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[This is a longer version of an article published 2/15/01 in the Christian Science Monitor]


Imagine Martin Luther King proclaiming, "Let civility roll down like waters, and politeness like a mighty stream." This, alas, would be our memory, had King’s speeches been written by our current Democratic senators. It’s been painful to watch the Democrats roll over and play dead for George Bush since his coronation. They don’t seem to realize that they can stand firm without reenacting Newt Gingrich’s scorched earth destructiveness. They might do well to remember (or learn) some basic lessons of nonviolence: When facing a bully, you don’t have to demonize. You can speak to your opponent’s core humanity, and even at times work together. But you don’t have to give your cooperation, just because they tell you to do something. And you have to honestly challenge actions you oppose.

It may seem odd to compare our Senate millionaires to civil rights freedom riders, the massed citizens who brought down illegitimate governments in Serbia and the Philippines, or the Seattle WTO protestors who made an international issue of global trade. But if the next four years are going to bring anything but a continual rollback of gains that took decades to achieve, Democrats are going to have to learn to draw the line.

They don’t have to go to jail. They don’t have to sit in, block streets, or be beaten by police. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t have to march, write letters, and organize to be heard, although the more they reach out to their engaged constituents, the stronger they will be. They merely have to use a power that they already have—the filibuster—to stop any of Bush’s actions that will damage our common future.

Although 42 Democrats recently voted against confirming John Ashcroft as attorney general, fewer than the necessary 40 were willing to vote to sustain a proposed filibuster by Senator Kennedy. Why did the Democrats cave and refuse to block Ashcroft’s nomination? They wanted to be bipartisan and work together, they say, to end, in the words of Senator Chris Dodd, "the growing predilection to treat nominations as ideological battlefields." They deferred to Bush’s presidential prerogatives, and to the collegiality of the Senate. Jean Carnahan had asked them not to filibuster, since Ashcroft didn’t challenge her appointment to her dead husband’s seat. They wanted their politics to be civil, not a permanent state of war.

Civility has its place, in politics and in general. But it’s what Natalia Ginsburg has called a little virtue, not a great one. As Martin Luther King made clear, civility must be subordinate to the larger goal of justice. In "Letter From Birmingham Jail," he explicitly challenged not the hard-line white segregationists but well-meaning liberal clergy who deplored racial subordination but counseled endless patience and forbearance. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion," he wrote, "that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice."

Learning from King, it’s far better to spell out the destructiveness of Bush’s policies than to mock him for being "dumb." True, Bush sounds like the learning-disabled son of a learning-disabled father, but that’s not the main thing that’s wrong with him. King respected the core humanity of even the worst segregationists, but held them responsible for their actions. It’s not a gratuitous personal attack, just being honest about John Ashcroft’s past, to point out that Ashcroft blocked voter registration in inner-city St. Louis and gave a fawning interview to the neo-Confederate and David Duke embracing magazine, Southern Partisan, which he praised for helping "set the historical record straight." Likewise, the Democrats have an obligation to point out that Bush’s tax plan will overwhelmingly benefit that tiny minority of Americans who already control far more wealth than all the rest of us combined. Justice demands accountability.

Pleas for bipartisan collegiality don’t excuse cooperation with truly dubious actions, especially since this is no normal presidency. Bush lost the popular vote, we need to remind ourselves, by 540,000 votes. Recounts by major Florida papers like the Orlando Sentinel and Palm Beach Post now show Gore would almost certainly have won the state in any remotely comprehensive recount, had not the Republican Supreme Court abandoned their own long-proclaimed principles of states’ rights to block the reexamination of contested and discarded ballots. When Justice Scalia cynically used the rhetoric of "equal protection" to hand Bush the victory, it made a mockery of abuses like the 8,000 African-American voters cut from the Florida rolls by false assertions that they were convicted felons. Likewise the providing of laptops to verify voters in heavily Republican Miami districts while registered Democrats across town were being turned away, and the discarding of a third of the ballots in Jacksonville’s core African-American precincts. It only adds to the insult that just a few weeks later, Justices Scalia and Kennedy then celebrated together with Dick Cheney at a Christmas party of former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, and that the Bushes recently invited Scalia to dinner.

The Democrats can bury this history, as they mostly have so far. Or they can use it to refute any notion that Bush has a mandate. Every time he talks about fulfilling his campaign promises, they can remind him, straightforwardly but firmly, that a majority of Americans rejected his path. If Republicans are reasonable, it does no harm for Democrats to work with them on issues from electoral and campaign finance reform to Americorps and the prescription drug coverage. But they need to do more than hold out their bowls, like Dickens orphans pleading for gruel, hoping for a few morsels of bipartisan decency. They might remember that social progress can roll backward as well as forward. And that the last election where the popular loser was enshrined, that of Rutherford Hayes, brought about nearly a century of racial subordination, by ending Reconstruction and ushering in Jim Crow. In fact, the current Republican base is inseparable from the legacy of that event.

In the wake of his Ashcroft victory, Bush is now pushing a series of highly regressive proposals, from his tax cut to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and building more government-subsidized logging roads in already-plundered forests. He’s already banned aid to international family planning agencies that even dare to mention abortion, even though they pay for it with private funds. Congressman Bob Barr has just proposed dropping the twenty-five year ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, while Donald Rumsfield’s missile defense system risks a quarter century of arms treaties to give pork to Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile, we await Bush’s first nominees to lifetime Supreme Court and Appeals Court positions, through which Justice Scalia and his cronies will have effectively created the mechanisms to anoint their own successors.

Had the Democrats blocked Ashcroft, they’d have sent a signal that this Presidency is different: that they will insist their concerns be heeded and respected, not just condescended to with sentimental rhetoric. They’d have made clear that certain reversals of justice will not be permitted, and that if Bush wants to make his mark on history, he must address the concerns of the majority of Americans who opposed him.

Within that camp, some powerful grassroots alliances are growing. Building on the coalitions that came together for the Seattle WTO protests, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney challenged not only John Ashcroft and Linda Chavez, but also Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, arguing that we need to fight both for workplace dignity and stewardship of the planet. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope took a similar stand in opposing the nomination of Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labor, a reach beyond familiar environmental turf that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. The Ashcroft nomination brought together every group in the Democratic base, from the labor and environmental activists, to civil rights groups, women’s and gay organizations, consumer activists and gun control groups, all appalled at Ashcroft’s track record. Had the Democrats stood firm, they’d have encouraged all of these groups to further involve their members, develop their alliances, and build public support. Instead, they’re feeling angry and frustrated, wondering when today’s Democrats will ever take a principled stand.

Now, we all face the next round of destructive proposals with less strength and momentum, and with the fundamental questions about Bush’s legitimacy further buried. Eventually, as the Republicans continue to push, I hope the Democrats will discover a few lessons about nonviolent perseverance, and finally block some of the most dangerous proposals—either by convincing a few moderate Republicans to cross over, or by using the filibuster. The sooner the Democrats can do this, the sooner they can begin to reclaim their power to head this country down wiser paths.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of ''Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time'' (St Martin's, 1999). Web site: