracy leads them to embrace show-business production values that leave less and less public space for genuine discourse and debate. Moreover, owing to the legalized system of bribery that has sprung up, thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions that equate spending with free speech, the Democrats are only slightly less beholden to multinational corporations than are the Republicans. Throw in the triangulating tendencies of the Clinton/Gore Administration--the self-conscious and ultimately successful strategy of eliminating your side's political weakness by adopting portions of the other side's positions--and you have what looks to be a pretty convincing case for despair. Who cares who wins a presidential election between two nearly identical candidates to govern a system that has ceased to matter except to all but a few crazies who watch cable TV 24/7?

For many on the left, the response to this quandary has been to support Ralph Nader's protest candidacy. He has no hope of winning, of course, but a vote for Nader is at least a vote for an honest man of progressive principle. Should these votes throw the election to Bush rather than Gore, well, tough luck. It would serve the Democrats right. And anyway, who cares? "The White House," as Nader says, "is a corporate prison." It hardly makes any difference who the prisoner is.

The problem with this perspective is that it views the political forest at so great a distance that it misses almost every one of its proverbial trees. While both major candidates use much the same rhetoric to offer feel-good appeals to centrist and undecided voters, beneath this veneer lie important political and philosophical distinctions with crucial implications for social, economic, environmental and even foreign policy. Examined carefully, the similarities between the two political parties do not hold a candle to their deep-seated differences. And because of the remarkable power of the office of the presidency, these differences in politics and philosophy have the potential to affect our society--particularly the most vulnerable among us--in matters that just about all of us would consider critical, if we only paused long enough to consider them.

An examination of the Clinton record illustrates the fallacy of the "pox on both their houses" worldview. As President, Bill Clinton has done more to deflate the postimperial status of his office--and blur the differences between himself and his opponents--than any President in the past century. Yet he has still been able to use his constitutional powers to catalyze broad changes in our society and to prevent others from taking place.

Consider the President's veto power. Had Clinton lost in 1992 or 1996, today the following would most likely be the law of the land:

§ the abolition of all taxes on estates larger than $675,000.

§ the reform of our bankruptcy laws to the detriment of the poor and middle classes on behalf of their corporate creditors.

§ the outlawing of so-called "partial birth" abortions.

§ a Tom DeLay-sponsored moratorium on all new government regulations, particularly those enforcing clean air, clean water and the rights of both union and nonunion workers.

§ an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act encouraging corporations to bypass collective bargaining in favor of so-called "labor-management cooperative efforts."

§ a bill restricting the Secretary of the Interior's power to protect environmentally sensitive land, including wetlands and other fragile ecosystems, from destruction by private commercial interests.

§ a $270 billion cut in Medicare funding, coupled with a $240 billion tax windfall to be enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthiest Americans.

Despite the various constitutional restrictions on his power, a US President retains an awesome ability to make things happen just by saying so. The constitutional mechanism for this is the executive order, and historically, these actions have been known to transform millions of people's lives with a stroke of the presidential pen. FDR all but saved the pre-Pearl Harbor British war effort against the Nazis with his "Destroyer Deal," and Harry Truman desegregated the military virtually overnight, both on their own say-so, alone. Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, acting for his brother, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate all facilities, including bus terminals, railroad stations and airports, instituting federal lawsuits when localities resisted. Bill Clinton outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking security clearances--something all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower refused to do. (As a result, "if you are a lesbian, you are no longer automatically a spy," notes Barney Frank, in a piece of good news for Mary Cheney.) Clinton also acted unilaterally to protect millions of acres of federal land from development. Just this year, he created the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Giant Sequoia, Agua Fria and California Coastal national monuments. He is expected to ban new road construction on approximately 40 million acres, roughly a fifth of all of the Forest Service's 192 million acres.

On the other side of the ledger, a President can also cause immeasurable harm purely on his own authority. Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam on the basis of an executive order, though he augmented it with the dishonestly obtained Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ronald Reagan signed executive orders that sold public lands to private industry, allowed increased CIA spying on citizens, expanded the government's censorship and secrecy powers over its employees, instituted random drug-testing for all federal employees, reprogrammed foreign aid to send it to the murderous government of El Salvador and created a new government office for the express purpose of making an end run around Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.

