GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

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Ralph Nader’s gotten a fair share of attention on this site, especially last spring around the time he announced his bid for President. My basic stance on this, set forth in this op-ed (and here here, here, and here), is that Nader’s run is misguided and attempts to appropriate him as a scapegoat for the recent failures of the Democratic party to energize voters are equally so. I would’ve liked to see Ralph Nader speak here last night, because he’s certainly, in my experience, a sharp and powerful speaker and more so because I’d like to see him defend his recent lurch to the right on immigration. But besides the scheduling conflict, I wasn’t going to donate money to his campaign to get in, a concern which I suspect kept many who otherwise would have attended (in his defense, Nader, unlike Bush, didn’t make anyone sign loyalty oaths to get in). According the YDN write-up, Nader said some things I agree with, like

“If you don’t make demands on [Kerry], he doesn’t get any better,” Nader said. “If he doesn’t get any better, he doesn’t get votes.”

Absolutely, the left needs to hold Kerry accountable as a candidate, and im yertzach HaShem as President, and to do so forcefully, stubbornly, and persuasively, something the left manifestly failed to do with Clinton, as Randy Shaw recounts from an environmentalist perspective in his Activist Handbook, and Thomas Geoghegan recounts from a labor perspective in Which Side Are You On. But my break with Nader comes when he conflates those who’ll vote for Kerry with those who idolize him, and those who see unseating Bush as a first priority with those who see it as the only goal:

“Universities are a den of ‘anybody but Bush, leave Kerry alone, make no demands on him,'” Nader said. “That’s a brain-closer. Give me anybody who says ‘anybody but Bush,’ and they’re incapable of talking about any other strategies, variables, nothing.”

Condescension and self-righteousness (among the qualities, like gigantic bank accounts, which Nader, Bush, and Kerry share in common) aside, this argument is effective as constructing and beating up a straw man (I know very, very few folks who really believe that getting rid of Bush would solve all our problems), and phenomenally ineffective at speaking to the concerns of the millions of Americans who’ve born the greatest portion of the burden of the Bush presidency, those faced with losing their jobs, losing their healthcare, or having the constitution desecrated to write them into second-class citizenship. For all Nader’s arguments about long-term benefits and short-term costs, he hasn’t done much of a job of garnering the support of those most likely to pay the costs for the benefits he talks so compellingly about. The truly outrage slap in the face of those who’ve judged themselves unable to take another four years of the same, though, is this:

It really is political bigotry when people say, ‘Do not run.’ When they’re saying, ‘Do not run,’ they’re saying, ‘Do not speak, do not petition, do not assemble.

This sound byte follows in the proud rhetorical tradition of George Bush’s use of the term “political hate speech” to refer to those of us who criticize his policy record. It’s equally disingenuous, and equally cheapens the real bigotry which continues to bedevil this country and the real people who make and express empirical views on the best course for progressive change for this country. The fact of the matter is that most of us who’ve said to Nader, “Do not run,” have also said, affirmatively, “Speak. Petition. Assemble.” We desperately need, before this election and after it, to demonstrate resounding consensus behind progressive change. What absolutely must challenge the Democrats from the left. But voting is more than a symbolic aesthetic act. It’s an exercise of power, a power most effectively used at this juncture to elect a candidate who would be drastically better for this country. And there are far more effective means to articulate strong progressive stances than rallying behind an electoral campaign whose couple-percentage vote draw will only provide talking points for those who deny the existence of a broad progressive constituency – a constituency which has largely turned on Nader not out of bigotry, but out of urgent insistence on immediate change in the direction of this nation.

Speaking of Ehrenreich, Jay at HipHopMusic.Com is pondering the reaction among the center-left blogging establishment to this column, in which she skewers Nader’s 2004 candidacy and repents for voting for his last one. As Jay says:

Most of the A-List lefty bloggers are not really all that far to the left, at least compared to the wild-eyed hippies I hang out with at WBAI. And I don’t have any problem with that, we need a variety of voices out there.. but it’s disappointing to see how smugly contemptuous some of these guys can be towards folks who are a little further left than themselves. Ehrenreich’s crime, evidently, was to voice her support for Ralph Nader in 2000, which so offended these guys that four years later they still disparage her mental health and (quoting Lenin) diagnose her with an “infantile disorder.” And now that Ehrenreich is joining them in rejecting Nader’s 2004 campaign, they can’t let go of their grudge, and just keep on with the sniping and condescension even when she’s on their side…sometimes you can cling to a grudge so tightly it stops the flow of blood to your brain. And if you want those who supported Nader in the past to feel welcome joining you this time, you should probably stop treating them like you think they are idiots.

