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Fear and Gaming in the Presidential Election

by Fran Shor

A specter is haunting progressive politics! The fear of the election of George W. Bush as President has terrorized many on the liberal-left. Instead of working for the election of a candidate congruent with a progressive agenda, such as Ralph Nader, the possibility of a Bush Presidency has left many progressives fumbling for rationales to support Al Gore. Like the Puritans of 16th century America whose obsessions with the devil led to bizarre thought and action, the paranoia about the election of Bush has led to irrational fears about his politics and an occluded vision of Gore's politics.

While Bush may be, to quote from his now infamous description of a New York Times reporter, "a major league asshole," it does not follow that he is the devil incarnate, albeit the devil and assholes shared the same nether regions in medieval iconography.

Yes, it is true that Bush's record in Texas on the death penalty, the environment, social welfare, and a host of other issues reflects reactionary politics. On the other hand, what have been the Clinton-Gore policies on the death penalty, the environment, social welfare and a host of other issues? Projecting on to Bush all evil conveniently overlooks Gore's support for the death penalty, his compromises on the environment, and his championing of the punitive 1996 Welfare Reform Act, an act which has ravaged the urban poor, including many HIV-infected men.

Of course, there are differences between Bush and Gore that progressives should care about, especially in the area of reproductive rights and labor issues. Yet, the fear of Bush's possible judicial appointments for reproductive rights is blown way out of proportion by Gore apologists who neglect both the moderate conservatives appointed by Bush and those Republican-appointed justices to the Supreme Court (ala Blackman, Stevens, Souter,etc.) who have upheld the legal right to abortion. Furthermore, when one considers a long list of other issues, the differences between Bush and Gore pale into near insignificance.

Consider the positions of Bush and Gore on the following issues dear to progressives in relationship to Ralph Nader:

Both Gore and Bush support an unworkable and expensive "Star Wars" missile system. Nader understands that such a system is another boon to defense contractors and a perpetuation of mindless militarism and unnecessary Pentagon spending. Only Nader takes seriously the progressive position of cutting the Pentagon budget and reversing the mindless militarism that flows from such a budget.

Both Gore and Bush support a racially-punitive and civil-liberty violating drug war that has incarcerated over 500,000 mostly young men for non-violent drug offenses. Nader would decriminalize drug offenses, reverse corporate prison expansion, and stop the latest foreign intervention in Colombia where the drug war is used as an excuse while propping-up a military and paramilitary internationally condemned for human rights abuses.

Both Gore and Bush make hypocritical and halting references to campaign finance reform. However, only Nader endorses full public financing, ending soft money contributions, and eliminating corporate welfare.

On issue after issue Gore and Bush endorse the same policies: from maintaining the child-killing sanctions on Iraq to expanding the exploitative designs of corporate globalization to denying equal civil rights to gays and lesbians.

So, why are there massive numbers of progressives still quaking in fear and touting the lesser of two evils?

Part of the problem is directly related to the structural impediments in the US electoral system, especially the lack of preferential and proportional voting. Many democracies have much more representative systems than ours, allowing in many instances parties such as the Greens to achieve national prominence as they have in Germany and New Zealand. Ultimately, if third party candidates are to play any role in national campaigns, such changes will be required. However, those changes won't come about unless people vote for those third parties.

Yet, inherent in voting is another contradiction noted by Henry David Thoreau: "All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, a playing with right and wrong; its obligation never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it." And so, progressives throwing in their lot with Gore engage in an act of expediency for which they believe they can divine all the odds. But such gaming does a fundamental disservice to the very agenda that progressives hope to enact.

Perhaps, the real tragedy of progressives planning to vote for Gore has as much to do with the loss of hope as with the embrace of fear and expediency. Worn out by a corrosive and corrupting system of electoral politics, many progressives have given up any hope that a third party can achieve either local, state, or national prominence. Lacking a mechanism to translate their vision of social justice into political reality, they have succumbed to a form of what C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realism" - a paranoid reality where Al Gore is the Great Protector against the Great Satan, George W. Bush.

Let us hope that there is still time for these progressives to come to their senses by recognizing the wisdom of Eugene Debs: "It's better to vote for someone you want and not get it, than to vote for someone you don't want and get it."


Fran Shor teaches at Wayne State University. He is an active member of the Metro Detroit Greens and a coordinator for "Labor for Nader." His e-mail address is: f.shor@wayne.edu.


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