Then there are the courts [see last week's special issue of The Nation, "The Supreme Court and the Election"]. The President nominates not only Supreme Court judges whenever a vacancy arises but also every one of the 852 judges on the federal bench. Few, if any, of the 374 judges Clinton has appointed have been cutting-edge, left-of-center scholars, but just about all of them are well to the left of the reactionary bunch nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I don't like to judge the world this way myself, but since a lot of people do, here are some relevant numbers: 48 percent of Clinton's judicial nominees have been women or minorities, compared with just 28 percent for Bush and a mere 14 percent for Reagan. And Clinton's Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--whom the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein calls "the Thurgood Marshall of feminism"--and Stephen Breyer, have been on the progressive side of virtually every Court decision since their appointments.

The President also makes as many as 3,000 political appointments to the federal government, not including temporary appointments. More often than not, Bill Clinton's political appointments have been as safe and mainstream as those for the courts. He has ducked innumerable fights, most egregiously after he appointed his friend, voting-rights pioneer Lani Guinier, to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Even so, the Administration included any number of leading progressives in positions of genuine power and influence, and these people have been able to use these positions to increase the degree of social justice under which millions of Americans live their lives. Such appointments are important in ways that never make the nightly news reports and hence slip under the radar of all but the most politically obsessed. For instance, Robert Reich told me that during his four-year term as Labor Secretary, he issued hundreds if not thousands of rules on how to implement laws and was generally given considerable discretion in how he chose to do so. Reich was able, on his own authority, to force employers to make their pension-fund contributions within forty-five days, he recalls, "as many had been using them as revolving credit funds." Under Reich, the department also cracked down on sweatshops, and through OSHA, on unsafe plants where workers had been getting their arms mangled and their heads crushed. While Reich lost the main battle to Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin to wage an Administration-led crusade against corporate welfare, he succeeded in opening up the discussion and hence in encouraging progressive groups to challenge corporate giveaways, sometimes successfully. Reich's replacement, Alexis Herman, is one of the most progressive members of the current Administration. Like Reich, she has made behind-the-scenes efforts and frequently consulted with John Sweeney in ways that have helped give unions the time and tools they need to start winning strikes again. Suffice it to say that insuring a fair fight for labor unions on strike was not high on the agenda of past Republican administrations.

Even the President's purely symbolic acts can have powerful, though hardly obvious, effects on the life of the nation. While his commission on race may be fairly judged a failure, for instance, Clinton's willingness to confront the issue of affirmative action head-on in his speeches and town meetings almost certainly saved the program--no longer is it the far right's favorite target for whipping up social resentment against liberals, minorities and other alleged deviants. His choice of Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to Africa and as an adviser on many domestic issues has also had meaningful if unmeasurable effects on the cause of racial inclusion. And the Clinton/Gore embrace of the gay community has created massive ripples in what were, until recently, stagnant waters. Ronald Reagan, perhaps the twentieth century's most effective hypocrite, privately invited gay men to sleep together under the White House roof, yet it took him 2,258 days in office to utter the word "AIDS" in public. In welcoming gays and lesbians at the White House with open arms, Clinton advanced their acceptance into mainstream society to a degree that was unthinkable when he was first elected. The openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias, national treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, calls gays and lesbians "an explicit part of the Democratic vision, a welcome member of the team." And surely it makes a difference in the character and flavor of our public life that the President has picked progressive heroes like John Kenneth Galbraith and George McGovern for the nation's highest official honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recent Republican choices have included Milton Friedman and Whittaker Chambers.

Finally, the cliché that "the President proposes and Congress disposes" is dead-on, although it underestimates the office's power of persuasion. Some members of Congress may not like the Microsoft antitrust suit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. And they may resist re-raising the federal minimum wage or doubling the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but they must deal with these issues if a President insists on raising them. Under Reagan and Bush, these proposals languished. Under Clinton, the GOP Congress has been forced to act repeatedly--against the wishes of its own constituency--to help increase the purchasing power of the working poor.

