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Consider the Alternative

Four years ago, I was among those who welcomed Ralph Nader's fresh air into the presidential campaign, and in this space I disdained the Democrats' sour grapes about the final outcome. This year I think we have no such luxury, and not only because the Nader campaign has diminished into a symbolic defenestration sustained only by Reform Party hacks and sly GOP hustlers. As honorable a decades-long career as Nader has led as an independent, progressive reformer, he has been an utter and unapologetic bust as a sustainer of long-term organizational development, and indeed in that vein he has made the Democrats look like an activist majority party, even in Texas.

There was a particularly odd moment, early in Nader's campaign, when he blew into Texas and discovered that the Republicans had re-redistricted the state into a GOP handbasket, and what's more, they had issued an unbelievably reactionary party platform. We kind of knew that, Ralph. We live here.

More simply, even in Texas, on the down-home issues like health care and health insurance, public schools, higher education, the environment, labor rights, economic development, and so on, it's the hard core of progressive Democrats, in office and out, in election season and out, who are grinding out the unglamorous work of trying to make things better for ordinary Texans. They are burdened by plenty of poltroons and scalawags among them who do little but get in the way, but that happens to be the nature of democratic politics.

The good guys need more space in which to work, and a John Kerry victory in November would mean four years of a little more space. And maybe a little less war. No utopia, just a little more breathing room for ordinary people.

From the Bottom Up

No less a profoundly radical thinker and activist than Noam Chomsky had similar thoughts earlier this year, as he considered the small but real differences between the Republicans and Democrats. Under a Kerry presidency, he suggested, we could expect a foreign policy rather like Clinton's "sort of the same policies [as Bush], but more modulated, not so brazen and aggressive, less violent." Small comfort, but real. On domestic issues, the difference would be greater because the Democrats "have to appeal somehow to working people, women, minorities, and others, and that makes a difference." And that difference in constituency can translate into better defense of hard-won community institutions: Social Security, public schools, health care, the judicial system, even the increasingly battered shared notion of the common good. Anyone familiar with the political and legislative history of Texas over the last eight years should be able to connect the dots.

And Chomsky offers a lesson in all this for independent activists, far beyond the outcome of this particular election. "These may not look like huge differences, but they translate into quite big effects for the lives of people," he concludes. "Anyone who says 'I don't care if Bush gets elected' is basically telling poor and working people in the country, 'I don't care if your lives are destroyed. I don't care whether you are going to have a little money to help your disabled mother. I just don't care, because from my elevated point of view I don't see much difference between them.'

"That's a way of saying, 'Pay no attention to me, because I don't care about you.' Apart from its being wrong, it's a recipe for disaster if you're hoping to ever develop a popular movement and a political alternative."