However painful the experience, it's useful to be reminded of the corporate culture within which our elections are decided. People are puzzling why, in a year otherwise so favorable to Democratic issues and Democratic candidates, the presidential campaign is nearly a dead heat. Despite all the defensive denials, race is certainly one reason. But equally important is the pop-cult of personality imposed on our politics by the institutions and people who "mediate" our public information. They want a horse race between isolated, archetypal individuals, and they will do whatever they can to define the terms of our community politics as though most of us are simply onlookers in a slightly more respectable version of American Idol.
In that trivialized morality play, it's Barack Obama the Young Prince vs. John McCain the Old War Hero, a faux-symbolic battle that not only obscures the actual differences between the candidates but removes the rest of us to the gallery to cheer or boo on cue. Most importantly, that fiction completely obscures the national interests represented by the two men and their two parties. And it hides what is really at stake in an election that could mean the difference between four more years of hard-right domination of public policy – or the return of the large majority of the population to seats at the political table.
Consider just a handful of the most important public questions of the last decade:
• Iraq War: After an initial bout of war hysteria, a substantial majority of the public has long wanted U.S. troops speedily withdrawn and the occupation to end as soon as possible.
• Economy: Popular majorities support redirecting military spending to economic development, health care, and public education; a national living wage; gender and racial equity in opportunity and wages; and the expansion of union organizing rights.
• Health Care: Substantial majorities support a national health-care plan, including a single-payer system independent of the insurance corporations.
• Education: Large majorities strongly support the public schools, broad access to higher education, and an end to punitive test-making disguised as "accountability."
• Environment: Substantial majorities support direct federal regulation to protect the environment, even at considerable cost, as well as concerted national and international action against global warming.
• Supreme Court: Substantial majorities support defending women's abortion rights, workers' rights, criminal justice reform, and keeping partisan politics out of judicial and prosecutorial appointments.
Review just that small sample. Even setting aside for the moment what "Obama" and "McCain" as party figureheads say they stand for, which of the two major parties in the contemporary era has best represented the broad public sentiment on these major public issues? You don't need to be a card-carrying Democrat to know the answer – you just have to have been a sentient being during the eight dismal years of the Bush Restoration. Yes, a two-party oligarchy covers a multitude of sins – but it's all we have at the moment, and we have to play as best we can the hand we've been dealt.
By no means am I suggesting that an Obama victory will usher in a populist revolution or that Democratic officials on their own can be trusted to deliver on progressive policies overwhelmingly supported by the party's base voters. Political progress very much depends on continuing and persistent grassroots political organization, and a periodic election campaign is not an end but a beginning. A Democratic victory in November – nationally, in Congress (especially the Senate), and in Texas – just gets progressive forces out of political exile and back to the public bargaining table. In a world ruled by corporate money and power, that's hardly enough, by a long shot – but it's a necessary prerequisite to making all sorts of incremental changes possible, in foreign policy, in health care, in education, on the environment, and so on. It's a long list, and it shouldn't be dismissed out of misplaced political purity.
I see the local Naderites are back on the stump, and disappointed Clinton supporters, among others, are huffing noisily about jumping ship and voting for McCain – the candidate who proudly declares he voted with George W. Bush 95% of the time. Having done more than a few damn fool things in my life out of self-defeating outrage or misplaced perfectionism, I don't begrudge anybody the right to cut off his nose to spite his face. But let's be quite clear on the consequences: A vote for Nader, exactly like a vote for McCain, is, in this real world of limited choices, a vote to continue the Bush federal policies and practices, abroad and at home, for the next four and possibly eight years. If that's what you truly want, then by all means sign on for the neoconservative return to the Gilded Age of the robber barons. But don't fool yourself that you're somehow standing above or outside the sleazy partisan fray.
As for the rest of us, we should recognize what's at stake in what could well be a turning-point election and follow our better natures in supporting a historic chance at real progressive change.
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