I’m headed down an alley to get where I’m going, to the thoroughfare at the end, where traffic can move freely. I turn the corner and I’m struck by an unusual sight: there’s a car stuck in the alley, crossways. The front of the car is obviously badly damaged, with a crumpled bumper and the headlights bashed in, no doubt from previous collisions with the wall of the alley that is in front of them. The rear of the car is equally damaged; it rests against the high alley wall behind them, and it’s obvious it’s not the first time it’s met that wall.
The occupants of the car are engaged in a huge row – bickering, yelling, gesticulating wildly about what they must do next. Finally, the driver of the car, somewhat tentatively, reaches down and shifts the car into its forward gear. Several of the car’s passengers cheer, slap the driver on the back for choosing that gear, and settle back into their seats, smiling and confident; a few in the back seat cover their eyes with their hands, dejectedly. The driver, now also bearing a confident grin, stamps on the accelerator.
The car lurches about two feet and contacts the wall with a crunch. There’s a brief tinkle of falling glass. The occupants all sit in stunned silence for a few seconds, as down the alley behind them, I can see traffic whizzing by, unimpeded, on the highway.
On Election Day 2004, I was at Green Party Headquarters in Baltimore. I was one of the organizers for our Presidential candidate, David Cobb, and I of course knew that we’d lost the election, so for me, there was little suspense to the evening. The pundits were doing endless on-the-fly analysis preceding the vote counts coming in, and it struck me how much like a sporting event the whole atmosphere was – one in which my team wasn’t playing. I felt drained from campaigning, and the actual event seemed a distant footnote. Someone had made popcorn, and after a bit of consideration, I decided to – somewhat symbolically – get myself a very large bucket of it. I then planted myself in front of the TV, and when Kerry would win a state, I’d take a handful and munch…and when Bush would win a state, I’d do the same thing.
I get out of my car – it’s not like I can get anywhere at this point, anyway – and walk over to see if I can provide some assistance.
By the time I get to the driver’s side of the stuck car, the argument inside has started again, and as I’m closer, I can hear what’s being said. The guy in the back is complaining that if they’d just gone backwards, like he’d said, they wouldn’t be in this mess. There’s one in the front who says that going backwards never got a car anywhere, and they just need to stay the course; a friend of his tries to be helpful in pointing out that they might now be slightly closer to the highway at the far end, and now was not the time to mess with real progress being made.
I tap on the driver’s side window; the driver rolls it down and I ask him what the problem is.
“We’re trying to get to the highway,” says the driver, over the continued debate inside. A passenger adds, “We’re busy folks! We’ve got places to be.”
“Well, you’re not gonna get very far this way,” I pointed out. “Have you tried turning the wheel?”
The argument suspends briefly. All involved are now staring at me as if I’ve grown a second head. “What are you talking about?” says one of them, finally.
In a similar set-up, I found myself in D.C. two days after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, walking down the street with a big box containing the contents of my desk at work. A brief number of hours before, people had been dancing in those streets, celebrating Obama’s election…while I noticed that “…success was being defined as the absence of evil. Nothing good was or is being necessarily proposed.”
“You know…” I offer, somewhat weakly, “steer your way out of this mess.”
There’s an awkward silence as they continue to stare at me, after which they all respond with derisive chuckles – the only thing on which they’ve reached any unity.
“Oh, please…” says one, his eyes heavenward. “You guys and your wild ideas!”
“Like we can push a car sideways!” says his friend beside him, sarcastically.
One of them indicates the gear shift and addresses me, his voice dripping with condescension. “Cars only go backward or forwards…see? ‘D’ or ‘R’. Anything else just puts it in neutral. It’s just not practical.”
I start to protest that they’re missing the point when another passenger waves his hand at me, dismissively. “Look, if you can’t grasp how the system works and you can’t come up with any serious ideas, we really don’t have time for you.”
The guy in the back seat pipes up, angrily: “Especially since we need to put this thing in ‘R’ and get ourselves out of this mess!”
