The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
--Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 1932
Many pages ago, I promised Annie that I would suggest some alternatives to voting for a Democrat and then resigning ourselves to the inevitable disappointment. Now it's time to fulfill that promise. But before I do, let's make one thing perfectly clear, as Nixon used to say: I don't know what will work. I don't claim to be clairvoyant, or even to have any greater insight into American politics and American culture than the next guy. Nobody knows what will work -- until we stumble onto something that works.
One thing I do know, and after all these pages I hope you know it too: I know what won't work. What won't work is voting for people like Clinton, and Gore, and Kerry. All these guys, and all their epigones stacked in the warehouse, were stamped out by the same factory, the Al From Republican Knock-Off Mill. Whether they get into office or not, we have nothing to hope for from them.
It's very liberating, though, when you finally decide that something won't work. You can drop it by the roadside, like an old burden that has become gradually heavier and more useless with every wearisome step. And then you give yourself a little shake, like somebody just waking up, and go on your way rejoicing, feeling strangely strengthened and refreshed. Even if you don't know exactly where you're going, the odds are that you'll get there sooner without all that unnecessary baggage.
So here are a few things to try.
I know, it's an existential crisis when you walk into that voting booth. You realize it's futile to vote for the Democrat, but you'll feel guilty if you don't and the Republican then gets elected. It's important not to lose your nerve at this point. Don't worry so much about the next four years; they're going to be a disaster no matter who gets into the White House. Face that fact squarely, keep a bag packed and your passport handy by way of preparation for the next President, and when you vote, think ahead a little more. Think about what might make things better for your kids, or your nephews and nieces if you don't have kids, or your friends' kids if you're an only child. Or even think about your own old age if you're still reasonably young. What might make a difference at that time scale?
I hope it's clear at this point that any improvement on the time scale of decades has a precondition, and that precondition is breaking up the collusion of the Republican and Democratic parties. Broadly speaking, there are two plausible ways we can imagine this happening.
The first way is the evolution of a multi-party political order. We've never really had that in this country,except for very short periods, so it might seem a little unlikely. But multi-party politics are the norm in most other places that have anything resembling democratic institutions. Even Britain, which has been a two-party polity for most of the modern era, appears to be heading in that direction. So why not here? Let's not foreclose the possibility. But clearly, if we are going to have more than one-and-a-quarter parties, the other parties will have to be built. And they can't be built unless people are willing to vote for them, and vote for them year after year. Parties can't be built overnight; we saw in Chapter __ that it took the Grangers and the Populists almost thirty years to build themselves into a threat to Republicrat rule at the national level. Very likely we can beat that pace nowadays, with the advantage of modern communications. But it can't be done in a week, or a year, or four years. Think of it this way, when you go into that voting booth: it's like working your way up through the educational system, or the job ladder, or saving for your retirement. You probably spent at least sixteen years getting your education, perhaps considerably more. If you've achieved, or hope to achieve, a measure of success in your work, you very likely have or will put in a decade or more at that. And saving for your retirement will take you all your working life. Changing our political order demands at least as much time and consistency of effort as any of these things.
We saw in Chapters __ and __ that the Democratic party, though it has normally acted, for the last century and a half, as second banana to the Republicans, is capable at moments of crisis of shaking off that role and revealing signs of life. It is conceivable – though I think unlikely – that it might do so again. But what could possibly cause such a revitalization of the dear dead old donkey party?
It won't happen through a change of heart by the existing party machinery. That has been as exquisitely crafted for its tawdry function as the mosquito's proboscis; the apparatchiks are as likely to turn their party into a constructive force as the mosquito's proboscis is to light up and start blinking Morse code. No, the only thing that will make the Democrats change is the prospect of annihilation if they don't. And the only way to raise that specter before their eyes is for their captive constituencies to desert them in droves. As long as they think you have nowhere else to go, they will take you for granted. And the only way to convince them you have somewhere else to go is... to go there.
So either way we need the third parties: whether we expect them to grow and supplant the Democrats, or whether we expect them to put the fear of God into the Democrats and keep them honest, we need vigorous, serious, determined third parties that really mean business and won't get frightened by their own success, as our pathetic "Greens" were in the 2000 election. Those of us who are not satisfied with the Democrats – and who is? -- must resolve to give these third parties, election after election, the votes they need to grow and establish themselves, and not allow ourselves to be unnerved by the quadrennial banshee chorus of the Democrats, howling dismally in the graveyard of progressive causes.
What sort of third parties might we want to see? No doubt everyone will have his or her own answers to this question. Here are a few thoughts.