Though he appears to have modified his views in recent weeks, Ralph Nader has spent much of the year traversing the country, insisting that the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush is nothing more than a pick between "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Unfortunately, on a number of key issues, Nader has a strong argument. Gore, like Clinton, is first and foremost a pragmatic politician who will betray progressive hopes whenever it suits his larger purposes. The corporate-friendly Vice President has been nowhere near as strong as he claims on environmental issues. ("On the issue of the environment, I've never given up. I've never backed down, and I never will," he lies.) Like Clinton, Gore will continue to back wasteful increases in military spending and the expansion of the failed bipartisan drug war in Colombia. On civil liberties, he will most likely prove just as insensitive, sacrificing important privacy rights to fight exaggerated threats from terrorism and drug trafficking. On trade and globalization issues, a Democratic President can turn out to be even worse than a Republican one. A Democrat carries sufficient clout to pass most agreements against both public opinion and the public interest but lacks the power to force Republicans to accept the kinds of restrictions that genuinely protect the environment and workers' rights. The result in the Clinton presidency has been a series of business-dictated agreements that make it easier for corporations to pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies. A Democratic defeat might--emphasis on the word "might"--result in a more unified opposition party that would successfully demand powerful protections for workers and communities as the price of expanding free trade and investment agreements.

If the trade/globalization issue were the Vietnam War or World War II, it would be easier to argue that dumping the Democrats is a risk worth taking. As important as trade policy is, however, it remains an uncomfortable stretch to insist that it somehow trumps everything else put together. For while Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, is certain to disappoint anyone naïve enough to believe that he will always "fight for the people against the powerful," as he continually promises, the policies of his presidency would be preferable to Bush's in almost every conceivable way. The Texas governor has sought to minimize the two candidates' political differences by giving his conservatism what he terms "a compassionate face." But the unhappy fact is that, despite his rhetoric, Bush, together with Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Trent Lott, is the de facto leader of a party and a movement that seeks to reverse decades of social progress as it simultaneously emasculates the federal government's ability to defend the interests of its poor and middle-class citizens. He could not oppose these policies and maintain his power base even if he wanted to--and there is no evidence that he does.

Even on issues where Gore's record is at its weakest, the potential costs of a Bush presidency are enormous. Take campaign finance. We all know of Gore's many transgressions in the mad chase for corporate dollars in the 1996 campaign. His foolishly legalistic "no controlling legal authority" explanations for his unseemly actions have made him something of a national joke on the subject. But owing to this very embarrassment, Gore now professes to have been reborn on this issue. He wants to ban soft money, force outside groups to disclose what issue advertisements they have bought before an election and require broadcasters to give candidates free airtime to answer those outside ads. Gore promises that the McCain/Feingold reform bill, consistently filibustered by Senate Republicans, will be the first law he sends to Congress as President.

Now, even if Gore succeeds in forcing the next Congress to pass McCain/Feingold--an enormous "if"--he is still clearly not willing to go far enough. Until this country institutes a system of public finance like the one currently in operation in Maine, corporations will continue to use their financial power to strangle any number of badly needed reforms. But any way one views the problem, Bush is almost certain to be worse. He opposed John McCain's plan during the Republican primaries because, he explained, the current system works to Republican advantage. Why give it up? Even Bush is not that stupid. As of last spring, business was outspending labor 15 to 1 in this election cycle. Should the Republicans win, that will be the end of campaign finance reform for another four years.

Another area where Gore and company look like Republicans from afar is on foreign policy. A New Democrat through and through, Gore (together with Joe Lieberman) has been on the hawkish side of virtually every intra-Democratic Party argument. Like his gutless boss, but without the excuse of being a "draft dodger," he supports the showering of the military with mountains of unneeded funds as well as a truly idiotic missile defense program that can only do untold harm to the nation's security along with its budget. Gore favors the immoral starvation policies directed at the Cuban and Iraqi people, and the further militarization of our ruinous drug policies, here and in Colombia. Too bad, therefore, that on every one of these issues, Bush is considerably worse.

