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In Michigan, it's a battle over school vouchers. In Alaska the fight is over medical marijuana. Nebraskans are being asked to outlaw civil unions. In Colorado, Amendment 25 would impose a twenty-four-hour waiting period and antiabortion propaganda on women wanting to terminate a pregnancy. These are just a few of the dozens of state initiatives and ballot measures that voters will face on November 7.
The overwhelming majority of them are in the Mountain West and on the Pacific Coast--and most are rollbacks led by conservatives. "There are some good progressive initiatives," says Amy Pritchard of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "But progressives are mostly on the defensive." Because initiatives generally don't get the same attention that candidates do, voters tend not to focus on them until the last minute, if they focus at all, making outcomes hard to predict.
Once again California is the bloodiest and costliest of ballot- initiative battlegrounds. As much as $50 million is being spent by both sides on Proposition 38, which would widely introduce school vouchers. Silicon Valley multimillionaire Tim Draper is bankrolling the pro-voucher forces, but stiff opposition from teachers' unions and elected officials seems to be dominating. (A similar plan in Michigan could win, however.)
A similarly salutary role was not played by many of these same officials on another California measure. Cooked up by the bipartisan political establishment, Prop 34 would short-circuit real campaign finance reform by enacting a measure that is a reform in name only. In San Francisco, a creative Proposition L would close legal loopholes that allow dot-coms and other gentrifiers to turn low-income residential and industrial neighborhoods into gilded offices and condo villages. Prop 36, a measure that would reverse the logic of the failed drug war by substituting treatment for incarceration of nonviolent users, seems to be gaining the upper hand, with substantial support from several groups backed by financier George Soros. Opposition to the measure ranges from prosecutors to the otherwise liberal actor Martin Sheen.
Alaskans appear to be poised to approve a cannabis decriminalization law that would also grant pardons to people convicted under state marijuana laws and make them eligible for restitution. Nevadans, too, will be voting on whether to approve medical marijuana--as well as whether to ban gay marriage. In Arkansas and Massachusetts, conservatives are championing antitax initiatives.
Oregon's menu of twenty-six ballot measures is a nightmare for progressives. The militantly antigay Oregon Citizens Alliance has collected more than $170,000 to promote Measure 9, which would ban public schools from teaching anything that promotes or sanctions homosexuality, but opponents have raised about six times that amount. Meanwhile, progressives are also having to spend resources to oppose measures 92 and 98, which would restrict the ability of unions to collect money to use for political purposes from more than 200,000 unionized workers.
The good news from the Northwest is that Oregon is one of two states (Missouri is the other) where voters have a chance to approve clean-money campaign finance reforms. In the past few years, four states--Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Arizona--have approved such laws. In each, the special-interest-funded opposition barely put in a showing, but that has changed. "We have always been David and the other side the Goliaths," says Public Campaign executive director Nick Nyhart. "In the past Goliath never came to play. Now he's out in force."
An Oregon radio campaign tries to tar the reformers as fronts for eco-terrorists and neo-Nazis. In Missouri, corporate opponents are threatening to spend $2 million to defeat the measure; to date Anheuser-Busch has led the charge with a $25,000 contribution, followed closely by KC Power & Light, Hallmark and the Missouri Association of Realtors. "It's crucial that these two measures pass," says Nyhart. "Clean money is an idea that has been winning, and we don't want to lose the momentum." In both states, the battle is tight and likely to go down to the wire. (Readers who wish to contribute can contact Missouri Voters for Fair Elections at 314-531-9630 and the Oregon Campaign for Political Accountability at 503-796-1099.)
The plane crash that took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan on October 16 appears to have been a disaster for the Democrats, not only in the Show Me state but nationally. "It means we lose any chance of winning the Senate," laments Russell Hemenway, who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), the nation's oldest and most effective liberal PAC. Here's why:
Carnahan was running against GOP Senator John Ashcroft, one of the four Republican incumbents rated as highly vulnerable (the others: Minnesota's Rod Grams, Delaware's Bill Roth and Washington's Slade Gorton). The NCEC expects Democratic losses in Virginia--incumbent Chuck Robb--and Nevada, which has an open Democratic seat. Even if the Democrats hold on to their open seats in New Jersey (a lock), New York and Nebraska (less certain) and pick up the open GOP seat in Florida, without Carnahan that means "we lose two and pick up four, max," Hemenway says. Should Joe Lieberman be elevated to the vice presidency, Connecticut's Republican governor would fill his vacancy--probably with popular GOP moderate Congressman Chris Shays, who'll be hard to dislodge--further reducing the chances of a Democratic majority.
Carnahan was, by all accounts, a pretty straight shooter as politicians go. A Southern Baptist from a small rural town, he was a relentlessly driven officeseeker as he climbed the greasy pole to the Statehouse but not overly gluttonous of publicity once in power, an effective administrator and a cautious centrist--but with flashes of heart. He picked his fights carefully, vetoing a ban on "partial birth" abortions (a veto that the Democratic-controlled legislature, including many Dixiecrats, overrode) and leading a successful campaign to defeat an NRA-backed referendum to permit the carrying of concealed handguns. But Carnahan walked away from this year's Fair Elections referendum to provide 100 percent public funding on the Maine model (while raking in nearly as much soft money for his Senate campaign as Ashcroft). And he refused to meet with representatives of the gay community for most of his tenure as governor.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a hard-core cultural and political conservative from Springfield, in the southwestern part of the state (known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). His father was president of Evangel University there, run by the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal sect known as "holy rollers" for their practice of writhing on the floor while speaking in tongues. A popular governor before becoming senator, Ashcroft was so straitlaced that he banned liquor and dancing from the Statehouse. In 1997 Ashcroft tried to parlay his religiosity into a presidential candidacy, positioning himself as the candidate of the religious right. "He really damaged himself here, because in running for President, he showed just how extremist he really is," says Grant Williams of the state's Service Employees International Union. In a state with 350,000 union members and a rich labor history, Ashcroft has a viciously antilabor record: As governor he tried to pass a right-to-work referendum, and as senator he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employers to work their wage slaves sixty hours a week with no overtime pay. The darling of business lobbies, Ashcroft has been a master of the cash-for-votes trade: For example, he sponsored legislation to extend for five years the patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin--a measure worth billions in profits to its maker, Schering-Plough--and two months later pocketed a $50,000 campaign contribution from the company, which earned him a tart St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial branding him "the Senator from Claritin." All this, plus Carnahan's popularity as governor, had made the Senate race a dead heat.
But with Ashcroft now unopposed by a live candidate (it's too late to get Carnahan's name off the ballot), Democrats are scared to death about turnout. To counter the GOP's expected majorities in rural Missouri, especially in the southwest, they'd been counting not only on energized union voters but on a better-than-usual black vote. Ashcroft is perceived, as a leading black state legislator, Rita Days, puts it, "as a racist." Ashcroft led the Senate fight against confirmation for a federal judgeship of Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the state's Supreme Court. In his abortive presidential campaign Ashcroft gave an interview to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, praising "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and adding, "We've all got to stand up and speak in [defense of their memories] or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda." Last May, he gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.
But with no possibility of defeating Ashcroft, there's not much to motivate an expanded black turnout. The Democrats have a white-bread ticket for other statewide offices, headed by gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden, the state treasurer, a centrist with a charisma bypass and little visibility in the black community.
Even before Carnahan's death, senior Democrats were describing the party's get-out-the-vote drive as "OK, but not great." Toby Paone, a veteran political op who now works for the state's NEA, explains: "We've been in power eight years--we've gotten too comfortable, there's some apathy. And don't forget that Carnahan had virtually no race four years ago." The liberal former mayor of St. Louis, Vince Schoemehl, says, "Carnahan was the Democrats' firewall--he was going to run 3-4 points ahead of Gore, and Democrats do better downticket when people start splitting their ticket at the top." With Carnahan out, the Democrats could even lose one or both houses of the state legislature, where their majorities are slim (two in the Senate, seven in the House), endangering the party's control over future redistricting.
Moreover, says a veteran Democratic politician, "here the party apparatus is controlled by the governor--they're all Carnahan's people. Now they've lost their leader, they're in mourning, discombobulated." Magnifying this body blow to the party's campaign just three weeks before the election was Gore's aggressive performance in the St. Louis presidential debate. Even though Carnahan and Ashcroft despised each other, in their one televised debate just one day before the plane crash they were very gentlemanly. "I just don't think Gore's debate performance played well at all with Missourians," opines State Representative Steve McKluckie, a leader of the legislature's progressive caucus.
Carnahan was the motor driving the Democrats' Missouri campaign. With that motor now silenced, Gore, too, has much to worry about. And Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century save one.
Gore says he prays when crises loom.
He asks just what would Jesus do.
And then he does that very thing
(If focus groups would do it too).
So whose side's Jesus on, folks? Whose side's Jesus on?
Who's got the Savior's brawn, folks? Yes, whose side's Jesus on?
And Bush says faith-based treatment's best
For those adrift or drug-addicted.
Salvation's just for Christians, though.
No Jews. Yes, heaven's still restricted.
So whose side's Jesus on, folks? Yes, whose side's Jesus on?
Who's got the Savior's brawn, folks? Yes, whose side's Jesus on?
The other side, warns either side,
Would of the Savior's blessings rob us.
And Lieberman? Well, he can say
That Jesus wouldn't work on Shabbes.
So whose side's Jesus on, folks? Yes, whose side's Jesus on?
The battle lines are drawn, folks. Yes, whose side's Jesus on?
This presidential race leaves an odd sensation among those of us not having a television. Like the much-cited Kennedy-Nixon race, in which the camera was generally thought to have given Kennedy the visual edge, the Gore-Bush debates played very differently with the visuals suppressed. Listening to them, Gore sounded stilted, yes, and Bush sounded unbelievably evasive, no surprises there.
What's more interesting, however, is that the day after the first debate, I found myself unable to understand any of the follow-up commentary in the rest of the media. Matching suits? Jerking? Smirking? Orange lighting? Had Al Gore really been made up to look like Ronald Reagan? Even the now-famous sigh was mostly a visual event--a camera angle, a gesture of exasperation; it hadn't come across at all on radio.
I felt as though I'd missed out on some weird national Halloween party. Who had the best costume? Who won the monster mash dance contest? And who in the world was all this playing to?
I suppose that's why the candidates ended their campaign playing to undecided Missourians. You can't get more middle than that. No one in Harlem, where Gore started his campaign, is undecided. No one at Bob Jones University, where Bush began his, is undecided. And so the race ended with the contestants sashaying down the runway in a mock Mr. America contest, attired like the Blues Brothers in identical suits and ties, each spouting platitudes about education and the moral fortress that is marriage, each playing down differences so as to appeal to the kind of centrist whose taste runs no further to the right or left than boiled as opposed to mashed potatoes.
But as someone who listened rather than watched, I am really shaken by how little attention has been paid to what substantive disagreements there are between Gore and Bush. There was, for example, that revealing moment when Bush was pushed about affirmative action--not the right-wing version that equates affirmative action with quotas, but the actual, conservative version permitted by the Supreme Court. Bush responded with some nonsense about what he called "affirmative access," which as Gore pointed out, has no legal or political meaning. When Bush was asked directly whether he would support affirmative action without quotas, he retorted, "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it." This was the kind of repeated evasion at which Bush is very practiced, but the kind of evasion that in fact speaks volumes. There are, I repeat, big differences between Bush and Gore when it comes to the issues about which most people are rarely undecided: race, gender, labor and environmental issues.
I suppose that most everyone except undecided Missourians understood that such games were being played in the debates. What worries me is the degree to which the recognition of this as masquerade has made some forget that it is also a game with high stakes. Impatience with the game-playing leads some to want to opt for someone who speaks passionately. But let's face it: Neither Nader nor Buchanan nor any other third party candidate has a prayer of winning this election. That's a mathematical certainty, folks. It's not the world I like--I wanted Bradley. But for now there are two choices given, and one will rule our lives.
We are choosing the world's most powerful leader. It is not an opinion poll, it is not a popularity contest and it is unlikely ever to be the vehicle for launching a progressive revolution. I find it distressing to see polls predicting that Nader voters will help Bush take Washington and Oregon. And I think voters in New York and Massachusetts are naïtve when they say they will vote for Nader because they feel their states are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway, so nothing will be lost if they register a protest vote for Nader. This is an election, not a market survey.
I get alarmed when I hear people say that maybe it will be better for progressives if Bush is elected. What kind of progressive wants a Bush appointee heading up the Office of Civil Rights? A Bush appointee deciding the fate of habeas corpus? A Bush appointee delivering the FDA to biotech companies? And will the progressive revolution occur before or after Bush hands over the last American wilderness to loggers and oil companies?
None of this means that I don't wish we had a wider range of pragmatic options. But I'll express that dissatisfaction by working for campaign finance reform. I'll work to see the infamous case of Buckley v. Valeo reversed (that's the decision that equated speech with money, thus making campaign spending a form of expression protected by the First Amendment). I'll work to see the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates. (And speaking of barring third party candidates from the debates, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have given Missourians who support Nader and Buchanan the chance to grill Gore and Bush?)
I wish all kinds of things were different--that we had more cumulative voting in the United States, that we entertained adopting certain features of parliamentary systems. I too find this offend-no-one, appeal-to-the-middle of a race infuriating. But it's also true that this campaign has been waged like the Gulf War. We the citizenry watch a big screen filled with talking heads holed up in the Baghdad Hilton--or a school auditorium in Iowa--but we must know that real missiles are exploding on the Rush Limbaugh Show or in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post or through the Christian Coalition's televangelized appeals. Within those forums, Republicans are not at all evasive, but mounting a frontal assault that equates public service with corruption, diversity with lowered standards, public schools with race wars, private schools with free enterprise, free enterprise with civil liberty, choice with self-segregation and the segregation of whites from blacks with opportunity. In the end, Pat Buchanan represents very little threat to George Bush because the right is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on. This is one heck of a moment for what's left of the left to allow itself to be divided and conquered by wasting a vote.
Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign for the presidency has evolved
into a dangerous game. On one hand, the candidate insists it doesn't
matter if George W. Bush beats Al Gore. Yet we also are assured that
Nader doesn't pull votes from Gore in closely contested states. Both
positions are patently false.
With very few exceptions, most states are up for grabs, including
California, where the once huge gap between Bush and Gore has narrowed.
Nader now is poised to cost Gore an electoral majority. There is no
comparable threat to siphon conservative voters from Bush by the
floundering Reform Party campaign of Pat Buchanan.
Nader's supporters are potential Gore, not Bush, voters. "The Nader
campaign talks about its appeal to disaffected [John] McCain, [Jesse]
Ventura and [Ross] Perot voters, but I have rarely met one at a Nader
rally," says reporter Matt Welsh, who has been covering the Nader
campaign for the online journal http://www.newsforchange.com. Welsh
added: "The biggest applause lines are those that appeal to the
progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
Those Nader supporters have an obligation to vote for Gore because a
Republican sweep of the White House and Congress would spell disaster for
environmental protection and for efforts to increase the minimum wage and
the earned income tax credit, not to mention the hard-won gains made by
women and minorities. Nader knows better than anyone that there has been
a huge difference between the Clinton Administration and the Republican
Congress on those issues.
Nor should Nader be downplaying the consequences for the Supreme Court
if Bush is elected. On the campaign trail, he muddies the issue by
observing that some Republican Presidents have appointed moderates to the
Court, ignoring Bush's pledge to Pat Robertson and the rest of the GOP's
right wing that he would name judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas. As it is, the Court in the past five years has struck
down twenty-five progressive laws that Clinton managed to get through Congress,
including parts of the Brady gun control bill and the Violence Against
That is why leading progressives like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem have taken to the hustings to
convince Naderites to vote for Gore. It is not their intention, or mine,
to deny Nader credit as the most consistent and effective crusader for
consumer interests in the history of this nation. It is also true that
Nader deserves thanks for raising basic issues arising from the corporate
dominance of our political process, which the major candidates have
And, yes, it does mock democracy to have denied Nader and Buchanan a
place in the debates, particularly given moderator Jim Lehrer's apparent
indifference to the role of big money in undermining representative
democracy. Let me also add that I feel betrayed by a Democratic candidate
who is so gutless as to not even utter the name of the President, whose
enormously successful administration is the source of Gore's credibility.
So Gore's not perfect--what else is new? Most often, the majority of
voters end up siding with the electable candidate who comes closest to
their political thinking. For progressives in this election, that is
clearly Gore. Certainly, Robertson and his allies on the Republican right
now justify their support of Bush as a vote for the lesser evil. They get
nervous when Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism" and plays to
the center, but they hold their noses and rally around his candidacy
because that is the best they've got.
It is time for progressive Democrats to be equally practical. Gore is
a centrist Democrat, and he will not likely do much to rein in corporate
power, pass much-needed universal health care or reverse the travesty of
welfare "reform," which will prove a disaster in the next recession.
But Gore is on record as supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign
reform measure, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. He
would protect Social Security and Medicare from Bush's irresponsible
privatization schemes. He has an expansive view of civil rights
protection for minorities and gays. And he has as consistent a record in
support of the environment as any major politician.
Finally, from my experience interviewing Gore and observing him in
action, he is far better than his media notices. Like Clinton, but in
sharp contrast with Bush, Gore is very bright, has seriously worked the
issues and sincerely believes that an effective federal government is
necessary for the well-being of the populace.
That may not make for a green revolution, but it's a lot better deal
than a Bush White House with the doors thrown open for Trent Lott, Jesse
Helms, Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston to run amok.
What a deal! Elect George W. Bush President and you get government
lite--eat all you want without gaining a pound. Bush promises to cut
taxes for all, dramatically increase military spending, finance a
trillion-dollar private Social Security system and eliminate the national
debt. And Bush claims he will put you, not some Washington bureaucrat, in
charge of your life (unless, of course, it concerns your right to
Just to state the main themes of Bush's campaign is to demonstrate
their inherent absurdity. But there's method to the madness. Make no
mistake: A Bush presidency, abetted by a Republican sweep of Congress and
increasing right-wing control of the courts, portends frightening
consequences for our lives.
Anyone who's been awake these past eight years should know that it's
the Republicans, dominated by their right wing, who tried to block every
measure to make government more responsive to the health, environmental
and educational interests of ordinary Americans. At the same time, these
false prophets of smaller government were pawns of the Christian right's
crusade to intrude the federal government into our most personal
decisions, beginning with a woman's control of her body. At no point has
Bush disowned that Republican agenda.
So why are so many otherwise reasonable people planning to vote for a
candidate selling them this ludicrous bill of goods? It's because the guy
comes on as a moderate with a disarming smile that could make him the
impish star of a sitcom. Just when you realize he's conning you and the
bleary face of Newt Gingrich hyping his "contract with America" starts to
come into focus, reminding us that we've been through this destructive
drill, Bush turns on the all-inclusive charm.
The great deceit of the Bush campaign, beginning with the GOP
convention last summer, has been to get voters to forget that it's been
the Republican Congress that has threatened America with gridlock and
political chaos unless we bend federal government to its skewed
agenda--an agenda that Bush has assured the right wing he endorses. The
religious right has gone along with the charade, muting its criticisms
while Bush plays to the center. Let him fake the moderate for now, they
say, knowing that is what it takes to win. For example, Pat Robertson
told reporters that he refrained from criticizing the Federal Drug
Administration's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 for fear of costing
Bush the election. Bush also avoided the issue. The payoff for the
right's reserve in the campaign, as Bush has made amply clear, is that he
will deliver to them on the judiciary. If the Republicans maintain
control of the Senate, which now seems highly likely, a Bush victory
would guarantee judicial appointees from the Supreme Court on down who
are drawn from Jesse Helms's wish list.
For all of his talk of bipartisanship, Bush, in citing Antonin Scalia
and Clarence Thomas as his ideal models for future Supreme Court picks,
has promised to mold what should be the most independent branch of
government in the ideological image of the far right. Indeed, the
oft-repeated promise of the Bush campaign to the religious right is that
Bush would never repeat the "disaster" that his father made in appointing
moderate David Souter to the court.
With the court divided by one vote on most environmental and consumer
regulatory matters as well as affirmative action, with only two votes
needed to overturn Roe v. Wade and with at least three or four of its
members likely to leave the court, the next President will have enormous
power through his judicial appointments to shape the future of our
government as we know it.
The "strict constructionists" Bush prefers are people who believe the
federal government should be crippled as a regulator of big business, as
an advocate for racial and economic justice and as a protector of the
environment. On the other hand, they would weaken constitutional
protection of individual rights and blur the separation of church and
The Republican right wing is concerned about personal freedom only
when it comes to indulging the National Rifle Association or corporate greed by
savaging government regulation. But in matters of individual freedom, be
it reproductive rights, protection from job discrimination or hate crimes
because of sexual orientation or racism, the Republican leadership,
including George W. Bush, is eager to intrude a narrow religious and
ideological bias into the most important decisions of our lives.
That's why this election is of crucial importance. What we're facing
is the possibility of right-wing control of the presidency, Congress and
the courts. And with that will go the saving grace of our system of
checks and balances.
