So You Want To Be A Senator?
By Joel Kovel
When I was asked by the Green Party to run for Al D'Amato's senate seat in New York, I faced a starkly unfavorable prospect. The winner-take-all election system is designed to keep small parties out, in contrast to the proportional representation system of many parliamentary democracies, such as Germany, where Greens have been able to exploit an opening. The domination of politics by wealth is more or less complete in the U.S., and has been strengthened by recent court decisions that identify, in true American fashion, free speech with the right to buy politicians. Small wonder that the last sustained electoral successes on the left were of the Midwestern Farmer-Labor parties in the 1930s.
In running, I would be outspent roughly 2,000 to 1 by Al D'Amato and Chuck Schumer and faced certain defeat by a huge margin. One knows in advance that more things will go wrong than right, that the big press won't cover you even if you immolate yourself on the steps of the Capitol, that the debates would be closed as tight as the inner sanctum of the Vatican, and that what lay ahead was 5 months of time not being my own, 5 months of coming home at midnight to discover 40 unread e-mail messages, 5 months of intimate acquaintance with New York's Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, that 400-mile ribbon of concrete upon which for a modest fee I could traverse our fair state from Buffalo to the Triboro Bridge.
Of course I accepted.
Running in an election is, as Mark Dunlea, the Green Party's campaign manager, put it, like running a marathon at sprint speed. It also is like a military operation, and whether one is in it for actual electoral victory or not, cannot be conscientously waged without a serious attempt at organizing. For this I turned to Jim Mellor, who brought structural solidity and strategic collaboration as my campaign manager. With the help of a small but dedicated band of stressed-out volunteers, we set out to storm the heights of power. Actual electoral victory was not the point. The idea of being Senator in today's Washington is sickening--think of the trash one would have to hang out with, the minds deformed by money and power. We wanted our votes to signify, rather, the desire to shake up the system, and, just maybe, to destabilize things a little, to open ground on the left for further development.
In the case of the Green Party, this meant helping Al "Grandpa" Lewis and Alice Green get the 50,000 gubernatorial votes needed for ballot status. For me, it was to use the instruments of democracy to set forth uncompromising demands the realization of which cannot happen unless the system is made to give way. The key was to imperturbably say what D'Amato and Schumer couldn't, given the great globs of capital they serve; and then to make quite clear that the reason they couldn't say these things--such as calling for National Health Insurance, or dealing with global warming, or taking down the prison-industrial complex and a dozen other matters--was precisely because of the capital that has rendered the official party system an empty shell of democracy. It was useful to speak of my opponents as singular and refer to them as "Schumato," the personification of big-business over politics (a task made simpler in this case because both candidates were the respective senior members of the banking committees in their chamber of Congress, and both in fact got the lion's share of their treasure chests from Wall Street, often from the same bank or brokerage house.)
In any case, I had to make it perfectly clear that I was not playing in their game, but in one against the corporate order for which they were two puppets. And further, that I was playing in this game for the future, for a society ruthlessly suppressed in the present. My slogan became then, "Why Not." Why put up with a system that puts up a Schumato for high office? And so it went.
Here are some of the practical lessons I learned from my five and a half month-long quest.
The Democratic Party has a very long shadow. I learned about this through the pattern by which my campaign was suppressed in the media. I expected, and got, suppression by the mainstays of the media, like the New York Times, in which not one word of my existence was considered fit to print despite endless effort on our part to get their attention. While I managed to squeeze a few lines out of Newsday, as well as some decent coverage by upstate papers, this icy neglect by the Paper of Record as well as the major television stations (though WNBC-TV in New York gave me one minute on the evening news), successfully kept me unknown to the great majority of New Yorkers, and, in the absence of paid ads, effectively sealed my fate as a "minor candidate."
All that was about as remarkable as seeing the sun set in the West. I was a bit taken aback, however, by the denial of coverage in putatively liberal journals like the Nation and the Village Voice. Again, this was not without serious effort on our part, especially toward the Nation, at whose elegant offices I importuned publisher Victor Navasky and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, spoke before the Nation Institute, and delivered some of the extensive written material expressing the substance of my campaign. I assumed some comradely attention. After all, the middle-of-the-road press in Albany, Syracuse, and Rochester had given positive editorial coverage, praising me for raising serious alternatives and requesting that my candidacy be taken seriously for the sake of democracy. Surely the left press could do as much?
But they refused. The Nation and the Voice would not rise to the level of the Albany Times-Union. They chose rather to blanket my candidacy under a shroud of silence. Why? The only explanation that makes sense has to do with a covert attachment to the Democratic Party and the fear and loathing of Democrats toward the Greens. The Democrats hate the Greens because the Greens insist on running independent candidates, thus drawing votes away from Democrats. In New Mexico, this has cost Democrats two Congressional elections, and the Party sees more of the same ahead if the Greens are allowed to flourish. Fundamentally, the Democrats hate Greens because their own party is a spent historical force, and the very presence of the Greens calls attention to this.