In general, third parties should have a well-defined constituency and a sharp focus on specific problems. We don't need a high-minded Generally Progressive party that stands for everything good, from gay marriage to wetland preservation. Third parties should stay resolutely, even fanatically, on point and not allow themselves to broaden out, even on issues that most of their members might be expected to support.
We certainly need a labor party. As matters stand, there is nobody, but nobody, whose job it is to advocate for the interests of the wage earner as such. Although a labor party sounds like such a freakishly European notion in the American context, in fact it would be very easy for one to get going. All that's needed is for one or two of the less sedated national unions to make up their minds to do it. National unions have the resources and the reach to negotiate the ballot access maze and get a labor party on the ballot in every state.
This party would probably want to leave the Presidency and Senate and the governor's mansion alone, and concentrate on local offices, state legislatures, and the House of Representatives. It should concentrate its efforts in districts where the labor vote is strong, and do whatever it can to supplant the local Democrat.
Once in office, its candidates should focus with monomaniacal concentration on changing the laws and corporate tactics that now make union organizing so difficult. In the legislatures, they should serve notice on all fellow officeholders that they will do everything in their power -- filibusters, committee foot-dragging, procedural obstacles -- to torpedo any other initiative whatsoever, whatever its merits, whose supporters aren't willing to trade their support for a better organizing climate.
In local government, Laborites should obstruct permits, road and infrastructure projects, zoning changes, and so on, for union-busting concerns like Wal-Mart, and keep a relentless drumbeat of sensational – I would go so far as to say demagogic – attacks on other officeholders who are not with the labor program. Wal-Marts and similar concerns in places where there are Laborites in local officialdom should find themselves getting inspected and cited every hour on the hour. They should find the road regularly dug up outside their parking lot, and sorry-for-the-inconvenience interruptions of their electricity and water service should be daily occurrences. I'm tempted to say that the sewers should back up, too, but perhaps that would be going too far.
Labor candidates should be working men and women themselves, the more rough-hewn the better. Ivy Leaguers need not apply, and there should be no ideological test other than the willingness to advance labor's cause by any means necessary. It's just fine for a labor candidate to oppose abortion, or have a big gun collection, or believe that the Earth is flat, as long as he or she is red-hot for the good of the wage earner. Candidates who really resemble the people they're trying to convince will help neutralize the cultural-affinity syndrome that enables a George W. Bush to get votes by impersonating a cowboy.
Now maybe you're a more cultivated individual, who enjoys hiking and cross-country skiing, and this Labor Party sounds a little Stanley Kowalski for your taste. Well then, how about a Green party – I mean a real one, not those sad poltroons who now go by that name? Strictly nonviolent of course, but highly militant. Lots of great -- but peaceful, peaceful! -- civil-disobedience stuff: mass bike rides on Interstate highways, chain-ins on logging leases in national forests, fleets of windsurfers blockading oil pumping stations.
In the electoral arena, the Greens could hope to win local government offices from lip-service Democratic enviro-phonies, and the Green Party should always run a presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial candidate, not with a view to getting elected at this level, but with a view to punishing the Democrat if he couldn't or wouldn't make good on the party's supposed commitment to environmental causes.
You'll have to be resolute, though, and vote for the Green anytime the Democrat isn't up to snuff, even if the Republican is a wild-eyed berserker who wants to pave the world. It'll take a few more losses like Gore's in Florida in 2000 before the Democrats will get the message – if then -- and you have to be willing to stay the course until they do get it. Just remember that the only difference between a pave-the-world Republican and an "environmentalist" Democrat is – well, none, really; the Republican means what he says, but the Democrat means what the Republican says, too.
Perhaps you live in a large city, like New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago or Boston or even San Francisco. If so, you probably don't pay much attention to the way political power is divided between your city government and your state government. I don't blame you; it's a dry topic. But if you ever did take an interest in the subject, you would probably be shocked at how much urban affairs are interfered with by state legislatures -- which are, of course, completely dominated by suburban interests.
In New York City, for example, our state legislature forbids us to enact rent-control legislation. It forbids us to require that our cops and firemen and teachers live in the city. It forbids us to set speed limits on our own streets, and it won't even allow us to install red-light cameras. Our mass-transit systems, built and maintained over the years by our money and our sweat, have been taken over and run by a state-controlled agency, completely unanswerable to the public it supposedly serves, and this agency starves our subways to subsidize suburban commuter railroads.
In New York, we mostly send Democrats to the statehouse, and without exception they sell us down the river every chance they get. The top politician in the state assembly is a Democrat from New York City, Sheldon Silver, and no living soul remembers the last time he did anything for the town that sent him up the river to Albany. His most memorable recent achievement was engineering, in collaboration with a Republican governor, the repeal of a commuter tax levied on suburbanites who work in the city.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Large American cities are like Gulliver, tied down and immobilized by a web of gossamer threads strung and knotted by statehouse pygmies. The details will differ in your town, but the overall picture, if you look into it, will be very similar. And in your town as in mine, Democratic pygmies -- elected by urban voters -- will turn out to have played a prominent role in hogtying the urban giant.
So... why not a Home Rule party for American cities? Here again, a narrow focus is essential. The Home Rule party would have a simple message: let's get these downstate, or upstate, yahoos off our backs. They tax us -- and spend the money in the suburbs. They tell us what to do, and what good do we get out of that? We don't know how to run our own streets, or schools? A residency requirement for city jobs would be extremely popular among urban voters. Especially in African-American neighborhoods, there is an appalling gulf of incomprehension and hostility between the suburban, mostly white Hessians who patrol the streets, and the people who live there. Urban young people would love to see vacancies opening up for them in the fire department or the police department or the schools -- the kind of vacancies that a residency requirement would create. It's not at all far-fetched that a Home Rule party, after one or two election cycles, could put a mayor in city hall, and a home rule majority, or a decisive home rule bloc, on the city council.
And in the meantime? Well, in urban politics, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is even tinier than it is on the national level. There is no real reason to think that a Home Rule candidate would take more votes from Democrats than Republicans, but even if he did, so what? In the cities, we have even less to fear from the greater evil, or hope for from the lesser, than in the country at large.
A Home Rule mayor, and city council, could use their bully pulpit and their door-to-door machine to send Home Rulers to the statehouse, and even to the House of Representatives. In both these places, they would find natural allies in the Greens and the Laborites. Individually, and even more among the three of them on issues of common concern, they would wield a powerful influence on policy in the state and in the country. Not tomorrow, not next year; but in our lifetimes -- if we use our energy, and our votes, both wisely and boldly.
Annie, if she were looking over my shoulder, would probably object at this point that I've just sketched a recipe for complete Republican domination: with all these third parties siphoning off votes from the Democrats, the Republicans would have even less to worry about than they do now.
I think not, for three reasons:
It's by no means certain that the kind of third parties discussed above would take vastly more votes from Democrats than Republicans. As I argued in Chapter __, the reason than so many struggling low-end wage-earners allow their cultural attitudes to overrule their economic interests is that no party is representing their economic interests. So cultural issues fill the vacuum. With an aggressive, defiant, in-your-face blue-collar Labor party in the field, I believe that many of these folks -- Republican voters now -- will put their cultural resentments on the back burner and vote for a bigger paycheck.
The same holds true for the Home Rule party. One of the great Republican scams is their lip service to local control, as opposed to rule by a cabal of liberal social engineers in Washington. (The reality of Republican governance is another matter, of course, but here again, since the other party doesn't offer any real, or even plausible, alternative, the Republicans get away with their sloganeering on the subject.) A Home Rule party that's visibly serious about getting the statehouse off the city's back will attract many urban voters who are now bamboozled by the Republicans' faux-redneck talk about Big Gummint.
As for the Greens, at first blush it might seem certain that they would attract more Democrats than Republicans. But it ain't necessarily so, especially if the Greens get strongly involved in local causes. Many very conservative suburbanites are bitterly opposed to further "development" in their area, even if they don't care much about the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. This attitude is arguably a bit ungenerous -- they got theirs, and now they want to close the door on everybody else. But from an environmental point of view, it's undoubtedly a good thing -- a thing that an environmentalist party could support with a whole heart and a clear conscience. Less road-building, less sprawl development, fewer parking lots and Edge City office gulags -- who but a real-estate speculator could be unhappy with that?
The Greens and the Home Rulers will find common cause on this issue -- the Greens because limiting sprawl development is clearly the right thing for the environment, and the Home Rulers because they will want to keep the jobs and the investment in the cities.
We saw in chapter __ that the Republican party is very much like the Democratic party in being a coalition of incompatibles: cops and gun nuts, libertarians and Baptist ayatollahs, rural survivalists and corporate monopolists: people who have cattle gates, and people who want to be Bill Gates. What keeps all these people in one big tent is the same thing that keeps the Democrats in their tent: fear of the other party. The Democrats may not amount to much; but neither do the Republicans, really. They amount, more often than not, to a tiny bit more than the Democrats -- a very tiny bit. Whenever they slip up, the Democrats slip in. Oz the Great and Terrible is worried to death about Ozzie The Only Slightly Less Great And Terrible -- and of course, neither one of them wants you looking behind the curtain, and seeing who is pulling the levers.