That last sentence can’t be repeatedly enough. It’s something many of us have said in many fora, but it seems strangely inscrutable to a crowd all too eager (as they should be) to welcome the conversions on the way to Damascus of those who literally, willfully voted for Bush the last time but seemingly congenitally unable to organize or organize with those who cast a vote in 2000 which they see as equivalent to a Bush vote. Had this crowd – or the larger Democratic establishment – channelled a fraction of its anger against those who cast Nader votes against those who systematically expunged Gore votes, things might be very different right now.

As Jay says, one of the more perverse manifestations of this selective Nader-induced blindness has to be the refusal to understand the irony in the following Ehrenreich paragraph:

So, Ralph, sit down. Pour yourself a Diet Pepsi and rejoice in the fact that — post-Enron and post-Iraq war — millions have absorbed your message. You’re entitled to a little time out now, a few weeks on the beach catching up on back issues of The Congressional Record. Meanwhile, I’ve thrown my mighty weight behind Dennis Kucinich, who, unnoticed by the media, is still soldiering along on the campaign trail. In the event that he fails to get the Democratic nomination, I’ll have to consider my options.

Get it? In other words, I too harbor hopes for progressive national leadership of a kind we’re unlikely to see in a Kerry administration, and I continue pushing challenges to the conventional wisdom of the two-party system. But I also recognize political reality as it is now, and however reluctantly, I’m ready to make the sacrifices necessary to see Bush out of office.

Only when she says it, it’s a hell of a lot more clever. To read her paragraph and claim that it shows she hasn’t learned her lesson and isn’t ready to support Kerry is just absurd. For those who did, and who think that I’ve somehow misinterpreted it in the preceding paragraph, let me just say that I know what she means not only because the article makes it abundantly clear but also because she told me so personally six months ago when she came down to New Haven to participate in our women’s arrest. Quoth Ehrenreich: “I’m throwing whatever weight I have behind Kucinich for now, and when the time comes, I’ll throw it behind Dean or whoever the guy turns out to be.” And by the way, when she mentioned having weight to cast, in person as in writing, she clearly meant to be fecicious.

An outrageous and deeply cynical comment by Kos, who should know better:

In addition to suspect signatures, entire reams of signatures can be invalidated if the person collecting them is a felon. Turns out that out of the 122 paid people who gathered the Nader signatures, at least 19 are confirmed felons. One of them was convicted for forgery. Considering that these same felonious petitioners were also soliciting signatures for an anti-immigrant initiative and an effort to invalidate Arizona’s clean election law, invalidating those petitioners and their signatures may actually serve triple duty, helping defeat Nader’s cynical presidential effort AND two nasty Republican-backed ballot efforts.

Not much new to say about this. Voting for Ralph Nader is, I firmly believe the wrong choice for someone concerned with progressive change in this country to make, and overlooks the tremendous difference between the greater and lesser of the two evils for those most directly affected by government policy be it creating jobs, protecting the right to organize, keeping bigotry out of the constitution, or sustaining the earth. But how should Kerry supporters respond? By organizing voters behind the Democratic candidate, and organizing the candidate behind a progressive agenda which co-opts Nader’s issues rather than demeaning his supporters. Not by drawing from the other side’s playbook by seeking out ways to disenfranchise voters by narrowing their democratic choices. Kos, unfortunately does this and descends one step further by lauding Democrats for taking advantage of this country’s abysmal treatment of former convicts, a group whose make-up (in case Kos has forgotten) is disproportionately minority, disproportionately poor, and shamefully swelled with first-time non-violent drug offenders. Felon disenfranchisement is the closest parallel this country maintains to a poll tax. Progressives should be working to undo it, not to exploit it for electoral gambits.

Turns out that, as I posted my thoughts, (scroll down) in the early hours of this morning, on why Nader would be wrong to run and why the Democrats would be wrong to respond to a Nader run by Sister-Souljah-ing the left, my classmate Dan Munz had, a mere forty minutes earlier, posted his (brilliantly titled) thoughts on why Nader would be wrong to run, and why the Democrats would be right to respond by Sister-Souljah-ing (his reference) the left. It’s a small shtetl after all, eh?

Dan and I disagree, like many registered Democrats who fall into this debate, on both a tactical level and an ideological one, and given that we apparently both lost sleep last night setting forth our visions for the party, I won’t rehash that debate except to say again that I believe the Clinton years and the Gingrich revolution are only the most recent demonstrations of the danger in seizing the center and the power of offering a choice rather than an echo. It’s not surprising, of course, that Dan and I are each largely convinced that a party more in line with our respective ideology would also be more effective at building a governing majority (that, of course, is part of the weakness of the “electability” discourse).

Dan is right, of course, that to argue that there’s no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is a weak straw-man argument, and one that hurt Nader’s case. I would add on the one hand that it’s an argument that’s particularly easy to make from a position of relative privilege, in which the comparatively progressive reforms that Clinton accomplish – the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, more progressive NLRB nominees, and others – make relatively little impact on one’s life. I would add on the one hand, however, that relatively few of those who condemn the two-party consensus in America would argue that there is, in fact, no difference between the parties (some of course do for rhetorical effect).

