Voter Traitor

Progressives celebrate ex-Republican Jim Jeffords' defection at their own moral peril.

| Sat Jun. 23, 2001 3:00 AM EDT

Admit it, fellow progressives: You're gloating. It's hard not to, if your politics are left or liberal or you're even mildly worried about global warming or corporations that pay people a dollar for a day's work. It's hard to imagine a more karma-appropriate political event than Jim Jeffords' switch from R-Vt. to de facto D-Vt.; what GOP ex-majority leader Trent Lott called a "coup of one" did more than a million angry columns to soothe the wounds from the judicial coup that installed Bush in office.

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Seen from the left, the de-Republicanization of Jim Jeffords offers nothing but blessings. According to conventional wisdom, all those right-wing judges Bush was planning to plant on federal benches are toast. His boneheaded Star Wars 2.0 missile shield thingie will happen late, little or not at all. Voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia are back on the agenda. Hell, new Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is even muttering about making changes to Bush's barely-passed $1.3 trillion tax cut. Jeffords himself will be the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Kyoto Accord Redux, anyone?

Even a slightly objective observer, however, has to concede that Jeffords' move was one of the most blatant cases of political bait-and-switch in memory. Vermont voters went to the polls last November, just six months ago. As he had been for 26 years, Jeffords was listed as, and voted for, as a Republican. Countless Vermonters voted for him because he called himself a Republican -- and countless Democrats voted against him for the very same reason. If Jeffords had made his thoughts known before November, there's an excellent chance that he wouldn't have been returned to the Senate. He sold out his supporters, and the party that funded his campaign, in a cold-blooded manner rendered all the more cynical by his recognition of the opportunity presented by a 50-50 Senate.

Imagine how you'd feel if Ted Kennedy suddenly went Republican: betrayed, cheated, lied to. Just because it happened to the Republicans doesn't make it any different.

There's a lot more to being progressive than supporting economic justice, abortion rights and the spotted owl. We should set a consistent ethical and moral standard that applies not just to right-wing Republicans, but also to ourselves, even -- in fact, especially -- when it hurts.

How can we howl that the Supreme Court stole the presidency for the GOP while self-righteously nominating Jeffords for a chapter in the next edition of "Profiles in Courage"? When we play the same back-room politics as the right, Americans see us for what we are: The Other Team. It's D vs. R, and both parties want nothing more than simply to be in charge.

True progressivism requires a love for democracy that transcends narrow self-interest: Counting every vote and fighting anything and anyone who subverts that process should be the top priority of those who claim to represent the concerns of ordinary, working-class and oppressed people. Our party-based representative democracy will collapse if it becomes commonplace for politicians to make wholesale alterations to their ideological affiliations. Jeffords' switch, though expedient and convenient to him and his new allies, was ill-considered, immoral and ought to be universally condemned.

Of course, no one can blame you for gloating. Just keep it to yourself.

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