The Disturbed Democrats

by Jonathan Wallace

I am almost fifty, and my lack of trust in the American political system is the greatest it has ever been. I had more naive faith in democracy when I was a teenager, demonstrating against the Vietnam war, or following the latest developments of the Watergate hearings and the prospective impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Iran last week suffered a tremendous leaching away of democracy as the hard liners used their control of the judiciary to eliminate thousands of reform candidates from the ballot, and then captured fifty-one percent of the parliament in a tightly controlled vote. I could only think that the inner scaffolding of control, revealed in our press because we do not like Iran, is not so much different from what we have here. Elections are scripted here too, and we also use the judiciary to pre-determine the outcome; witness the Supreme Court handing Bush the victory in the last one, or the Democrats going to court in every state this time around, to try to prevent Ralph Nader from getting on the ballot.

The fuss over Howard Dean's insurgent candidacy, and then his rather predictable drubbing in the primaries, has the feel of a heavily-spun, largely scripted event. I don't mean his original surprising commandeering of attention; it is his crash and burn that has the feeling of a story concocted in a back room somewhere. What is particularly disheartening about all this is the press' complacency, its acceptance of its role as a messenger of spin, as reflected in its ability to present the same person or idea under conflicting aspects without transition. The kind of narrative I want from the press (it will admittedly always be a narrative imposed on the unwieldy, random and overwhelming facts) would have shown me a man with certain talents and other flaws, playing out his destiny all along; not the hero suddenly transformed into a goat without any explanation.

Republican columnists openly hoped for a Dean candidacy, seeing him as the man to beat, and he probably was. However, the Democrats are more frightened of Ralph Nader than they ever could have been of Howard Dean, because Dean at least, as a Democrat, played by their rules and consented to their influence, and Nader does not. Hence the undermining of Ralph Nader must be performed more largely in the open, via court challenges and slander--witness the spin of Nader, even by some of his former friends, as a "monstrous egotist" for running. And George Bush, or John Kerry, or anyone else wishing to wield power in America, is not?

I voted for Ralph Nader against Bill Clinton in 1996, and I picked him again over Al Gore in 2000. Thus I am arguably one of those who handed the election to Bush last time. (Not really, because I voted in New York, which went solidly for Gore, and not in Florida, where the Nader vote was many times larger than Bush's margin of victory.) Do I regret it? Partly, but not entirely. What will I do this time? I am not yet sure.

I am a life-long registered Democrat, and, the way I see it, the Democrats are involved in the following dialog with me.

Democratic Party: You have accused me of many things: of being captive to the rich, of timidity, of lack of vision, of having betrayed the left-leaning principles of past decades, of selling out the poor, racial minorities, and other historic constituencies of this party. Fuck all that. You have to vote for me, or you'll wind up with someone much worse, as you did due to your ill-considered Nader vote in 2000.

Jonathan: I don't like bullies. You are saying that you can do anything you please, in complete disregard of my wishes, and I must still support you, in order to avoid a victory by the other guy. While I don't agree with Ralph Nader that you and the Republicans are exactly the same--I think we would have been much better off with a Gore presidency these last few years--I know you are too close together for my comfort, both mired in the money and influence which has choked the system almost to death, so that the real election is held with dollars and not with votes. You keep telling me I have no choice, and that is true as long as I play by your rules. But I do have the remaining choice of a desperate man--to withhold my vote as long as you insult me by disregarding my voice. If enough people like me, former supporters of your party, vote for independents, eventually you may get the message, and swing back in our direction to get us back.

DP: By doing that, you will merely hand the election to the Republicans once again--who will continue doing irreparable damage to the U.S. economy, to the deficit, to Social Security, to the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, to international security and human rights, and the beat goes on. If you don't vote for us, you must accept the consequences.

J: Your analysis is nauseating to me. You basically exempt yourself from the moral consequences of any of your actions, and you place all responsibility on me. Thus, your willing entry into captivity by special interests is to be ignored, your cupidity, complacency and weakness, but my disgust for your behavior is morally reprehensible. I don't accept that. I hold you responsible for everything that has happened; you can end it any time you want by bringing me back into the party.

DP: Are you really willing to risk another four years of Bush to accomplish your agenda?

J: It's a game of chicken, isn't it? I might be. I was certainly willing to take the risk in 2000. All I know is that if I don't stick to my guns, you will never change.

The Democratic Party today is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's view of the Catholic Church as a hippopotamus: it can sleep and feed at once. In a system where we all have been anesthetized by the quiet fluttering of money dispensed by powerful men, the only way I can exert any power--the power that is due me as a voter in a democratic system--is by withholding my vote from the party that used to represent me: the disturbed Democrats.