Dan goes on, however, to make an equally unfounded claim: that there’s no difference between the Greens and the Democrats. While Dan’s right that Nader’s agenda is “certainly more in alignment with Democratic than Republican values,” that isn’t saying much. It’s hard for me to imagine many of the sixteen issues Nader lists as the core of his campaign as the centerpieces of a Kerry Presidential run. “Full public financing of public elections with the necessary, broad changes for a more fair and representative election process, replacing present charades?” “Universal health insurance — single payer embracing prevention, quality and cost controls”? “A redirected federal budget for the crucial priorities of our country and away from the massive waste, fraud and redundancy of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” as well as the massive costs of corporate welfare”? Dan may not share these as priorities – or even as goals – but I think it’s disingenuous to argue that Nader doesn’t stand for anything the leadership of the Democratic party doesn’t.

Dan argues that “when I see an organization I don’t like, I try to join and persuade it to change. I don’t bail and get all distructive.” I’d argue that social change depends on having folks on the inside and the outside of institutions – be they the Democratic party or, say, the State Department. The system needs to be both kicked and dragged (I’ve tried to act this out with my arms and legs a few times, and I’m told it’s been amusing, if perhaps not enlightening). Dan argues that

These days, a lot of the major battles have been settled, and largely in Democrats’ favor. Both parties now admit we need civil rights, we need social security and other entitlement programs, we need better health care, we can’t be completely isolationist, &c.

To which I’d respond, along the lines I alluded to in my earlier post, that today neither party is proposing the kind of ambitious, radicial, structural change – in areas from public school funding to healthcare to the crippling effects of the drug war – demanded before we could really talk with a straight face about “starting gate equality” for Americans of color, and those who do find themselves labelled “race-baiting demagogues” and are candidates for the Sister Souljah treatment; that neither party is articulating reforms like raising the income ceiling on the payroll tax to make social security a more secure entitlement and a less regressive tax; that neither party is offering the kind of healthcare reform that has saved costs, saved lives, and saved millions from healthcare insecurity in most industrialized nations; and neither party has offered an comprehensive alternative to the use of unilateral military and economic power as American leadership in the global community. As Dan said, “One man’s homogeneity is another man’s consensus…”

Dan and I agree that Nader would be wrong to mount a 2004 Independent Campaign. And we agree that the way for the Democrats to respond to a Nader challenge would be to illustrate the real differences between them and the Republicans. The difference, maybe, is that I think to so compellingly would require more than just a shift in rhetoric.

Over the summer, John Halle, at that time one of two Greens on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen, announced that he would not seek another term and wrote, rightly, in the New Haven Advocate that more on the left should recognize that

…getting something accomplished in government–getting a stop sign put in at a dangerous intersection, getting a loud bar closed down, keeping a power plant out of the city–means moving from spectator to participant in government.

Becoming a participant means talking to people, sometimes people very different from yourself, and getting to know them, not treating them as theoretical terms in a complex behavioristic model, but as human beings…

That piece, unfortunately, went downhill from there, concluding cynically and wrongly based on his few years on the board that

Most of the time when someone wants a virtually unpaid job in local government with the Democratic machine [like alderman or commission member], it means they’re up to no good. They probably have some scheme that will allow them or some friend favorable consideration before the city. Or they will exchange their vote and their independence for a patronage job on the Board of Ed, a marshal [contract], a community development block grant to the non-profit they manage. If they’re an Ivy Leaguer, local politics means a brief experience on the ground giving them street cred before they move into high-paying appointed positions in the permanent government.

So if someone comes knocking at your door telling you how much they want the job, that may be the strongest indication that they shouldn’t have it.

This Yale Professor’s broad-brush condemnation of everyone else involved in city government, and the self-serving justification behind it for his failure to transform the city for his Aldermanic perch, received a good deal of deserved criticism, from this letter from David Adams Murphy

But of course, you didn’t go into local politics for such a mundane motive as money or prestige. No, you did it to help people, as a gesture of your boundless magnanimity. … And when you discovered that your effectiveness against seasoned politicos would be minimal at best; that these corrupt, ignorant polyester-clad slobs wouldn’t welcome you as their Ivy League messiah, cast aside their nets full of graft and follow you into the wilderness; that whatever you might accomplish would come at the cost of drudging through minutiae, you felt bad about yourself . Which kinda defeats the whole point of becoming a Yalie, huh?

to this one from Alderman Ben Healey:

The cynicism underlying [Halle’s] statement undercuts all that we progressives should work for in this city. How can we build grassroots political structures if our first reaction to those who take the risk of getting involved is one of suspicion? We will never empower ourselves to fight for social change if we do not each, instead of rejecting that door-knocker, engage him or her and join the fight for social justice (either with that person or an opposing candidate)…

Halle made the (unfortunately common) mistake of mixing strident critique of entrenched local government power structures – which inspired important work during his time on the Board – with an air of condescension towards the working people such government should represent, and who are the first victims of its failures.

