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Back when I was a much younger man, I worked briefly for a Democratic member of Congress from my home state. (This was when West Virginia still had Democratic members of Congress.) I performed the sorts of duties still executed by eager young things today, unglamorous tasks but nevertheless important ones to the good taxpaying people back home: answering constituent mail, helping widows get their husbands’ black-lung benefits and so on.
One morning, a union man from my hometown called the office. There was a painting job being done at a Department of Energy facility somewhere in the district. The company that won the contract to do the painting, my union man explained, was trying to pay less than the “prevailing wage,” the typical hourly wage for the area as determined by the government. In fact, considerably less—enough that these workers were going to feel it. Could I help? I had no idea what to do. But the labor leader said he had a contact at the Department of Labor who might be of use.
This was in 1984—in other words, Ronald Reagan’s Department of Labor. So it was with considerable trepidation that I began punching in the phone number, but it turned out that my union man did not steer me wrong. The fellow I spoke with was a Carter holdover who actually believed in enforcing labor law. I explained the situation. Though the conversation was long ago, I do remember him whispering to me that not everyone recently installed in the nearby cubicles shared his old-fashioned views, and I was lucky I’d found him. He said he’d hop right on it, and a couple days later, my union man called back to say all was well and thank me.
When we on the broad liberal-left have one of our quadrennial debates about whether to support the sellout Democratic presidential nominee or cast a “strategic” vote of protest for a Green or other third-party candidate, the debate is almost entirely about the personal and political merits and demerits of the two individuals. And the two usual tentpoles of the conversation are that the putative nominee is a timorous corporate hack who won’t come anywhere near bringing about the needed fundamental change, and that, yes, the nominee may well be that, but he or she is in numerous ways far better than the Republican alternative and thus the “lesser of two evils,” in the argot.
More serious debates will sometimes compare the positions and platforms of the Democrat and the left alternative. But in my experience, these debates also tend to get personal pretty quickly: “I just can’t stand Al Gore,” and so on. We’re human beings, after all, and it’s understandable to feel that you have to be able to at least tolerate the sight of this person you’re going to be exposed to on a daily basis for the next four to eight years.