An almost total novice (and frequent nitwit) when it comes to foreign affairs, Bush is dependent on his father's national security advisers, including Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice. All remain intellectually imprisoned inside a manichean cold war paradigm that was already out of date when they first came into power in the early eighties. Bush's team believes in an aggressive US foreign policy backed by a strong military, but it couldn't care less about promoting human rights, labor rights or environmental protection. (Dick Cheney's vote against freedom for Nelson Mandela is entirely consistent with this worldview.) Bush's advisers do not understand, much less embrace, the emerging view of foreign policy professionals that issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, Third World debt reduction, the global AIDS epidemic, increasing depopulation of ocean fisheries and biochemical threats to the world's agriculture qualify as foreign policy issues. "Global social work" is what Armitage calls these causes. Though not as isolationist-minded as the GOP Congress, this crew has little more use for the United Nations than does Jesse Helms. What's more, in Cheney, Bush has signed off on a politician who publicly endorsed the thuggish extraconstitutional adventurism undertaken by Oliver North during the Iran/contra scandal.

On missile defense, perhaps Gore's most appalling cave-in to right-wing hysteria, the Vice President cravenly favors "developing the technology for a national missile defense system to protect against ballistic-missile attacks from rogue states." But Bush says he would deploy a much more extensive defense right away, whether it works or not. ("Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people," he told the GOP convention.) As former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb has observed, "With President Gore, it would be very limited, and it would go a long way toward accommodating the Russian desires. Bush is willing to do the whole nine yards," and damn the consequences for the budget, the ABM treaty, the arms race and US relations with allies and potential adversaries.

On most issues, the differences are even more pronounced. Take the question of the courts. Critics of the Democrats often point out that some of the more liberal Justices on the Supreme Court have historically been appointed by Republicans. That would be comforting if Gore were running against Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford. George W. Bush's judicial heroes, however, are not Earl Warren or John Paul Stevens. They are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and there is no reason to think his appointments would be any less reactionary. The conservatives currently enjoy a 5-to-4 majority on most decisions and have been winning their arguments by a single vote in recent years to an unprecedented degree. Because the next President is likely to pick at least two and possibly three new Justices, this slim conservative majority will become a decades-long right-wing hegemony should Bush win the election. The "strict constructionists" favored by Bush would most likely overturn Roe v. Wade and destroy women's right to a safe and legal abortion. (The Constitution does not mention abortion, after all.) They would strike down federal protections against discrimination for disabled people, for people of varying sexual orientation and for people benefiting from almost any form of affirmative action. Privacy rights would also be considerably truncated, while the rights of corporate and commercial speech would be expanded--thereby dooming any future campaign finance reform. Laws on gun control and tobacco regulation would be weakened, as would laws that allow such agencies as the EPA and OSHA to protect workers, consumers and local communities from corporate rapacity. The entire body of US law, according to Cass Sunstein, would be pushed closer to its pre-New Deal status, implying "significant and possibly historic changes in the meaning of the Constitution." And given the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, there wouldn't be a thing Congress or the President could do about it.

In a Bush presidency, minority rights would suffer from far more than just Court decisions. Like his father, "W" appears motivated less by animus than by cowardice. But even the most compassionate conservative Republican has no incentive to upset his core Christian constituency by extending--or even accepting--many of the gains of the past decade for gays and lesbians. (Barney Frank quips that the gay "Log Cabin" Republican group, with whom Bush declined even to meet, is so named "because they're all Uncle Toms.")

