On Native Ground
TO WIN, DEMOCRATS MUST BE BOLD AND THINK BIG
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Sometimes, from the point of the activist, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good."
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been saying that line a lot over the past couple of months as he travels the country in his role as the anti-Nader.
Dean's role in the presidential campaign seems to be to admonish the lefties that still remain in the Democratic Party that they should stick with John Kerry and not waste a vote on Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate David Cobb or any other third-party candidate.
You don't have to tell me that it is imperative to get rid of the Bush administration, but that fact doesn't preclude thinking critically about the candidate we are asked to back. As Norman Solomon wrote recently: "Just because you think people should hold their nose and vote for Kerry, don't act like there isn't a stench."
Nothing I've written over the past decade or so has generated as much response as my last column lamenting the Democratic Party's abandonment of liberalism. While the need to re-defeat Bush overrides everything else at this point, I believe it's important to remind people that Kerry isn't exactly the person to lead us into the promised land and that Democrats shouldn't give up on thinking big.
I remember the trap that many liberals fell into when Bill Clinton was elected. The prospect of ending 12 years of Republican misrule prompted us to put far too much faith in Bill Clinton's ability to turn things around.
Clinton made several conscious choices when he took office in 1993. He allowed Alan Greenspan to run the U.S. economy. He set the federal government on a path of fiscal austerity and deficit reduction. He co-opted the perennial themes of big business and the financial markets: globalization, deregulation, and cutting back on social welfare programs. He maintained military spending at Cold War levels.
In exchange for making these decisions, Clinton got low unemployment, low inflation and a robust economy that defied all existing economic norms. As a result, Clinton - who, as you might recall, ran as a reformer in 1992 - governed as a moderate Republican. Instead of embracing big ideas, he went for the small and symbolic. Instead of creating a climate for change, he reinforced the status quo.
It didn't have to turn out this way. The 1990-91 recession provided Democrats with ample opportunities to point out the flaws in the Reagan Revolution - a widening gap between rich and poor, growing social unrest and a crumbling public infrastructure. Instead, Clinton and the Democrats co-opted the Reagan-Bush agenda.
Just look at the economic numbers. Since the beginning of the Reagan era, about 90 percent of all the created wealth went to the richest 10 percent of Americans. The gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans is the widest it has been since the 1920s.
Look at the political numbers. The Democratic Party in 1992 had control of both houses of Congress, more than half of the governorships and a majority of the state legislatures. None of that is true today. For all of Clinton's political skills, the Democrats have lost political power.
Good schools, universal health care and a strong labor movement are taken as givens outside of the U.S. But here in America, they are considered beyond the pale because they all deal with that unmentionable word - class - and how redistribution of wealth is only acceptable when it rises upward.
Liberals can't worry about being branded as stepping out of the accepted boundaries of the national political dialogue - boundaries that have shifted sharply to the right over the past couple of decades. Pay no attention to those who accuse us of "class warfare." Liberalism is about greater equality for all, and that means joining with the middle class, the working poor and the rest of the average folks in America who are ready to hear a message that speaks to their needs.
Polling data consistently shows that the strong majority of Americans are concerned about corporations that maximize profits at all costs - regardless of the impact on workers, their families and their communities. But while people decry the overarching power of corporations at the expense of a humane and ethical society, they also decry the one institution that can curb that power - government. Years of anti-government propaganda by conservatives have poisoned people's attitudes. As a result, solutions that can only be achieved through an activist government never happen.
That's why getting the Bush administration out of the White House should be seen as only the starting point. That's why I want a Democratic Party that offers something more than just not having President Bush at the top of the ticket. I want to see the Democrats reconnect with their traditional constituencies and be unafraid of big ideas.
Has anyone the guts to ask why this nation is still spending five times more on its military than Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba combined? Or why we remain the only industrialized nation in the world without socialized medicine? Or why this nation has more of its citizens behind bars than any other nation in the world and spends more on prisons than on schools? Or why 10 percent of Americans control roughly 90 percent of the nation's wealth?
These are valid questions that the Democratic Party doesn't seem to want to address. It doesn't have to be that way.
Here in Vermont, this November's election will be a referendum on health care. Every candidate on the Democratic ticket is pushing universal health insurance as the top legislative priority.
The party didn't have to run out and conduct a poll to decide this. Ask any Vermonter, and they'll tell you that they are sick of seeing their health insurance premiums rise 20 percent every year. Even the business community is coming around to the idea that single-payer health insurance isn't such a bad idea.
What would seem like an impossibility in other places in America could become a reality in Vermont. That's because we still have a functioning democracy in this state. Politicians are accountable and responsible. Special interests and lobbyists have little power. The press here still covers government with vigor. And citizens are active and involved in nearly every level of decision making. It's not utopia, but it's a damn sight better than what we see in Washington.
This Nov. 2, Election Day, will be one of most important days in the recent history of our nation. But, Nov. 3, the day after the election, will be just as important. Yes, we want Kerry to win, but the job for liberals after the victory party will be to make sure we don't end up with another Clinton presidency; a presidency that pays lip service to the left while governing from the right.
"Asking if Kerry is as bad as Bush is like asking if a slap in the face is as painful as a brick to the skull," journalist Greg Palast wrote recently. "But don't you get tired of being slapped around by privileged politicos on hypocrisy overdrive - then having to applaud?"
Certainly I am tired of it. I want something better.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.