Halle has now written a longer retrospective on his time on the Board, which is similarly a mixed bag. He repeats his blanket condemnation of New Haven Aldermen (as if, simply by nature of being elected, there must be something wrong with them). His critique certainly applies to some of the Aldermen; it is an undeserved and misguided slur, however, against several others. The Connecticut Center for a New Economy deserves credit for its work in getting many of the latter group elected, and for modeling a strategy of finding and supporting candidates with strong ties within their communities and helping them organize to win elections based not on their identification as Democrats or Greens, or as allies or opponents of Mayor DeStefano’s machine, but on their articulation of an agenda for substantive progressive change in their communities and in New Haven.

Halle articulates, quite well, the compelling need for organized political movements to the left of local Democratic parties and, kal v’chomer (all the more so) the sicker national Democratic party:

the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.

The historical precedents for this view are well known. Bismarck’s acceptance of national health insurance is generally understood to be a concession in the face of the revolutions of 1848. The success of West German labor unions in the Cold War period is understood to have resulted from the silent presence of a third negotiator at the table-the eastern bloc. The threat posed by organized leftist politics, both domestic and foreign, is what created the climate for the passage of New Deal legislation…

And conversely, the waning of serious, organized oppositional politics is certain to result in the dismantling of the gains which have been achieved in period of progressive ferment – in increasing concentration of wealth, assaults on civil and human rights, inferior working conditions etc.

But running on the Green ticket is not enough. CCNE and the Democratic Machine worked together in November to defeat the challenge to incumbebt Democrat Alfreda Edwards,

a Black working mother who’d filed more complaints on behalf of her constituents than anyone else on the Board, from Green Charles Pillsbury (yeah, those Pillsburys), who made news denouncing Yale’s unions and Yale’s administration as equally stubborn and unwilling to compromise and then tried to insinuate himself on an 1199 podium long enough to make it into the photograph.

The Green Yale’s unions – in a deeply unfortunate move – did support, Joyce Chen, was most clearly distinguished from her Democratic challenger, Andre Baker, by Chen’s opposition to one of the major progressive reforms on the table in New Haven: Domestic Partnership.

The DeStefano machine, as was most recently and dramatically demonstrated by DeStefano’s shameful pact with the New Haven Savings Bank, needs critical opposition, and critical opposition movements, from the left. On some issues, as Paul Bass argued in October, New Haven’s Greens have done so admirably. On others, they’ve dropped the ball. Halle’s latest piece exemplifies both the potential for third party politics in cities like New Haven and – inadvertently – the traps they face.

This YDN piece sets forth the common – and accurate – wisdom that Tuesday’s election and September’s primary, in which the New Haven Democrats captured one seat each from the Greens and the Republicans, for a total of 28 out of 30 on the Board of Aldermen, and in which several critics of Mayor DeStefano were replaced with allies, represents a significant shift in the power on the board, and a consolidation of control behind DeStefano and his team. This has tremendous positive potential, as evidenced in DeStefano’s victory speech Tuesday night, in which he identified as his first two priorities domestic partnership and campaign finance reform – both areas in a which New Haven has the potential to pass progressive legislation matched by only perhaps a dozen other cities in the country. DeStefano’s shift to the left, however, has not happened in a vacuum – besides his growing commitment to running for Governor in 2006, DeStefano has been pushed by his critics from the left, including, as Paul Bass argued a couple weeks back, the Greens.

The one Green left on the Board, however – Joyce Chen – has gotten the most headlines of her term by vocally and visibly opposing domestic partnership. That stance, and her rhetoric in defending it, cost her the support of many of her constituents – myself and many progressive undergraduates included. The unions’ work in support of Joyce, who has a record of support for the social contract that labor and community movements have been pushing in this city, and the Democratic party’s work in support of Democrat Andre Nicole Baker, created an ugly scene between members of both camps at the polls, despite the co-operation of both in winning several wards for pro-labor progressive Democrats, among them Drew King in Ward 22, where most undergrads who aren’t in Ward 1 or 2 live. Drew beat Office of New Haven and State Affairs-supported incumbent Mae Ola Riddick’s write-in campaign, after having defeated her in the September primary and this summer at the Ward nominating committee.

Meanwhile, the YDN editorial board, which instituted an annual tradition of calling on Ward 28 Alderman Brian Jenkins to resign his post as leader of the Black and Latino Caucus after his minority address, is now worried that without him there’ll be fewer voices to keep DeStefano in check.