Every national election is becoming a national disaster. If voting for the lesser of two evils is the sum of all political wisdom, then why be surprised if we can only choose among bipartisan barbarians? In matters of life and death such as drug research and health care, we are constantly assured that Democrats will be more generous than Republicans. But after four years of Democratic administration, many effective prevention efforts, including needle exchange programs, still lack adequate national coordination and funding. In health care, as in political campaigns, we settle for such “lesser” evils at the great cost of settling for thousands of needless deaths.

AIDS and health care activists will gain more ground in less time if we begin with a declaration of independence from the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s high time to be honest about own our failures and the difficult work ahead. Much of the original energy of AIDS activism came from decent middle-class gay men who felt entitled to first-class health care and felt outraged by second-class treatment. Even when AIDS activism evolved in a more radical direction, the rhetoric was rarely linked to any practical resistance to the bipartisan system. That system, however, remains one of the major obstacles to decent health care for all people.

Some good folks were motivated only by rage against a Republican regime, and promptly lost their hearts and minds to a Democratic president. And others, including some of the veteran founders and fighters, are now dead. The most progressive AIDS and health care activists never had many illusions about bipartisan politics, but this kind of disillusionment also became a political dead end. There is a semi-anarchist streak in AIDS activism that allows some folks to demand everything from government -- education, research, treatment -- and still keep their own souls pure by staying outside the voting booth.

There is no such innocence. A progressive health care movement will make very slow progress until we get serious about winning a fair share of political power. If we depend on the charity of Democrats, then we can also count on the brutality of Republicans every time the two parties play musical chairs. Even our investment of hope and votes in the Democratic Party is showing diminishing returns, because brutality is now truly bipartisan.

President Clinton is running for re-election as a “moderate” Republican, and his record proves it. His first televised campaign ad was a ringing endorsement of the death penalty; he quotes Martin Luther King Jr. even as he cuts the heart out of affirmative action; and he promised “to end welfare as we know it,” which he has just done in close collaboration with Republicans. This last action will further endanger the health and safety of the poor, the unemployed and the 41 million people, who lack any health insurance. Furthermore, Clinton was never serious about genuine health care reform, or he would have waged an early fight for a single-payer plan. Clinton settled very cozily with big business and the insurance companies, and must share bipartisan blame for this health care disaster.

Though Clinton and the Democratic Party have abandoned liberalism for “centrism,” liberals are still stuck like flies in that spider’s web. Most liberal Democrats have loyally played dead for their party, but a few -- too few and too late -- are now in open revolt. Liberals only remain liberals when radicals remain radicals. When we depend upon liberals within the Democratic Party to do our work for us, we have already lost half the battle. Donna Shalala and Barney Frank are Democratic team players who promised us access and influence, and both have betrayed us.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services has become one more servant of the Democratic National Committee. She learned only one sad lesson when Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders dared to talk plainly about sex, drugs and health care: Clinton took his orders from the far right and fired her. Last year she lied to justify the administration’s inaction regarding needle exchange.

When a major civil disobedience action in favor of universal health care was planned in Washington in 1993, congessman Frank leaned on national lesbian and gay organizations to obstruct it. And when Clinton promised to sign the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Frank was eloquent against Republican bigots, but spared the Collaborator-in-Chief from criticism. Instead, Frank claims he warned gay leaders against raising the issue of gay marriage “prematurely.” Frank assumes social change is a chess game played by Congressional rules, and common citizens should be passive as pawns until politicians decide to make a move. By the rules of that game, slaves would still be picking cotton, women would still have no right to vote, and queers would still be quietly filling police vans at the whim of politicians and vice squads.

As for the gay Democratic clubs, they are twisting like pretzels as they campaign for a politician who endorses discrimination against gay citizens in the military and in civic marriage. We all know the reasons why marriage and the military are a mixed bag for queers, but we should not be too smart for our own good. Health care activists who consider marriage a mere distraction from universal health care are themselves suffering from battle fatigue. We can wish for paradise now, but civic marriage is one practical step toward greater justice in job and health benefits. Straight folks don’t give up those benefits and neither should queers. As The New York Times noted on May 16 (paraphrasing the White House press secretary), “The White House was having trouble enough preserving health and medical benefits for those now covered without trying to extend them to same-sex partners.” In this respect, Clinton is only one more politician winning elections over our dead bodies.

The majority of eligible citizens no longer vote in national elections. Over 60 percent of Americans polled affirm that they would prefer to vote for alternative candidates and parties, but we’ll never get that chance until we fight hard for campaign finance reform (shot down again by Congress), for proportional representation and for a truly democratic electoral system.

Democracy is a health care issue, just as universal health care is essential in any healthy democracy. Our political horizon must extend beyond the next election. Maybe the AIDS Cure Party can help change the public debate on health care, but it’s also time to change our political system. The official positions of the Green Party are much better than Ralph Nader, their presidential candidate, so we should sign their ballot petitions. We should support independent progressive candidates, especially beyond the local level. For practical information about breaking the bipartisan stranglehold, call the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington (202.828.3062) and the progressive National Independent Politics Network (718.624.7807).

When Clinton croons, “I feel your pain,” some folks swooned. But the pain we’ve endured teaches another lesson: Cheap dates get raw fucks. Clinton and his band of New Democrats will continue seducing and abandoning desperate citizens as long as we let them, and our votes will never truly count unless we make them expensive.