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.