I am ashamed to say it took a movie to make me realise what, above all others, is surely the greatest political question of our time. An hour and 40 minutes in the cinema watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which opens in Britain this weekend, is what finally did it.
Sure, I had heard the warnings and read the reports: for two decades environmental activists have been sounding the alarm. But, I confess, none of it had really sunk in the way it did after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I can think of few films of greater political power.
Four months after I saw the film, I find myself looking at the world through its lens. I now notice office buildings at night, aglow with electric light; or hotel rooms abroad, frigid with 24-hour air-conditioning even when empty. I see the planes ripping through the sky, and read about the roaring economic expansion of China, building a new coal-fired power station every five days. I see all this and I fear for our planet.
The film leaves a more direct political thought. You watch and you curse the single vote on the US supreme court that denied this man – passionate, well-informed and right – the presidency of the United States in favour of George W Bush. You realise what a different world we would live in now if just a few hundred votes had gone to Al Gore (rather than, say, Ralph Nader) that fateful day.
But you also remember what that election turned on. The conventional wisdom held that Gore and Bush were so similar on policy – Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the pundits said – that the election was about personality. On that measure, Bush had the edge. Sure, he couldn’t name any world leader, but the polls gave him a higher likeability rating. If you had to have a beer with one of them, who would you choose? Americans said Bush, every time.
Even that was not enough to give Bush a greater number of votes: remember, Gore got more of those. But it got him closer than he should have been. And the world has been living with the consequences ever since.
Robert Philpot responds with his own warning: Don’t abandon the center!
But let’s not forget that the blame for what happened in 2000 also rests partly with the left and, most critically, with the strategy adopted by Gore and his advisers. It wasn’t, for instance, just the pundits, as Freedland suggests, who argued that the vice-president and Texas governor were “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” on policy and thus ignored the very evident dangers of allowing Bush to slip into the Oval Office. This was a position – Michael Moore being its chief cheerleader – that was adopted by significant sections of the American left, and led millions to vote for the Green candidate, Ralph Nader.
We should also remember the role that Gore played in his own downfall. While it’s true that an apparently relaxed, sunny personality does wonders on the campaign trail, it wasn’t just the vice-president’s “stiff, unnatural, oddly robotic” personality that dashed his chances. Personality counts for much in US politics, but not all – how else to explain the millions of votes garnered by Richard Nixon on three occasions?
The real error on Gore’s part was that, fearing that association with the scandal-tarnished Bill Clinton would harm him with some voters (a miscalculation given the president’s high approval ratings throughout his second term), he sought to disassociate himself from both the considerable achievements of the administration of which he had been a part, and the New Democrat agenda which had helped the Democrats to victory in both 1992 and 1996. In those elections, Clinton successfully assembled “metro-wide” coalitions, which recognised the importance of both traditional urban Democrat voters as well as floating voters in the suburbs.
Gore’s abandonment of this approach and adoption of a populist “people against the powerful” message cost him dear. Yes, he narrowly outpolled Bush across the country and, yes, he successfully mobilised the support of a higher percentage of union, black and liberal voters than Clinton had four years previously. But, to his great detriment, the vice-president shed huge numbers of critical swing voters – suburbanites, Catholics and independents – who had backed the Democrats in the two previous presidential elections.
Elections are won and lost in what the American historian Arthur Schlesigner once termed the “vital centre” of politics – for some on the left, that’s the really inconvenient truth about Gore’s “defeat” in 2000.