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.