World View: It's the narrative, stupid

December 8, 2000

Seeing his daughter campaign with gusto has drawn Harvey Kaye wholeheartedly into an odd election

Apparently (and chillingly), Texas governor George W. Bush may become the next president of the United States.

Vice-president Al Gore won the popular vote nationwide and, I still believe, in Florida. However, because of ballot-design problems and questionable practices, Bush may get Florida's electoral college votes, making him the "winner".

I expected a close race, but not the ensuing shenanigans. I have obsessed about the wranglings, recounts and results. Indeed, these elections seem to have engaged my thoughts and emotions even more than others have and in ways I had not expected.

Some presumed I would support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. But as a left intellectual aligned with the labor movement, I saw no alternative to voting Democratic. I worried about Republican ambitions to end a woman's right to choose, undermine the separation of church and state (especially in education), undo environmental and workplace regulations, privatise social security, and give huge tax cuts to the wealthy.

I could not imagine throwing away my vote on a third-party effort. Plus, I had grave reservations about Nader's views on foreign affairs. I suffered no illusions. While I welcomed Gore's populist rhetoric, I did not believe he would fight for "power to the people". It impressed me, a Jewish American, that he had chosen Senator Joseph Lieberman as a running mate, but Lieberman's centrist, if not conservative, record did not enthuse me.

Nevertheless, I felt strongly that we needed a Democratic victory at least to safeguard the things I valued and I knew that, historically, the left has a greater chance to advance when the Democrats hold power. Nader cost Gore the election. Right now, I would more readily talk to a Bush voter than a Naderite.

Several of my favourite students took leading roles in the party's local efforts. Recent graduate Bryan Milz ran the northeast Wisconsin campaign for the Democratic incumbent's successful race for the US Senate. Ethan Shippert energetically pursued a student internship with the Dems. And Andrea Libber helped re-establish our campus's College Democrats and mobilise students for rallies, which included appearances by Gore and a host of Hollywood celebrities.

In fact, both parties hotly contested Wisconsin and targeted the Green Bay area for "special attention". Usually, at least a few spirited conservatives take my upper-level classes. This semester my "Historical perspectives on social change" class attracted only liberals. Most of them feared what a Republican victory would portend for women's rights if Bush had the chance to nominate Supreme Court judges, and for the environment if he got to appoint directors of federal agencies.

Furthermore, Wisconsin does not have capital punishment and Bush's death penalty record in Texas horrifies many of my students. Contrary to media claims about voter apathy, the majority of my students demonstrated a lot of interest. Sometimes it seemed the campaigns were the only subject capable of animating class discussion. My students learnt more about politics and the law than any of my previous undergraduate cohorts.

But what really tied me to the Democrats was our younger daughter's involvement. Even as a child, Fiona showed an interest in politics. Now 17, she threw herself into the campaign. On her return from an international relations summer course for high-school students at Georgetown University, she asked if I would introduce her to the folks at Democratic headquarters. She soon became their most tireless volunteer. As busy as Fiona found herself with school and extracurricular activities, she spent every weekend and many an evening campaigning. Undeniably, she loved hanging out with college-aged students. But what made it all the more exciting was the sense of purpose she experienced. Though disappointed, she can take satisfaction in knowing she helped Gore capture Wisconsin.

I got so emotionally caught up in the campaign, I felt obliged to turn down an offer by a regional television station to serve as its professorial "talking head" on election night. I knew I could not commentate objectively. I knew I would blurt out my contempt for Bush.

However, I eagerly expressed myself to print journalists. Bizarrely enough, I occasionally found myself missing the likes of Ronald Reagan. I abhorred his politics. I wrote books about his (and Thatcher's) use and abuse of the past. Yet I could not help but "admire" him. Smarter than most acknowledged, Reagan recognised that politics demands vision and that in America it demands articulating a vision and understanding of the "meaning of America".

Neither Gore nor Bush proffered a vision for America. Debates addressed policy issues in a limited fashion. There was no direct reference to inequality. We heard little of history and little to inspire. While the Republicans barely mentioned Abraham Lincoln (possibly, because their conservative strength lay in the South), the Democrats ignored Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (perhaps fearing association with big government and the welfare state). Has the arrival of the new millennium wiped away all political memories?

The candidates' apparent amnesia made me want to shout "It's about the narrative, stupid." The Republicans will control Congress and occupy the White House. Pundits ironically predict big future Democratic victories. My students seem ready. But to make history, Democrats will need to start remembering it.

Harvey J. Kaye teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His latest book is Are We Good Citizens? (Teachers College Press, 2001).

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