My good friend Pat LaMarche recently found one of her old campaign fliers. She was a Green candidate for several offices in her political career, but her first run for higher office was in 1998 for the Governorship of Maine, her home state, and that was where this particular flier came from. It was a little card with her bio and an endorsement on one side, and bullet points for her campaign on the other – a standard, simple-to-understand setup – and what struck me about it when she posted it on the Internet a few days ago for her friends to see was that all of the points could be run on today. Creating jobs with a living wage? Sure, that’s still needed, more than ever. Clean water, air, un-poisoned land? All of those are still a concern. Equal rights without exception? Still fighting for them. Energy self-reliance? Not even close to being a reality in 2012.
In between 1998 and now, we’ve had throngs in the streets, dancing, cheering, sometimes even crying…tears of joy that all their hopes would be realized with the election of their favored candidate. There’s been angry rhetoric, doom-saying, and vicious propaganda against those perceived as the enemies of all that is good in this country. And through all of the confetti and all of the signs carried in anger…what we needed in 1998, or even before, is still what we need now.
Now the argument breaks out anew, with screaming, recriminations, fingers pointing in faces…I try in vain to be heard over it, and point out that it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the passengers turns on me. “Will you shut up?” he yells. “Do you want those guys –” he thumbs at the nattering guys in the back seat “– to get their way?”
Finally, the driver is convinced that putting the car in reverse is the way to go. “Well, obviously going forward didn’t help us; we have to change something, right?” he reasons, as the previously dejected malcontent in the back seat grins and high-fives his compatriots.
Fast-forward to today, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate of President Obama’s health care plan. The real story on this was established back in March by Kevin Zeese, another former Green Party candidate, who described his experience as a protester in front of the Supreme Court between two partisan lines. It should be required reading for all who question why a two-party system should be opposed – or why the recent decision won’t be prompting any confetti from my side of the street:
My colleague, Margaret Flowers, asked two women carrying an Americans for Prosperity sign (a group opposed to Obama’s law) whether they were on Medicare. They said yes. “Do you like it?” Again, yes. “Do you know Medicare is a government program?” A confused look. “Do you know the Republicans want to end Medicare, make it into private insurance?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You probably support Obama,” they answered, and started to walk away. “No, we oppose ObamaCare.” The women stopped and listened again. “We think everyone should have Medicare. Don’t you think it would be a good idea if every American could have the Medicare you have and like?” “Hmm, yes…” but then, more confusion in their faces.
Talking to the Democrats showed equal partisan confusion. I explained: “We oppose the Obama mandate because we want to end insurance control of health care. We support single-payer, Medicare for all.” Response: “So do we.” I asked: “Single-payer ends insurance control of health care, and Obama’s law entrenches insurance more deeply. Aren’t those opposites?” Their response, obviously not understanding what ‘opposite’ means: “It’s a step in the right direction.” I asked, “How can it be a step in the right direction when it is going in the opposite direction?” No longer able to say it is the right direction, they spout another talking point: “This is the best we can get. We can build on this.” I, trying to figure out what the Democrat thinks there is to build on, then asked, “But if we want to end insurance domination, how do we build on a law that is based on insurance?” Unable to explain it, the Democrat answers, “We can’t get what we want.” “Of course not,” I said, “if people like you and organizations like yours who support single-payer spend their time advocating for the insurance industry. If that’s the case, we can’t get what we want. But if people who support single-payer work for it, we could.” Answer: “But we have to re-elect President Obama.”
Zeese correctly surmises that if the tables were turned – which was very easy to imagine, given that the individual mandate was invented by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney – the same partisan protesters would be in place in front of the Supreme Court, carrying each other’s signs.
There’s little left for me to do but back away as the car finds its gear. The guy who yelled at me before is now absolutely furious at me; he screams, “Thanks a lot, asshole!” at my back as I retreat, fixing the blame on me as their car crashes into the wall behind them. I head back to my own car to wait it out; there’s now a long line behind me who have no interest in getting involved with the argument that they heard issuing from the vehicle that’s now blocking them from going anywhere as well.
And here I remain sitting. Every so often, on behalf of all of them, as well as for my own sanity, I roll down my window and shout, “Steer!” at that car, still stuck in the alley. There’s a predictable torrent of verbal abuse hurled back by the occupants – a brief moment of concord – and then I watch as half the people inside celebrate, the other half look disgusted, the car slams sickeningly into one wall or the other, and the whole process repeats itself.
Over, and over, and over again.