It is election night. The polls have just closed and supporters of U.S. Representative David Bonior and several other Macomb County Democrats are rolling into a Mt. Clemens banquet hall for what they hope will be a victory party.
They already know that there is no hope for their candidate for governor. Before the clock strikes 10, incumbent Republican John Engler declares victory as he promises to continue leading Michigan down a conservative path.
But the early returns spur hope in this room festooned with white, blue and green balloons. In the land of the Reagan Democrat, an unabashed liberal with a 100-percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters is again fighting for his political life and apparently winning.
The crowd of several hundred erupts in cheers as the precinct reports begin to filter in and show Bonior is scratching out a victory.
It is a typical Macomb County crowd -- overwhelmingly white and, judging from the plaid and polyester, equally middle class.
Among them is Tom Ness, not exactly a sore thumb, but as the only guy in the room with a ponytail, he sticks out just enough. He carries a manila folder, occasionally pulling out copies of a letter for fellow campaign workers.
It is his way of coming out of the political closet. For more than a month Ness, publisher of a local music magazine called Jam Rag, has been coming from his home in Ferndale into another district to help elect a candidate he can't even vote for. And he wants his new friends to know why.
There is the fact that Bonior supports allowing low-powered community radio broadcasters on the air, an issue dear to Ness.
But he wants to make clear that his support has been for the candidate, not the party.
Like a lot of others, Ness is fed up with what he calls the two-party "duopoly" that more often than not offers a choice between the lesser of two evils instead of a message that truly resonates.
He sees the Democratic Party as a machine supporting an incomprehensible war on drugs that has trouble distinguishing between smoking a joint and mainlining.
"How can I support a party bent on busting my friends and terrorizing my community?" asks Ness.
He looks at the sanctions against Iraq and sees a Democratic Party that supports a senseless policy that is killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children every week.
And so he gladly contributed time and energy to an unrepentant liberal like Bonior, but he wants those around him to know how alienated he is from the party overall.
What makes Ness different from most Americans is that he participated at all. The majority has given up all together.
It is easy to understand why.
It is Wednesday morning, the day after 45 percent of Michigan's registered voters selected our leaders, and I'm feeling gut-kicked. Sure, we all knew Fieger was going to get stomped, but there was hope on other fronts. Now the statewide results are in, and they are a disaster for progressives. Republicans have held on to the state Senate and taken back the House. They've also captured a Supreme Court majority, which means that Engler has an open road for at least the next two years. That's great news for the insurance companies and the chemical industry, gas drillers and construction companies, union busters and polluters of all stripes; to many of us it looks like the second coming of the Dark Ages.
I'm in need of some serious political therapy.
A call is placed to Charles Rooney, who has a doctorate in psychology and a long history in Detroit as a progressive activist. Problem is, the doc is equally depressed. Mention the overall lack of a progressive agenda and he nods in agreement. Say that these days Democrats look like what used to be called moderate Republicans and he agrees. "I don't see an answer," says the good doctor.
Except that, like Ness, he found a few progressive candidates and put his efforts into their campaigns. It was, he says, "a last ditch effort to keep the sky from falling in."
I confront the good doctor with feelings of self-doubt: Is it that progressive values are simply too far out of the political mainstream?
It could be that the opposite is true -- that Democrats have lost their way by following Bill Clinton and the mid-streaming Democratic Leadership Council.
"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, during the last mid-term election (in 1994) the biggest losers by far among incumbents were moderate Democrats, who lost 25 percent of their races when Republicans came into power," observes Leonard Williams, a professor of political science at Manchester College in Indiana. "In contrast, liberal Democrats won 95 percent of their races in the last two elections."
What were seeing, says Williams, is "a rejection of the Democratic Leadership Council's conservative 'new Democrat' philosophy, not of traditional liberalism."
Now, it can be rightfully argued that Geoffrey Fieger articulated a philosophy as liberal as any candidate, and he was annihilated. But those positions were coming from the mouth of a candidate who, in the final days of the campaign, was reduced to running a bizarre series of commercials that admitted to voters that he was an unlikable jerk.
"You have to have the right combination of message and messenger," offers Williams.
Mark Brewer, head of Michigan's Democratic Party, defends the state's liberal credentials, and denies allegations that the party backed off supporting the renegade candidate. What hurt the state's Dems as much as anything, says Brewer, were campaign finance changes Engler shoved through in 1994. According to Brewer, the brunt of two laws severely curtail unions' ability to raise and spend money on political campaigns; the full force of the changes was felt for the first time this year. Brewer figures that in a number of important races Republicans were outspending Democrats "three or four to one."
"We're never going to outspend the Republicans," he laments, "but we have to at least be competitive."
What about nationally? After all, Democratic congressional successes led arch-Republican Newt Gingrich to political hara-kiri.
And consider Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker who has become one of this country's most visible progressives. In the weeks before the election, an open letter he wrote spread across the Internet.
A liberal who could not bring himself to vote for Clinton in '96 -- because of transgressions ranging from the North America Free Trade Agreement to welfare reform bill -- Moore nonetheless pleaded for support of congressional Democrats.