Meanwhile, to argue that there is no significant difference between the two candidates on racial matters is to argue that blacks, Latinos and others are the victims of a grand hoax to which white leftists are somehow immune, since minority support for both Clinton and Gore has been rock solid. Speaking at The Nation's forum on the eve of the Democratic convention in LA, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. explained that while "some of us are making decisions from the perspective of philosophy and the luxury of our comfortableness, and how we are personally situated in the economy...there are other members of our coalition, who are not here, who have everything at stake." To take one small example of the issues in question, California State Senator Tom Hayden observes that a Gore presidency could lead to effective Justice Department measures to curb crimes committed on a systematic basis by law enforcement officers, while George W. Bush has complained of the Justice Department's "overaggressive" police brutality investigations. This is, notes Hayden, "the kind of difference you just can't responsibly forget."

Consider also the twin scourges of gun violence and tobacco peddling to minors. Gore supports a plan that would force gun owners to take a course and get a photo license, just as they must now to drive a car. Using language and imagery borrowed from the NRA, Bush likens such a plan to a Big Brother-like first step to taking all guns away from law-abiding citizens. Gore wants to close a loophole that exempts buyers at gun shows from required background checks. Bush does not. Gore says he would like to ban so-called Saturday night special handguns, limit purchasers to one gun a month and re-impose the Brady Law's waiting period for gun purchases. Bush would do none of this. In the event of a Bush victory, NRA leaders have said they may seek a national law permitting concealed weapons similar to the one the governor signed in Texas. Charlton Heston and company would also go after a Texas-style "lawsuit protection" bill for gun makers. Both are inconceivable under a Gore presidency.

Regarding tobacco, Gore vowed in his convention speech to "crack down on the marketing of tobacco to our children." And indeed, since the $250 billion settlement pursued by the states with the industry, the Justice Department has been pursuing a racketeering lawsuit, seeking to recoup hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on treating sick smokers. Bush, heavily funded by tobacco companies, failed to support his state's participation in its antitobacco lawsuit, which eventually added $17 billion to the Texas treasury. As Ralph Reed proudly bragged in National Review, Bush "filed a brief to deny a group of trial lawyers a multibillion-dollar payoff as part of the state's tobacco settlement," even after the companies conceded.

On environmental issues, for all of Gore's well-documented failings, the two candidates speak and act as if they come from different planets. Again, Gore is both an environmentalist and a political pragmatist. Judged by the demanding standards that Gore himself laid out in his book Earth in the Balance, he is a sham and a sellout. To take just one example, the Clinton/Gore Administration opened up Alaska's precious National Petroleum Reserve, selling the first oil-drilling leases in May 1999. Compared with George Bush, however, Gore is Mother Nature herself. If elected, he will arguably be the most environmentally sensitive and sophisticated politician ever to occupy the Oval Office.

Gore strongly supported EPA Administrator Carol Browner's improved clean-air regulations. The Clinton/Gore Administration reduced logging on federal lands by 80 percent from 1990 levels, and the Forest Service is now taking public comment on plans to keep 60 million acres of roadless national forests undeveloped. It has created nine new national monuments, including what is now the largest national monument outside of Alaska. A Gore administration would likely take favorable action on any number of environmental initiatives that will face the next President. These include: a proposed ban on development of a fifth of the Forest Service's 192 million acres; the implementation of a new set of extensive regulations on diesel pollution; the regulation of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are understood to pose a significant threat to pregnant women and children who consume them; a ban on dangerous pesticides; and long-overdue compensation for US workers whose health has been harmed by dangerous government-certified work on nuclear weapons.

George Bush, it is safe to predict, would ignore those aspects of environmental protection that he did not reverse. The former oilman has one of the worst environmental records of any governor in the entire fifty states. Every year since Bush took office, Texas has been the most polluted state in the nation. Houston recently accomplished what many believed to be impossible: It passed Los Angeles to achieve the honorific of being the city with the worst air quality in the nation. This is no accident. In 1997 Bush replaced state regulations with a self-policing plan, drawn up by the polluters themselves, that called for strictly voluntary compliance with the standards of the 1971 Clean Air Act for companies that had been grandfathered into the old system. The results were predictable. Of the 160 biggest, a grand total of three have actually cut their emissions. Bush's policies with regard to auto emissions evince a similar pro-pollution bias. Not until the EPA threatened to withhold millions in highway funding did Bush even begin to try to control emissions. In 1999 federal regulators demanded that emissions be cut in Houston by 90 percent or the state would lose billions in highway funds. Things had been allowed to deteriorate so seriously that if every car were taken off the road in Houston, the city would still fail to meet federal safe-ozone levels. The two oilmen at the top of the Republican ticket also have no use whatsoever for the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce the threat of global warming, which Al Gore championed inside the Clinton Administration. Bush has said he does not support the treaty, and in 1996 Dick Cheney led a group of fifty-four oil executives in attacking the proposed Kyoto agreement because it advocated "the forced reduction of fossil fuel use." (Well, yes, that's the point.)

