I hate presidential politics. The sight on my television screen of all those grinning, waving candidates trying so hard to win my affection or at least my campaign contribution and vote sends me scrambling for the remote control. Ralph Naders recent announcement that he may announce hes running nearly led to the short and brutal death of the radio from which his sonorous words poured. And President George Bush? Well, lets not even go down that path.
Now before all you folks sporting Kucinich, Dean, Sharpton, Nader, or [insert candidate of choices name here] buttons start clucking your tongues and reaching out to pat my head like Im a special, let me explain.
Its not lack of understanding of how important the office of president is. The little imposter currently encamped in the Oval Office has left no doubt how much harm a bad president can inflict on this nation and the rest of the world.
Nor is it because I believe the current system has become so corrupt that our elections are almost as legitimate as those in your nearest banana republic.
I hate presidential politics because every four years people, including progressives I know and admire, seem to go slightly mad. They seem to become convinced that we must drop everything and join this or that campaign, and must do so with a fervor that would make a pilgrim look like a slacker.
I hate presidential politics because those involved are so unwilling to consider that there are other ways to keep evil out of the White House than by abandoning local struggles.
What really spurs my hatred of presidential politics, however, is the willingness of some progressives to forfeit movement-building that would lead to real choices not just about who will be president but what that person will feel she or he must do in order to remain in office. The capo di capo of Pennsylvania Avenue is supposed to be our public servant, after all, not some half-pint princip at whose feet we gather.
That means we must not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of movement building is to create and use power. And, as Ive said many times before in this column, building power happens at the grassroots level, on the local scene, here in our community. Its not something that can be done from the top down. Super rallies arent going to do, no matter who is on the marquee.
Our task is to persuade people that being a part of a progressive movement has relevance to their lives. Relevance can be many things. It can be delivering a solid education system to everyone, regardless of their zip code. It can be ensuring access to living wage jobs and affordable housing. Relevance comes from making picket lines mean something more than a nuisance. In short, it means building power people connect with every day. The white papers, super rallies, and photo opportunities are fine as window dressing, but lets not get confused about their real value.
Theres no question that letting George Bush have another four years will be disastrous. Theres also no question that some of the Democratic candidates Lieberman probably heading up the pack will do nearly as much damage. The entire presidential process is too important to simply be ignored.
So, what do we do? We stay focused on our work. We continue building the labor movement, expanding police accountability, blocking the expansion of the military-industrial complex, protecting the rights of those most exposed to government oppression, and all the other struggles in which we are engaged.
And when those folks with the campaign buttons start showing up to corral our folks into phonebanks and other campaign activities, we let them know that if their candidate truly supports our struggle, it is going to take more than a photo op to win ours. We need to demand that they lend their moral and legal authority since most candidates are already officeholders they should at least be able to offer the latter to our struggle. They need to press local officials and business people who are trying to break unions or exploit undocumented workers or pollute poor neighborhoods. By doing that sort of campaign work, presidential candidates will secure far more votes than by interrupting peoples dinners with campaign calls.
And, more important, we are taking a big step towards restoring the relationship to where it should be. We the people are supposed to lead and officeholders serve. We would also bring presidential politics back to where it should be one of many tools, along with litigation, lobbying, direct action and civil disobedience, for building the mass movment that can bring lasting change.
If this doesnt happen, Im going to have to replace my remote control very soon.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: February 6, 2004