I went to hear Gary Hart, former US senator and (also former) Democratic presidential candidate, speak in Milan at the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale. His lecture was brief and intelligent, ostensibly about “American Foreign Policy after the election,” but in many ways a plug for his good friend John Kerry.

He raised a number of interesting and important points, such as the fact that there has as yet been no real public debate in America on what its role should be in the post-Cold War world. Some scholars and others see the US as already being, or moving into the role of, an empire. Can or should the US be a “benign” empire (if such a thing is possible)? Can a country be both an empire and a republic? (Hart and many others say no.)

Hart says that the values and behaviors of a republic, as America was founded to be, include popular sovereignty and resistance to corruption (corruption in the broad sense of “putting personal interest ahead of the common good”). On both of these counts, America already fails to be a republic: voter turnout is among the world’s lowest, so we cannot say that we have “popularly” elected representatives. And no one seems to be putting the common good above personal interest. Hart rightly points to the corruption in political financing: virtually all money for political candidates comes from interest groups. But, in fairness, I can’t say that the Democrats score any better on this scale than the Republicans – the Democratic candidates are simply in a different set of pockets and, when it’s their turn in power, will make paybacks to a different set of interests.

Had I been registered as a Republican in 2000, I would have voted for John McCain in the primaries, because I liked what he had to say about campaign finance reform. In the event, all I could do was vote for Gore, who is owned by slightly less evil interest groups. I don’t like what the teachers’ unions have done to American education, but I like even less what Cheney’s pals at Halliburton are doing to the world. For the record, I am disgusted enough with Bush & Co. that I have recently joined the Milan chapter of Democrats Abroad, and will be doing my bit by helping out with their website.

However, I have the despairing feeling that it’s going to be a long time before either party fields a candidate I can actually respect. If you want to see someone trying to make a real difference in American politics, have a look at John Bonifaz and his organization.

John and I were in India together on our study abroad year in Benares. We didn’t like each other then, and have hardly met since, but, through the grapevine, I’ve been aware of what he’s been up to, and have come to respect him greatly – his heart and mind are both in the right place, and he’s very, very intelligent in how he pursues his goals. A few years ago he was thinking of running for office in Massachusetts – against John Kerry – and I pledged money to his campaign (for the first time in my political life); unfortunately, he bowed out after 9/11, though he still has a few things to say to Kerry.

John’s got a new book out which may interest some of you (others will hate it <grin>): Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George Bush.

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