Take Refuge in the Big Picture (part 2)

In part 1, I added my voice to the chorus pointing out that the mainstream media interpretation of the election results is faulty.

Some Comfort

I think we should take some comfort from history. If it's any guide, looking at the last two Republicans who were re-elected and reading John Dean's Worse Than Watergate suggests that a serious scandal is about to emerge. There's all kinds of reasons to think that's likely, though as I've said elsewhere, the concentration of media ownership is more of a problem than it used to be.

More important than the possible tarring of a President are the brakes that will be put on what I'm afraid I have to call the American war machine. It's an ugly phrase, I admit, but I believe it's appropriate. In another one of my Bad Attitudes, I claimed that the US economy has depended on conflict since World War II brought the country out of the Depression. At first the military was part and parcel of this; no one was more gung ho to fight the Communists wherever and whenever.

But these days the conflicts are more straightforwardly imperial, which is harder to explain to recruits brought up hearing about the principles of democracy; and the generals are just recruits who've stuck it out and been good at it. In general (sorry), they're strongly committed to those principles. (Recent New Yorker cartoon of the devil deciding where to house two new arrivals: “Put the punster in with the mime.”)

I've found some encouraging signs by reading foreign reactions to the election results. One of the most far-reaching comes from an article by Jonathan Steele in The Guardian, in which he calls for disengagement from the US:

Nato, in short, has become a threat to Europe. Its existence also acts as a continual drag on Europe's efforts to build its own security institutions. Certain member countries, particularly Britain, constantly look over their shoulders for fear of upsetting big brother. This has an inhibiting effect on every initiative.

France's more robust stance is pilloried by the Atlanticists as nostalgia for unilateral grandeur instead of being seen as part of France's pro-European search for a security project that will help us all.

Lest you think there's some ambiguity in his position, he closes with a flourish.

...Europeans must reach their decisions from a position of genuine independence. The US has always based its approach to Europe on a calculation of interest rather than from sentimental motives. Europe should do no less. We can and, for the most part, should be America's friends. Allies, no longer.

So Now What the Hell Do We Do?

Considering our current problem set, I'm reminded of Joe Jackson's song “Rant and Rave”:

Believe me you'll find out that everything's rotten
From bottom to top, through and through
All gold is just glitter, all gains are ill-gotten
But now what the hell do we do?

In my opinion we on the left could do our part toward generating E.J. Dionne's alternative majority by talking about three major issues: peace, economic fairness, and election reform. These are issues that appeal to the retro as much as the metro.

A lot of people, not just heartlanders, will end up going in search of another party if cultural issues predominate. As Xymphora puts it:

People aren't entirely prepared to admit it, but there really is an underclass of very unhappy white people in the United States who are still fighting the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the Civil War. The dissatisfaction in their lives is caused by the powerlessness they feel in the face of the fact that they fall further behind with each generation. The Republicans manage these people with great skill, and use the full force of the media to direct all their anger and hatred to liberalism. The fact that many of them are evangelical Christians is more a symptom of the same malaise that it is the cause of their hatreds. Nutty religion is their opium. While many of them are terribly misinformed and stupid, I don't think it is entirely fair to say that they misunderstand their class interests. They have come to the conclusion that they are going to be screwed regardless of which party is in power, and they prefer to be screwed by a group that doesn't appear to hold them in contempt.

Once again, paging Thomas Frank… (And here's a vulgar but funny take on the same point.)

After all, if your election strategy consists mainly of what John Dean calls male bovine excretions, plus perhaps some mirrors (and maybe a few rigged machines), cultural issues are the thing to concentrate on.

So let's examine my three issues, starting with election reform because it's the most concrete.

Reforming Our System of Elections

As with the 2000 election, there are those who blame the institution of the Electoral College and propose to eliminate it. This seems unlikely, if only because something like three-quarters of the states would lose influence. That proportion, of course, is what's required to pass a Constitutional amendment. So eliminating Homer's Electrical College is probably even less likely than amending the Constitution to prevent gays from marrying.

Still, there are some realistic reforms that could be implemented without a Constitutional amendment. Writing in The Nation, James Galbraith argues for national adoption of the vote-by-mail scheme in use in Oregon. This, he says,

...would have several dramatic effects. Voting would start weeks before the election day; thus the importance of an effective political organization to register voters and insure their participation would rise. Meanwhile, the role of advertising would decline. Late advertisements, which are often highly misleading, would be seen mainly by those who had already cast their votes. "October surprises," such as the late appearance of Osama bin Laden in the 2004 election, would lose their importance, for the same reason.

On election day there would be no bottlenecks at the polls, because there would be no polls. All the money spent on election officials would be saved. So would much now spent on voting machines. Only enough would be required to count ballots, over a period of weeks, at a central location in each county. Election day challenges and get-out-the-vote drives would end. Private corporations and their occult vote-counting machinery would be driven out of the elections business, into which they should never have been allowed to enter. The atmosphere of low-grade thuggery and suspicion that now surrounds the act of voting in many places would disappear. So would the corrosive doubts about the integrity of the outcome.

Another possibility is to adopt a measure that was soundly defeated in Colorado, the proportional allocation of electors. This would make every state a battleground and every vote count. I'm not sure I would be happy with this; in the recent election I didn't have to decide whether or not to vote for my first choice, Nader, because California was clearly in the Kerry column. But there does seem to be a lot to recommend this strategy in the abstract.

Here in San Francisco, we've adopted Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting. This was done against the will of the Democratic machine here. In the last mayoral election, the Democrats only managed to win by a few votes, despite outspending the Greens by ten to one, and bringing both Clinton and Gore to town to endorse their candidate. The Democrats did what they could to postpone implementing IRV, claiming, among other things, that confusion would result from the difficulty of counting votes in this new and unknown system. Naturally, this claim turned out to be bogus, and IRV came off without a hitch. It's easy to show that IRV has advantages over the method used for Presidential elections, though of course no method is perfect.

