The people hunger for clear alternatives

November 15, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

I have a hard time understanding what's going on these days. On the one hand, politics have never been uglier: The cage 'em and fry 'em approach to crime; the damn-them-all-to-hell attitude toward social problems. We seem mired knee-deep in intolerance; voter rage; the politics of raw meat.

But on the other hand, the people I meet have never seemed nicer. Most folks seem genuinely concerned about the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. They seem sincerely willing to treat people as individuals -- regardless of race or creed.

As I said, I find it all hard to reconcile. How can such sweet people cast such ugly votes?

A. Robert Kaufman believes he has the answer. He detects an alarming political vacuum -- and an effort by the far right to fill it. Mr. Kaufman, 63, is a longtime social activist. He marched for civil rights in the 1960s, organized grass-roots campaigns in the 1970s, ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1980s. An avowed leftist, Mr. Kaufman boldly goes wherever his politics lead him: He has been banned from synagogues for criticizing Israel. He has been threatened by Black Muslims for protesting Minister Farrakhan. Charming and quick-witted, with a Lenin-esque beard and thick wire-rim glasses, Mr. Kaufman is perhaps the best-known member of Baltimore's progressive community.

"We're in a situation," he explains, "where the status quo is falling apart. The system isn't working for anyone and people are angry and frustrated and they don't know why things are going so wrong. People are looking for answers."

"The right wing," continues Mr. Kaufman, "is supplying answers, but answers with fascist overtones. They are blaming the situation on the same scapegoats offered by Adolph Hitler: immigrants, ethnic minorities, communists. The Democrats are going down the tubes because they aren't offering alternatives. As a result, they find themselves trapped into defending the status quo -- assuming responsibility for the problems without offering real solutions.

"People feel a need for answers today," Mr. Kaufman says, "so they turn to the fascists. Even a poor solution is better than no solution at all."

Like myself, Mr. Kaufman finds that people are not as close-minded as the political dialogue suggests. As head of the City-Wide Coalition, he has met with community and civic organizations all over Baltimore as part of a campaign to organize a grass-roots movement to decriminalize drugs. The group would like Congress to establish an independent commission that would see to the distribution of narcotics through health clinics.

Such an effort would take the profit out of the drug trade, according to the coalition, and allow the federal government to redirect its resources from a futile war against drugs to drug treatment. Mr. Kaufman says he has made this proposal to nearly 150 civic groups since February. Nearly everyone supported the concept, he says.

"When you have the guts to go before the community with a clear alternative, they're for it," he says. "The grass roots is hungry for alternatives. As I said, they understand that the status quo isn't working."

The City-Wide Coalition is an outgrowth of a grass-roots campaign to launch a municipal auto insurance program that would offer city residents rates considerably below those offered by some commercial insurers. After some modifications to the original plan, city residents could begin receiving discounted rates next spring.

"There are a lot of innovative ideas out there; progressives have a lot to add to the debate," says Mr. Kaufman. "The problem is, we're not heard. There is no national voice out there to counter the far right. I believe I could handle any rightist in a debate. Unfortunately, I don't get the chance."

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Kaufman, political discourse today would be invigorated by clear, opposing points of view. Right now, most liberal Democrats lack the courage to provide this. Most progressives are ignored. What we have is conservatives debating one another. No wonder their point of view triumphed last week. And no wonder voters are frustrated.

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