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Substituting the Party Line for Real Conscience: How James Jeffords Broke This Deadly Mold

By Cheryl Seal (cherylseal@hotmail.com)

On Thursday, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont officially withdrew from the Republican Party, shifting control of the Senate away from the Republicans and to the Democrats at one of the most critical and pivotal moments in our nation's history.

Earlier in the morning, I listened to a C-SPAN radio segment during which several callers expressed their feelings on the Jeffords issue. Virtually everyone seemed obsessed with the party issue. For the Dems, Jeffords' defection was a major party victory. For the Republicans, as always, the main issue was money ("We paid to get him into office - he owes us!"). Other GOPers said Jeffords should step down because, after all, he was elected as a Republican and his defection has betrayed his voters' trust.

This type of thinking misses the real point and helps perpetuate much of what is wrong with our political system. We are no longer just citizens with a sacred right to chose our leaders and be heard on issues - we are Democrats or Republicans who are focused on a party line. At the same time, a daunting percentage of our leaders are no longer public servants representing the will of the people - they are Republicans or Democrats first and foremost and representatives of the people second.

This was made poignantly clear this week wwhen the Dems caved in on the tax cut and estate tax repeal in order to ensure Jeffords' speedy GOP defection (he had agreed to remain in the party until the tax issue was resolved). So, to speed a party shakedown, the good of the people for many years to come was sacrificed - despite the fact that Jeffords' defection would have eventually occurred anyway. It seems to be an insidious political process in which it becomes a short, easy step from replacing the public with the party to replacing the party with self-interest.

When I vote for a candidate, I vote for the man or the woman and their beliefs first and foremost, not for a party. (James Jeffords is still the same man he was when he was elected, regardless of his party affiliation.) It just so happens that over the years, Democrats have best represented my views and so I have usually voted Democratic. Not always, however. Northern New England (Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire) has always been blessed with an abundance of truly independent thinkers who, thank God, run for office.

When I lived in Maine, I voted more than once for Republican Senator William Cohen. Why? Because I believed he was the better man for the job. It was Cohen, a Republican, who was the first Congressperson of either party to stand up against Richard Nixon when the facts of Watergate emerged. That took uncommon courage and a powerful conscience. In addition, Cohen's concrete actions on environmental and social issues have often been stronger than those of his Democratic counterparts.

In Maine this week, a state with strong conservtive voice in its legislature, the nation's first single payer health care legislation was passed. But New England conservatives are of the "old school" - tight as corset strings with the money but moderate on most other issues.

Now, however, if I still lived in Maine, I would never dream of voting for Republican Susan Collins because she is too representative of the "new" Republican party: gun-obsessed, proudly anti-environmental, and more eager to please corporate interests than the people. The new Republicans are not, like Jeffords or Cohen, independent thinkers. Instead, they behave as a single unit - a narrow-minded swarm buzzing angrily and pursuing any perceived threat with a vengeance. These new Republicans have replaced individuality and real courage with a gang mentality and move in packs on every issue. Concern for their fellow citizens has been supplanted by a blind (you're with us or against us) allegiance to a vague Christian-corporate ideal. This ideal is apparently best embodied by white Protestant males making more than $100,000 per year - a profile that fits a high percentage of the new Republicans, but not the other 90% of the nation.

First and foremost, Jeffords' decision to exit the GOP is incredibly courageous. One can only guess what sort of vicious backlash he will endure from the new Republicans. But knowing New Englanders as I do (having lived there for a total of 33 years), I am sure that Jeffords was motivated by his sense of what was right, not by party lines. He obviously could not see how the good of the nation and the will of the people could be properly served by adding his weight to the Republican bloc, which seeks to overpower all dissent. The new Republicans do not recognize any opposing viewpoint, even within their own ranks (they remind me disconcertingly of the dark suited drones who sought to destroy the free humans in "The Matrix").

As an independent-minded man of conscience, Jeffords was left with no choice: he could not remain in the Republican Party. If he had, he would be silently supporting its agenda, the way so many "nonpracticing" Nazi's silently supported Hitler by remaining part of the Third Reich's machinery. When a man or woman is truly motivated by conscience, then there is no such thing as inaction in such a case.

The people of Vermont, both Republicans and Democrats alike, should be proud and extremely grateful to be represented by a man of conscience, courage and compassion (the kind Bush gives lip service to but has yet to honestly exhibit). Too many representatives on Capitol Hill today cannot claim even one of these virtues. While Jeffords is committed to doing what he believes to be best for his country and his fellow Vermonters, there are, alas, Democrats among us right now who are committed to personal gain at the sacrifice of both country and state (Zell Miller, John Breaux and Ben Nelson come immediately to mind).

How did Americans become so entrapped by the New Republicans that it took an "old-style" Republican to start dismantling the cage? I think Americans have become easy prey largely because they are diastrously obsessed with superficial appearances. Most voters are more likely to be swept off their feet by a candidate who can tell a good joke than they are to be won by one with a solid record and real compassion. Thus Al Gore the dedicated but duller public servant lost to an oily good ole' boy with a down-homey spin that was entirely manufactured by his campaign and propagated by the pro-Republican corporate media.

We keep hearing about how compassionate the new administration is, how bipartisan, and how truly religious our new conservative leaders are. We keep hearing it because they themselves keep telling us. This thought brings to mind my old friend (now deceased) Martin Leighton. Martin was an old woodsman who took me and my four kids under his wing when we lived in a remote section of Maine. He gave us many words of wisdom that were born of real living - a perspective that was totally uncontaminated by television, newspapers or spin and hence remarkably clear. "Be careful of anyone who spends a lot of time tellin' you how great they are or what they're going to do for you," he warned me. "Anyone tellin' you how honest they are is usually the biggest liar in town, and anybody goin' on and on about all the great things they're going to do for you ain't likely to get anything done, or worse yet, will do just the opposite of what they told you." One of his most fiercely repeated pieces of advice: "Don't ever trust anybody who has to tell you what a good Christian they are. The worst kind of reptiles I ever did meet was folks tellin' me what good Christians they were!" (Thank you Martin, rest in peace.)

But, election after election, Americans buy the talk, not the walk. I suspect this may be sheer laziness: Most of us want someone to tell us what to do or think because we don't want to invest the time and effort to do the research required to discover the truth for ourselves. Alas, it is usually the corporate salespeople (a class that is grossly over-represented by the new Republican party) most eager to oblige the lazy voter and tell them what they want to hear. Unfortunately, like any high-powered salesman selling a bad product, once the sale is made (and the vote is cast), the wonderful claims seem to evaporate into the ether. If we want democracy to survive, we had better start paying more attention to the man or woman and less to their suit. The suit, as we now know, just may turn out to be empty.