By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As an epistemology of politics, though, it is somewhat distressing to think that the dark art of political communication is the closest we can come to truth. Because if that’s all we know, then we really know nothing. After all, as great as Sharpton’s rhetoric was, it was still the words of a man whose words have earned due skepticism.
Which reminds me of an observation by Stephen Sherrill, a producer at Air America, who said that when people complain that the conventions no longer have action, what they’re lamenting is the loss of city bosses and brokered politics and the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Today’s well-lit coronation ceremonies, then, express an unprecedented openness in the system. Reasonable enough. But I can’t shake the feeling that if a four-day television spectacular funded by Pfizer and Verizon is democracy, then democracy may be in trouble.
This was a fitting doubt to have in mind as Ralph Nader stepped to the podium in Hall A of the Science Center at Harvard later that day. Nader had just flown in from Alaska — a real campaign, Nader proudly said, is one that visits all 50 states — and this was his sole Boston appearance before driving to Connecticut that evening.
I voted for Nader in 2000, but won’t this time around, and not just because of the potential for another razor-thin margin. The premise of Nader’s campaign — I can cooperate with everyone else except the Democrats — seems to contradict his great legacy as a consumer advocate, which was achieved by working with Democrats in Congress. Then there’s the questionable alliance with right-wingers on ballot access. And that open letter to Michael Moore accusing him of being a fatso was just weird.
Nader remains a convincing orator, however, and his arguments are still dead-on. “We live in an age of consistently lowered expectations,” he told the overflowing audience. “‘They’re called ‘realities.’ But why should you settle for the least of the worst? Is that what the abolitionists should have done? Should they have backed off because one of the two major parties was not as bad on slavery? There is no end logic to the least-worst calculation.”
He went on to say we are losing our democracy to a corporate cosmogony where people and government are secondary to business. It’s a potent criticism. And stirring. What I’ve always liked about Nader is that he brings on the fighting mood: If they’re going to slit our throats, let’s at least not wait in line for the knife.
The more interesting speaker in the hall was Caroline Johnson, who made brief remarks before Nader arrived. Johnson, who graduated this year from Harvard, is running for state Legislature in the district that includes Cambridge. Although Johnson shares Nader’s political perspective, she’s disappointed by his approach.
“The big ideas are great,” she said when I caught her after the event. “But I’d like it if he’d talk more about solutions.” For Johnson, that means entering local elections to make things happen now. Her opponent is incumbent Alice Wolf, a Democrat who always runs unopposed. But Johnson thinks Wolf’s become complacent and chummy with the do-nothing state leadership, so Johnson’s mounting a challenge as the “Rainbow-Green” candidate. “I would like to see Nader encourage people to do what I’m doing,” she said.
But Nader seems to have lost interest in pragmatism. The reason he offers no solution like Johnson’s is that his critique now digs so deep it’s beyond politics. When he articulates the omnipotent invasions of corporate supremacy or calls George Bush “a giant corporation masquerading as a human being in the White House,” as he did that afternoon at Harvard, it’s not a political point. His is a radical socio-cultural-economic understanding of America, the world — reality even. It brings to mind the false world of the Matrix (a surrealist simile that was reinforced in Boston by the sight of Bernard-Henri Lévy wandering around the Fleet Center wearing dark, rectangular shades with his shirt unbuttoned), except that the way Nader tells it, the Matrix is inescapable. Our freedom is becoming extinct, he says. We live in a one-party state. But if, as he likes to say, the election is a choice “between King Kong and Godzilla,” the next question must be: Who’s Rodan?
Because is it any better to be a spoiler? In retrospect, the very real choice that was 2000 is painfully clear. And as much as the parties seem to converge over the summer as they play for the undecided center, a similar choice exists in 2004. Bill Clinton said it best in his tone-setting speech Monday night: “Democrats and Republicans have very different and honestly held ideas on what choices we should make.” More than anything else, today’s vote elects a worldview. And if we’re at a fork in the road, as Clinton suggested, that worldview makes the difference between a potentially bright future and a Hobbesian era of Hieronymus Bosch horror.
So in this sense there was something for voters to care about at the convention, and it may be best illustrated by the prime-time slot for Ron Reagan Jr. and the massive applause for Kerry’s line about medical research. Both parties want to own optimism, but it’s Democrats who back that up with policy. Even The McLaughlin Group’s John McLaughlin, who was standing next to me on the floor when Hillary Clinton spoke, gave a few claps when she mentioned stem-cell research. And he shouted “Beautiful!” when Clinton thanked the families of September 11 for demanding a commission to investigate the country’s intelligence failures. For all the convention’s faults — the false unity, the papered-over progressives, the corporate sponsorship — it did communicate the basic message that Kerry would make better decisions than Bush.