I heard Ralph Nader on Amy Goodman's “Democracy Now” radio show the other day and I have to tell you that the guy makes so much sense that I almost found myself tempted to vote for him. Almost. At least I realized, somewhat guiltily, that I was hoping that somehow the Democratic candidate ("my guy") John Kerry would take positions as strong as Ralph's.
Especially on the war in Iraq, Nader's clear indictment of the Bush administration's manipulations drew me in like a famished bear snuffling after an overflowing honeycomb. Kerry's own tap dancing around the fringes of that issue leaves me cold.
Wistfully, I listened as Nader explained that if the Democrats don't take positions different from the Republicans, what's the point of voting for them? "Both major parties are so beholden to corporate interests that nothing will ever change." I was nodding in agreement so vigorously that I bumped my head on the car window as I pulled into the parking lot.
Then I got out of the car and went into the meeting. It was a task force working on hunger in New Mexico and within minutes the reality hit me, inescapably: There is an enormous difference between the two major parties. Kerry has to win the presidency in November ... not just make a statement of principle or a symbolic gesture.
Maybe the Democrats do shilly-shally on some issues when I would like them to speak authoritatively. Maybe Kerry isn't the clear beacon of courageous truth that Nader can often be. Maybe corporate money has made the Democrats practically as flaccid and docile as the Republicans when it comes to protecting the least powerful in this society.
Even if all that is true (and I have no evidence that it isn't), there are still such clear distinctions between how a Democratic administration and another four years of a George W. Bush administration would impact people's lives that we simply can't take a chance on this one.
The contrast between the parties couldn't have been made any clearer than it was at that meeting I was attending on strategies for reducing hunger. One of the primary steps we were considering was to urge state and federal government agencies to take a more aggressive stance in trying to expand the utilization of food stamps.
For me there was an element of déjà vu involved in this position. Five years ago, I'd pushed for exactly the same policy, pointing out that it should be considered a no-brainer as a positive step to take in reducing hunger. But the Republican administration in Santa Fe in those days was of a different mind.
They opposed making it easier to obtain food stamps. They closed outreach offices that had been opened in the schools. They refused to create a simplified application form. They resisted efforts at keeping offices open in the evenings or on weekends, simple adjustments that would have enabled more working poor families to get into the program without having to sacrifice a full day's salary to wait in line.
The message couldn't have been clearer if it had been etched into the bricks of the welfare offices: If you want food stamps you've got to wade through swamps, climb mountains, suffer indignity. Then—maybe—we'll lend a hand.
By contrast, this year the Democratic administration in Santa Fe was eager to adopt all those suggestions—and more. They are partnering with the food banks around the state to increase the percentage of families that take advantage of this program.
It may seem like a small thing—but the difference is tangible and could be multiplied by many other policies across all departments of state government. It is also one that translates immediately into cash in the pockets of poor families and into improved nutrition for kids.
Last year Bill Moyers gave a remarkable speech on what it means to be a progressive in this day and age. I re-read that piece last week and was struck especially by his point that neither conservatives nor progressives truly want to reduce government; that the battle is not between proponents of big and little government but instead is over which group will be the primary beneficiary of governmental largesse.
Moyers said that throughout our history this is what has differentiated progressives from conservatives: Progressives want government to use its powers to help the least powerful segments of our country while conservatives seek governmental support for the most powerful among us.
At the turn of the century it was the railroads, mining companies and industrial barons who enjoyed the give-aways and profits afforded by their allies within government. Today it is HMOs, mass media conglomerates, defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies, petroleum cartels and energy industry executives who are lined up, hands out at the governmental welfare trough where the Bush administration is dispensing goodies.
So with Moyers' words in mind, it looks like I'll be saying thanks to Ralph Nader—but please take your seductive line somewhere else. This time I'm voting with my head not my heart. The Democrats have flaws—God knows they have multiple flaws! But four more years of Bush feathering the nests of his cronies will leave the poorest among us truly endangered. Preventing that has to be our highest priority.