It was no surprise to me that virtually everyone I met during a recent three-week trip across the Midwest was quick to remind me that this election is the most important in their lifetime.

While agreeing that the overriding political task is to defeat Bush and his counterparts in Congress and elect Kerry and a more people-friendly Congress, no one reduced this to simply a contest between the Democratic and Republican parties.

This election, they told me, will continue the nearly 24-year struggle against the forces of extreme political reaction who are now entrenched in the White House, Congress and Supreme Court — but with this difference: Nov. 2 could well mark a turning point for better or worse.

A Bush victory would give the ultra-right a green light to ramp up their project of drastically and unilaterally reshaping the domestic and international landscape in the interests of U.S. imperialism.

On the other hand, a victory by Kerry and the broad democratic movement that supports him would be a body blow to the extreme right, bring some relief on bread and butter issues, and lift the siege on our nation’s constitution.

And it also would create a much more favorable political terrain on which the people’s movement could struggle for its agenda, beginning with an end to the occupation of Iraq.

Thus the stakes are high, and what adds to the drama is that the electorate is so divided that the outcome will depend on which campaign is able to turn out the biggest vote.

Given these circumstances, what should be the role of left and progressive people?

It is not to parse every word, vet every speech, and scrutinize every statement of Kerry. Nor is it to damn Kerry with faint praise. Rather its main task, as I see it, is to bring into sharper focus the differences in the two lines of policy represented by Kerry and Bush, to delineate the vastly improved political playing field that a Kerry victory would bring, and, above all, to become involved in the grassroots efforts to mobilize the vote.

In so doing, the left will help voters gain an understanding of the bigger picture, extend the practical efforts to reach the electorate, and enhance its connections to the main democratic organizations — connections which are critical to post-election struggles.

Across the country there is a growing anti-Bush feeling, but that alone is not enough. To win requires that millions be convinced that the differences between Bush and Kerry are real, substantial and consequential to their lives on the whole range of issues: Social Security, Medicare, health care, overtime, minimum wage, public education, affirmative action, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, gay rights, civil liberties, tax policy, environmental protection, Cuba, preemptive war, and nuclear weapons testing and use.

Even on Iraq, there are differences between the two. But more importantly, the defeat of Bush would be a repudiation of his policies of war and occupation, and that could not be ignored by a Kerry administration.

Thus, the remark heard in some left circles, “I will vote for Kerry but hold my nose,” is counterproductive and demobilizing. It may bring some momentary self-satisfaction to those expressing it. But it will do little to convince swing, undecided, or stay-at-home voters to go to the polls.

In my experience, aside from the right-wing talk show hosts of this world and their loyal listeners, few people believe that Kerry is a candidate of the left and progressive movement. Most know that he is closely tied to the U.S. ruling class, and a defender of capitalism, as is Bush.

That common class affiliation and fondness for the “free enterprise” system, however, doesn’t prevent many voters from understanding that Kerry is a political centrist and espouses different policies than Bush.

Nor does it keep them from realizing that a Kerry victory would give the broader movements political leverage that they do not have now.

The biggest danger in this election is not that millions of people will have unrealistic expectations of a Kerry administration, but rather that a substantial section of voters still believe that it doesn’t make much of a difference who they vote for on Nov. 2.

The responsibility of left and progressive people is not to spend their time bellyaching over Kerry’s shortcomings, but to convince millions that there is a choice and that the outcome of this election will have enormous consequences for our nation’s future.

Sam Webb is chair of the Communist Party USA. He can be reached at