And what of the future of organized labor? Without a vibrant, powerful labor movement, there is simply no hope for the revival of the US left. Again, absent an upsurge in the numbers of pro-labor representatives, Gore is likely to disappoint on issues of labor rights, trade and globalization, just as Clinton did. Making progress will take more muscle than labor has so far been able to amass. But on a panoply of other questions, from the Court's rulings on labor law and the composition of the National Labor Relations Board to the Labor Department's role in strike support (and/or opposition), a Gore presidency would be far better for unions. Gore has called organizing a "fundamental American right that should never be blocked, stopped, and never, ever taken away." Bush, in contrast, governs a "right to work" state and even opposed raising the federal minimum wage, to which the Republican Congress recently acquiesced. Backed by business billions, he (quite logically) supports so-called paycheck-protection laws, designed to silence labor's voice in the political process. Does anyone believe that it truly makes no difference for working people who wins the next election?

And here we finally reach the differences between the two parties that strike this writer, anyway, as by far the most compelling. I refer to what Senator Paul Wellstone calls "bread and butter, workday family economic issues." The problem is not just how much money Bush wants to give to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Rather, it is that the Republican Party, at this moment in history, is politically and ideologically dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of social solidarity in this country. Bush and company threaten to work toward the ultimate privatization not only of Social Security, Medicare and public education but nearly all of the sustained, generous and democratically grounded social programs the US political system has enacted since the dawn of the New Deal. These are the signal socioeconomic achievements of the left, going back more than seven decades. And they need to be defended if the word "left" is to have any meaning in America at all.

The numbers alone would be worrisome enough. The Bush tax plan offers 100 times more tax relief to the richest 1 percent of Americans than to most middle-income families, and 1,000 times more relief than to low-income families. Added together, Bush's tax cuts could cost at least $1.3 trillion over nine years. Gore's far more frugal plan of targeted tax cuts is aimed at these middle- and lower-income people, allowing them to pay for health, education and job-training needs.

Bush also wants to begin draining funds from the public education system through a system of vouchers. Gore has vowed to fight this. "I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers," he promises. Given the power of the NEA inside the Democratic Party (for better or worse), he will have no choice but to keep that promise. The Bush budget calls for an increase of $48 billion in public education funding over the next decade; the Gore plan, $170 billion.

For Social Security, our most important instrument of collective, intergenerational solidarity and the single most effective antipoverty program in US history, a Bush presidency could mean the beginning of the end. He proposes to allow workers to place a portion of their payroll tax into a private retirement account for the purposes of private investment, thereby creating an enormous windfall for the securities industry. This diversion would cost the system an estimated trillion dollars in its first decade, but it makes no provisions for the losses to workers that might be incurred during a sustained downturn in the market. As Bush has ruled out raising payroll taxes and would not dare cut benefits without the (politically unimaginable) fig leaf of Democratic cooperation, the system itself will be at risk. Gore, like Clinton, proposes to use today's surpluses to pay off government debt, and then to deploy the savings in the government's interest payments down the road for Social Security.