Economic Fairness

The failure of the Democrats to focus on the topic of economic fairness is an issue I've beaten until it's nearly a dead horse.

It seems clear to me that the Democrats began a long period of attracting a majority of American voters with the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Of course, the country was mired in depression at the time, and hungry people were everywhere. The story is told that FDR and his advisors were on the train to Washington for the inauguration discussing possible initiatives, when someone said to the President-elect, “If this works, you'll go down as the greatest President in history”, to which he supposedly replied, “If it fails, I'll go down as the last.” That level of distress opened new avenues for experimentation, allowing FDR to propose that his administration try something; if it fails, admit it frankly, and go on to try something else. But, in contrast to Hoover, he would try something.

This is the major problem in American politics today: that neither of the two major parties is willing to talk about the middle class being squeezed in the same way as the middle class of the Roman Empire was. Rich Romans, like rich Americans, found ways to avoid taxes, and poor Romans could not afford to pay taxes; thus the tax burden gradually descended entirely on the middle class. As the costs of maintaining an empire and the military required to enforce it grew, middle-class people were impoverished. This, of course, left a smaller number of people to pay the same tax burden, which increased the pressure on them, a vicious circle with which too many Americans are becoming familiar. (I discussed Robin Cook's take on this and related issues in a recent Bad Attitudes post.)

Fighting for Peace

My third issue is peace, also known in the current context as anti-imperialism.

One of the reasons that Kerry lost is clearly his vote for the war in Iraq. Despite his equivocations, he was never able to get around that vote. As the Washington Post said, it's not possible to believe that he voted for the war on the theory that it wouldn't happen.

There is of course no way to do a controlled experiment, but I believe that many more young people could have been energized to vote if the Democrat had been firmly against the war. As progressives we need to talk about progessive issues, and imperialist war is not among them. Kerry's position essentially allowed Bush to get away with all the lies that his administration has been pushing for the last couple of years. Kerry could not call Bush on his lies without admitting that he had fallen for them (or, more likely, had recognized them but went along for political reasons).

The period of Democratic domination that began with FDR came to a close with LBJ, because he did the morally right thing in forcing civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress, for which I as a Zen Buddhist (or maybe a neo-Pagan) thank God. Fewer people voted after November 22, 1963, in part because many lost hope in the US government's honesty. But it was also in part because LBJ prosecuted a war that was wrong politically, militarily, and morally.

I can't really think of anything more to say about this issue. It seems completely obvious to me that we not only have to say we're against war; we have to vote against it, and resist it in every possible way. There are, as both Thomas Frank and Xymphora imply, many Americans for whom war justifies itself by proving how much stronger the US is than the weakest kid on the block. We must emphasize our diametric opposition to that viewpoint rather than seeking a means of attracting these people. There are many more people who oppose that point of view than espouse it. Do the Democrats dare to generate that big tent they always claim to have?

A New Vision

To summarize: we need to present a vision of what America could be, not in the distant future, but the near one. I recently quoted Ron Daniels:

We need a transformative vision, one advancing the notion that America can be more than it is today for average, ordinary people. The Democratic Party should advocate a program of basic rights, like the one enjoyed by many social democratic countries in Europe. Americans really feel that they have the best standard of living in the world. They don't, but they don't know they don't. Virtually every nation in Western Europe has universal health care. In Sweden, Norway, and Holland, the social benefits are so generous that poverty has practically been eliminated. Wages in most European countries now outpace wages in the United States.

Who doesn't believe that a candidate who advocated such a program would draw a huge percentage of the “Declined to state a preference” crowd from this election? I don't think this would be a hard sell to most people, not simply for the selfish reasons but for patriotic ones as well. What great things could we accomplish as a nation if we tried to ensure that all our citizens have the opportunities they need and deserve? Of course the people represented by the senior Senator from my state of origin, Mitch McConnell, would use their unlimited funds to argue that this would make people soft, uncompetitive, and European. But this is akin to the accusation of fomenting class warfare that is widely used to silence discussion of economic issues by those intent on ending Social Security: it's completely hypocritical.

We have to live up to the promises made long ago through Social Security. We have to create an economy that values humans over corporations. We need to give ourselves and our country the gift of having a populace that is universally fed, educated, and cared for medically. These are choices we could make. Doing all these things would be a great project, but not a project beyond our capabilities. They're not as hard as sending people to the moon. They're mainly distribution problems, and we Americans are damn good at such problems when we attack them instead of ignoring them.

I think the Democrats' unwillingness to take up the antiwar cause, or to offer solid opposition to the recent tax give-aways, is what the therapists call diagnostic. People don't vote for the Democrats like they used to because the Democrats don't advocate for regular folks like they used to. John Nichols puts it simply:

The bottom line is this: Democrats can either waste four years developing a doomed outreach to voters for whom "Moral Values" means denying rights to others, or they can work on getting more in tune with the vast majority of voters who rank other issues as their top priorities.

Finally, on what better note can one close than a quote from Molly Ivins?

So, fellow progressives, stop thinking about suicide or moving abroad. Want to feel better? Eat a sour grape, then do something immediately, now, today. Figure out what you can do to help rescue the country — join something, send a little money to some group, call somewhere and offer to volunteer, find a politician you like at the local level and start helping him or her to move up.

Think about how you can lend a hand to the amazing myriad efforts that will promptly break out to help the country recover from what it has done to itself. Now is the time. Don't mourn, organize.

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