What I Voted For
by Tim Robbins
The Nation magazine, August 6/13, 2001
In mid-June Tim Robbins spoke at the annual dinner of the
Liberty Hill Foundation, which funds grassroots organizing in
Los Angeles. In recognition of his politically engaged films and
his activist commitments, the foundation gave him its Upton Sinclair
Award. Following is an edited version of his remarks. -The Editors
About a month ago in a New York theater, I was approached
by an agitated older couple. "We hope you're happy now,"
they said. "With what?" I said, suspecting the answer
they gave. "Your Nader gave us Bush." _ Now, this wasn't
the first time since the election that I had been attacked by
irate liberals who saw my support of Ralph Nader as a betrayal,
as blasphemy, as something tantamount to pissing on the Constitution.
Before the election Susan [Sarandon] and I had been attacked in
the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times; we'd received intimidating
faxes from a leading feminist admonishing us for our support for
Nader. A week before the election we'd gotten a phone call from
a Hollywood power broker, who urged us to call Nader and ask him
to withdraw from the race. If he did so, this mogul said, he would
contribute $100,000 to the Green Party. I told him that no phone
call from us would sway this man, that this was not a politics
of personal influence and deal-making, and that the Green Party
probably wouldn't take his contribution. After the election I
read an article in which a famous actor criticized supporters
of Nader, calling them limousine liberals of the worst kind, unconcerned
with the poor.
It was not easy to support Nader. In no uncertain terms the
message sent to us by colleagues and business associates was that
our support of Nader would cost us. Will it? I don't know. After
the election one of our kids was admonished in public by the aforementioned
Hollywood mogul. And who knows what fabulous parties we haven't
been invited to.
So, what to make of all this? As someone who has voted defensively
in the past and at one time recognized all Republicans as evil
incarnate, I completely understand the reactions of these people.
I like these people. Eight years ago I would have said the same
thing to me. But a lot has happened that has shifted the way I
think. After talking with friends in Seattle after protests there,
after going with Susan to Washington, DC, and talking with activists
at the IMF-World Bank protests, after talking with 13 year-olds
handing out pamphlets on sweatshops outside a Gap on Fifth Avenue,
after watching the steady drift to the right of the Democratic
Party under Clinton, I have come to the realization that I would
rather vote my conscience than vote strategically.
There is something truly significant happening today. A new
movement is slowly taking hold on college campuses, among left-wing
groups in Europe and human rights groups throughout the world.
The protests in Seattle in 1999, the IMF-World Bank protests in
Washington, DC, in 2000, and the continuing presence of agitation
wherever corporate entities gather to determine global economic
and environmental policies do not, as the media portray them,
merely reflect the work of fringe radicals and anarchists. Such
events arise out of a broad-based coalition of students, environmentalists,
unions, farmers, scientists and other concerned citizens who view
the decisions made in these cabals as the frontline in the battle
for the future of this planet. This is a movement in its infancy
that I believe is as morally compelling as the early abolitionists
fighting to end slavery in the eighteenth century; as important
as the labor activists advocating workplace safety and an end
to child labor in the early l950s; as undeniable as the scientists
who first alerted the American public to widespread abuse of our
environment by corporate polluters. All of these movements met
with overwhelming condemnation by both political parties, were
ignored and then criticized by the press, while their adherents
were harassed' arrested and sometimes killed by police and other
agencies of the government. But because of their tenacity, we
were eventually able in this country to create laws that ended
slavery and established a minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment
insurance, environmental responsibility and workplace safety.
Despite years of progress in our own country on all these
issues, we now face a resurgence of child and slave labor, of
unsafe working conditions, of sweatshops and of wanton environmental
destruction in the Third World wrought by the very same corporate
ethos that resisted for years the progressive gains in the United
States. In the interest of profit margins and economic growth,
our corporations have reached out to the global economy and found
a way to return to 1 X50 on all of these issues. Enabled and emboldened
by free trade and the protections granted by NAFTA, GATT and the
WTO, we have farmed these problems out to other countries. Amid
our booming economy this is an uncomfortable concept to embrace.
It certainly is not being written about in our official journals.
But it is being shouted on the streets, and the protesters' arguments
bear an incontrovertible moral weight. Ralph Nader was the only
candidate to talk about these issues and to embrace this new movement
as his own. That is why Susan and I voted for him.
Last year's election brought us to an important crossroads.
