Once more, but without feeling
What you think is not as important as what you feel. When it comes to the crunch, it's the latter that carries the day. As hard-headed a socialist as George Orwell said the same, writing, in My Country Right Or Left, of how it took a dream to clarify his feelings about the coming war:
...the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible.Four years ago, I realised only at the last minute that I really wanted Gore to win. Of course, I wanted Nader to win, and other than that, politically, my position was abstentionist. Prior to the very last night of the campaign, my position was pure politics, the reaction of the intellect, but at the last minute the heart takes over. When you know how you feel. What I felt was that I really wanted the Democrats to win.
Sometimes it's important to distinguish the supporters of a political party from that party itself, and this is true of no party more than the Democrats. In the absence of alternatives, parties come to take on a symbolic meaning that has very little connection with what they'd do, or even what they claim they'd do, in office. This is what enables today's presidential election to seem to be about so much, when in reality, it is about so little. However small the differences between Kerry and Bush - which are even smaller than the differences between Bush and Gore - the differences between supporters of the Democrats, and supporters of the Republicans, are enormous. Greater even than they were four years ago. The Independent has it completely backwards today: it titles its story A day that will decide the fate of the world and begins it thus:
For once, the cliché wheeled out by desperate politicians trying to terrify their lazier supporters into voting is no lie.But surely it is the other way round! It is the desperate electorate trying to convince their lazier politicians that the election is of such importance. Not least, because both Republican and Democratic supporters have tried very hard to convince themselves that John Kerry is something very different to what he actually is, despite his own efforts to make plain the contrary. This reminds me very much of the 1997 General Election, in which many Labour voters had convinced themselves, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever other than their own imaginations, that Mr Blair had a secret radical agenda which he couldn't announce in case it lost him votes, but which he would unveil as soon as he got the chance. (He did, of course, have a secret radical agenda, but not the sort which they were thinking of.)
Even so. No matter how illusory these illusions were, they mattered, and they were no less illusory than the political campaign itself, at least in terms of the politicians themselves. But which groups of supporters should win - that did make a difference. This was, for me, the main reason, certainly the main emotional reason, to vote for a Labour Party in which I did not believe. The people I knew who were Labour, whether party members or not, whether active or not, were people whose values I shared. The people I knew who were Tories, were people whose values I despised and feared.
So the day after an election, it mattered rather less to me which politicians had won office and which had been turfed out, than which supporters were happy and which were despondent. Who would be emboldened, who demoralised? Who would be celebrating, who would go into hiding? This mattered. It mattered politically as well as emotionally. So, in 1997, I voted for Mr Blair's party, and drank champagne when the results came through, and was pleased with both champagne and victory.
This doesn't really apply any more. There is no enthusiasm left for Labour, and hence no celebration when they win, no emboldening of radical minds, no happiness. The people who would once have worked and struggled for a Labour victory, and would have felt you were letting them down if you sat on the sidelines, no longer care a great deal one way or the other. That is partly why the Left are not under any of the same pressure in this country as they are in the US, to vote for the candidate of the inch or be regarded as traitors to the cause. There is none of the same degree of belief - however unjustified that belief may be - that it matters who wins. In the US, because there is that belief, then the election still matters. It matters, even though it should not.
But there we have a problem, because there is more than one element affecting one's emotional response to the election. There is, certainly, this huge desire to see the good, thoughtful, civilised Democrat supporters triumph over the brutish, ignorant and wicked Republicans. Come across a Republican in an interview, and I am repelled. Come across a Democrat and I like them. Or I used to like them. Because the Democrats have made themselves utterly loathsome in this campaign. Utterly loathsome.
And paradoxically, what makes them loathsome is precisely what made me want them to win. I want them to win, because they believe so much that it matters who wins. But because they believe so much that it matters who wins, they hound and hunt down those who they think are sitting on the sidelines. And in doing so, they make me - gut feeling, never mind the politics of it - loathe them more than I ever liked them. In their intolerance, they make themselves intolerable.
The most shocking thing about their behaviour has been that it is not considered shocking. Not shocking enough to draw any seriously adverse comment during a period of months in which vast quantities of comment have been expended on almost every aspect of the campaign (sometimes without particular enthusiasm) no matter how trivial. There has been much comment on how Ralph Nader is unfairly hampering John Kerry's campaign by having the temerity to run. There has been almost no comment at all on how John Kerry has hampered Ralph Nader's campaign by trying to prevent him exercising his right to stand. To exercise one's democratic rights, this is worse than an impertinence, it is a disgrace - but to prevent the exercise of democratic rights is no disgrace at all.
