Town meeting day in Vermont is one of those rare moments of popular democracy in action – a New England tradition in which residents get together to pass budgets, pick leaders and set priorities. This March, the good people of Hubbardton decided to spend $20,000 to replace the roof of the garage on the local highway; those in Waterbury-Duxbury elected not to stump up $97,200 for a new carpet for the theatre; and people in Middlesex voted against new voting machines.
In five small Vermont villages, meanwhile, residents decided to impeach George Bush for lying about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and for sanctioning torture. After discussing whether they should fix some of the town’s pavements, for example, residents of Newfane voted 121-29 to instruct the state’s sole House legislator to file articles of impeachment against the president, alleging that Bush misled the nation into the Iraq war and engaged in illegal domestic spying. ‘It absolutely affects us locally,’ said Dan Dewalt. ‘It’s our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, who are dying.’
It is easy to dismiss Vermont as a quirky outpost. The home of Ben And Jerry’s right-on ice cream emporium, which sided with Maine against the rest of the country to vote against Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1936 election landslide, can hardly be called a bell weather state. But the votes of these small hamlets – few of which are larger than 2,000 in population – do reveal a popular mood of frustration with both the president and the war in Iraq that is struggling to find political expression in the mainstream.
A recent Zogby poll showed that 51 per cent of respondents agreed that Bush should be impeached if he lied about Iraq. That is a far greater percentage than believed Bill Clinton should be impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Such views are making themselves known increasingly at a local level. The San Francisco board of supervisors voted for impeachment recently, as have some state Democratic parties, including those of New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
But finding even a minority of politicians to give these views voice at a national level is proving close to impossible. Take the notable exception of Russ Feingold. The Wisconsin senator recently introduced a motion of censure against the president over the use of illegal wiretapping that had been authorised by the president without court approval. A poll showed a small majority of Americans would support a censure. And yet the official Democratic party response to the motion was an awkward, at times quite pathetic, silence.
When questioned about the motion, Illinois senator Barack Obama said: ‘I haven’t read it.’ Former presidential hopeful John Kerry said: ‘I really can’t comment right now.’ Hillary Clinton, who usually leaves her teeth marks on the spotlight, literally ran away. In the three years since I’ve been reporting in America, this has been the dominant theme of the political landscape here: a discrepancy between popular political culture and the political class that means mainstream views are not being reflected in mainstream politics. Put more simply, the American people have been having enriching, substantive and progressive conversations that simply do not trickle up to the media or Congress and so are rarely heard either at home or abroad.
As a foreign correspondent, this has presented a problem. The news that the rest of the world has had from the US over the last few years is of a country seriously in need of a global Asbo. This was not an unreasonable impression. Bush’s election in 2000, followed by the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, created the perfect storm for a period of military aggression and nationalistic bellicosity that apparently knows no limits, moral or temporal. Bush has promised that the ‘war on terror’ could go on for ever.
Just a couple of months after I arrived in January 2003, the Republicans had won two Senate seats and held firm in the House of Representatives. They owned every branch of government bar the judiciary, which had nonetheless decided to ignore the democratic wishes of the people of Florida and crown Bush the resident-in-chief.
But this was not a full impression. I knew there were a lot of Americans opposed to the Bush agenda, not least because I am married to one. What I did not realise before coming here was that their number already amounted to a significant critical mass that would keep growing and morph into a radical, sizeable presence with neither leader, party nor any other sign of organisational coherence.
By the time I arrived in the country, 72 city councils, including Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Baltimore and Cleveland had passed anti-war resolutions. Membership of the country’s best known civil liberties advocates, the American Civil Liberties Unions, has surged by a fifth since 2001. Membership of the environmentalist group, the Sierra Club, has risen by 16 per cent since 2000. The readership of the left-wing Nation has virtually doubled. Polls showed that only a minority of Americans supported the war in Iraq without UN backing.
But all the mood music – the media, the flag-waving, the troops build-up – suggested uncritical and unswerving support for war, Bush and everything else that came with them. It was a constant struggle to square the packaged, mediated version of reality with what was actually going on across the US. On almost every central issue, from the war to impeachment, the nation is bitterly divided. If opposing Bush and what he stands for is really anti-American, as the right claims, then half of America stands guilty. The political culture and counter-culture have become so enmeshed, confused and evenly-balanced (numerically at least) that it is now impossible to tell which is which. It’s fairly obvious who has the power; it is now much harder to work out who has the influence.
This is not the regular, if justifiable, complaint about grassroots campaigns and concerns being given short shrift in the media and politics. That too is true. What has happened here is stranger than that. These were not just minority opinions that I felt should be aired. More and more, they were campaigns and viewpoints being marginalised even as they grew increasingly mainstream. A popular and at times encouragingly progressive public consciousness was being erased from public discourse even as it was being formed. Commentators and politicians were rewriting history before the events had even happened.
This is not just wishful thinking on my part. If the entire nation was gripped by a monumental militaristic episode, that would have saddened but not surprised me. But almost everywhere I went I saw clear tensions in the local, political and cultural fabric that were making themselves felt nationally.
There was Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City – the main city in the most Republican state in the country, Utah – who is in favour of gay marriage, against the war and committed to converting his city’s fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles in order to honour his commitment to meet Kyoto’s standards on greenhouse emissions by 2012. ‘You have to stand up, even at the risk of losing races,’ he told me. ‘Some things are more important than winning a race.’ But he kept on winning.
There was the gay community in the town of Springfield, Missouri, fighting back against homophobia. ‘We went door to door campaigning,’ says Randy Doennig, president of the local gay rights group, Promo, talking about the mobilisation against a referendum outlawing same sex marriage in the state. ‘That’s the first time we had gone door to door about anything; the first time we were engaged on a local level and we had to talk about gay marriage. They don’t take us seriously because we haven’t asked them to take us seriously.’
There were immigrants, legal and undocumented, travelling through the country on a Freedom Ride. ‘First of all I can’t go back because people are dependent on me for money,’ says Ana Amaral from Angola. ‘But secondly, why should I?’ she says, gesturing to the people on the bus. ‘We made this place.’
All this fighting talk has represented more than just resistance. It has been effective, active opposition. But with no one to voice it in the political establishment it has emerged either on the streets – as with the huge marches against anti-immigration legislation in March; in the polls – opposition to the war keeps growing as support for Bush keeps diminishing; or outbursts like Howard Dean’s insurgent candidacy during the Democratic primaries.
These movements do not represent a majority but a vocal, committed and energetic minority capable of mobilising huge numbers for a cause they believe in. The same could be said of the Christian right. But there is one crucial difference. The Christian right is tied to a party with a strategic overview of the coalition of forces it needs to gain and retain power, and which understands the need to maintain a symbiotic relationship with its base. Progressives do not.
In the absence of this electoral clout two things stand out: the huge potential that exists to construct a progressive alternative to the Bush agenda and the inability of the Democratic leadership to capitalise on it. From New England radicals in Vermont town halls to the undocumented workers on the streets of LA, there is a constellation of social movements emboldened by struggle and absent of leadership. The official response to Russ Feingold’s censure motion suggests a formal opposition lacking in principle and crippled by opportunism. The former have made Bush vulnerable; the latter still believe he is invincible.Gary Younge has been the Guardian’s New York correspondent since 2003. His new book, Stranger in a Strange Land, is published by the New Press, email ukinfo[AT]thenewpress