Saturday, October 23, 2004

Why I voted for John Kerry.

I voted (absentee) for Kerry even though I vote in a "safe state" (Illinois), because I think it's important to get rid of Bush not just by electoral college, but also by as large a popular vote as possible. I think we need to send a strong message about the war in Iraq and his policies at home, regardless of Kerry's failure to stake out a decisive position against the occupation.

The Dems have much to answer for w/re to Iraq. Yet the election is not about their policies -- like mid-term elections for previous presidents, it's about Bush's policies. It's a referendum on his crusade for Empire.

Under the current circumstances, I don't think voting for a third party at the top of the ballot sends an effective message when the election is that close. I'm all for building a Third Party that reflects the aspirations of the majority of people in this country who feel shut out of any meaningful participation in this corporate-dominated system, and think the Greens are embarking on the right path in that regard, but do we really need to go back to Organizing 101? We need to build from the ground up. And until we're ready to put a capstone on a populist organizing process, the presidential election will not be about establishing a viable third party (down-ticket choices may be another issue, and to the Greens' credit, they clearly recognize this.)

But if anything, this year's presidential election is not about whether we want a third party, but about whether we think we should have at least two parties so that there's enough struggle among the elites that it creates more space for the rest of us to organize at the grassroots and on the margins.

Obviously the Democrats are so deeply involved in the economy of death that it will be hard for them to slow the momentum toward world war. But with all their faults, I still think there's value in having two parties rather than one, with a rubber stamp president on top of a one-party Congress. If Bush wins, within four years we could look like Mexico, with a one-party patronage system, a polarized class system (hollowing out the middle class), with the second and third parties occassionally punching through but not sustaining an effective challenge to the dominant party, except perhaps in different regions of the country.


Astute observers of the American political system have criticized the two parties for being more alike than different for decades. This isn't something new that began with Clinton and was first asserted by Nader after the lessons of NAFTA... e.g., I'm not sure the current situation is much different than it was 35 years ago during Vietnam, when IF Stone wrote:

"The two-party system is like those magic black and white squares which look like a staircase at one moment and a checkerboard the next. Sometimes the two parties seem very distinct and sometimes they seem very much alike."

So, until the Greens or someone else represent a serious challenge to the two-party system my vote goes to the candidate who forces at least some debate in Washington.

Looking ahead, it's still too early to tell how significant the Greens' efforts will become in the next decade. They are certain to grow and could become a significant force (optimistic scenario), but so far it looks like the 500,000 registered Greens are predominantly from liberal urban, Democratic regions. So until they can build a significant populist base among conservatives and others that currently gravitate toward conservative social and political causes, their prospects might for all good intentions only serve to divide progressives even further. This is not an insignificant issue in the long run. It's far from clear that the new Century's "populist moment" will be more socialist than fascist. And the Greens, much to their credit, seem to know that. Still, they have yet to make significant inroads elsewhere.

Let's go back to the immediate topic: this year's presidential election. Despite the cogency of Ralph Nader's positions on the Middle East and the fact that Kerry has not signaled any policies that would indicate a significant difference from Bush, I don't see Nader's campaign as an alternative for a number of reasons.

For one, his is not a movement candidacy. I'm not just referring to the fact that many recognized movement leaders have come out for Kerry (i.e. the ones Ralph dismisses as the scared "liberal intelligentsia"). It's more than that: Ralph is not accountable to an organized base. So, although he has much better positions than from Bush and Kerry, it seems a bit hollow to suggest his candidacy offers a significant alternative.

The real problem for Nader is that he has been far from cogent w/respect to the overall purpose of his campaign. This is the extraordinary thing, because normally when it comes to pushing his positions there are few that are as meticulous as Ralph is in marshalling the facts to make his case. He is scrupulous in double-checking assertions (I know, I've experienced his careful fact-checking). He is encyclopedic in his understanding of the law, economics, politics, etc.

But most people believe he went off the rails at the beginning of the campaign when he said he would steal more votes from Bush than Kerry. As John Nichols suggests in a Nation piece, it doesn't calculate. And he's stubbornly refused to drop that assertion.

