Is Rush Limbaugh Right?

Not quite. Republicans may be on top, but that doesn't mean the rest of us are out of power.


| January / February 2003


I HAVE NO IDEA how you’re feeling by now, at the start of a fresh new year, but for me, writing in the aftermath of the 2002 election, things look discouraging. Rarely in American politics have voters been offered such a clearcut right-wing agenda—and never before have they responded with such coast-to-coast approval.

Now what? The hard part is that most people, at least according to vote totals, seem happy with the way things are. And if we’re marching off to war, critics will find it even tougher to question Bush administration policies on everything from civil liberties to environmental protection.

In my despairing moments I wonder if Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Karl Rove are right: Is America, at its deep and mythic core, a fundamentally individualistic culture that views most attempts to promote social equity, ecological balance, and international understanding as affronts to its values? Maybe the American character has been imprinted with an unalterable faith in free-market economics, unbridled consumerism, survival-of-the-fittest social policies, and imperial foreign policy. Perhaps espousing progressive politics here is as hopeless as convincing the French to embrace low-fat diets or Italians to obediently follow traffic laws.

But then the dark cloud passes, and I recall the civil rights movement, the New Deal, Stonewall, abolitionists, Cesar Chavez, anti-nuke activists, and prairie populists. I remember that America gave birth to the environmental movement and the idea of national parks. I do the math and see that it took union activists a half-century to achieve the 40-hour work week, and suffragists seven decades to win the vote for women. This puts the 30 years of political ups and downs I’ve experienced since knocking on doors for McGovern as a high school kid into perspective.

As a progressive, I’ve endured my share of disappointing election nights: 1972, 1980, 1984, 1994, and now 2002. But I’ve also been part of exuberant political celebrations no one saw coming—notably Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago in 1983 and Paul Wellstone’s senatorial win in 1990. No one gave a black man much chance of becoming the mayor of America’s most segregated big city and no one could imagine an outspoken professor and family farm activist unseating a popular two-term senator. But these two men inspired people, by talking in plain detail about their visions for the future. And to the shock of pundits and pollsters, they won.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from November’s election, it’s one that Paul Wellstone and Harold Washington (both tragically gone from us now) taught: Americans respond to leaders who speak with conviction. Whatever you think of George W. Bush, he appears to truly believe in the ideas he professes. Most Democrats, by contrast, seem tentative, almost bashful, about their views. This, in spite of the fact that opinion polls continually show that a majority of Americans disagree with right-wingers on many major issues from global warming to school vouchers.






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