Gore: Better, not best

Aug 30, 2000 at 12:00 am

It must be some playful new postmodernist form of politics: First you spend years ranting about the plutocracy that has supplanted American democracy and is rapidly devouring the planet. You complain about the growing numbers of Americans who can’t afford health care or housing; you rant about the inadequacy of wages and the arrogance of the corporate overclass. Then, just as large numbers of people start tuning in and even getting excited to the point of supporting the one presidential candidate who’s making the exact same points you’ve been trying to get across all this time — you whip around and shout, “Only kidding, folks. Get out there and vote for Gore!”

Normally I’m more responsive when summoned to help save a drowning man. But none of the lefties for Gore are arguing that Gore has said or done anything recently to earn progressive support. He’s going down is all, and going down so quickly and inexplicably that no one can call him “wooden” anymore — there’s a question whether he’s even carbon-based. Here he is, faced with the frothiest Republican presidential hopeful since Dan Quayle, and Gore can ignite no sparks, cannot even rise above his own fundraising scandals or apparently grasp wherein the scandal lies. As recently as late June, for example, he praised an audience of African-immigrant Americans for their contributions to his campaign, promising that the money would be “helping to focus the attention of our country on issues in Nigeria or Ethiopia or Ghana or Cameroon or South Africa.”

We are being summoned to save this inveterate bribe-seeker because “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.” That in itself is a disturbingly Orwellian proposition, easily generalized to “Don’t challenge the system, you’ll only make it worse.” But leaving that aside, let us acknowledge that Bush is indeed scarier than Gore on several discernible issues, abortion the most prominent among them. Hence the familiar plea of the pro-Gore leftists: Keep W.’s pudgy little fingers off the Supreme Court.

Ah, the Supreme Court! Never mind that pro-choice Justice O’Connor was a Reagan appointee or that Clinton’s man Breyer is one of the most economically conservative justices around — the Supreme Court gets dragged out every four years to squash any attempt to escape the Democratic Party. So it has been, and so it will always be until we have a court consisting entirely of pro-choice teenagers.

Abortion, which is the issue I am most frequently Gored with by the political “realists” of the left, deserves a closer look. Note first that the prominence of this issue in the Gore/Bush race above all reflects the loving concordance of the candidates on almost everything else — militarization, incarceration and the necessary immiserization of working people everywhere in the service of global capital. Note second that what has vitiated abortion rights on the ground is not so much the legal whittling away of Roe vs. Wade (though quite a bit of that has gone on too, at the state level) as the relentless pressure from anti-choice groups on abortion providers. And aside from reining in clinic picketers, there’s not a whole hell of a lot the Supreme Court can do to fix that.

It should be recalled, too, that we didn’t get legal abortion in the first place because nine men in black robes were kind enough to allow us to have it. Women fought for it by every means possible, illegal as well as legal. Surely the anti-Naderites of the left can agree that Roe vs. Wade wasn’t the author of women’s liberation, just as Brown vs. Board of Education did not create the civil rights movement. Deep social change is made by deep social movements, not by edicts.

But the left-wing Goreites often seem oblivious to the dynamics of real social change. They say we have to build an alternative politics — only just not yet. Wait until we replace “winner take all” elections with something more democratic, they urge. Fine, only where is the energy to reform the electoral process going to come from unless we start challenging that process with attractive third-party candidates now? Or they say wait until we have a real party — who are these Greens, anyway? But parties don’t just grow by accretion. Sometimes they have to do things — grand, noble and, from a “realistic” point of view, surely foolish things — like stepping into the fray and duking it out with the bullies and their designated surrogates.

What I fear most about a Gore victory — yes, I said victory — is its almost certainly debilitating effect on progressives and their organizations. During the Clinton years, many a feminist, enviro and labor leader were so charmed by the crumbs of “access” thrown their way and the occasional low-level progressive appointment that they bit their tongues whenever Clinton showed his true Democratic Leadership Council colors, e.g. with welfare reform. And every time I would sputter, “Dump this creep!” someone would whisper soothingly, “But he’s pro-choice (and so much more pro-labor and pro-tree than the other guy).” Is this what we’re going to hear when it comes time to protest the war in Colombia or any other Gore-perpetrated horror? At the very least, the progressive Goreites ought to explain how they intend to avoid getting into another hostage situation should their man win.

But I can’t get really mad at the Goreites of the left — there is such a becoming and altogether seemly diffidence about them. To my knowledge, none of them are sporting Gore buttons or bumper stickers, and I don’t expect any of them to invite me to a Gore house party anytime soon. While they may firmly believe that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” they seem also to understand that a vote for Gore is a vote for the system as it stands — and specifically for the DLC-dominated Democratic Party. Like it or not, that’s how the Gore votes will be counted, and that’s how they’ll be spun.

Here’s how generous I am: I’ll tell them what they can do if they’d like to save Gore. They should stop flacking for him — stop all this carping about “spoiling” and “vote stealing” — and explain to their man what he’d have to do to start taking votes away from Nader. Like renouncing the substitution of bribery for the democratic process. Like pledging to spend the budget excess on such daily necessities as universal health insurance and child care. Like embracing a worker-friendly approach to world trade.

I doubt Gore could ever become Nader-like enough to steal my vote from the original, certainly not after his choice of DLC leader Lieberman as veep. But it sure would be nice to see him try.

Barbara Ehrenreich's forthcoming book, Nickel and Dimed, on low-wage work in America, will be out in the spring of