Also published on democraticunderground.com
Politically, we are a nation of proud pessimists and phony optimists. We associate hope with candidacies of content-free invertebrates like Bill Clinton. Our idea of gutsy change is to root for Bill Bradley or John McCain from our couch. Our most common act of rebellion is to keep our asses on the couch on election day.
We’re defeatists and proud of it. We have no shame. We denounce politics and politicians as if we were not responsible, and we categorize candidates as either good or likely to win, as if we, the people, have no say whatsoever over whether a good candidate wins, as if – given a year or two to do it – we’d just never manage to persuade our fellow citizens to elect someone good, as if because we can’t get Fox News to help and have completely forgotten how to knock on doors we just cannot reach people.
When we like a third-party candidate, we withhold our support because they’ll be a “spoiler.” We say: “I’d back him if he had a chance at winning,” while many of our friends agree: “Yeah, I’d back him if he had a chance of winning.” We sympathize with each other as we conspire to create a tragedy of the commons.
When we like a major-party candidate, we withhold our support because we don’t think they’ll win the primary, or because we don’t think they’ll win the general election if nominated. And, of course, they won’t win the primary if politically active Democrats who “support” them sit back and wait to see which winning candidate’s butt to kiss. But a candidate who could both excite non-voters and win a major-party nomination would, in reality, win the White House in a landslide. A small-d democrat would boost turnout and roll over the opposition like a brush mower cutting weeds. What snobs we are to suppose that other Americans will only vote for someone lousy! What evidence do we have to support this conceit? Are we happy with the result this approach got us with Gore-Lieberman?
Ralph Waldo Emerson defined genius as believing that what is true for you is true for others. We believe that what is true for CNN is true for others. We believe that people want wars, regressive tax cuts, and terror warnings, even if we don’t and no one we’ve met does.
(Or are we still so blinded by self-loathing that we blame Nader for Gore-Lieberman’s “loss”? Nader! Out of all the candidates, including Bush-Cheney and None-of-the-Above, who “stole” enough Democratic votes to cost Gore states that a halfwit with a modicum of democratic sincerity and a major-party nomination could have won blindfolded, we pick the guy we actually claim to like and blame him. And we’re still blaming him years later when we ought to be finding a Democrat who can sell out stadiums and attract volunteers the way only Nader did last time.)
When we like a bill in Congress, we do the same thing. We defeat it by declaring it destined for defeat, while considering ourselves knowing and wise in our self-fulfilling pessimism. We’ve been losing so long that we’ve grown afraid to hope. Those young and energetic among us have never tasted national victory for progressive politics. We’re afraid of disappointment and of being called dreamers. We’re scared.
Our current President and his “Homeland Security” goons are encouraging us to be afraid, and to see being afraid as a civic virtue. But the only two things we have to fear right now are fear itself and what facsistic oil barrons can do to frightened people. Fear is not making us safer. It is being used to strip us of rights, powers, and wealth.
We need to recognize the need for courage – the courage to hope that real change is possible. In order to do so, we need to get past the pretense that we can separate our desires from our “realistic” observations. It is impossible to make a prediction without affecting the events about which you are predicting. That’s why the TV networks are not supposed to declare a presidential winner until the polls close. (It’s also probably a large part of the reason why they usually do just that.) Yet we commonly declare presidential winners and losers before the polls open or the ballots are printed, and we believe we are just being wise. Far from being wise, we have internalized the media’s presentation of campaigns as meaningless horse races determined by funding and ties to the powers that be. We are attempting to observe the world, rather than to change it, even before there is anything to observe.
One result is that we lack any long-term vision or strategy. We know how long the abolition movement took. We know how long the women’s suffrage movement took. We know, for that matter, that the right-wing pushed a losing agenda for decades before reaching the current triumph. It’s as if we’re waiting for a second great depression or a visitation by aliens before we can act.
We aren’t pushing for universal health care, restoration of value to the minimum wage, slashing of Pentagon spending, quality public education from preschool through college, an end to private campaign funding, a more progressive taxation system, or a shift to renewable energy, because we don’t think we can win these things this month and we’re too short-sighted to see the importance of talking about them and too brainwashed by the conventional focus on current voters to understand the value of creating new voters.
Right-wingers aren’t so spineless. They gave strong support to Ross Perot, who really did garner enough votes to spoil an election and was never blamed for it. And rightly so. Perot lost, but eight years later a Texas CEO with an MBA and a make-government-a-business approach was elected.
Of course the important thing right now is to get rid of George W. Bush, and of course even a President Lieberman would be an improvement. But exactly how short is our attention span? If we win a pause in the destruction by electing, say, John Kerry or Dick Gephardt, the current catastrophe will return in full force four or eight years later. It has, after all, a certain appeal to people. Bush presents a coherent and passionate approach to policy, one that many have long found appealing quite regardless of its failures. A less consistent version of Bush’s corporatism, a Bush-Lite, can’t attract very many loyalists. What we need is a real reversal. That’s not dreaming. That statement is no less factual or scientifically-backed than, say, a ranking of candidates’ bank accounts. We need a real reversal or we will continue in the same direction at one speed or another. A candidate who presents a stark contrast to Bush is also most likely to win.
Here are three things I heard on a recent trip to California:
1. “As president, I will lead the repealing of those parts of the Patriot Act that infringe on civil liberties. And I will immediately instruct the Justice Department not to devote resources to those areas, when they are needed for enforcing anti-trust law. There’s work to be done! . . . We need a government you can trust and that trusts you.”
