Maybe it was the directory-assistance operator who couldn't find a New York City phone number to save her life, but the other day I renounced any lingering guilt about voting for Ralph Nader for president, even if it helps elect George W. Bush.
No, I'm not one to base political opinions on the latest personal slight from everyday life. I've been quietly putting up with the New, Deregulated, Privatized America for some 20 years now -- packed, behind-schedule airplanes charging extortionate fares; "soup and salad" served in first class by hostile, overworked flight attendants; "competitive" phone companies that mock the idea of public service; poor children without insurance jamming emergency rooms for primary medical care; former wards of the state, a.k.a. ex-welfare recipients and should-be mental patients, roaming the streets in search of . . a working payphone, perhaps?
Even a right-winger might admit that things have gone a little too far in the direction of laissez faire in this country. Where the so-called free market is god; where low-cost convict labour is blithely promoted as good for society and prisoners alike; where the American dream has become a gated community divorced from any sense of civic belonging; you have what used to be known as a sick society. And I haven't even touched on the fervent glorification of money -- the lauding of vast accumulations of wealth -- that drives the culture as much as any time since the Gilded Age of the 1890s.
Yet my friends who cling to the "liberal" premise of the Democratic Party persist in bludgeoning my conscience with the prospect of a Bush restoration -- this in spite of their candidate's tight embrace of the cynical, neo-liberal ethic that informed so many policy decisions in the Clinton administration. Lately, their pleas to Nader voters to "come home" to Al Gore have grown hysterical, and for good reason. My Democratic Party sources say the Green Party candidate could tip the vote to Mr. Bush in four key states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington.
When I challenge the Gore rationalizers to explain the urgency of preventing a second Bush presidency, it always comes down to abortion. If Mr. Bush is elected, goes their conventional wisdom, "Dubya" will appoint cracker supreme court justices who will return abortions to the alleys and closets of yore. Few of these right-thinking folks, meanwhile, seem to be upset about Mr. Clinton's outrageous assault on the Bill of Rights as promulgated through the "war on drugs," his signing into law of a crime bill that has crippled the ancient right of habeas corpus, or his steadfast support for the death penalty (positions shared by Mr. Gore). None of these Gore liberals want to acknowledge that Ronald Reagan appointed one of the most stalwart civil libertarians to the current court, David Scouter.
But let's assume for the moment abortion rights are the only constitutional issue that matters. In the unlikely event that a President Bush chooses to commit political suicide by appointing blatantly anti-abortion judges, the result might be the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a court opinion that remands the abortion debate to the states. What better spur to political mobilization than state legislatures banning a popular political right supported by a solid majority of the American people?
But well-off, chattering-class liberals are just as fat and happy these days as their conservative counterparts. Their taste for genuine political argument is in inverse proportion to their taste for imported cars and wine. With portfolios bulging from the wild run-up in the stock market, they prefer the appointment of a sympathetic judge to the task of civil engagement.
This craving for judicial legislation wouldn't be so bad if it didn't hide an uglier aspect of the liberal case for Mr. Gore. Over the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration -- even more dramatically than during the Reagan years -- the gap between the rich and everybody else grew to record proportions. Displaced and demoralized by the flight of unionized manufacturing jobs to Mexico and the Far East, the working stiff in America has become the "working family," in the treacly rhetoric of Mr. Gore's speechwriters. I laugh when I hear this phrase. It's partly because of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore's advancement of "free trade" and other income-diminishing policies (throwing a million welfare recipients off the rolls into the low-wage labour market and allowing record-high immigration), that the whole family has to work.
We used to talk about the breadwinner, who might be a middle-aged man supporting a family of five on a factory wage. Median household income is up slightly in the past couple of years, but only because more members of the household are working. Today, for the first time, in a majority of marriages with children, both parents work. At the same time, median hourly earnings are stagnant, and for individuals 25 and older, they remain 52 cents below their inflation-adjusted 1979 level of $10.99. Not surprisingly, it's increasingly hard to form unions; a Human Rights Watch report found that "workers' freedom of association is under sustained attack" from bosses aided by a government that doesn't enforce labour law.
I suspect that the liberals for Mr. Gore are uninterested in these numbers because cheap labour in Mexico or Cleveland pushes up stock prices. No one knows what part of the long Bull market was propelled by falling labour costs, what part by real productivity gains, what part by sheer speculative hype. But one can safely say that the upscale types who bray for Mr. Gore are more divided from their poorer fellows by class interest than at any time since the 1920s.
Ralph Nader speaks in long sentences and paragraphs about the wrongs of corporate recklessness, tax and trade policy designed to benefit the wealthy, environmental degradation, militaristic foreign policy and the unfettered private corruption of the campaign finance system. If Mr. Nader gets 5 per cent of the vote, it will qualify his party for public financing in four years and give a voice to the increasingly powerless elements of society -- reason enough to vote for him.
It's not enough to say Mr. Bush is worse on all the issues than Mr. Gore. Their differences are slight, although Mr. Gore does resist Mr. Bush's Wall Street-friendly proposal to privatize the investment of a portion of the social-security trust fund. On the other hand, Mr. Bush advocates a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Bosnia and Kosovo, an idea that Vietnam-savvy liberals ought to applaud, but Mr. Gore opposes. On the environment, Mr. Gore's stated intentions are better than Mr. Bush's, but the Clinton administration's record has been mediocre, at best.
Look at what Mr. Gore has done, not what he says, suggests Mr. Nader. On election day, Mr. Gore had better hope that the Nader voters are so alienated from the political system that they can't find their polling places.
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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