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Elections are Fundamental: Get Used to Them

There are many reasons for hating electoral politics. But if one wants change, then compromise and doing battle are part of the deal.
 
 
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If you have any doubts that the elections matter, contemplate for a moment the devastating impact of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's death. One Senator standing for principle, fighting for people instead of corporations and wearing his heart on his sleeve, gave enormous hope to many. It was reassuring to know we could count on a vote of principled dissent when discourse was muffled by the self-serving consensus in the halls of the Capitol, as happened with the Bush war resolution.

The hole Paul has left is huge, but the inspiration he leaves us with may prove to be more powerful than anyone imagined. Clearly many of the hundreds of thousands demonstrating for peace on Saturday in San Francisco, D.C. and many other cities were carrying Paul Wellstone in their hearts.

Wellstone's brave vote against the Bush war resolution was particularly striking (among current Senate candidates, Illinois Democrat Dick Durban cast the only other No vote). It ran counter to the fearful conventional wisdom that one should not vote against the President in matters of foreign policy. Virtually every key Democratic Senator, most not even running for reelection, caved. This gaggle of sorry Democrats, many with an ambitious eye toward the presidency, played the new role of "ostrich hawk." Vote for war, and a virtual blank slate for Bush, and stick your head in the sand and pretend you didn't.

Those who took the dive -- talking peace and voting for war -- are already notorious: Tom Daschle, John Kerry, John Edwards, Clinton as in Hillary, Diane Feinstein, Joe Biden, and Richard Gephardt, the Democratic House leader. Their gutless performance is a good reason, one might think, for being cynical about electoral politics: Politicians all eventually break your heart. (For the lowdown on members of Congress who voted for or against war, visit Michael Moore’s website.)

But there is another way of looking at elections. When those we elect betray us and break our hearts, they should be punished, and more principled talent found, when possible. I personally hope that the careers of this crew are over. But for me that might be a tactical decision down the road. In politics, it's necessary to keep your options open as well as draw the line at a fundamental principle. If you are clear that you will never support Democrats who voted for war, you can sign a pledge to that effect.

Fortunately, there are still elected officials who qualify as role models: Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, Nancy Pelosi, Dennis Kucinich, Ted Kennedy, Jon Corzine, the aforementioned Dick Durbin and others.

Politics Avoidance

It’s often tempting to disdain electoral politics. This attitude dates back to the '60s when many thought that revolution was waiting around the corner and electoral politics was hopelessly "out of style." The reasons for hating electoral politics are simple: It’s corrupt and the corporate interests that fund the campaigns often get what they paid for -- it seems that anybody elected to office eventually sells out.

But there are other less defensible reasons for avoiding electoral politics.

"Often it is a psychological issue," says Lisa Witter, an issue activist and PR specialist who has long worked in electoral politics. "Some issue activists are afraid to become unpopular by getting their hands dirty. As long as they stay pure, everyone pats them on the back. But when you make compromises people get angry and disappointed and maybe you even lose an unrealistic funder or two. And sometimes it seems that people are afraid to win, that winning means that they must have done something wrong."

Another activist notes that, "It's easy to be smug and superior and feel you are always right, and avoid the messiness of compromise. The hard part is engaging in incremental change."

But feeling superior is the easy way out. Standing on principle is one thing, but there is little room for purity in down and dirty American politics. If one wants change, then compromise and doing battle are part of the deal. There really are no exceptions. Progressives sometimes forget that, if we are serious about social change, we must operate effectively in every realm of politics -- elections, media, ideas, lobbying and so on. Some still insist it's all in the organizing, passing up political and media opportunities.

The Right Wing Cometh

If anyone needs any inspiration for voting and mobilizing their colleagues and friends to the polls, the prospects for this coming election are particularly ominous. For the first time since 1929, the right-wing of the Republican Party might gain effective control of all three branches of government for a long time (they had control for a short time until Jeffords turned independent and voted with the Democrats.) With just one more vote Republicans control the U.S. Senate, a task made potentially easier by Wellstone's death.

Already the Republicans and their business interests are celebrating in anticipation. The Washington Post reports that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are so optimistic about winning both houses of Congress, "that they have begun mapping how they would use their new power, including the possibility of speeding up tax cuts that were to take effect gradually."

The conservatives’ unchecked political power could be particularly devastating for a woman’s right to choose, our environment, social security and corporate accountability. And perhaps most frightening of all, it could guarantee a Supreme Court controlled by the far right for decades.

