Getting Physical

Not since the 1930s have the labor, civil rights and peace movements been this unified in a presidential campaign, and almost never before have the raw realities of power been so flagrantly exposed behind the showcasing of democracy American-style.

It will get worse in the days ahead. Many Americans will have to push their way through the resistance of Republican operatives seeking to obstruct the right to vote. I predict it will get physical.

Remember the white riot staged by Republican congressional staffers, many of them flown in on Enron jets, to shut down the Florida vote count in 2000? Remember the Democratic leadership cautioning Rev. Jesse Jackson not to lead militant demonstrations that month? Remember the pressure coming from the highest levels to achieve "closure" and "stability" rather than prolong the battle over who won Florida?

The Republicans learned all over that November that force and intimidation work. It's happening all over again. The US "Federal Election Assistance Commission" admits they lack 500,000 trained poll workers for Tuesday. A top Republican in Michigan opines that victory depends on how many black votes can be suppressed. Companies like Diebold control millions of electronically-cast votes without oversight. The Ohio Republicans wanted voter applications to be on paper with holiday-card thickness. South Dakota Republicans work to stop the Pine Ridge Oglala from turning out. The Pentagon political machine is mobilizing the overseas military vote. The purging of hundreds of thousands of ex-felons continues in state after state. And Florida is once again, well, Florida.

This time elements of the Democratic coalition are prepared to fight back, unlike 2000. New York Times editorials make America begin to seem like a banana republic. Thousands of activists have registered up to 700,000 new voters in Ohio. The Florida turnout is projected at 75 percent. It may be the largest voter drive in progressive history. If Kerry wins, it will be due in large part to these new voters.

Republicans know that victory depends on impeding turnout, that the important thing is to interrogate people of color, the elderly and students, drive them away from the polls by any means necessary, drown the complaints with a drumbeat about whiners, and leave it to the courts.

This is a moment of truth. It has been an ideological maxim for many on the Left that the vote is meaningless, a diversionary reform at most. But if the Republicans are willing to use any means to suppress the vote, especially among people of color, how can any progressive person be indifferent any longer? The fact is that systematic efforts are underway to repeal the right to vote for thousands, even millions, of Americans whose ancestors fought and secured it, or so we are taught to believe.

Let us concede the point that the vote has been hollowed out by the power of money, the seduction of personality, the oligarchical arrangement of the parties, the growth of clandestine decision-making. But the very effort to render the franchise meaningless reveals its potential for changing the social order. The promise that every person is equal in the ballot box is feared as a precedent that could get out of hand in a society founded on so much inequality. Democracy ultimately becomes contagious, excessive, to conservative thinkers like Harvard's Samuel Huntington. At the very bottom of things is the fact that the pure marketplace of neo-conservative dreams cannot coexist alongside the universal franchise. It is an interference in free markets, a potential restraint on trade. It is to be controlled as a privilege, never conceded as a right.

In the unfolding confrontation, millions of Americans are learning the profound lesson that the right to vote is not secure, that plans to steal elections are made at the highest levels of authority. It is a radicalizing lesson, not a seduction into the smoke and mirrors of America's fictitious pluralism.

On Tuesday at least, the traditions of civil disobedience and electoral politics may converge. What are Democrats going to do if long lines of voters are blocked? E-mail John Ashcroft? Are newly-politicized protestors going to forget about their confrontational tactics for the day, or use them against the Republican bullies? What are trade unionists supposed to do when a Republican pushes or punches someone trying to vote? What are defenders of democracy to do when the whole world is watching Republicans approach the election like a seizure of power? What will happen when it's too late for the lawyers and the foul deed is done again?

If Republicans stand in the way of democracy Tuesday like reincarnations of old George Wallace or Ross Barnett, it should be time for the movement to say once again: move on over or we'll move on over you.


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