Implausible as it may seem, all these red-blooded but incompatible Republican voters -- these angry Middle Americans that puzzle us lefties so much -- hate and fear the Democratic party even more than they hate and fear each other. Remove the fear of the Democrats, and the Republican party will be blown apart by its own internal pressures, like a deep-sea fish brought too suddenly to the surface. You'll see a Fetus Party, a Leave Me Alone Party, a Machine Gun Party, a Head For The Hills Party, a Beverly Hills Party. Who's to say that the Head For The Hills people might not find tactical common cause on some matters with the Greens, and the Leave-Me-Aloners with the Home Rulers? Indeed it's almost certain that they would; everywhere in the world where minor parties thrive, this kind of negotiation is a fundamental part of politics.
Finally, let's not forget that large plurality of Americans who in every election vote for None Of The Above, by staying home. When we have a livelier, less impoverished politics; when we have parties that actually speak strongly about topics now ignored or papered over by the Republicrats with indistinguishable tired bromides, many of these abstaining voters will show up to pull a lever -- because somebody will finally be saying something to, and for, them. Indeed, it should be Job One for the new parties to bring in new voters, even more than to convert people who now vote Republican or Democrat. Time spent trying to get my non-voting son Andrew out to vote, by offering something that's not now on the very limited menu of American politics, will pay off better than time spent trying to convert Annie -- though I haven't quite given up even on her.
We saw in Chapter __ that the existing two-party system has a vested interest in the utterly insane electoral college machinery. In particular, both parties like the winner-take-all system of allocating a state's electoral votes; it means that in the states where they are strong, they can be sure of getting all that state's electoral votes with little or no effort (and without doing much for the people who live there).
Strong third parties in the mix will change this calculus. Even if the third parties fall far short of carrying the state, they will put now-assured Republican or Democratic pluralities in doubt. The Republican and Democratic party managers will apply the bird-in-the-hand principle and figure that it's better to be sure of a bloc of electoral votes corresponding to their actual strength, rather than risk losing the whole shooting match in a particular state to the other big party, just because some upstart third party has spoiled the game. The result? Allocation of electoral votes in some kind of proportion to the popular vote.
This may seem like a minor, technical change, but it will have a vast effect on the way Presidential campaigns are run. No longer will the Democrat feel he can ignore New York, because he's sure of victory there. He will have just as much incentive to appeal to another ten thousand Unitarians in Massachusetts -- who might otherwise vote Green -- as to ten thousand snake-handlers in Tennessee, who will almost certainly vote Republican anyway. Keeping the Unitarians in line will seem like a safer, and thus better, way to make up the votes, than doing a photo-op with some goddam snake. Yeah, they're drugged, but you just never know, with a snake.
Candidates will have to pay more attention to the people they consider their "base" or natural constituencies, and less to flibbertygibbet "swing" voters pushed this way and that by a Brownian motion of trivialities: Kerry rides a road bike, Bush rides a mountain bike, so Bush is a he-man and Kerry is a fag. Do we really want these people deciding who will be President? No? Then that winner-take-all system has got to go, and third parties are the only way it ever will go.
At the pinnacle of delightful possibilities is the constitutional scholar's nightmare: no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, and the election is "thrown" into the House of Representatives.
What a wonderful, thrilling phrase. Makes you think of being thrown to the lions, doesn't it? Given the caliber of recent Presidential candidates, thrown to the lions sounds pretty good, but thrown into the House isn't a bad second-best. The House of Representatives is the only thing in the entire US Constitution that bears any remote resemblance to a small-'d' democratic institution. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a would-be President had to assemble a legislative majority -- just as a would-be Prime Minister has to do in every other democracy worthy, or even halfway worthy, of the name?
A handful of Greens, Laborites, and Home Rulers could end up as kingmakers. Imagine the desperate promises, the wrenching concessions, to these tribunes of formerly ignored and taken-for-granted constituencies -- constituencies like, well ... like you. If it doesn't give you a warm glow just to imagine the scene, you must have a heart of stone.
Third parties are a fine and necessary thing. But there is something even more important than parties, and that is, for lack of a better word, activism.
