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Dear John

John, I’m waiting. It looks like you’re the one now. But are you the one for me?

You may be. I like a lot of things about you. I admire a lot of the things you’ve done. I think your heart is in the right place. Of course, there are a few things—well, I can forgive a few things.

But I need to know that you care.

Please don’t underestimate that, John. I really do need to know that you care.

You don’t know me, but you know something about me (and I’m not saying that just because we’re both from the same state). You know quite a bit about my hopes and fears and what kind of country I’d like to live in. You know quite a bit about my values and beliefs. You agree with some of them. But others—well, I’m not sure how you feel deep down inside, but I know you at least have to pretend that you’re not interested in doing some of the things people like me would like you to do with your power and influence. Because your power and influence was hard-earned, and you have learned to play by the rules.

But you need to remember that there are many thousands of people more or less like me, and that we can help you. Al knew this—he desperately wanted our help—but he didn’t do anything to earn it.

You want us to stay with you. You may even assume we’ll stay with you. But we’re not like the others. We’re not traditional. We’re not blindly or unwaveringly loyal. And, frankly, we’re sick and tired of being told that our values and beliefs don’t matter.

We’ve been told this so many times in recent election years that some of us have begun to wonder whether we’re even supposed to be in this party. It’s bad enough that the mainstream media consistently tell us that our views don’t matter, marginalizing potentially popular candidates who espouse them (Ralph in 2000, Dennis in 2004), or even character-assassinating ones like Howard, who—while not as progressive as we’d like—clearly threatened your liberal-lite country club with his iconoclastic appeal to free thinkers. But it’s even more revealing—and disheartening—when your party leaders tell us this directly. Al did it in 2000, first by hooking up with the Joe, the most conservative running mate available, then by steadfastly refusing to expand his platform much beyond the concerns of SUV-drivin’ soccer moms. Joe did it again this year when he denounced Howard—a pro-gun, pro-business centrist by any definition until he criticized the war, pumped up his image as a populist outsider, got popular and started giving the rest of you jitters—as someone who would take the party in a dangerous direction, presumably because he was appealing to people to the left of the permissible party limits. People like us.

So the message is clear: Radical notions like universal health care and corporate responsibility and living wages don’t have a place in the Democratic Party, nor do the radicals who espouse them—oops, that is, until it’s time to vote.

Then we matter. Then we’re supposed to line up at the polls and vote exactly as we’re told: Democratic. Because the party must be united. Because George must be stopped.

And it drives you and your party crazy that we’re too stubborn and principled and free-thinking to do exactly as we’re told. But frankly, John, we’re tired of being burned. We’re tired of being asked to give at the same time we’re being told to expect little or nothing in return.

That’s the distinct message I got from Al four years ago. And you know what, John? I left Al for Ralph. Because Ralph said he really cared about me when Al said all he cared about was my vote.

Some argue that Ralph doesn’t really care about progressives—that if he really cared, he’d get out of the way and make sure that progressives didn’t have anyone to vote for except for the Democratic nominee. Because the most important thing is that George must be stopped. Well, I agree, that’s important. But it’s not the only important thing. Another, more long-term important thing is that people like me who feel left out of the two-party process and its very narrow range of debate hang in there and fight for change, so that someday we may have viable candidates who care about some of the same things we care about. And the only weapon we really have is our vote. In this so-called democracy, that vote belongs to each and every one of us. My vote is mine to cast however I see fit. Just because I am a registered Democrat and have voted Democratic most of my life doesn’t mean the Democratic nominee for president is entitled to it. He has to earn it.

So how do I feel about Ralph running again? At first I was hoping he wouldn’t (I know he won’t do as well this time around, and it likely will feel sadly anticlimactic), but now that I’ve read some of the scathing attacks and the desperate please-don’ts, I’m back to where I was four years ago: Go for it. Make them nervous. Make them earn my vote. Ralph didn’t blow it for Al in 2000: Al blew it for Al in 2000 (he won it anyway, but then the Supreme Court blew it for all of us). Ralph certainly won’t blow it this year for you, John. What Ralph is trying to do is make people of power and influence pay attention to the persistent problems affecting ordinary Americans, problems that have only gotten worse under George. If you listen, John, Ralph could actually make you stronger.

Because you know what? There’s nothing radical about universal health care (a majority of Americans want it). There’s nothing radical about a living wage. People everywhere are fed up with corporate crime (so are you—keep it up) and the continuing downward slide of the middle class. And so on.

You’ve spoken out on some of these and other progressive issues before—don’t let your advisors tell you to stop now because you’ll seem too “radical” for the general election. A lot of what we’re hoping for is just good, populist common sense. But as the Democratic Party has been pulled to the center, its corporate backers apparently don’t want to hear common sense.

If we hear it from you, John, you won’t have to worry about Ralph. Remember, we just need to know you care.

—Stephen Leon

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