It won't be a revolution, but progressives see support for much of their agenda.
We dare to be optimistic. Presidential elections are mile markers on a very long road. Our side does not expect to win according to conventional measures; it could hardly be otherwise, since our political objective is the radical reconstruction of US society. This election may shift governing power to new hands, though within a narrowing band of the possible. The returns may reveal something about the nation, though that information is unreliable when half the electorate has opted out of voting. Meanwhile, we seek to rehabilitate America's collapsing democracy, to mobilize systematic confrontation with the harsh economic inequalities, to construct a movement that is both powerful and attentive to human concerns and suffering, the suppression of liberties, the destruction of nature. These matters and others are not going to be resolved by one election or several of them. Yet Election 2000, despite its sorry qualities, turns out to be important--perhaps even pivotal for us.
We hold out the proposition that something promising and positive is under way in the dispirited political landscape, and we should determine to make the most of it. After the past two decades of loss and retreat, it takes nerve to sound so hopeful. Ralph Nader, much as many of us might wish for it, is not going to become the next President. If Al Gore does, the radical vision still remains far distant from the levers of power. On the morning after, if George W. Bush has won, we will be gearing up for familiar battles against the right-wing agenda. And yet people on many progressive fronts do recognize the changing circumstances before them, and they are in a still-fragile process of inventing smart new politics to engage the possibilities. Our endorsement goes first to this spirit of renewal.
The promise can be glimpsed in the precious few bright spots of the campaign--especially the resonance of Nader's voice--but also in the political system's continuing failures. A new movement of allied concerns surfaced in the protests in Seattle a year ago, and yet neither major-party candidate dared even mention globalization when the two men met in face-to-face debate. Their awkward silence suggests our growing presence. If Nader draws enough voters to carry the Green Party over the 5 percent hurdle for ballot recognition, that vehicle provides concrete opportunity. If Democrats manage to win back majority control of the House, or even the Senate, their victory multiplies opportunities for educating and agitating on new issues. A Bush victory would be a terrible setback to our optimism, no way around it, but if Gore manages to win the White House, despite his weaknesses, the center-right moves a little bit our way and, in any case, becomes the object of purposeful leveraging.
These new prospects did not originate from any clever slogans; they reflect the harsh contradictions visible in people's lives and shifting sensibilities across the nation--the general disgust with corporate money's overbearing influence on public decision-making, the fragile desire for a new and more humane internationalism, the growing but unfocused anger at government's failure to act on any of the largest problems. These and other discontents are the opportunities for our side, if people will assume optimistically that many fed-up Americans are at last ready to listen to heretical analysis and fundamental solutions. The fog is lifting, though not yet gone.
If we take the long view and our optimism is grounded in reality, this opening requires some changes in us as well, both in temperament and strategy. The test of a first-rate intelligence, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time. For this election and in the politics beyond, we think our readers must learn to juggle similar tensions, between the pragmatic and the idealistic--accepting that long-term allies will disagree and coalesce at different junctures, that politics can be both inside and outside in pursuit of the same goals.
In that spirit, we embrace Nader's ideas and creative idealism and hope that his strong showing will rattle the windowpanes throughout American politics. However, to realize the openings before us, we warn that there is greater urgency to preventing Bush and company from capturing all three branches of government for the right-wing agenda. In the long view, such tensions are symptoms of forward progress. We can learn to live with them.
Ralph Nader has already accomplished a greater victory than even some of his original supporters imagined possible--he has made our side visible again. Even a two-minute TV burst from Nader provides a stunning catalogue of the neglected grievances in American life and corrupted governance as well as the plausible remedies. He does not talk down to voters. Nader's idealism, starting from his earliest consumer crusades more than thirty years ago, is based upon the conviction that Americans at large are eager for serious discussion of public ideas and fully capable of grasping the complexities. One shudders deliciously at what a three-way debate would have been like if the corporate-owned debates commission had allowed it (the commission is already one of the big losers of Election 2000, and the agitation should start now, not in 2004, to blow up its monopoly on political discourse).