Regarding healthcare for those who need it most--seniors, children and families tied to HMOs--the case for political equivalence is nonexistent. Medicare is second only to Social Security as an instrument of camaraderie in our public lives. Bush does not explicitly say he wants to repeal it, but as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, he "wants to create strong incentives to push the elderly into HMOs and away from" Medicare. "And he takes a small but significant step toward shipping Medicare off to the states by making his short-term prescription-drug plan a federally supported but state-run program." Gore plans to buttress the system with about one of every six dollars in budget surpluses over the next fifteen years, along with $250 billion for prescription drugs. Unlike Bush, he backs a patients' bill of rights that would allow patients to sue insurance plans when they make costly--or deadly--mistakes. For the uninsured, Gore hopes to expand the Clinton Administration's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover more poor children and, for the first time, their working parents.

It is on the subject of children's healthcare that the Man from Compassion is at his most hypocritical. In Texas Bush fought tooth and nail to limit his state's participation in CHIP, which combines a generous federal payment with a much less costly state obligation, because "in times of plenty, the government must not overcommit." But such prudence was nowhere evident when it came time to offer up $1.8 billion in state money for tax cuts and another $45 million in new tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. As a result, Texas is one of the few states that showed a net increase in the number of uninsured children, placing it number forty-five in the nation in this "compassionate" category.

Finally, it is a mistake to view the presidency as merely an executive office somewhere on the southern tip of the Metroliner corridor. It's the most potent political symbol in America, and it empowers others to act with greater force and authority than they would otherwise enjoy. The fortunes of left movements in the United States, as historians Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pointed out in these pages six years ago, have always been closely linked with those of liberals in general, and liberal Presidents in particular--from the Progressive Era to the Popular Front radicalism of the thirties through the civil rights and antiwar and feminist activism of the sixties and early seventies. "In each of these periods," they wrote, "the left found legitimacy as part of a continuum of reform-to-radical sentiment, contributing to the widespread belief of the day that social change was both possible and positive."

Nearly twenty years ago, I was in the audience of a speech the British socialist Tony Benn was giving at the London School of Economics, where I was a visiting student. Ronald Reagan had been elected President a few days earlier, and this confused first-semester junior asked Benn his opinion on why voters found politicians of the genuine left, like himself and Ted Kennedy, so frightening but loved right-wing radicals like Thatcher and Reagan. The former Lord Wedgwood refused even to entertain the question, so deeply offended was he by my implicit comparison of himself, an authentic homme de gauche, to Kennedy, whom he believed to be nothing more than a mealy-mouthed front man for capital. "You Americans," he grumbled, "are always going around the world complaining about 'one-party states.' America itself is a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, you have two of them."

Benn's retort remains the cleverest real-time response any politician has ever uttered in my presence. Too bad it was also almost entirely wrong. Would a President Ted Kennedy have hired drug runners to conduct an illegal war against the Nicaraguan government? Would he have brushed off massacres in El Salvador, defended genocide in Guatemala and invaded Grenada? Would he have busted the air-traffic controllers' union and declared war on organized labor? Would he have attempted to destroy the progressive income tax? Would he have supported tax exemptions for Bob Jones University? Would he have appointed a string of reactionaries to the Supreme Court? Would he have unleashed an insane nuclear and conventional arms race with the Soviet Union? Are these somehow trivial issues? Even the more conservative Jimmy Carter would have governed with an infinitely higher quotient of wisdom and mercy than his successor, had America's center-left majority demonstrated the patience to stick with him. The Democratic Party is certainly more conservative than it was a generation ago, but Republicans have been speeding rightward with the velocity of a Bob Feller fastball.

Unfortunately, progressives have an unhappy history in recent times of failing to make important distinctions between candidates to their right. In 1968 many sat on their hands and allowed the criminal Richard Nixon to defeat Hubert Humphrey. Eight years earlier Arthur Schlesinger Jr. felt he had to write a book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? No such book should be necessary this year. Despite Al Gore and the Democrats' countless flaws as progressive political vessels, the differences between the two primary presidential candidates remain as substantial as those in any close election in modern American history. And while this election may not offer an ideal choice, it recalls the famous response attributed to George Burns. Asked how he felt about celebrating yet another birthday, the ancient comic responded, "Well, it sure beats the alternative.

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