The Home Stretch
Texans should have a visceral sense of what's at stake in Bush vs. Kerry
In one of those small blessings of life in Texas, we can thank our lucky stars that the national party presidential campaigns have largely written us off. Having been consigned to Bush Country and if the Democrats fail to get off their butts, it'll be a long exile at least we don't have to endure weeks of TV ads so loathsome and unctuous that the only rational response is hourly showers. That fate is confined to the "battleground states" another metaphor that serves to amplify the peculiar insulation of life in the U.S., where warfare is something we eagerly export to other countries but prefer as a spectator sport for ourselves. In the current real war, the death toll has reached 1,000 U.S. soldiers, and by very rough estimates some 12,000 Iraqi "civilians" and uncounted "combatants," although it's worth remembering that the Iraqis might not appreciate such fine distinctions.
It's also worth remembering that the current slaughter is in important ways only the afterthought of more than 10 years of siege war, also largely waged against civilians, among them the half a million or so children whom Madeleine Albright (now of the opposition party) described soberly as "worth the sacrifice" for American power in the Middle East. It's a measure of how badly things have gone since that one can imagine even many Iraqis are nostalgic for a Democrat in the White House.
Yet the spectacle of last week's War Party celebration in Manhattan, in which the draft-dodging "commander-in-chief" was dressed up in the rhetorical robes of Caesar Augustus, should be enough to bring even the most cynical among us (and I count myself) back to grim reality we need to throw these bums out. Yesterday, Dick "Mad Dog" Cheney raised the threat level even higher: Vote for us, or you'll be attacked by terrorists. No neighborhood gangster ever engaged so zealously in a lethal international protection racket.
Four years ago, I was among those who welcomed Ralph Nader's fresh air into the presidential campaign, and in this space I disdained the Democrats' sour grapes about the final outcome. This year I think we have no such luxury, and not only because the Nader campaign has diminished into a symbolic defenestration sustained only by Reform Party hacks and sly GOP hustlers. As honorable a decades-long career as Nader has led as an independent, progressive reformer, he has been an utter and unapologetic bust as a sustainer of long-term organizational development, and indeed in that vein he has made the Democrats look like an activist majority party, even in Texas.
Consider the Alternative
There was a particularly odd moment, early in Nader's campaign, when he blew into Texas and discovered that the Republicans had re-redistricted the state into a GOP handbasket, and what's more, they had issued an unbelievably reactionary party platform. We kind of knew that, Ralph. We live here.
More simply, even in Texas, on the down-home issues like health care and health insurance, public schools, higher education, the environment, labor rights, economic development, and so on, it's the hard core of progressive Democrats, in office and out, in election season and out, who are grinding out the unglamorous work of trying to make things better for ordinary Texans. They are burdened by plenty of poltroons and scalawags among them who do little but get in the way, but that happens to be the nature of democratic politics.
The good guys need more space in which to work, and a John Kerry victory in November would mean four years of a little more space. And maybe a little less war. No utopia, just a little more breathing room for ordinary people.
No less a profoundly radical thinker and activist than Noam Chomsky had similar thoughts earlier this year, as he considered the small but real differences between the Republicans and Democrats. Under a Kerry presidency, he suggested, we could expect a foreign policy rather like Clinton's "sort of the same policies [as Bush], but more modulated, not so brazen and aggressive, less violent." Small comfort, but real.
From the Bottom Up
On domestic issues, the difference would be greater because the Democrats "have to appeal somehow to working people, women, minorities, and others, and that makes a difference." And that difference in constituency can translate into better defense of hard-won community institutions: Social Security, public schools, health care, the judicial system, even the increasingly battered shared notion of the common good. Anyone familiar with the political and legislative history of Texas over the last eight years should be able to connect the dots.
And Chomsky offers a lesson in all this for independent activists, far beyond the outcome of this particular election. "These may not look like huge differences, but they translate into quite big effects for the lives of people," he concludes. "Anyone who says 'I don't care if Bush gets elected' is basically telling poor and working people in the country, 'I don't care if your lives are destroyed. I don't care whether you are going to have a little money to help your disabled mother. I just don't care, because from my elevated point of view I don't see much difference between them.'
"That's a way of saying, 'Pay no attention to me, because I don't care about you.' Apart from its being wrong, it's a recipe for disaster if you're hoping to ever develop a popular movement and a political alternative."