The Voice is pretty much a house organ of the Greenwich Village Democratic Club, and so its allegiance is more or less explicit. The Nation presents a more complicated picture. Unable to openly support a dead end institution like the Democrats, yet unable, because being run by liberals, to break with its institutional power, the Nation chose to back phantom Democrats, the "Working Families Party" (a wretched name: what about people who are out of work, or in prison, or who, heaven forbid, question the notion of the nuclear family?). The gross opportunism of this choice--Working Families, you may recall, chose to run the machine Democrat Peter Vallone for governor, and the crooked banker Democrat Carl McCall for comptroller--may have led the Nation to suppress coverage of a candidacy that was grounded in opposition to the Democratic Party. But whatever the particular motive for neglect, its logic is embedded in the dynamics of liberalism and its compact with power.
Never trust a liberal. I discovered by early October that a lot of people were not buying the Schumato hypothesis. I would give my ideas about Wall Street and the functional convergence of the two parties into one. I would go on to point out that Schumer and D'Amato were both death-penalty zealots who fought each other on how tough they were on crime--and that this was a more serious defect in a professed liberal like Schumer, because it meant an enhanced readiness to use state repressive power as redistributive justice failed. I called attention to the proof of this in Schumer's ardent sponsorship in 1995 of the "Omnibus Antiterrorism Bill," a measure that allowed the deportation of "aliens" without revealing the evidence brought against them; expanded the death penalty; and provided jail sentences and huge fines for those who supported groups deemed "foreign terrorist," a term that could encompass the ANC in the 1980s or the Sandinistas or the IRA or whomever Uncle Sam nominated. I pointed out that D'Amato, though a sleazebucket and a crook, had never stooped so low, precisely because he operated according to venality and not principle; and pointed out again that it was Republican Bob Dole who spoke against the antiterrorism bill, and Democrat Clinton who backed it.
I would hear back, in effect: "But we've got to get rid of D'Amato. Don't you understand? It's the only thing that counts, D'Amato must go. No matter what larger principle may be involved, D'Amato must go. Since you're not going to win anyhow, Joel, as much as I approve of what you're saying and doing, my vote goes to Schumer."
Two features of this reasoning stood out. First, it was the result of a kind of reflex. The individual was not interested in thinking through a critique of Schumer--or to the extent of doing so, would stop at a hasty tradeoff of the one distinct difference between the official candidates--abortion--without wondering whether this was more fundamental than being willing to throw away the Constitution. Second, and more basic, the reflex included an easy usage of the first person plural pronoun. "We" must vote against D'Amato. People also talk this way when they say, "we must bomb Iraq to teach Saddam a lesson." The "we" here is a body that has bought into the legitimacy of the power structure, and sees redress within its terms: we don't have to really think about Schumer, because Schumer is, finally, a Democrat, and therefore legitimate on that score alone. Capital loves liberals; it is very comfortable giving the spoils of office to them. Allowing progressives to feel responsible for what is going on is an excellent way of suppressing dissent.
This fascination of the liberal with power is a kind of homing mechanism that can be triggered into a stampede back to the Democratic Party. I was caught by this in two ways. First, the abovementioned D'Amatophobia, made more virulent by the ineptitude of pollsters, who had unanimously predicted a statistical dead heat until the eve of the election, only to find--surprise--that Schumer won by eleven points, thus destroying post facto the rationalization of not "wasting" a vote on me.
Secondly, I got trampled in the rush to punish the Republicans for their puritannical impeachment drive. Again, there was a real issue here, thrown way out of proportion by the liberal homing mechanism. Suddenly people were discovering grave threats to "our" Bill Clinton, who was being denied his lawful accession to the sacred presidency, as though Gingrich-Starr was an actual coup d'etāt--and as though Clinton, in office thanks to 27 percent of the 1996 electorate, and after all the lies and all he had done to put through the Republican agenda, was deserving of sympathy. As this played out, I got enmeshed in a depressing debate with left-entertainer Michael Moore, who had discovered how to tap into the liberal herd instinct by calling through the Internet for "an act of civil disobedience," namely, the revolutionary initiative of holding the nose and voting for all Democrats in Congressional races. Needless to add, Moore was also commanding liberals to not vote for Greens and others struggling to build an independent left politics, even though, as he was at pains to point out, he really and truly supported the Greens and was going to get started building a radical alternative as soon as the Republicans had taken their whacks. Today Moore is giving himself credit for the downfall of Newt Gingrich--though not, perhaps, for the rise of Bob Livingston, friend to the contras and to Louisiana's global megapolluter, the Freeport-McMoran corporation. With Livingston in power, the affairs of state will move ever more smoothly.