2. “Welcome to San Francisco International Airport. We are now at homeland security threat level orange.”
3. “This area contains substances known to the state of California to cause cancer.”
The first quote is from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Dem., Ohio), speaking on May 24, 2003, in San Francisco. He spoke to an auditorium full of supporters and answered questions from the audience and from audiences in 65 other locations around the country all tied in by teleconference.
This was the second time I’d heard Kucinich speak. The first had been an event in D.C. at which the nine Democratic candidates had all briefly answered questions. I had come away from that event enthused by Al Sharpton’s speaking abilities and disappointed in Kucinich’s ability to quickly articulate his views. I knew Kucinich’s platform couldn’t be beat, but I doubted his ability to promote it.
The more recent event in San Francisco showed me a Dennis Kucinich who was smart, eloquent, and even funny. If he can maintain the same confidence in a debate that he showed on this night of preaching to the choir, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
He spoke about turning out voters, about community organizing. He spoke of bringing third-party voters back to a Democratic ticket. He said he could win by not compromising. He discussed his experience of turning his majority Republican district in Ohio into one that now votes 74 percent Democrat.
Kucinich spoke against fear and blamed fear for the current imperialistic lust for dominance, for plans to put weapons in space and build Star Wars. He opposed the war on Iraq because, among other good reasons, it has put the United States at a higher risk for terrorist attacks. He dared raise the forbidden question of what caused September 11th.
He explained his plan for single-payer universal health care and the problems with other candidates’ half-hearted plans to give tax credits to companies to provide health care. Those plans, Kucinich pointed out, do nothing for the unemployed, and do nothing to cut costs because they leave the insurance companies and the drug companies in charge,
If you consider yourself a progressive or a liberal or simply a democrat with a fondness for prosperity and the Bill of Rights, you really ought to check out www.kucinich.us, get on the site’s mailing list, and read the information the site provides on this talented leader. Here is a man with serious developed solutions to many of the major problems facing us, and the openness and humility to accept input from people. Look at his plan for a Department of Peace and ask yourself whether you can support a candidate who lacks such a plan.
But be forewarned. If you associate morality and straight-speaking with “idealistic dreamers,” Kucinich will not seem professional to you. The question is whether, in either the short or the long run, we can afford not to get out and volunteer for a candidate who says things like:
“Corporations should be compelled to pay their fair share of taxes. If corporations shift profits offshore to avoid paying taxes, they should not be permitted to operate in the United States.”
“NAFTA has attacked federal laws meant to protect worker rights, human rights, and environmental quality principles. It is time to repeal NAFTA.”
“I will not support anyone for the Supreme Court who will not uphold Roe v. Wade.”
I’m open to hearing reasonable arguments why we can’t get organized and knock on every door in the country to elect this guy. There’s no anti-spoiler argument, so that reflex is misplaced. What if Nader had been a Democrat and been in the debates? Well, now he is. He just goes by the name Dennis Kucinich. The two men agree on many, many policy issues and address them with similar insight and erudition.
This time around there is going to be a major-party candidate, rather than a Green, filling arenas. If he gets the nomination, he will win the election. The Peace movement will become the Elect Kucinich movement. The Living Wage movement will become the Elect Kucinich movement. Third party supporters will get out and work for Kucinich.
Peace rallies over the past year have been many times larger than pro-war rallies. Anti-tax-cut rallies have completely overshadowed any pro-tax-cut rallies there may have been. If people marching in the streets for peace start marching to doors for votes for peace, things will start looking up. What we need right now is some leadership from labor and activists. If we’ve got the guts to engage in public protests and civil disobedience, surely we can find the guts to back the best candidate with all we’ve got.
Quote number 2 above (“Welcome to San Francisco International Airport. We are now at homeland security threat level orange”) I heard over a loudspeaker about an hour after I left Kucinich’s speech. The return to the world of George W. was a stark change from the atmosphere in an arena full of people cheering “Dennis! Dennis!” when Kucinich spoke of international cooperation. But this was not a return to “reality” from a “fringe.” We can still count the months back to when talk of homeland security color-coded threat levels would have been considered frightening Nazi-influenced science fiction. Fringes and realities frequently swap places.
The point of quote number 3 above (“This area contains substances known to the state of California to cause cancer”) is to illustrate in another way how malleable commonsense and “inevitable” American behavior are. I haven’t spent much time in California, and so I noticed a number of features on a recent trip that made it different from the Mid-Atlantic. For one thing, any business that used cancer-causing substances, such as ordinary household cleaning products, had to post a warning. Any plants on which pesticides had been sprayed were also accompanied by a warning. Next to trash cans on the street were recycling cans. In large cities and small, cars yielded to pedestrians. Numerous businesses and houses flew peace flags and globe flags, with hardly an American flag to be seen. As part of the “Bay to Breakers” race people jogged through San Francisco nude. Others lay on beaches nude. Beaches themselves lay nude at the foot of unspoiled hills. Towns were built at the foot of unspoiled hills. Sprawl hadn’t won. Wires were strung over streets to power electric zero-emissions busses. And all of these things, which were strange to me, were perfectly normal to Californians, just as Code Level Orange now seems ordinary to all of us.
Dennis Kucinich’s presidency is just as possible, but it will be far from ordinary.
Kucinich can win.