For several months, especially the last few, I’ve had a strange sensation of sitting in some state of suspended animation, waiting for something – anything - to happen to snap this nation out of the bad dream we’re all experiencing. That something, of course, is the election that’s now – at long last – upon us.
Now that it’s here, almost unexpectedly, I find myself out of time and out of words. There’s nothing more I can say to parse the issues, to counter arguments, or to sway your vote. I hope, however, you will allow me a few minutes, a few words to reflect on where we’ve been, my concerns about today, and my hopes and fears for what awaits us beyond tomorrow.
This election campaign has gone on for far too long and been far too bitter. In one sense it began ten months ago, when, in mid-winter, John Kerry sewed up the Democratic nomination and Republican attack ads made their first appearance already in February. In another, more important sense, it began on December 3, 2000, when, by a deeply partisan 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court ordered a halt to the on-going recount in Florida and declared George W. Bush President. Despite the popular vote nationally and the rampant irregularities in the Florida vote, many of us harbored the hope President Bush would govern from the middle and reach out to that majority of Americans who had voted against him. He had, after all, campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and promised to be a uniter instead of a divider.
Instead he wrapped his Administration in secrecy, governed as if he had some overwhelming mandate, and soon put forward a radical domestic agenda that was corporatist rather than conservative, gutting energy and environmental regulations among others. It became clear that he intended to govern solely for the 49 percent who had voted for him, ignoring the majority who had not. The latter were told again and again “Get over it!”
What ensued were the ugly politics of “wedge issues” and triangulation – the politics of Lee Atwater, Dick Morris, Carville and Matilan, and, yes, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. They would triangulate their way to a “majority” of 50 percent + 1 and pursue the still narrower interests of corporate insiders and “social conservatives” persuaded to ignore their interests in favor of “family values” and flag-waving. The Kulturkampf had begun in earnest.
This triangulation, designed to slice away chunks of “opposition” supporters, cut away instead the middle of the political spectrum. The country was divided into blue states and red states, the latter roughly corresponding geographically to the old Confederacy and the “fly over country” of the Great Plains. Congressional leaders, who used to socialize and even sing together (I remember Bob Michel and Charlie Rangel doing just that.), ceased even talking to each other. Invective replaced communication, with the Vice President of the United States even going so far as to tell a Democratic senator on the Senate floor to “Go f—k yourself.”
After September 11, our courage and maturity were discounted in favor of fear which became the tool of choice for the triangulators. They used that fear to whip up a purple rage that blinded us to unwise policies abroad and the erosion of our rights at home. In a sense, the terrorists had achieved their broader, longer-range goal beyond the destruction of two buildings and the killing of thousands. They had unbalanced the entire nation.
And big lies – WMD, links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda – were repeated over and over again until they were believed by a majority of Americans and formed the basis of disastrous policies. Even when the lies and failures became manifest, their authors showed no shame, took no responsibility. The President took pride in his “resolve,” while 1,100 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis died. As a result, I no longer trust my government to tell the truth.
The media not only evaded its responsibilities to report the true facts, it became complicit in the deceit, beating the drums for an unnecessary and unjust war of preemption and displaying its “even-handedness” by giving equal time to the lies and to the truth. Reasoned, civil discussion of the issues gave way to shouted arguments staged to entertain rather than enlighten. And it was left to an entertainer – Jon Stewart – to enlighten. As a result, I no longer trust the mainstream media to uncover the truth.
Pollster John Zogby has called this an “Armageddon election.” I certainly consider it the most important in my lifetime. For a continuation of current trends and policies portends only disaster for our country and the world. Like so many other voters, I will vote for John Kerry not because he was my first choice or because he represents my views on all or even most issues, but simply because he offers the only viable alternative to that impending disaster. After the election – should he win – it will be up to progressives to keep him honest.
Trouble is, this could be an “Armageddon election” in an even more basically disastrous way. For our election system, with its archaic, arcane, and undemocratic electoral system and its hodge-podge of ballot machinery in which few have any confidence, has become the butt of jokes around the world. And Americans are crying, not laughing.
When all is said and done, however, I remain a hopeful person. I have great hope, for example, in the good sense and goodwill of the American people. I refuse to believe that we are as dumb as the politicians and “journalists” believe. I am encouraged by the huge upsurge in registrations, particularly of young people, and by the long lines of people waiting hours to vote early. Perhaps there will be a landslide for Kerry. Perhaps we will wake up from our bad dream.
If we do, there will still be lots of work to do. It will be up to those of us who vote for him to insist not only on wise policies but also a return to civility in our national discourse and to sanity and decency in our international conduct. We must insist that he and we return to policies and modes of conduct that call upon the best in American character, that bring us together in true patriotism, and that motivate us to move forward not in fear but in courage and in wisdom.
Do you remember those weeks in the immediate aftermath of September 11? Yes, we were wounded. But in our shared grief, we came together as family. We supported each other and we had the support of the world. It was a time of pain, but also of great, unfortunately squandered, opportunity. I tried to capture the feeling in a short poem I wrote on October 11, 2001:
A month's gone by.
We're not the same
and no different from all the others.
We've found a certain comfort
in discovered vulnerability,
a sharing oneness in our grief,
compassion in the face of fear.
The little flags are everywhere.
But, now, they signal something new,
a loss of hubris,
and new found gravitas,
a sense that, after all these years,
we're finally growing up.
Have we grown up at long last? Can we recapture that unity and dignity? Or will we squander this opportunity too and find that we’re really out of time.
I hope you’ve voted. I hope, too, that whether or not you voted and regardless of whom you voted for, you will join me in a simple prayer for Election Day: God bless America.