His willingness to take support from the Republicans to get on the ballot in Michigan suggests he really believes there is little difference between the two parties and that you "can't spoil a system that's already spoiled" as the campaign's ugly T-shirts say. But why would the Republicans have helped him get on the ballot in places like Michigan if they believed that? Does he think he's fooling them? Perhaps he believes the attacks from the "liberal intelligentsia" will scare all of his progressive supporters away to Kerry and that in the end, he will receive more Republican votes because the only ones left to vote for him will be right-wingers still disenchanted with Bush.

No one would ever challenge Ralph for asserting that corporate crime costs us more than violent street crime. Not just because it's true, but because that's what he's good at -- the issues. But elections are not just about issues. They're about credible leadership. And when he says something that defies common sense, let alone the views of many pollsters who make it their life's business to scrutinize the data, and gets called on it (e.g. by Zogby), you'd think he'd adjust his tune, so that people write off that early tactical blunder as a bad note. But he hasn't.

Meanwhile, given a chance to project a vision that differs from the two parties, he has too often used the bully pulpit instead to air his resentments about the Democrats' heavy-handed efforts to keep him off the ballot (see "Complacency is Not Democracy", Ralph Nader Washington Post, 10/9) rather than direct his fire at Bush. I've come to expect more from Ralph -- something that lifts our aspirations rather than something that bogs us down with narrow complaints about how the game of politics is played -- which unfortunately reinforces his critics' assertion that it's all an ego-feeding proposition.

After Ralph failed to convince the Greens to endorse his candidacy with that last-minute choice of Peter Camejo as his running mate, and some unecessary sniping at Michael Moore and the CBC, things really looked like they were headed south.

Yet it seemed to me that he still had an opportunity to make the whole thing worthwhile. Steve Hill and Rob Ritchie spelled it out in their 7/21 piece on IRV in Common Dreams: push for Instant Runoff Voting in key states where he was considered a potential spoiler.

If you're not familiar with IRV and other ways to enhance our elections system (like public funding of elections, fusion balloting, cumulative voting, etc.), you should be. (See the Illinois-based Midwest Democracy Center for more information. We need more groups like this.)

The fact is, Nader/Camejo were too busy fighting with the Dems and trying to get on as many ballots as possible to focus on a strategey that would have lasting value. They can blame the Dems all they want for blocking their access to the ballot, but to what purpose? Why not stop fighting for ballot access in those last few states and instead concentrate their resources and efforts in the only two swing states where the Dems control the state legislature (NM and WV)? Send the vanloads of volunteers there, who would have an easier time talking to people, educating them about IRV (rather than getting bogged down with defensive cult-of-personality arguments about Ralph's superior positions on the issues or what his personal motives may or may not be in running in a campaign that has no chance of winning), and make it clear that it was up to the Dems to make the campaign a non-issue by passing IRV.

That would have challenged the two party system in a way that would have established a useful precedent for the long run. It would suggest to other independents and third-party candidates how to use their campaigns to pry open a system that's closed. It would suggest that Ralph still has a surprising ability to lead in ways that the "scared liberals" are afraid to.

I suppose if I had voted for a Third Party candidate, it would be for the Greens, because I think they are sincere in looking down the road beyond 2004 to the longer term, are connected to the peace movement, and believe in building from the ground up. David Cobb, to his credit, has been explicit that people in so-called "battleground states" should "vote their conscience" (i.e. for Kerry if it looks like it's going to be that close). He has also campaigned in a way to support local candidates and defined his candidacy as movement-driven, which is the way to go. That shows growing strategic maturity on Cobb and the Greens' part. They are on the cusp.

But that reminds me that in 2000 the Nader/LaDuke slogan was "Vote your Conscience, Not Your Fears." (I assume everyone saw LaDuke's endorsement of Kerry?) Well, in 2004, my conscience reflects my fears of a Bush second term.

As for Kerry, I agree that he's likely to disappoint voters who expect him to make extraordinary changes if he wins (though there are few people, as far as I can tell, who feel this way). Even if he wanted to, it will be difficult for him to accomplish much, with the right wing media attacking him every step of the way and Congress still controlled by the Republicans. He's not charismatic enough to pull it off.

