By David Swanson
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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
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 fascistic oil barons 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
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
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
"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
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 build 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.
David Swanson's website is at www.davidswanson.org.