Please. Just right now, don’t say, “Don’t mourn, organize” or “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living.” Don’t explain Kerry’s loss with Harry Truman’s quip that voters will always choose the real Republican over the fake Republican. Don’t let’s talk about Eugene Debs and Fighting Bob La Follette and how important it is to lose and lose and lose until you win. It all seems a bit inadequate, a bit quaint and this-land-is-your-landish, the left’s commitment to doing more of what we’ve been doing, only harder.
I also don’t want to hear carping criticisms of John Kerry. Given that he is a fallible mortal, he was a pretty good candidate. Sure, he made mistakes–not responding instantly to the Swift Boat liars, wearing that silly goose-hunting get-up, letting Bush get away with saying drugs from Canada will kill you–but Bush committed his share of gaffes as well. Any candidate does. Think back to the actual human beings running in the primaries: Who would have done better in the real-world mix of competing claims and hard choices and twenty-four-hour spin? Dennis Kucinich? Al Sharpton? I admired Howard Dean, but face it, the Republican attack machine would have shredded him in a week.
The Kerry campaign may have been a broth with too many cooks, but it did a lot of things right. It raised a ton of money from small and first-time donors instead of relying on big donors, as the Democrats have tended to do for the last decade. It had fantastic labor support. It had MoveOn, America Coming Together and the other 527s, which mobilized intensity, creativity, time and cash and evoked a surge of grassroots progressive activism like nothing in living memory. Hundreds of thousands of people–Democrats, leftists, Greens, independents, Deaniacs, even a few stray Republicans–knocked themselves out registering voters, phone-banking, going door to door; for many, like me, this was the first time they’d volunteered for a presidential campaign. Kerry had the energy of millions, black and white, enraged by Florida 2000, by Iraq, by Bush’s governing from the hard right without anything resembling a mandate–people who were willing to stand in long lines in the hot sun or November chill for however many hours it took to cast their ballot. Kerry may not have displayed passion, but his supporters had plenty to spare.
It’s an article of faith among progressives that moving to the left wins votes, and I have written many columns in witness to the creed. But what if it isn’t true? What if it wins fewer votes than being a liar and a bigot? One leftist intellectual I saw at an election-night party suggested to me that Kerry shot himself in the foot when he didn’t throw Abu Ghraib in Bush’s face and proclaim that as President he would never permit torture. I would have wept with joy to hear that speech, but where is the evidence that significant numbers of voters not already committed to Kerry–let alone voters who supported Bush–were outraged by Abu Ghraib? Did I miss the demonstrations, the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the lying down in traffic by swing voters and nonvoters to force the Bush Administration to account for this outrageous crime against humanity?
Similarly, some were impatient with Kerry’s “nuanced” position on gay marriage, but is there any reason on God’s earth to believe there are lots of gay-friendly swing voters or nonvoters out there just waiting for a candidate who wants to let Mary Cheney wed Rosie O’Donnell? Everything we know–the passage of all eleven state bans on gay marriage, for example, some of which go so far as to ban civil unions as well–suggests that Kerry understood quite well where the people were.
OK, you say, that’s one of those pesky newfangled cultural-elite issues that alienate the heartland, which yearns for the old-time religion of “economic populism.” Kerry’s health insurance plan wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t single-payer, but it would have insured all children and about half the adults currently uninsured–26.7 million people!–and it would have been paid for by canceling Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, something populists should go for. No sale. His plan to help young people pay for college wasn’t perfect either, but it was a lot better than what young people are getting now. Result: Young people constituted their usual pathetic proportion of the total vote. And this is after the best efforts of P Diddy, Christina Aguilera, Eminem and virtually every other pop icon except Britney Spears.
The logic of the “Left Is More” position seems to be this: What people really want is a Debs or La Follette who will smite the corporations, turn swords into plowshares, share the wealth and banish John Ashcroft to a cabin in the Ozarks. But since the Democratic Party denies them their first choice, they will–naturally!–pick a hard-right warmaker of staggering incompetence and no regard for either the Constitution or the needs of the people. Better that than settle for a liberal centrist who would only raise the minimum wage by two dollars. In other words, these proto-progressives will consciously choose the greater evil out of what–spite? pride? I scorn your half-measures, sir! Keep your small change!
This makes no sense to me as an explanation of the recent election. It doesn’t explain, for example, why Republicans gained in both House and Senate. It doesn’t explain why Californians rejected a referendum to amend their three-strikes law so that twice-convicted felons wouldn’t get twenty-five years for shoplifting, or why Arizonans voted solidly to bar undocumented aliens from obtaining a wide range of essential public services and to require public servants to report them if they try. It doesn’t explain why the Kansas school board is once again a chorus line of creationists.
Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, “safety” through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway President.
Where, I wonder, does that leave us?