I grew up before politics became a religion. Before Kennedy and Reagan turned it into a political version of American Idol. Before it became one’s personal license of virtue.
It was a time when a ward heeler stepped into the curtained voting booth with my uncertain aunt to pull her levers for her. When a Cambridge councilmember told this college journalist that he didn’t know how to vote on a police pay raise because he figured each of these guys were making several thousand dollars on the side. When an FBI agent came to our house to quiz my father about a Democratic pol he knew. When Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell got more good legislation passed in less time but you wouldn’t want your daughter near either of them. When, as his media guy, I helped Marion Barry get started on his career only to watch it disintegrate.
It was a time when politics was not the road towards salvation but – if you made the right choices – a tool of survival. And when voting for the lesser of two evils was not considered misguided, but much of the time about the best you could do.
Having experienced and covered political corruption all my life, I came to regard it as a feudal arrangement. The politicians got power but were expected to do things in return. And they did.
But today this reciprocity is no longer necessary. Thanks to rule by dollars, politicians can get away with doing little or nothing. Or stealing from those to whom one used to give. One example was Marion Barry who I dubbed the last of the great white mayors because he was of the older tradition. He provided a great new summer youth program. After he had gone to prison and our politics had turned its back on service in favor of financial contributions, another prominent DC politician was caught stealing a couple of hundred thousand dollars from a youth program. Another example was Arkansas where its governor was making his way to the White House doing hardly anything for his constituents. It just no longer mattered.
Television was a major factor in the change. Once you could buy your way into office with advertising, who needed to do all those favors for actual citizens? In fact, who needed parties, the things that used to define one’s politics? Only nine states even allow straight ticket voting anymore and 11 have done away with it in the past 20 years.
Thus the voter has been transformed from a constituent to a member of a fan club.
But the parties still exist, as do their programs, whether the current election idol says anything about them or not. For example, vote for the Democratic candidate for president and you are also voting to help preserve programs such Social Security, federal insurance for bank accounts, welfare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, bargaining rights for labor, restrictions on overtime, a 40 hour work week, a minimum wage, regulation of the stock exchanges, the Soil Conservation Service, national parks and monuments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Small Business Administration, civil rights legislation, Head Start, Job Corps, the national endowments for arts and humanities, Teacher Corps, anti-poverty programs, nutrition assistance, Medicare and Medicaid.
Add to that four potential open seats on the Supreme Court and a Senate that may have to rely on the vice president for decent legislation to be passed, and you come up with a pretty strong argument for voting for the Democratic candidate whatever her faults.
As I put it once: “It is hard to descend from the mountain top of exquisitely constructed ideology into the thorny, rock-strewn valley of politics. But in the end, the only test of faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded on a curve — not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement over all previous, surrounding and potential imperfections.”
But what about a third party vote? As a co-founder of both he DC Statehood Party and the national Green Party, it’s something I have reflected on for a long time.
When I compare the two – DCSP started in 1970 and the Greens in the 1990s – I am struck by a cultural difference. The Statehood Party was formed in the wake of the 1960s which had excluded traditional politics from its tool box in favor of action and issues.
Our leader, Julius Hobson, for example, had run more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities. Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. And he won a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies that led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school ‘superintendent and first elections of a city school board.
Those of us starting the Statehood Party were trying to expand our capabilities with politics. But our core remained action, issues and the local. For 25 years we had a seat on the city council and/or the school board.
The Green Party seemed quite similar at the start. But it was a different time and even though most major change still started with the local and the non-political, Greens became increasingly infatuated with running a national candidate for president.
I didn’t like it, though, writing once:
“The Greens have vastly overrated presidential campaigns at the expense of real grassroots organizing. Given America’s perverse election laws, the best any third party can expect at the top level is one shot. In the past century, only five third party presidential candidates have gotten two digit results; only two of those – LaFollette (17%) and Debs (11%) – were left of center. Third parties that worked from the bottom up – such as the Populists and Socialists – truly affected the politics of America.”
Then there was the sort of nonsense that blamed Nader for Gore’s 2000 loss even though the polling data shows this was patently untrue.
The one tool early third parties had – being allowed to share candidacies with major parties – was so successful that most states banned it. Today, the best hope for a good national third party role is ranked choice voting.
But today, to vote for Jill Stein – wonderful as she is – or to stay home on principle is to also give a helping hand to perhaps the worst major presidential candidate in history. And what if, as a result of your vote, you help to starve hundreds of thousands who lose food stamps under Trump? Where is your virtue now?
Those Sanders supporters considering not voting should also consider another factor. Your candidate created the strongest progressive political movement in decades. And when he lost the nomination he didn’t give up, jamming into the party platform issues it didn’t want to touch.
Now, despite his endorsement of Clinton, the movement is still alive. If Clinton wins, I suspect we will soon be talking of the Bernie movement again, a force that would have no impact on a Trump administration but could continue to redefine what it means to a be a Democrat. Further, a Trump loss would be a major defeat for a stunningly negative generational constituency and a further opening for the younger generation that has waited too long to succeed it.
Yes, Hillary Clinton will be in office. But so will new senators, Supreme Court justices, and lower level officials aided by the Trump collapse. Yes, Clinton is corrupt, a liar and con artist, but like the corrupt mayors and governors of the past she is only part of the story. And, in this case, there is a young movement off to a remarkable start that would be tragic if abandoned.
I started revealing the Clintons’ corruption a quarter century ago. But much earlier than that I had already learned that politics was not religion. That you had to lay your best card on the able at the right time – keeping your cause and your values but not letting them take precedence of the realities of the moment.
We live in a two mob town called America. And faith aside, we still have to figure out which mob will do the less damage to the least number of us. In this case it is the one that nominated Hillary Clinton.
So take your airplane barf bag to the polls, vote for Clinton and the next morning, start to help get the movement for something dramatically different going again.