America's Political Spectrum
What Makes a Kucinich, Dean, or Kerry "Electable"?
A huge number of self-identified liberal and progressive voters seem to be under the impression that Dennis Kucinich, if he were to get the Democratic nomination, would be "unelectable." The same fears are also likely what brought down the campaign of Howard Dean. But the question remains, how do voters decide who is electable? What factors do voters take into account when making this judgement? And, perhaps the most important question: is this decision one which voters are manipulated into making, or one which they freely take on themselves?
It's Voter Turnout, Stupid
Although ignored by the corporate media (and most of the progressive media, too, for that matter), voter turnout is the single most important issue. With 60% of registered voters often skipping out on American elections, and tens of millions of eligible voters not even registered, there is a vast untapped pool of votes that can be harnessed. With many state elections coming down to less than 10,000 votes, and approximately 100 million eligible voters who aren't even coming to the polls, trying to get the swing voters is simply not the best use of resources. And this is where a candidate who truly stands apart from his opponent can make a huge difference. If people think the candidates are all the same, or even very similar, they're much more likely to select an activity other than voting on Election Day.
Now, who are these voters who aren't voting? Studies have shown that most are voters who don't feel represented by the system, and so choose not to participate in it. We're not talking about voter apathy that originates in contentment, as the occasional media story implies. These are the poor, the young, the marginalized. In short, they are the folks who would generally be likely to vote for the more liberal candidate if they thought it would make a difference.
Terms Are Manipulated
But what if we assume that turnout isn't a factor at all? Let's stick with the voters who already vote. If we view them in a purely right vs. left continuum, one could claim that in order to get over 50% of the votes nationwide, a candidate would need to position him/herself somewhere very near the center. At that point, it becomes absolutely essential to judge with perfect accuracy where the center is. What's the straight, middle position? This is where the manipulation comes in. The center is never defined by people, but rather it is defined by what the corporate media tells us other people think. Consider how much we assume we know that we learn from the corporate media. The reality, of course, is that many, many people do not fall on a simple right vs. left spectrum, and so there is no real "center."
Many voters have very vague and transitory opinions on a lot of issues, which is why it is absurdly speculative to claim that a candidate who supports free healthcare, vastly increased funding for education at the expense of the military budget, shifting the nation's tax burden to the top 1%, introducing renewable energy, repealing the Patriot Act, and pulling out of Iraq could not win over 50% of the votes. Yes, Dennis Kucinich can't win steadfast right-wing voters, but neither can John Kerry. Kucinich can win swing voters though, because simply by raising these issues and discussing them in a public forum, many who listen will be won over -- especially when heard in contrast with the Republican positions on theses issues. By defining the terms of the debate, you win. It's that simple. A Democrat who tries to beat a Republican on Republican issues will lose every time. When the debate shifts to who's stronger against the terrorists, swing voters will vote on that issue and will choose the Republican over Republican-lite. When the debate shifts to providing health care and education, and protecting our civil liberties, the Democrat will win. But it's very hard for a Democratic candidate to shift the debate to issues that he is no more strong on than the Republican. How can Kerry attack Bush for the Patriot Act, when he voted for it?
We Did It
I saw this in action right here in San Francisco in December. Matt Gonzalez, a Green, ran an uncompromised candidacy for mayor. He entered the race relatively late, was given no chance by the media, and had very little money. But he galvanized literally thousands of otherwise apathetic voters here in the city, and he surged in the polls.
There was a thrilling energy in the air as all the new political participants propelled Gonzalez into a run-off with a very wealthy, establishment candidate named Gavin Newsom. Newsom, of course, was declared a shoe-in. He was supposed to win in a walk against the 'unelectable' Gonzalez. In fact, Gonzalez won the election on election day, but because of absentee voter ballots (and some extremely dubious last-minute campaign tactics), Newsom scraped out a razor-thin victory.
By defining the terms of the debate, you win. It's that simple.
We all walked away with the knowledge that the reservoir of political power in this country today lies with the non-voters. And we proved that the way to inspire them is with a well-differentiated campaign of principle, rather than with a quest for corporate media-defined 'electability.' Gonzalez was able to define the issues of the campaign, and had he only been outspent five-to-one instead of ten-to-one, he'd be in the mayor's office today.
You Gotta Believe
There is another element to all of this, something that exists on a deeper level. It is the notion that left ideas and candidates can't really ever win. That progressives are somehow not allowed to unapologetically articulate their vision of a better society. This is a deep residue from the failure of the movements of the sixties to fully succeed. It comes from an ignorance about how much that era did accomplish, coupled with a pessimistic disappointment over what didn't happen. This disappointment has lingered and stunted movements up through the present day, and people have grown to believe they have no power and grown used to prematurely giving up. If you don't really think that a progressive movement can ever get political power, it makes sense that you would accept the lesser of two evils.
The corporate media plays a huge role in this by ignoring and marginalizing the powerful pro-democracy movements of today (calling them anti-globalization), and as long as people continue to look to the corporate media for coverage and validation, they will continue to feel demoralized, or, worse, alone. This is true even with presidential campaigns, where the campaigns of unfavored candidates like Dean and Kucinich, are either ignored or derided with this term, "unelectable." Meanwhile, those who are more in keeping with the status quo which benefits these media businesses and their ilk, are proclaimed as the only ones who can beat Bush -- with the full knowledge that that's all that matters to many Democratic voters right now.
Ultimately, even if a right-wing Democrat is electable, and even if he's elected, giving unconditional support to these candidates pushes the debate further and further to the right, so that every four years both choices are even worse. If you don't think that's true, you haven't been paying attention to American politics for the past 30 years.
Rob Arnow is an artist and graphic designer in San Francisco, Calif.
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