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Home of the Free, Land of Wimps

by Don Thompson

This year's election is one of the closest, longest and most polarized elections in memory. Pollsters have conducted numerous surveys and showed a decisively anti-Bush, angry and united Democratic Party squaring off against an equally supportive pro-Bush Republican base. More than ever, the election is being left to those who can't decide until the last minute. Voters on the political fence, voters who need to be told which dessert to choose--these people have our fate in their hands. People more often than not are swayed by negative campaigning, the direction of the wind, or how "likeable" or "stiff" or "like them" a particular candidate is. In short, the ever fickle undecided voter.

I've often wondered what drives undecided voters. Not being one of them myself, having voted consistently for the same party my entire life, and unable to bring myself to vote for the opposition, I wonder what it is that allows people to migrate with the political climate. After all, what is it that they are undecided about? Whether a particular candidate makes them "comfortable" or not?

With the parties becoming more clearly distinctive in this election cycle than in the past, there should be enough clarity to allow the undecided camp to finally step up to the moral plate and make a commitment to some kind of cohesive political viewpoint. In short, maybe they can all stop being wimps.

If they don't, the country will be remain hostage to the kind of political mediocrity only mass indecision can engender.

Now one can argue that Kerry himself is an undecided, and I'm sure he'll be called a wimp. His congressional votes have wavered -- first he votes for Iraq and then against appropriations. He supported NAFTA but now swaggers against it. His position is shifting based on both political calculus and a re-assessment of the territory. (Ironically, this may make him more appealing to undecided voters than Bush, as they can identify with Kerry.) So, like Kerry, are all undecideds simply shifting with the appropriateness of a given political season, helping to subtly nudge the nation this way or that? Maybe, maybe not. My sense if that there are different types of undecideds, and I'll get to that in a moment.

Being a consistent political voter used to be easier when the Big Parties actually stood for something consistent. Now they co-opt one another so often that the once Low Tax, Limited Government Republicans have become the Big Spend (if still not Big Tax), Big Government Republicans. Moreover, the formerly fiscally irresponsible Democrats have become the scions of budget restraint, particularly under Clinton. So the kind of classic Federalist/Democrat vs. Small Government/Republican debate is difficult to perceive--and the ghosts of Jefferson and Hamilton, ever arguing the issue of limited government versus Federal might and central authority, find themselves throwing up their arms in despair when neither party represents a purist stance. To be sure, undecided wimpdom is more easily understood in this context.

But the undecideds I have most problems with are not those who struggle over how two candidates may divide them on issues that they care aboutóletís say abortion and the economy--where a voter has to weigh in on which issue, and therefore which candidate, takes precedence. These people I understand. The undecideds I'm speaking of are those who treat candidates like socks, or sweaters, or breakfast at IHOP. In others words, consumer voters. When I hear one of these consumer voters in justifying a vote say something like "I just really like him..." it makes me want to crawl under my nearest copy of The Constitution.

I'm not saying these people shouldn't vote, I'm just saying they should think about what they're doing before they touch the screen or punch the chad. Maybe read an Op-Ed or two, maybe study a little history--in other words, get a little intellectual spine in their lives.

Luckily for us all, a very nasty little trend may prompt such people into thought, something much more powerful than anything I or anyone else might write in a political piece. That is: globalization.

You see, globalization has finally come home to roost, and every profession but those related to Kinkos and Starbucks can potentially be outsourced to India, China and Thailand. Undecideds who used to be swayed by trenchant factors such as charisma and likeability are now thinking these might be trivial topics when compared to the monster of Globalization that seems to be eating American jobs (even white collar jobs) like popcorn. But wait...we're all supposed to join the investor class, right? Tell that to the unemployed textile workers in South Carolina who love John Edwards, who got his anti-NAFTA religion about six months ago.

Of course the progressives all fear that all this anti-globalization talk among the Democrats will fade if they win, and the Republicans, if they win, oh well! Progressives fear that the global market economy is still really off the table, and even under a Democrat the continual erosion of worker rights, healthcare, environmental standards and the like will continue under the unrelenting pressure of WTO, NAFTA, and the Chinafication of everything--and that this will last until we again, like in the Great Depression, have a true economic meltdown. And yet, strangely, even a faux and insincere debate along these lines may force a situation on us all that will allow progressives to recapture the moral highground from the right--and a man like John Edwards is showing them just how to do it.

The modern stripe of activist, populist presidents with a moralistic flair can trace themselves to Teddy Roosevelt, who after McKinley's assassination decided Americans wanted change of the Trust Busting kind. Roosevelt, like his cousin after him, became one of the principle forces behind the focused use of Federal power to address corporate abuse and market imbalances. But Teddy Roosevelt, while important, was a stopgap predecessor to the real deal, his cousin Franklin. My sense is that our newly populist Democrats like Edwards, and to some extent Kerry, are also a stopgap. I don't think much will change in terms of job outsourcing and market reforms and the least common denominator rule of everything from Wal Mart to Hollywood. But none of that matters in the short term, because the newly populist rhetoric is aimed squarely at the undecideds, who will wield their swing votes with a vengeance, and could likely put a Democrat in the White House. And more importantly, the debate will have shifted back to a center of gravity that doesn't so much pit moralistic save-heterosexual-marriage types against the mayor of San Francisco, but rather pits morally outraged save-heterosexual-marriage types against even more morally outraged anti-globalization types, many from Southern and swing states.

If all works out for the positive, this will all be the beginning of a shift in American attitudes that will force us back to a kind of basic humanism, where politics is not manipulated by media hyperbole but rather fueled by a desire for fundamental human decency and fairness.

Where politics is not based on hatred and divisiveness, but rather on a political humanism reflected in our history by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Lincoln. And this is what the consumer-oriented undecideds really need to chew on--whether to grow up and join the ranks of human beings, be they religious or otherwise, who make positive moral choices, or to continually look to the latest negative ad in order to make their voting decision. For ultimately being human is about choices, about taking a stand for something that transcends, perhaps, things that shift with every political election cycle. And that holds true for either side of the political equation--for as we will see this election season, morality can finds its voice among both the issues of the right and the left. For at the end of the day, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror, and making that decision to look at that face, really look, may be the toughest of all. Finally, we all have to decide what we think is right.


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