I'm not trying to make excuses for him before he (hopefully) gets inaugurated. Still, my expectations are low -- I vote for him as a speedbump against creeping fascism, just as David Korten intimates in his piece in Common Dreams. Let's at least have some jockeying at the top while we try to figure out how to build something more substantial from the ground up, the key challenge described by Joel Rogers in this Nation piece.

The challenge if he wins will be to build a strong enough force that Kerry begins to view it as providing enough shored-up space for him to take the right actions if he's interested and, if not, somehow force him to tack in the direction we want anyway.

Nader, by the way, could play an important part in that process, by focusing on issues that Kerry has signaled his support for, such as the humongous challenges we face w/regard to energy security, which Ralph has so much knowledge and experience with, as he has w/re so many other issues. As it looks right now (and there's a piece in the Nov/Dec. Mother Jones that spells this out) the technologies to wean ourselves of growing energy dependence are not available to avoid significant disruptions. But we'll be that much worse off with four more years of the oiligarchs. So what do we want for the coming decades? Transition or all-out war and serious upheaval when the oil runs out (not to mention global warming, etc.)?

The point is, we shouldn't write Kerry off before he comes into office. I wonder if people prejudge him the way they assumed Bush wouldn't be so bad because he talked about "compassionate conservatism." (Which I always thought was a kind of trojan horse -- "friendly fascism" with a c). E.g., everyone seems to accept the assertion that Kerry has had an unremarkable record on the Hill and won't be a strong leader who grapples with these difficult questions.

While I agree that Kerry has taken some bad positions, I'm not so sure he doesn't have it in him. Shouldn't he be given some plaudits for the yeoman's work he did during Iran Contra, as Robert Parry spells out in his book? While Bush was apparently over at Camp David (according to Kitty Kelly) snorting coke, Kerry was up on Capital Hill trying to nail the death squads who brought it in the country with his father's support. Sure he backed off in the end, but was that by his choice? (When the leadership blocked his Congressional investigation into BCCI, he encouraged Jack Blum to continue to pursue it through Morganthau's office). Going against people like Clark Clifford is not exactly a way to build a purely opportunistic career resume is it? Should we have expected him to sacrifice his career at that point?

No one suffers from the illusion that we are going to get a major shift immediately if Kerry wins. Especially in Iraq. He has not asserted anything indicating he will try to pull the troops out as fast as possible, that he will not establish the 14 permanent bases planned (and being built) in Iraq. So the neocon plans may be advanced during his administration. But I'm not so sure that he's as guided by that ideological blueprint, and if the military families who are now leading protests against the occupation (much different than Vietnam) press him, and the economic stresses on the empire become too great, I wonder if he would shift. We should be ready to back him if he does.

The challenge to turn things around is ours, given the limits of his power to move the ship of state very quickly. The vice we need to put him in -- between the outside pressure from other countries and the pressure from below here at home -- might provide Kerry enough cover to move in the direction we want, if he's willing and skillful at using it effectively. That's a much more hopeful scenario than the messianic apocalypse that's possible if Bush expands the war.

I don't buy the philosophy of vindictive righteousness that "Bush should pay for the mess he made" and that the economic collapse and coming anarchy in Iraq would be better if it happened on his watch so people finally see how bad the Republicans really are and would begin to want real change, because I'm not sure that's how it works. It could continue to spur people in just the opposite direction -- toward a lust for righteous conquest.


As for voting for a third party in battleground states, I'm doubtful that the kinds of vote-swapping or vote-partnering that have been suggested by some who want to get rid of Bush while voicing their concerns about Kerry and the two-party system could gather enough momentum at this late stage to a strong message about the state of our democracy and the two-party system. I wouldn't discourage anyone from doing it if they know someone they trust to follow through, but in a year of electronic voting machines and all sorts of obvious manipulation and intimidation, it's hard to imagine this will be very popular. Do you blame people for not trusting someone they don't know to actually live up to their word, esp. when there's no way to verify it? It we're serious about third parties, then let's do it in serious ways.