Why This Really Is "the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime"
I would like to commend to you Senator Robert Byrd's new book, Losing America. Byrd, you will recall, accused his Senate colleagues of "sleepwalking through history" for their failure to resist George Bush's spurious rush to war against Iraq. Now he expresses the bleak conviction that we are on the verge of losing our democracy, just as Rome slipped from republic to autocratic empire through an inert populace, a supine legislature, and an ambitious and arrogant executive.
To my mind, we are repeating our own historical experience. The Jacksonian era saw the extension of the vote to the working class and mitigated the overweening power of the wealthy in the 1820s and 30s; the Progressive era led to the extension of the vote to women and to some limitations on the power of the monopolistic corporations and trusts in the 1890-1920 period, and the modern Civil Rights era re-enfranchised African Americans and sought to better the condition of America's poor.
Conversely, the conservative triumph over Jacksonianism of 1840 led to the Civil War by its unwillingness to deal with slavery in any serious way. The repugnant excesses of the Gilded Age brought about the labor wars of the end of the 19th century, and the anti-Communist fanatics, the intransigence of the segregationists, and those who belittle women led to the struggles of the 1960s and 70s.
The Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s paralleled to Civil War. The Affirmative Action period paralleled Reconstruction, and the present Right-Wing ascendancy promises a return to the Jim Crow era.
Once again the right aims to reestablish the complete dominance of the wealthy through a language of rightwing populism with its rhetoric of religion, stoking hatred for minorities and foreign enemies, and by fomenting nationalist and imperialist fantasies.
In his address to the VFP Convention, Vietnam Veterans of America founder Bobby Muller defined our next mission in what I consider to be precisely the right terms. He urged that we must create the "political space" in our home communities that will encourage John Kerry to adopt more progressive policies than those he is espousing now. We must, he said, steer our country's leadership away from disaster and toward policies truly suited to producing peace and stability in the world.
Very well said, but his comments take as a presumption that John Kerry is the linchpin around which our efforts should take place, and we are not yet, unfortunately, united in that view.
VFP past president Barry Riesch said: "We want [John Kerry] to show the same courage he showed when he came home from Vietnam and spoke out against the war. I'll vote for him, but some of our members are on the fence." (My emphasis.)
Another friend says, "I could never vote for a candidate who promotes or votes for war." Until Kerry's nomination acceptance speech, my wife felt the same. There are too many others who feel that way.
Many of us do not yet believe that, as Kerry said in his acceptance speech, "this is the most important election of our lifetime.
I, however, believe that Kerry is right for precisely the points made by Daniel Ellsberg, Howard Zinn and Robert Byrd. If we do not step back from the verge now, it may be to late to have any hope at all for salvaging our already deeply damaged democracy, much less a democracy with progressive leanings.
Those of us who feel that there is no substantive difference between Bush and Kerry--those who hope that four more years of Bush will open the possibility of a real and broad-based turn to the left--are dreaming. Our nation has always been more susceptible to the blandishments of the right than to the left. For some idea as to why, I commend to you John Leland's New York Times article, "Why America Sees the Silver Lining" (Week in Review, June 13, 2004). Meantime, and having participated in the American electoral process since 1963, I believe that this is "the most important election of our lifetime," and the most dismaying.
For those of us in safe states, there may still be room to vote Nader or Green as a message to Kerry. But, as I go off to a not-so-safe state to work for a Kerry presidency, let me urge my friends on the left to consider the possibility that four more years of George Bush may lead us down a very dark path indeed, while a vote for Kerry may give us, as Bobby Muller says, some space in which to maneuver.
Peter D. Molan, Ph.D., a member of Veterans for Peace, Baltimore, is a retired Middle East analyst for the US Department of Defense.
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This story was published on July 30, 2004.
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