American elections always remind me of an old college friend of mine -- let's call her Louise -- a pretty, gentle, soft-spoken girl, who majored in art history, married her college boyfriend after graduation, and ten years or so later, left him. That's when we all found out that he had been beating her during the entire time they were together, before and after the marriage. He never gave her a black eye or a visible bruise, but he hit her, often, sometimes with his hand and sometimes with a belt. I asked her, much later, why she stayed with him for so long, and she told me, "I was afraid to leave."

A lot of my friends belong to what I would call the Left, as I do -- and yes, there is a Left in America, though the fact is often denied. Like Louise, we are kind, decent, conscientious, well-meaning people; and like Louise, many of us are trapped in a bad, abusive relationship, with a domineering partner who takes us for granted and slaps us around. Our bad spouse is the Democratic Party; and like Louise, we are afraid to leave it.

Consider my neighbor Annie. Annie is a classic West Side Jewish lady of a certain age; she remembers FDR and I think, though she's never admitted it, she might have actually been a Commie back in her vivid youth. She went South with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. Lately she's begun to take a keen interest in environmental issues, and she helped organize demonstrations against the Iraq war. She's very loyal to Israel, but Ariel Sharon embarrasses her. She's become a bit socially conservative with age, and gay guys bother her more than she likes to let on. But she's a great believer in live-and-let-live, and so she sucks it up and smiles benignly in the elevator at Ron and Ted from upstairs, who have more piercings between them than a sieve.

Annie was so nauseated by Bill Clinton, and so repelled by Al Gore, that she bolted from the Democrats back in 2000, and voted for Ralph Nader. She spent the next four years feeling personally responsible for George W. Bush.

Annie and I were waiting for the elevator a few days before the 2004 election and I innocently said something about Nader. She rounded on me like a striking snake. "That... that spoiler!" she hissed, her face twisted with rage. "You can't vote for him!"

"But -- not Kerry, surely? The War President wannabe?"

"We can't let those Republicans have four more years!"

"Why? What'll they do that the Democrats won't? You remember Clinton, Annie."

She slumped. I pursued my advantage. "If you let 'em take you for granted, you're just encouraging 'em to keep going farther and farther right --"

"But they're all we've got," she moaned.

I thought about that conversation a lot in the following days and weeks, after Kerry lived down to my low expectations of him and blew the election. That's when I decided to start writing these essays, for Annie and for all my other Left and Left-ish friends. I hate to see them wasting their votes, year after year, on some guy who promises them nothing but disappointment. As Annie said, the Democrats are indeed all we've got; but why? Isn't it because we haven't built anything else? Isn't it time for Annie -- for all the Annies -- to emulate Louise, and finally walk out that door into the big bad world with all its risks, instead of being knocked around by the devil they know? There's certainly no safety in the Democratic Party's "big tent," as the last two elections -- some would say, the last ten -- have shown clearly enough.

I'm not trying to convert people on the Right. If you think that Bush went to Iraq in order to spread democracy, or if you truly believe that Wall Street will take good care of peoples' retirement accounts -- well, if you believe those things, then God bless you, and read no further. These essays are not for you. No, they are written for people more like me -- people who most certainly don't like the way the country is going, and who go to the polls every four years and hold their noses and vote for a Gore or a Kerry because they can't think of anything better to do. When the next election rolls around, and the Democrats wheel out their next hapless mummy and tell you it's your duty to vote for him -- or her -- I hope that you will have something better to do, and I hope that this book will have helped suggest some of the alternatives.

Annie would ask, at this point, "Alternatives? Just what are these alternatives of yours, Mr. Big Expert?" Well, Annie, we'll get to that. But let's diagnose the illness before we prescribe a cure.

On to Chapter 1
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