The closeness of the race lifted a rock to expose the corrupt,
manipulative and illegal way in which elections are run in this
country. Indeed, the election year's most surreal and humorous
moment was when Fidel Castro offered to send observers to monitor
our election. Aside from the obvious voter fraud in Florida, a
brief spotlight was focused on the racist practices that have
accompanied elections for years. Whether it's the roadblocks outside
polling places in African-American voting districts or the disappearance
of African-American names from voting registers, the ineffective
and antiquated voting machines in low-income voting districts
or the exposure of the Supreme Court as a partisan political institution,
the picture is the same. Powerful people in the American ruling
class fear democracy.
There was a time when I would have said that it is the "evil"
Republicans who fear democracy. But the sad realization I have
come to after the 2000 election, and after experiencing the reactions
to our support for Nader, is that you can count the Democrats
in that bunch, too. Not only do they fear democracy but many in
the Democratic Party elite fear, if not outright despise, idealism.
I have lost a great deal of respect for a party that admonished
its progressive wing, that had no tolerance for dissension in
its ranks and sought to demonize the most important and influential
consumer advocate of the past fifty years. But we shouldn't be
surprised. A similar reaction occurred earlier in this century
when another leading advocate, Upton Sinclair, was running for
governor of California. The power brokers of the Democratic Party
did everything they could to isolate him. If they gave any support
at all to his candidacy, it was half-hearted, while some even
endorsed his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam. And the press?
They demonized him, said he was anti-business, said he was an
egomaniac. Sound familiar? Most of the Nader supporters I met
were the real deal, people who have dedicated their lives to advocacy.
These were the people at the center of the struggle around controversial,
difficult issues; their political engagement was way beyond and
deserving of much more respect than that of many people who would
wind up criticizing them.
The judgmental and patronizing attitude of those in the generation
that fought to end the Vietnam War and work for women's rights
is disappointing and discouraging, but understandable. But I am
not of the opinion that Bill Clinton was the best this generation
had to offer, and I would like to believe there is a dormant power
still left in these progressives who have yet to acknowledge the
importance of the new movement growing around them. I would like
to believe that the children of the Vietnam era who protested
that unjust war were concerned with more than self-preservation,
with issues beyond not losing their lives to the war. I would
like to believe that feminists-recognizing which gender works
predominantly in sweatshops and which gender is predominantly
sold into slavery-would acknowledge these issues as their own,
and begin looking beyond reproductive rights as the only litmus
test for a candidate. I would like to believe that higher ideals
drive all of us, ideals that have to do with the world at large.
The young people who have helped launch a quest for an alternative
party, one that will not compromise this planet's future for campaign
donations from corporate sugar daddies, believe the Democratic
and Republican parties are united on the major issues of our time.
This new movement is a rejection of politics as usual, a rejection
that has frightening implications when you consider the progressive
community's reaction to it. Have we become our parents? Are we
the Establishment? Are we now the status quo that so cynically
rejects those with ideals and dreams, that says to the idealist
that there is no room for that in this election, that one must
vote strategically, that we can't afford our dreams, that we must
accept the lesser of two evils? The couple in the theater, the
Op-Ed columnist, the Hollywood mogul and the actor beat their
drums once every four years for their candidate and talk about
their opponents as if their election will end civilization as
we know it. This is a gay Op-Ed columnist who would not vote for
the one candidate who unashamedly supported same-sex marriage;
this is a mogul who would not be having any more sleepovers and
private screenings in a Republican White House; this is an actor
professing to care about the poor who couldn't seem to find his
way to the picket line to support his own union's strike.
I don't respect armchair activists. l respect the kids outside
The Gap who don't compromise. I'm not ready to cede their idealism
and passion and vision, to compromise their integrity for a Democratic
Party that aspires to be centrist, for a Democratic Party that
supports the death penalty, that dismantled the welfare system
while increasing corporate welfare, that helped create the economic
system that tears at the heart of the labor movement.
How embarrassing it must be for Democratic senators that the
embodiment of political courage in this country is now a Republican
from Vermont. Maybe it's time to stop demonizing people for their
political affiliations and to follow the example of the man who
risked his political future to follow the voice inside him. To
reject politics as usual and follow our grassroots hearts; to
form alliances in unlikely places.
It's a long struggle for justice. It is grassroots movements
that create real change, and no grassroots movement ever got anywhere
compromising its ideals. Real change won't happen at Washington
cocktail parties or in the Lincoln Bedroom. It is arduous and
messy, and takes relentless agitation. It took over a hundred
years of advocacy to eliminate slavery, over a hundred years to
put an end to child labor and over a hundred years to establish
the minimum wage. This movement is in its infancy, but it is alive
and it's not going away. Its door is wide open to you. It's a
frightening threshold to cross but an essential one.