Apparently, there is nothing undemocratic in trying to prevent your political opponents gather signatures, propose a candidate, get their candidate on the ballot. As Nader has observed himself, in a democracy it shouldn't be that hard to get on the ballot. But it can be, if your opponents make it impossible for you, as in Oregon:
In state after state, the Democrats have tried to discourage people from signing petitions to get Mr Nader on the ballot, said Maria Recio, who has been covering the campaign for Knight-Ridder newspapers.To me, this is scandalous conduct whoever is on the receiving end. It would be kind to call it the worst sort of student politics, reminiscent of childish backstairs manoeuverings for sabbatical posts by arrogant and ambitious little kids. For it to play a significant role in this election of apparently world-historic importance, in what is apparently the world's most powerful and prominent democracy, is contemptible beyond words.
In Oregon, one way to gain ballot access is to have a one-day meeting of 1,000 people or more, who then must be certified by the secretary of state.
"The Democratic Party got wind of it and told Democrats to go and take up space. Then they refused to sign. [Ralph Nader] was 50 voters short," she said.
Or rather, contemptible without words, since it has mostly gone without comment. Or without adverse comment. The two-party system is God. What is spoken is only what it speaks - what it wishes silent is silenced. Nader only exists insofar as he affects John Kerry - he has no independent meaning and hence no independent rights. Even the earlier quoted story about Kerry supporters suppressing Nader's supporters is headlined Nader could decide election - again.
This is ironic in all sorts of obvious ways, not the least of which is that it is carried out by people calling themselves Democrats. Another of which is that it is the sort of systematic exclusion of one's political opponents which allowed the Republicans to steal the last election, and which the Democrats are hoping to prevent (and the Republicans repeat) in some very well-publicised ways. Very well-publicised, one might say, in much the same way that the suppression of Nader has not been.
Above and beyond this there has been the campaign of personal vilification which Nader has undergone. This has been particularly wicked and stupid - stupid, because people do not easily forget what has been said about them, and people who have thrown mud now will have the same mud thrown back at them later. But it has had a nasty, familiar whiff about it, the accusations of being a witting tool of the Republicans, the accusations of being a saboteur.
It reminds me, personally, of the way in which to be a socialist in the late Eighties was to be hounded, to be held responsible for all the problems and defeats of the labour movement, to have, as it were, personally put the Tories into power and kept them there. It was an awful, vicious time to be on the Left, and the scars of that time are not forgotten, just as the scars of the present anti-Nader campaign will not be forgotten.
But the real whiff is the whiff of Trotsky-Fascism. That is the mood, the hysterical, vicious mood of a witch-hunt in which no accusation was too wild or too vile. And of course the secret of that campaign's hysteria, as of the present one, is that the people leading the hue and cry were those who were most actively adopting the political positions of the people they purported to oppose. Shout Trotsky-Fascist, and the next thing you know there is the Nazi-Soviet Pact: shout Nader-Bush and not only do you do so as part of the most rightwing Democratic platform anyone can remember (and one which actually sought to put a Republican, John McCain, on the ticket) but you find yourself accusing Nader of taking Republican money when nobody is so keen on taking Republican money as the Democrats.
Of course there is a very good argument, with which I disagree, that says you should vote for the Democrats because that is the only way to beat Bush. It would be as unreasonable to disrespect the people who make that argument as it would be to agree with them without question - as too many of them expect the rest of us to do. And of course politics, when it matters, or when it is perceived to matter, breeds passion, and passion breeds intolerance. And of course all these things should be understood in full and forgiven in part, especially when all of us are prone to behaving much the same way when we think it really matters.
But nevertheless, the thing that the anti-Nader crowd understand least of all is that you cannot behave like this and then expect the support of the people who you have defamed. In a recent survey of Nader voters, some of the most bitter responses are those given to the question: How have the efforts to keep Nader off the ballot affected your decision? How could it be otherwise? How can anyone support, admire or accept any process of which they themselves are the target and the victim?
So, in pursuit of a politics in which the head should rule the heart, I find myself, this evening, with my heart ruling my head. I do know that, even if only in a small way, even if only because it will encourage the best Americans and discourage the worst, it might be a good idea if Kerry beats Bush. I knew - really knew - that it would be a good idea for Gore to beat Bush. As in fact he did.
But it is not what I feel. What I feel is that the Democrats have behaved disgracefully and should not get away with it. That they have done nothing to deserve to win and everything to deserve to lose. And that as they have selected people like me as the particular and chosen enemy, then I have no reason to wish them anything but ill.
What you think is not as important as what you feel. I know I may think differently in the morning, whether John Kerry has won or lost. But right now, what I feel is that I really couldn't care less.