And Then There Were Two

Just heard as I was brushing my teeth this morning that John Edwards has pulled out of the Democratic race. Last week it was Kucinich. After the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of the year, it was Dodd (I think.) Gravel is still officially in the race, but nobody has taken him seriously. Dunno about Biden. So for all practical purposes it’s down to Clinton and Obama. During the same period, the Republican field has also narrowed, as Giuliani pulled out, leaving Romney, Huckabee, McCain, and Ron Paul.

Since I don’t get to vote till next week (actually I can vote early, and may do it today, but my vote won’t be counted until next week,) I’m kind of annoyed at having fewer people to vote for than the residents of South Carolina and Florida. But, on the other hand, this year, at least nobody’s getting knocked out of the race for some petty trumped-up pseudo-scandal like the ones that were all over the map in 1992 (like Senator Biden’s ghost-writer plagiarizing from some British politician’s ghost-writer, and Dukakis’ staff-person leaking the story about it to the paper) and 2004 (like Howard Dean’s barbaric yawp.) This time, people are just running out of money.

The media, of course, have still played a malignant role, but a slightly different one from earlier years. Now they don’t bother trashing anybody’s reputation (well, okay, Edwards did get some flak about being a rich trial lawyer and espousing the needs of the poor, but it never really caught on and they never really pushed it), they just blandly state up front that certain candidates don’t count, and cannot be taken seriously. Ron Paul, for instance, and Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel, and Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. Even when the “don’t-counts” stay in the race, the media ignore them and do everything possible to keep their faces and their messages away from the public. But trashing them would require paying attention to them, and maybe even (heaven forbid) attracting the public’s attention to them. Can’t have that.

So the tone of this race has been elevated slightly (well, not debased as badly as in previous years), but the range of media-acceptable political opinion has, if anything, narrowed. The field of candidates has narrowed, and the significance of the primary process has been eroded still further.

I can still remember the 1968 Democratic convention, which happened right down the street from where I was working at the time. Most people, of course, were mainly paying attention to the protests against it. But it was the last blast of the old system of nominating presidential candidates. One of the things that some of us were protesting was the fact that the convention was nominating a candidate who had not won a single primary election. In 1972, our current system was set up to replace the smoke-filled room. Three dozen years later, it is becoming obvious that we have merely replaced one set of smoke-filled rooms with another. (Well, okay, probably nobody smokes inside any of those rooms any more–that would be illegal and unhealthy.) The old party hacks who allowed Lyndon Johnson to impose Hubert Humphrey on the Democrats have been replaced by media hacks and money-raisers. Most of the party hacks had, at least, been elected to something by somebody, somewhere along the line. The media hacks and money-raisers are answerable to no one but their donors and their own whims. Public funding, which was supposed to solve at least some of these problems, has been swamped into irrelevance by the sheer magnitude of the private money available for campaigning these days.

And I am still bothered by the increasing number of voters, in person-on-the-street interviews before, during, and after the various caucuses and primaries, who come right out and say, “I’d like to vote for X, but Y has a better chance in the general election.”

In the first place, if we haven’t learned by now how badly the official sources of information are doing at calling winners and losers this year, we just aren’t paying attention. I wouldn’t vote for dogcatcher on the basis of what this crop of experts predicts. They’ve been wrong over and over again, and anybody lazy enough to listen to them instead of watching the numbers themselves deserves to be bamboozled. So who knows which candidate has the best chance in the general election? The waitress who brought my soup at lunch today is as likely to be right as anybody else, and I might as well rely on my own hunches.

And in the second place, “strategic voting” undermines the whole point of the secret ballot. Polls have shown again and again that if you ask a voter “Who will you vote for for X office?”, you will get an entirely different answer from what you get if you ask, “Who would you vote for if you thought s/he had a chance of winning?” Isn’t it about time we tried electing some of the people we’d prefer if we thought they could win? Maybe some of them could win. And if one of them did, maybe we’d be better off than we are now.

It’s the old “neighbor” fallacy. During the early days of the Civil Rights movement, pollsters asked people how they would feel about living next door to, working with, or working for someone of another race. The answer, more often than not, was something like, “I wouldn’t mind, but my neighbor/co-worker/friend would have a fit.” Sometimes those answers were given in good faith but in ignorance of how the neighbor/etc. really felt, and sometimes they were disguises for the respondent’s own racism. But either way, they deprived the pollster, and the rest of us, of the respondent’s honest view of the possibility of racial justice, which we really needed.

So here’s a modest proposal for this year’s election. For at least one office (not necessarily for president, since so many people are so fearful of “wasting” their vote by not voting for the winning candidate), vote for the person you most respect in the entire world, whether or not that person is on the ballot. Write him/her in if you have to. Real or fictitious, living or dead, involved in politics or just somebody you really admire. Your husband, your mother, your favorite teacher, Mickey Mouse, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa. The real “waste” of a vote is voting for somebody you really don’t want. This year, make sure that at least part of your vote isn’t wasted.

Red Emma

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