Despite minimal media coverage, Nader connected the spirit of Seattle with a much larger audience of Americans--filling halls of 10,000 and more with people, many of them young, who paid to hear him talk. When did that last occur in US politics? Pat Buchanan's right-wing version of insurgency was effectively eclipsed by Nader; even Gore paid backhanded tribute by discovering that this election is about "the people against the powerful." The point is, Nader started something new and potentially sustainable, both as an alternative soapbox and as electoral leverage on regular politics, especially that of the Democrats (whose Congressional candidates may benefit from the new, young voters Nader draws into the process). The future will depend entirely on what people decide to make of it. In the meantime, Nader has articulated the superstructure of progressive thinking--a work in progress, to be sure, but already brimming with big ideas.
In the spirit of positive thinking, we observe first that Al Gore wisely abandoned his New Democrat playbook on many issues in order to connect with the natural constituencies of his own party. His attacks on big oil, big insurance and other malefactors sounded a bit clunky, to be sure, and, although he attacked Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, Gore evaded a fuller discussion of economic inequality since, as everyone knows, it deepened dramatically while he was Vice President. But the Democratic candidate is a smart and capable man who, at different points in his career, has displayed a forward-looking vision on great public problems, like the ecological crisis. Still, no one who has watched the abrupt changes in his campaign persona can have any confidence that the progressive Al Gore would emerge in the White House. The promise, though limited, lies in the fact that Gore has uttered the requisite words on a wide range of subjects, from universalizing healthcare to establishing labor and environmental rights in global trade agreements. As President, Gore would have to choose between the people who elected him and the DLC moneybags who financed him. It's another opening for popular mobilization.
The real argument for Gore is named Bush, and it's the most compelling case. The implications of a Bush victory are well understood across many vital issues (one of Nader's rare false notes was to assert that these are inconsequential differences). The Gore-Bush agendas are indeed overlapping on many central matters--monetary policy, the death penalty, the failed drug war, to name a few--but that doesn't tell the whole story. Gore promises, for instance, to listen to labor, environmentalists, human rights advocates and other protest voices on reforming the global system. Bush's leading foreign policy adviser, on the other hand, proclaims, "The Seattle agenda is a real threat." Bush embraces the continuing crusade against women's right to choose abortion, among other retrograde social positions, while no one doubts Gore would appoint Supreme Court Justices who would defend Roe v. Wade and other civil liberties.
While Bush appears an amiable lightweight, his blank, meek expression merely accentuates the question of who really owns this man. The answer is obvious from his Texas record and personal heritage. Tearing up Social Security delivers the money to Wall Street brokerages. His "compassionate conservatism" extends to shielding insurance companies and drug manufacturers from public wrath, plus old friends in oil and the military-industrial complex. His education experiments, if they proceed, are destined to gut the financing of public schools. It's a long and devastating list, which candidate Gore failed to illuminate fully. Bush's handlers, on the other hand, understood that the son could not run like the father or as a born-again Newt--that revolution is over. At the end of the day, however, the right-wing legacy rules. Bush's White House would obediently vet its legislative agenda and appointments not only with corporate America but with Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, the hard-right caucuses in the Senate and House, the TV Bible-thumpers whose piety is rooted in intolerance.
In another season, when our insurgent values have accumulated more momentum and self-confidence, we might see things differently. This time around, we believe the practical priority of keeping the Bush squad from winning power takes precedence, while we also urge that, if possible, progressives help Nader score a blow to the status quo. For the larger progressive community, the tension can be resolved by following the logic of Texas columnist Molly Ivins. Her rule: Vote with your heart where you can, and vote with your head where you must. In states where either Gore or Bush has a commanding lead, vote Nader. In the states too close to call, vote Gore. In either case, the imperative is to end Republican control in Congress by electing Democrats, also vital to the prospects for progressive change.
The question Election 2000 poses for the ranks of left-labor-liberal-progressive outsiders is: Despite occasional clashes over their different directions, can the radical-to-moderate critics of the decayed status quo learn how to pursue a politics in which radical idealism coexists with heads-up pragmatism? As Nader has said, "There are millions of progressives in this country--the problem is, they've never met each other." That captures the larger, long-term challenge, regardless of the election's outcome. If the fragmented progressive community can begin working together, developing inside-outside electoral strategies, doing the hard work of engaging alienated citizens in the conversation, things will look very much better four years from now. Despite its disappointments, Election 2000 might yet turn out to be the progressive moment--when we stopped backing up and started moving forward.
"When the ax came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'" There is more intellectual content in this old Turkish folk warning than in the entire output of the "lesser evil" school. Here comes Albert Gore Jr., striding purposefully toward us with a big chopper resting easily on his shoulder.
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