Keep on going. There were other depressing instances of liberals in action--for example, the behavior of groups like PeaceAction and the Sierra Club. The former sent me a questionnaire to ascertain that I indeed was the only candidate who supported their program of deep military cuts, then proceeded to leave me off their voter's guide to senatorial candidates, thus depriving the electorate of the knowledge necessary to vote for PeaceAction's own agenda. The Sierras did the same with respect to global warming. After joining my demonstration outside D'Amato's office on the senate's refusal to deal with this supreme challenge, and praising me effusively for being the only candidate in support of their views on the matter, I was excluded from their voter's guide.
But it would be misleading to sum up the lessons of my campaign as the treachery of liberals. After all, I knew this all along; the campaign simply confirmed the fact. The more important lesson is the need to keep on challenging the dominant system, whether this takes hold in the Republocrat Party, the New York Times, or the Sierra Club. And do not be discouraged if people call you a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, for doing so. Maybe the Don did get beat up a bit in his mission. But we still honor him for undertaking it--for taking the risks in a seemingly impossible bid for a better world. The "we" who feels this way is a better, more hopeful, gathering than the dismal community of liberalism.
Anyway, running for office on a radical ticket turned out to be a lot of fun as well as a lot of aggravation. I don't miss dealing with hypocrites like the Nation. But I miss the wonderful mix of circulating through society and speaking of real needs and real changes. What remains are a montage of small-scale human contacts: traveling through Albany one memorable Saturday with Alice Green, our candidate for lieutenant governor, and stopping off at barber shops in the black neighborhood; talking deep into the evening at Robin Anderson's fundraiser; going down Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue for the "Atlantic Antic" parade, and pressing the flesh; debating with Chuck Schumer's mother at a senior citizen's center on Manhattan's West Side (she appears to be a finer person than her son--though it would pain her to hear this, as she loves him fiercely); working with Charlie and Angie Keil, Greg Fitzsimmons, and Barry Crimmins, to make a comedy benefit happen in Buffalo; lastly, the various performances of the Bread and Puppet-assisted puppet show--"Kovel vs. Schumato: The Play"--in Vermont, Syracuse, Central Park, Bard College, Schenectady, and Rockefeller Center, and culminating with a wild performance in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade.
Lessons for the Left.
The New York Greens got ballot status and must now prove ourselves capable of working with it (I came in with about 15,000 votes). In truth, the success had more to do with Al Lewis' celebrity status as Grandpa Munster, which inspired a feeding frenzy in the media, than with the organizational strengths of the Greens. Lewis and Alice Green were terrific candidates, but stardom is no substitute for long-term organization, and in this respect the Greens are sadly deficient. So, in fact, is the rest of the independent left, from which the Greens distinguish themselves mainly by the willingness to put candidates out there and take the pounding.
Now that we enter a new, and more hopeful phase with ballot status, we need to think as well as act in new and more hopeful ways. It must be recognized that the culture of marginalization infects independent-left parties like the Greens, instilling in them defeatist and self-destructive attitudes. It's the usual subaltern mentality: once you believe in the master's opinion of you, you enact it in the world and confirm it. Right-wing groups do not suffer so much from this, because however wacky they may be, they are secure in the belief that, deep down, big daddy approves of them.
Herewith are some observations made on the basis of my campaign as to how the Greens--and the left in general--can move forward.
A left electoral strategy makes sense if combined with social movements; in itself, it is a waste of time. The left parties need to see themselves as organically linked to all those forces that arise at various points of oppression, whether of humanity, labor, or nature. Our constituency is the 60 percent of people who are turned off by politics-as-usual.
A revolutionary goal should be kept in mind. Even if its realization looms too distantly to be seen with clarity, all reforms in the here and now need to be carried forth uncompromisingly in its light. We only feel ashamed and weak to the degree we are attached to the dominant system. Freed from its assumptions, we become clearer of mind and more daring.
How, practically speaking, to not compromise? A good rule of thumb: keep outside the orbit of the Democratic Party. Do not delude ourselves with the nonsense that we can improve the Democrats, constitute a viable faction within it, or even take it over some day. There are good individual Democrats, to whom tactical support can be given, but this must not be confused with a strategy of doing business with the party. The best way to move the Democrats to the left is to fearlessly speak for what they can't.
Work ceaselessly to build unity with all parties and formations on the left whose common principle is refusal to do business with the Democratic Party. We've got miles and miles to go on this one, but there's no excuse for lagging. Practically speaking, now is the time to begin planning for the year 2000 presidential race, to see if a unifying candidacy can be found.
Do not fear a strong organization, so long as democratic controls are built in. That is, policies need to be set by assemblies of members, who have the power to recall officers and the staff who carry out the day-to-day operations.
Our unrealized strength is in our culture. Attack the system with laughter, set the struggle to music, turn the street into theatre. Foresee the better world and gestate it in this one.