As People for the American Way points out, with one or two more justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, more than 100 Supreme Court precedents could be overturned. Much of the legal and social justice victories of the past 65 years could be wiped away, and our constitutional framework returned to a pre-New Deal era, when states rights and property rights were predominant.

It has now been more than eight years since the confirmation of Justice Stephen Breyer, the longest interval between Supreme Court vacancies in 179 years. Since 1950, there has been an appointment every two years on average. We are long overdue.

What can we do about this ominous situation? We can dive in during this last week and make sure we know who to vote for at all levels of office; we can make sure our family and friends know who to vote for; we can quickly send money for the last-ditch effort to keep Congress balanced, and to ensure the election of governors and local officials whose values we agree with.

As Michael Moore writes: “The Republicans are incorrigible at trampling on democracy. After stealing the 2000 presidential election (which Bush lost by more than a half a million votes), they are up to the same old tactics of bullying, lying, and deceit. In Georgia, they're intimidating minorities; in Florida, someone's calling Dems to tell them to vote AFTER the election; Vietnam-dodging Republicans are holding themselves up as war-mongering "patriots"; and the War on Iraq is a scheme to win back the Senate.”

Close Calls

There are a number of races that are still too close to call, especially in the mega-struggle for control of the Senate. Roll Call lists these eight Senate races as too close to call at press time:

Arkansas Mark Pryor Tim Hutchinson
Colorado Tom Strickland Wayne Allard
Minnesota Paul Wellstone Norm Coleman
Missouri Jean Carnahan Jim Talent
New Hamp. Jeane Shaheen John Sununu
New Jersey F. Lautenberg Doug Forrester
So. Dakota Tim Johnson John Thune
Texas Ron Kirk John Cornyn

Here are the Congressional races with true progressives running: Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin House District 2; Julia Carson, Indiana House District 7; Baird, Washington District 3; Fuller Clark, New Hampshire House District 1; Joe Courtney, Connecticut House District 2; Dario Herrera, Nevada House District 3; John Norris, Iowa House District 4; Ed O'Brien, Pennsylvania House District 15; and Richard Romero, New Mexico House District 1.

To get lists of contested races, visit Bowling For Columbine.

Visit BuzzFlash to make contributions by credit card directly to the campaigns that you want to support, so the money can be used immediately.

Progressive Majority Report

One new player in electoral politics is Progressive Majority, a PAC devoted to electing people who will lead the fight for economic justice, civil rights, healthcare, education, the environment, and reproductive freedom.

Gloria Totten, Progressive Majority's executive director, emphasizes something that bears repeating: Poll after poll shows that American voters are much more liberal than the values and positions represented by the Bush Administration. Why is this? One problem is the safe seats that Republicans have (and Democrats too) that tends to freeze the current political equation into place and reduce the number of competitive seats to 10-15 percent of the Congress.

Another is a dearth of good candidates, who often lack the resources to make a competitive run, a problem that Totten's group is helping to overcome.

"Most Americans want a more just, more enlightened country -- one that pays its workers a living wage, that bans sweatshops and keeps our food safe, that guarantees comprehensive affordable health care for all, that invests in high quality education for our children, that ensures dignity and security for seniors, that protects civil and political rights, that stays out of our bedrooms and private lives," Totten says. “These are majority positions -- and we need to find and support candidates who will run strongly on them.”

Out in the field Republicans are running vicious campaigns to fend off challengers. One Progressive Majority candidate, John Norris, running in Iowa's Fourth Congressional District, has had to deal with TV ads that say:” Who is the real John Norris? Look behind the rhetoric. The real John Norris worked to elect Jesse Jackson president, running on more taxes and military cutbacks. The real John Norris said Bill Clinton wasn't liberal enough. And the real John Norris attacked Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, saying his charm conceals a right-wing agenda. I guess you really can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. Tell John Norris those are not Iowa values."

On Long Island, the incumbent, Rep. Felix J. Grucci Jr. (of the famous fireworks family) began his re-election campaign as the odds-on favorite. But a spirited challenge by a novice Democratic opponent, Timothy H. Bishop, has shifted the dynamics dramatically. Grucci actually accused Bishop, the Provost of Southampton College, of covering up rape, a charge so volatile that it has produced a backlash against Grucci.

In the end, many races will come down to a small number of voters -- you could be one of them.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org .

Go to MoveOn.com and download and print the Regime Change Begins at Home poster.