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Democrats Wed Dec 23 2009
It was a no-brainer. Conservative GOP dinosaur Phil Crane was trending unpopular in the far north suburban Eight Congressional District, made up of parts of Cook and much of Lake Counties, up to the Wisconsin border. Crane's misfortunes telegraphed the strong "Blue" trend in Illinois. In 2002, he had barely faced down a spirited campaign by newcomer and Barringtonian Melissa Bean. In 2004, he was on the top of the DCCC's list as a potential Democratic get. A chance to unseat a longtime Republican in my home state? Of course I was going to volunteer my time.
Phil Crane with Lake County Young Republicans, 1997
Indeed, I traveled up to the campaign office--taking the CTA, Metra, Pace, and feet to Lake Zurich (I think)--and asked what I could do to help. Two young staffers chatted with me and gave me some volunteer work. I spent hours editing names and titles in a database. I offered to organize some Chicagoans to come up and canvass a few weekends closer to election day, coordinating with their field director. I even got a nice personal letter from the staff thanking me for my help.
I recently came across that letter, and felt that mix of shame and embarrassment that usually comes with finding an old overwrought love letter you never sent.
Who did I help get elected? The banks' favorite Democrat, leader of the New Democrat coalition who spearheaded the insertion of bank-protecting language into the "financial reforms" passed by the House earlier this year.
Granted, in the intervening years I've been involved in fights political and otherwise that have probably radicalized my politics and advanced my political education. Even so, knowing the person I was then, it still wasn't a crazy thing to do. The logic of American duopoly* almost forces the choice; better to act mostly against your own interest than end with up something wholly inimical to it.
Proof? Look at the pie chart in the Crain's piece linked above. Bean raised $2m from the financial sector--nearly as much from "single issue" groups, meaning mostly EMILY's List and other pro-choice groups (those "single issue" groups provide a convenient Yes/No issue for politicians like Bean to glom on to in order to keep the donations flowing); and $775,000 from labor. Without a doubt, the crash of the financial industry and the casino mentality in the big investment banks hurts the working class more than any other group, because while 401(k)s get depleted in a recession, those below the median income lose all job security and many lose their jobs outright. So what the heck is labor doing giving this woman nearly a million dollars!?
What if that $775,000 had been spent organizing the service sector and "purple collar" workers in Lake County? On the other hand, of course, did they have much choice? Those donations are often given at the request of Party bosses who are trying to win seats or protect vulnerable seats; those checks are handed over at the request of a high-up proxy able to influence policy nationally. It's not irrational, given the limits of non-ideological partisan politics.
But, ultimately, would I be better off if Bean had lost in 2004? Probably. She is clearly doing more damage now than Phil Crane (or, more likely, his GOP replacement) could be doing right now. My partisan fealty in 2003/2004 is resulting in active harm against my class and ideological interest today, not because those interests changed, but because of the mechanics of partisan loyalty. The calculation that determines where an activist should direct their energy and resources will almost always force him to abandon the best choice for the immediately less harmful choice. The result is that GOP activists work to get deficit-ballooning, civil liberty ignoring, foreign adventurists elected and liberals get Melissa Bean.
Bean wasted no time in handing herself over to Wall Street interests, and in turn accelerated my creeping disillusion with the entire framework of partisan, as opposed to ideological, politics. The fact that giving my support to her was both rational and harmful lead to a very depressing conclusion: in partisan politics, you can't win.
*Warning, dense Leftist literature. Sample quote:
The sole Democratic candidate to attempt the left-fork strategy, promoting the 'free silver' bimetallist policy favoured by Midwest farmers over the big banks' gold standard, was William Jennings Bryan. The 1896 election and the Battle of the Standards is seen as pivotal in most accounts of America's party system--the moment when the big-money Republican campaign succeeded in winning an important section of Northern industrial workers over to the party of their bosses, aided by aggressively negative advertising.