In my lifetime, the victories of the causes I believe in have come about through bypassing the parties and the electoral machinery, not by "working within the system." The two greatest of these triumphs are the ending of the Vietnam War, and the ending of officially sanctioned racial segregation. Both these victories happened, not because the machinery of one or another party was mobilized to support the cause, but because strongly-focused, dedicated, go-for-broke single-issue activists put together extra-electoral mass movements.
This kind of issue-focused activism has also been a great source of strength to the Right in recent years -- and why shouldn't we do the same? In fact, how can we hope to get anywhere if we don't do the same? In his brilliant book What's The Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank lays this out in words that I can only, admiringly, borrow:
"... the right understands the central significance of movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the vast and complex structure of conservative 'movement culture', a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart any more. There are.... at the bottom, the committed grassroots organizers... going door-to-door, organizing their neighbors, mortgaging their houses, even, to push the gospel...."
As I write these words, the United States is embroiled in a colonial war, and is losing it. This war is costing us a great deal, both in lives and in dollars. It is not popular: apart from a tiny number of neo-con True Believers, even those Americans who "support the troops" do so out of a sense of duty and solidarity, not because they really expect, or even claim to expect, a positive outcome. To those of us who lived through the Vietnam period, this all seems uncannily, depressingly familiar.
But one thing that is missing from this otherwise familiar scene is, of course, the antiwar movement. And it's not just missing -- it went missing. In 2003, there were enormous antiwar demonstrations -- actions on a scale that took years to put together back in the Vietnam days. And then, in 2004, the antiwar movement evaporated, just when events were vindicating its foresight. Why?
I think it's because the people who should have been organizing against the war got distracted, and put their time and energy into getting kinder-and-gentler warmonger John Kerry into the White House. They put all their eggs into the Kerry basket, and the Kerry basket, predictably, went smash.
Cathexis is notoriously hard to withdraw. To place a bet of the magnitude that our "realist" anti-war leaders placed on Kerry has an inevitable consequence, if the bet doesn't pay off: it demoralizes the bettor. So the leaders and organizers of the seduced-and-abandoned antiwar movement can't help walking away from the crackup with the feeling that, well, the people have spoken, and the verdict went against us. After the electoral deluge, the memory of those hundreds of thousands of people who crowded the streets back in 2003 is lost. We placed our bet, and we lost our money, and now we have to leave the table.
Well, no. Or rather, yes. By all means leave the table that's rigged in the casino's favor -- the electoral table. But electoral politics is not the only game in town. In fact, electoral politics is only worth doing when it takes place in a political milieu energized – and, yes, polarized – by a vigorous advocacy culture. That culture exists in the United States at present, but it is very lopsided – the right-wing advocacy groups are infinitely more numerous, more bold, and more energetic than their timorous, tentative and soft-spoken liberal counterparts. Think of the NRA versus the Sierra Club. Put those two palookas in the ring, and my money's on the gun nuts to KO the latte-on-the-trail wimps in the first round.
To some extent, this timorousness is due to the legalistic, proceduralist, institution-loving mentality of liberalism, as we discussed in the previous chapter. But I think another big part of the problem is the way the Democratic Party soaks up the energies of people who might otherwise be part of the environmental movement, or the anti-war movement, or the anti-globalization movement, or a band of hardy urban guerrillas spray-painting the lenses of surveillance cameras. (I strongly approve of this kind of thing but I'm a little old for it myself.)
No doubt they think this is the best way to advance the causes that are dear to their heart. But what a disastrous mistake. They'd be better off wheat-pasting homemade flyers on lampposts, organizing twenty-person demonstrations at the local shopping mall, or trying to upset the two-party Frick-and-Frack applecart by building up some spoiler third party. Any of these activities would be an infinitely better use of their time than nattering about the relative merits of two cookie-cutter Democrats contending for a House seat somewhere.
The Daily Koses, the MoveOn.orgs, the Radio Americas, have anesthetized a whole generation of potential activists. The oxygen that should go into building up activist culture has been sucked right out of the atmosphere by these bloated, fungoid excrescences of the Democratic Party.
An old friend of mine refers to the Democratic Party as the "activists' graveyard," which is not only funny but profoundly true. It's only half the story, though. The Democratic Party is not only a necropolis where activists decay into bureaucrats; it's also a toxic growth poisoning the soil where activism grows -- the crabgrass or milfoil that crowds out all the other species and devours all the nutrients. It is not merely an alternative to activism; it is the enemy of activism, and thus the enemy of any politics worthy of the name -- by which I mean politics that goes beyond an empty, meaningless rivalry between two white-collar street gangs for the spoils of office.