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By Joseph Tsidulko
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Still, even if that’s true, most people believe that the rise of talk radio has had an enormous effect on the country, and that it has pulled the country to the right. So it would be richly ironic if MoveOn, which was born of outrage at the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, eventually evolved into talk radio’s left-wing equivalent. And if right-wing radio really has been as politically influential as many believe, one might well wonder whether neutralizing it through an opposite and equal force might not eventually pull the country back in a leftward direction.
Boyd certainly seems to think so. “There’s a myth of America being a right-wing country,” he says. “There’s also a myth of America being a divided country. There’s so much Americans agree on that we can use this technology, and this way of connecting, to do good work. So we can actually get stuff done instead of fighting.”
The received wisdom about two-party politics in America is that the party that appears more moderate generally wins. The reason why the two-party system has always driven parties toward the center is because that’s where the undecided votes are. But this year the dynamic may be different. For the left, especially, anger at the president has caused such an unprecedented degree of politicization that it may no longer make sense to allow moderates and swing voters to dictate every aspect of electoral strategy. Instead, people like Boyd may be betting on the notion that this time around, huge numbers of Americans who don’t normally vote will go to the polls on November 2 and pull the lever for John Kerry. Not just in Democratic strongholds like New York and California, but in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where MoveOn is focusing its efforts.
To a longtime mainstream Democrat such as the political consultant Pat Caddell, the degree of vituperation coming from both sides is disturbing. He believes that the hatred of Bush manifested in MoveOn’s ads alienates and often angers political moderates. He expresses amazement at the decision by Marc Jacobs, the fashion designer, to turn the window of his store in downtown Manhattan into an anti-Bush harangue, and the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasmin which the comedian Larry David (whose wife is an active member of MoveOn) decided not to sleep with a woman solely because she was a Republican.
“Obviously, everyone has a right to speak and should speak out, but this just crosses lines,” Caddell says. “What would happen if American corporations started attacking Democrats as part of their normal business?”
Caddell, when you speak to him, sounds like a flesh-and-blood human being. He speaks from the heart as well as the head, he worries about means as well as ends, and he thinks of voters on both sides of the ledger as people rather than as pawns to be pushed around. Divisiveness for its own sake offends him. Moreover, he thinks it’s bad strategy. “What politically is being accomplished by the vitriol inside activist circles towards Bush?” he asks. “It blinds people. It reminds me of watching Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell at work — all liberals are evil. [Hating Bush] is a secular religious thing, and it’s not very smart politically. If I were a Republican, which I’m not, I know what I’d be doing with it.”
But is divisiveness as counterproductive as it has been in the past? Is this an election different from all other elections? We won’t know until it’s over, but anyone who lives in a “blue” state knows that something unusual is in the air. It’s possible that the fundamental rule of American politics — that the most valuable votes are found in the center rather than on the margins — may have been temporarily suspended. And the clearest evidence for this argument can be found among the kinds of normally lackadaisical Democrats MoveOn has galvanized into action.
Usually, the problem with heating up the base is that it eventually becomes angry at the mainstream section of the party for being too moderate. The left wing of the Democratic Party can almost be defined as the section that thinks of the center as a sellout. Left-wing Democrats hated Ronald Reagan and the war in El Salvador almost as much as they now hate George Bush and the war in Iraq. But their anger didn’t translate into active support for Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. They voted, but they didn’t work for those elections. They put their passion into organizing directly for their own causes.
This time, however, things are different. For the first time since the 1960s, there is no opposition between the base and the elite of the Democratic Party. The presidential election has become a cause in itself — a kind of √ľber-cause that carries all other progressive causes in its wake. What’s more, the reservoir of undecided voters is smaller than it has ever been. For once, there may actually be more votes to be found on the wings than there are in the center.