To put the brakes on a religious right steamroller that would remove a president from office for playing hide-the-cigar with an intern in the Oval Office and then lying about it.
"I can think of a lot of reasons why Clinton should not be president," wrote Moore. "Staining a blue dress from The Gap is not one of them."
"Hold your nose if you have to," advised the creator of Roger & Me. "This is a one-issue election, and if you want the impeachment stopped ... you must remove the Republicans in your districts."
What's notable is not that it looks like we did it, but that we did it with a Democratic leadership that hid from the issue, even though the polls showed public sentiment for protecting the president.
"They weren't just stupid," says Ron Aronson, director of the Center for Democratic Values at Wayne State University. "They were totally gutless."
Aronson, like lots of others, has just about had it. He looks around and sees people being rolled over by multinational corporations, and a political process that caters so much to privilege and special interests as to be little more than a system of organized bribery.
"You have to wonder if it's going to keel over from its own weight, it's so awful," muses Aronson.
OK, so this election hangover isn't getting any better. But at least the ample misery means some company in the search for a real remedy.
Third party time?
On election night David Bonior assured me things would get better. Like Aronson, he sees so much abuse from moneyed special interests that there has to be a progressive resurgence within the Democratic Party.
"These things are cyclical," he says, adding that the talk of Republicrats is not really fair, that there are distinct differences between the parties.
Others aren't so sure. Dan McCarthy, president of UAW Local 417 in Troy, has already turned elsewhere. An officer in the fledgling Labor Party, he has given up on the Michigan Dems and the organized labor power structure that calls its shots.
"I don't think we give our constituents much reason to be motivated these days," says McCarthy. "The Democrats aren't distinguishing themselves in a way that is meaningful to working people. As it is now, they're being given a choice between the least offensive businessman, the least offensive millionaire."
McCarthy scans the political landscape and sees a process that is devoid of meaning, millions of dollars spent on "hateful advertising and petty name-calling."
"There's no discourse, and I think that the powers that be think that's just fine. Voters are not being engaged in issues, which is a tack that further disenfranchises people and drives us ever more toward the cynical, don't-bother-to-vote attitude.
"I think the best response to this" McCarthy continues, "is a broad-based movement that's independent of both parties."
The Greens, Libertarians, Natural Law Party and others all see things the same way.
"This experience made me think about democracy where 49 percent of people can believe something and be totally locked out," says Fred Rosenberg, Michigan campaign coordinator for the NLP, which bills itself as the fastest growing political party in the United States.
Is there any hope that's going to change?
Well, yes, according to Rob Richey, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. The group is campaigning for a program of proportional representation, variations of which all give voters more chance to see their interests reflected in races ranging from city council contests to Congress. Essentially it involves combining several districts into one. And then allocating seats based on a percentage of votes received. Under this plan, say, a U.S. House election could have voters casting ballots for 10 seats instead of one. If Democrats received 40 percent of the votes, they would get four seats, leaving room not only for Republicans but also third party candidates to have at least some representation.
Proponents say such a system would also boost African Americans, Latinos, women and gays at many levels of government.
It is a system used in nearly every country in Europe, and in several locales in this country. But there is not yet the kind of U.S. showcase that Richey says is needed.
"The arguments for it are there," says Richey, "but it's not going to happen in two years. At the state level, in five to 10 years, is really quite possible."
In the short term, however, there's something called an "instant runoff," in which voters rank selections, allowing the ballot counts to simulate a series of runoffs; voters can support third parties without feeling their vote is wasted.
Although defeated once, an instant runoff bill has support in the New Mexico Legislature, where strong showings by Green Party candidates are hurting Democrats.
The bottom line, says Richey, is that the way to bring disaffected voters back into the process is to ensure that minority opinion and representation aren't muscled out.
Buck up, cowpokes
The voice of Jim Hightower is chipper as usual, which might seem odd since Dems in his native Texas took the same sort of shellacking as in Michigan.
But the populist columnist, author and radio host sees silver linings. In five states voters gave overwhelming support to medical marijuana ballot measures; voters in two states boosted campaign finance reform by approving public funding of campaigns. Detroit passed the "living wage" law that will ensure that businesses receiving $50,000 a year or more in city contracts will have to pay employees enough to keep them above the poverty level.
Over in Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold championed campaign reform by refusing so-called "soft" money -- and he won.
Hell, even Jesse "The Body" Ventura's victory in Minnesota as the Reform Party's candidate for governor is cause for hope. He may be the spawn of Ross Perot, but he also advocated legalizing pot and prostitution.
And in Texas, where the GOP won statewide offices from land commissioner to governor, the message to Dems was loud and clear: "You're not going to win by try to out-Republican the Republicans," crows Hightower.
Look around, he says, and you'll find plenty of evidence that progressive values are mainstream values.
"If people are given an alternative," he explains, "they will pull the progressive lever. They just need to be given a real choice."
So quit your pissin' and moanin', cowpokes. Pull your boots on, get back out there and start to kickin'.
"Perk up," advises Hightower. "There's a huge constituency out there waiting for us to help build them an alternative."