People can make a difference, even in America

'We think all Americans sit in rocking chairs outside farmsteads and are incurably right-wing'
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The Independent Online

There is an exciting side to the American election, but it has little to do with Gore or Bush. Watching the US version of democracy, you would think the Declaration of Independence was "Damn you British, either we are allowed to select our own government by seeing who has the most balloons, or the tea goes in the harbour." Are those huge rally crowds honestly moved by speeches such as "Together we can go on and win to keep this country great?" If they are, they must have been worried their leader would say "With your help we can fulfil the dream of making this country a shit-heap."

There is an exciting side to the American election, but it has little to do with Gore or Bush. Watching the US version of democracy, you would think the Declaration of Independence was "Damn you British, either we are allowed to select our own government by seeing who has the most balloons, or the tea goes in the harbour." Are those huge rally crowds honestly moved by speeches such as "Together we can go on and win to keep this country great?" If they are, they must have been worried their leader would say "With your help we can fulfil the dream of making this country a shit-heap."

So does it matter that the two sides are so close? One answer to Gore's slide in the polls, from a "close aide", is that "from now on we should let Al Gore be Al Gore." In which case, he'd be saying "I want your vote because I really, really really want to be president, and I'd be strolling it if Clinton had been able to keep his plonker under control."

Certainly most Americans don't seem that bothered. Over half the electorate won't vote, and millions more aren't even registered. But an enormous and largely unreported spark has been lit by the campaign of Ralph Nader. One of his opening statements was "The only distinction between Bush and Gore is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock at the door." He supported the recent strike of telecom workers, and spoke at last year's demonstrations in Seattle. His campaign statement begins by noting that whereas in 1940, company directors earned on average 12 times as much as their workforce, now they earn 416 times as much. Which, despite the 10-year boom, leaves the average American earning less than they did in 1980, and working 160 hours a year more than in 1973.

It's common in Britain to assume that Americans are incurably right-wing. And all sit in rocking chairs outside their farmsteads, chewing grass and muttering "Now listen here boy, you better tell that Copernicus fella that he better not come down these parts with his Communistic theories of the Earth not being at the centre of the universe, or he's gonna be findin' a bullet at the centre of his ass."

But Nader's campaign has in some ways been spectacular. Despite admission fees between $10 and $20 and the lack of a stage army, more people have attended his rallies than those of Bush or Gore. Last week, 12,000 went to hear him in Minneapolis, and 15,000 in New York. The polls place him at around four per cent, which suggests the support of around five million people.

At the Bush vs Gore debate in Boston, Nader wasn't even allowed into the audience. I bet it made the bouncer's night to be able to say: "Look mate, I don't care if you are third in the race to be the most important person in the world, you're not on the guest list and I don't like your trainers."

But yesterday it all changed, because, after contemptuously dismissing him, Al Gore is now panicking that Ralph Nader's support could cost him the election. Eight states are being swamped with radio adverts and leaflets appealing to Nader's supporters that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

Which seems a little twisted, given that Nader opposes everything that Bush stands for, while Gore agrees with almost everything that Bush stands for.

Typically, the Gore campaign isn't arguing that Gore will be any good, just that Bush will be even worse. In which case, he should be honest and make his campaign slogan "If you think I'm bad, wait till you see the other bloke." The argument, which has perplexed liberals in America for decades, is known as the theory of the lesser evil. But how rotten does someone have to be before the theory loses its validity? Did the Japanese think "Thank goodness Truman's in power, because being nuked by a Republican is even worse!"? With that attitude, there would be no Labour Party or vote.

Most importantly, the lesser-evil argument is symptomatic of the "top-down" attitude towards society adopted by so many erstwhile liberals. Nader can attract tens of thousands of active supporters and millions of voters because people have begun to feel they can make a difference. The telecom strike ended successfully, as did the campaign against the death penalty in Michigan. Yet the media in this country has concentrated almost solely on minute poll swings in the turgid battle between Gore and Bush, missing this sign of a genuine change in American society.

If they'd been reporting from Gettysburg in November 1863, they'd have said "The big story here today is the Democrats are one per cent ahead in the polls." And if they'd had to mention the civil war, they'd say: "Oh, I don't know, I think the Confederates will probably win as they've just had a huge delivery of balloons."

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