In 1980 Barry Commoner became the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics. Running for president on a platform of public control of energy, an end to nuclear development, conversion to solar energy and conservation, large cutbacks in military spending, termination of support for repressive regimes, guaranteed full employment, stable prices for economic necessities, and citizen control of large corporations, he got no respect at all. At a campaign stop a questioner actually asked him if he was "a serious candidate or if he was just running on the issues." Commoner let the question hang in the air a few extra moments to highlight the absurdity of presidential campaigns as issueless publicity contests.
Things had not changed much nearly a quarter century later when Ted Koppel virtually ordered Dennis Kucinich out of the 2004 race on the grounds that he lacked sufficient financial clout to buy his way to the top of the pack. Koppel's views mirrored those of his paymasters: if you can't prostitute yourself to the private owners of the economy, you have no business seeking higher office. In the optic of the capitalist media, "vanity" candidates like Commoner and Kucinich only exist to "lend a little color to the campaign," not to transform American politics into substantive democracy. It is quite beside the point that a long list of so-called vanity candidates has advanced programs which promised to go a long way towards solving our problems, in contrast to the elected candidates, who have demonstrated their political superiority by ushering the human race to the brink of extinction.
As scapegoats for the consequences of our unconfronted problems progressive candidates appear to be ideal. They have no power and lack the resources to defend themselves against the onslaught of demonization launched by the well-off. Incredibly enough, the Democrats are STILL blaming Ralph Nader for their troubles, though their wholesale capitulation to reactionary policies dates back far beyond when Nader first appeared on the scene. Yes, Nader is responsible for the national security state, not Harry Truman who instituted it. Nader is responsible for the Patriot Act, not the Democrats who voted for it. Nader is responsible for Abu Ghraib, not the Democrats who refused to impeach Bush over it, or even make a campaign issue out of it. Nader is to blame for wars in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, not the Democrats who swear eternal loyalty to a racist Jewish state.
Just how has democratic sentiment fared in recent years, given this assumption that only "serious candidates" have a claim on the electorate? Ronald Reagan won the 1980 elections with an underwhelming 26.6% of the potential vote, a figure based on all those who might have registered and voted, as well as those who actually did. Just four percent of voters supported Reagan out of ideological conviction, i.e., because they thought he was "a real conservative." On the other hand, support for social programs was overwhelming, especially for Social Security and Medicare, with large majorities opposing benefit cuts for the elderly, poor, handicapped, as well as in federal aid to education and in general health programs. In addition, the general public strongly favored environmental protection and regulations to protect the health and safety of consumers and workers. No matter. The mass media shamelessly pronounced the Reagan triumph a landslide victory for conservatism and the death of the New Deal.
Four years later fully half the electorate (the poorer half) saw no advantage in choosing between Reagan and Walter Mondale, while those that did turn out had the unenviable task of determining which candidate represented the greater threat to their well being, a quadrennial challenge demanding almost impossibly fine distinctions. The "issues" were whether President Reagan could operate without a Teleprompter or if Mondale was too dull to attract support. The strategy was to canvass voter prejudices and craft the catchy sound bites and bumper sticker slogans that would harvest the most votes. As usual, electable candidates were defined as viable, not compromised. One could almost hear Orwell wincing in his grave.
In 1988 Jesse Jackson developed a democratic coalition spanning the entire society - farmers, unionists, feminists, Hispanics, students, environmentalists, and 95% of blacks. Huge crowds turned out to hear him denounce wage-slashing, pension-busting, job-exporting capital for its complete lack of social conscience. They roared delighted approval when he waxed indignant at "American multinationals firing free labor at home to hire repressed labor abroad." Allegedly unwilling to support a black candidate, laid off auto workers flocked to Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, awarding him front-runner status with 55% of the Michigan primary vote. Pundits yawned and Israel-first fanatics finished him off: photos of Jackson with Yasir Arafat circulated widely in the press; old charges of anti-Semitism were endlessly rehashed; a panicked Democratic Party hierarchy launched an Anybody-But-Jackson campaign. The threat of popular rule dethroning "democracy" was no more.
Jackson, though running within an officially sanctioned party, had been treated as a vanity candidate. His broad-based coalition was dismissed for allegedly being composed of "special interests," in contrast to the microscopic minority that owned the private economy and controlled the political system, which supposedly represented the general interest. Even Orwell could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel at this point.
In 1992 Ross Perot split the reactionary vote - without, let us note, being charged with egomania and other allegedly Naderesque defects - which delivered Bill Clinton to the White House. Clinton carried on the Reagan "revolution," slashing social programs, eliminating welfare, dismantling the post-WWII capital-labor accord, embracing NAFTA while gutting the side agreements protecting workers and the environment that he had promised to enforce, funneling taxes towards police, prisons, and war, strangling civil liberties with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and intervening militarily in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. Democrats, who have raised political obtuseness to an art form, now regard this period as The Good Old Days.
In 2000 half the electorate sat the contest out again, as per tradition in a country without a labor party or socialist voice in the mass media, and voters suffered the equivalent of a nervous breakdown attempting to discern a vote-worthy difference between capitalist extremists Al Gore and George W. Bush. No issues resonated with any large body of voters, and, in fact, they were unable to even perceive the candidates' stances due to all the campaign hoopla. One clear perception did emerge, however: over 60% of regular voters found American politics "generally pretty disgusting." It's hard to quarrel with that.
Four years later conditions for a lopsided Democratic victory were ideal: George W. Bush had bogged the country down in a criminal and hopeless war, his tax cuts for the rich had exacerbated widespread and growing economic insecurities, and the U.S. future appeared relentlessly bleak. But John Kerry rose to the challenge, ignoring overwhelming anti-war sentiment within his party in favor of pathetic slogans about Bush having "outsourced" the job of mass murder from Afghanistan to Iraq. As though slaughtering Afghans were nobler than slaughtering Iraqis. Bush remained for a second term and Kerry faded into the political obscurity he so richly deserves.
No doubt Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going to overturn this dismal pattern and deliver peace and justice for all. But it seems a safer bet to raise a cheer for vanity candidates instead, the last best hope for democracy amidst a crumbling empire.