At first, voting was a pleasure. I got to vote for George McGovern. Since then, I've voted with genuine enthusiasm for several senators and congressmen (I don't think I've ever had the chance to vote for a congresswoman), and a few statewide and local officials. Sometimes my candidates actually win. But today, while I'm generally content with the senators and congressmen representing my state (Massachusetts), voting for president has become an awful chore.
I know that I'm supposed to vote for Al Gore because, as Democratic friends and fundraisers constantly remind me, "the other guys are worse." I'm supposed to support Gore for the sake of the Supreme Court and the drive for reproductive choice, gay rights, environmental protection, and improved health care, among other liberal causes. I'm not supposed to consider the abysmal Clinton/Gore/Lieberman record on criminal justice or civil liberty.
Some neoliberals simply disagree with my assessment of that record; they celebrate the Democratic Party's rightward shift on crime control and First Amendment freedoms for ideological or pragmatic reasons. Many of them have drifted toward the right, and most believe (perhaps correctly) that the richest lode of votes is center-right. They argue that a majority of voters favor the censorship of sexually explicit material, regulation of the entertainment industry, new church-state partnerships, harsh and inflexible sentencing laws, authoritarian police practices, and a continual war on drugs (although they describe these policies more euphemistically), and they say Democratic candidates should give the voters what they want. Politics is about winning, they tell me: "Grow up."
Others sympathize with my concerns and lament the Democrats' demagoguery on criminal justice, free speech, or religion; but they're resigned to it. Politics is about compromise, they tell me: "Grow up."
I don't exactly disagree that, on balance, the other guys are worse, and it would be foolish to prefer the greater evil to the lesser one. ("Vote for me, the lesser evil," is the vice president's essential pitch to progressives.) But I suspect that if Gore were still equivocal about abortion rights, if he believed that homosexuality was sinful and opposed equal rights for lesbians and gays, or if he sought to end affirmative action, many of my liberal friends would hesitate to support him, even if he were a champion of free speech and a fair, effective, humane approach to crime control and drugs. Even politically mature voters find it difficult to support candidates who hold opposing views on the issues that they care about most deeply.
I'm not denying that the centrists have, in general, accurately discerned voter preferences. Most voters, including many liberals, don't think or care much about preserving the rights of criminal suspects. Most people, I imagine, assume that most suspects are guilty and identify more with victims of crime than with their alleged perpetrators. Most generally law-abiding citizens don't expect to be wrongly arrested or prosecuted, but they do fear being burglarized or mugged. African Americans tend to be more protective of fair trial rights and more mistrustful of prosecutors and police, for good reason. Still, many remain quite loyal to Clinton because of his support for affirmative action and other civil rights measures, despite the racist war on drugs and the racial profiling by federal agents (like customs officials) that his administration has enthusiastically continued.
First Amendment freedoms are no more popular than Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, which have been eviscerated by the drug war. A 1999 survey by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University found that Americans are "not entirely comfortable" with free speech. Nearly one-third of survey respondents agreed that the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Would-be censors seemed equally influenced by liberal and conservative views: 78 percent of respondents said that people should not be allowed to "use words in public that might be offensive to racial groups"; 71 percent believed that students should not be free to wear T-shirts "with messages or pictures that others might find offensive"; 75 percent believed that people should not be free to "place sexually explicit material on the Internet."
Democrats anxious to retain the White House are not about to challenge the majority's discomfort with liberty by tempering the power to prosecute or declining the power to censor. Why should they? Apart from their concern about abortion or homophobia, even liberal Democrats, who could exert some internal pressure on the party, have other priorities than freedom.
Vote for Gore for the sake of gay rights, liberals say, apparently oblivious to the disparate impact of censorship laws on gay and lesbian speech. Books about alternative families have long been targeted by censorship campaigns in public schools. Discussions of homosexuality are blacked out by filtering programs that are supposed to protect children from pornography on the Internet. Gore would probably not endorse the censorship of a gay rights Web site. But he does favor censorware, and both he and Lieberman endorse the underlying justification for censorship--a presumed causal link between "bad" speech (which is how many people would describe speech favoring gay rights) and "bad" behavior.
Vote for Gore for the sake of increased economic equality, liberals tell me, as if we might achieve economic justice while ignoring the abuses of a criminal-justice system that targets poor people and racial minorities, or the persecution of immigrants under the repressive new immigration laws that Clinton and Gore supported. Immigrants who have resided in this country for years, working and raising families, are now being imprisoned and deported for minor offenses, like shoplifting or marijuana use, committed years ago. One out of three young African-American males is in prison or on parole or probation. Many of them will lose the right to vote. Some economists attribute our low unemployment rate partly to our high rate of imprisonment. A recent report by the Eisenhower Foundation observes, "Prisons have become our nation's substitute for effective public policies on crime, drugs, mental illness, housing, poverty, and employment of the hardest to employ."
It's true that Republicans started it--this demagogic crusade to incarcerate or deport minor offenders. It's true that George W. Bush would probably pursue the war on drugs, juvenile delinquents, and the poor with particular enthusiasm. (He vetoed a bill that would have provided lawyers for indigent defendants in Texas within 20 days of their requesting representation.) I'm not suggesting that liberals and civil libertarians should abandon Gore, punishing him and the nation by electing Bush--although I'd vote for Bush if I could fix the election and give the Democrats the House and Senate. With a Republican president to oppose, Democrats in Congress act like Democrats. With a centrist Democratic president to support, they morph into moderate Republicans. But Republicans are likely to hold onto the Senate, even if Democrats regain the House. So while I have the luxury of casting a protest vote (residing in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts), I'd feel pressure to vote for Gore if I lived in a contested state.
I understand why liberals and civil libertarians elsewhere may support him. But let's not dismiss the dangers of his policies on crime control and drugs and his general disregard for the Bill of Rights. Can't we at least talk about liberty and justice? Even if we don't expect to achieve them. ¤