Nader and the Politics of Fear | The Nation


Nader and the Politics of Fear

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Yet Al Gore and the Dems did not help themselves last year by underestimating Nader and the young people around him. At the eleventh hour, the attacks and warnings from party regulars succeeded in scaring off roughly half of Nader's potential voters, but an odd bounce occurred in some postelection polling. In late November, a Zogby International poll reported that 6 percent claimed to have voted for Nader (twice his actual vote). In late December, another poll found 10 percent claiming they had voted for him. One shouldn't make too much of this. Some voters typically misrepresent themselves afterward, but usually they pretend they voted for the winner, not for someone who finished a distant third. Possibly, the Nader moment left a stronger afterglow than Washington yet recognizes.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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Nader has two essential strengths going for him. First, his ideas. The issues Nader articulates connect intensely with left-liberal activists and organizations at the grassroots, but are not ready for prime time, so far as the Democratic Party can see. Or they may even be dangerously liberal. The "living wage" campaign that has swept the country. Food safety and the concentration of production by agribusiness. The deformities in criminal law, including draconian drug sentences and the death penalty. The malfunctioning electoral system, beyond voting machines, which requires representational reforms like "instant runoff" voting. The archaic and bloated national security state. The federal subsidies to companies that abuse their own work forces, not to mention the environment. The overbearing influence of financial markets and corporate power. Nader says he reminded Gephardt: "The Greens actually have a more legitimate platform for the old Democratic Party than the Democratic Party does."

Nader's other great asset is the Democratic Party. It is more profoundly divided than the Congressional numbers suggest--torn between serving money patrons and responding to its voting constituencies, and utterly without the means of imposing party discipline. Most Democratic incumbents are not deeply threatened by their party's fallen status, since they raise money and run largely on their own--even gain contributors and favorable press by going against the party on large matters. Thus, among senior liberals, 2001 feels a lot like 1981, when the Reagan White House cherry-picked Democratic votes to enact its right-wing agenda. The defections have already begun. Instead of "Boll Weevils," the white Southern renegades who voted with the Reaganites, the potential defectors are now among the thirty-strong Blue Dogs or the sixty business-friendly New Democrats associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The faithful labor-liberal vote in the Senate is even weaker than in the House. The DLC roster exaggerates its influence (since some members sign up for political cover and fundraising), but it wagged the dog during the Clinton years--insisting on a mushy agenda that did not upset business and finance. Leaders complied to keep everyone on the same page.

Nader thinks Greens can help break up the party's passive strategy, at least discomfort it, first by identifying core-issue roll calls as "the markers" and then going after the incumbents who ignore them. "The marker is: Are the Democrats really going to fight?" he said. "If they really fought, they could stop Bush on anything, we know that. But, they will say, 'Oh no, you don't understand about the Blue Dogs or the DLC.' Well, if they don't have party discipline on these major issues, then you don't really have a party. They shouldn't say, 'We, the Democratic Party, are better on this and that.' Don't talk about the Democratic Party--it's two parties." This blunt-nosed analysis sounds naïve--and terribly unfair--to insiders familiar with the reality of intraparty divisions. Yet, if Democrats do disappoint energized constituencies on major matters, the Greens will have good talking points for recruiting.

The Progressive Caucus, though a minority within the minority, is sounding a similar warning inside the party: Restoration requires strong principles and ideas, not more polling data. Nader, says Kucinich, "should have stayed within the party. We've talked about these same issues for years and have worked with Ralph. The issues are valid. They become more valid when they are taken within the Democratic Party."

Nader's logic has a serious downside--a mismatch he does not acknowledge, but that could injure the party without producing therapeutic change. Given the nature of the Greens and their issues, they typically demonstrate the best potential for harvesting votes in the districts already held by liberal Democrats or conscientious moderates. So, as Greens go about building a party, they are going to run against "good guys," for sure. "When you're building a party, you don't go around saying, 'Hey, don't run against him, he's a good guy,'" Nader said. That naturally enrages Democrats. "His idea is making things better by making them worse," said Representative David Obey, a thirty-year veteran of liberal legislative battles. "In some cases, [Green challengers] might work, but in most cases it will push those members further into the arms of the people they're already beholden to. The answer isn't that you have to break fifteen people's arms. The answer is you have to win the national debate, and the way you do that is on the economic issues--the kitchen-table issues people care about." Nader shrugged. "Sometimes you've got to prune the tree to make it grow healthy," he told me.

The untested Green potential is whether they can exert electoral influence on the less obvious targets--the New Democrats from closely contested swing districts or conservative-voting Democrats with safe seats and even some Republicans who vote more conservative than their districts. "That's a collateral benefit of what we're trying to do," Nader insisted. Despite appearances, the status quo is not invulnerable. Among the New Democrats, for instance, a dozen won last year by less than 10 percent, and some of their margins were squeakers where a third-party candidate might well have tipped the balance against them. The watch list includes some voluble champions of DLC deal-making such as California Representatives Cal Dooley (53-45 percent) and Ellen Tauscher (53-44 percent). A Green opponent might at least complicate life for some Democrats who win easily and flaunt their independence--Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas or Representative Gary Condit of California or Representative Jim Moran of Virginia (whose affluent district may be more liberal than he is on environmental issues). At a minimum, the idea of introducing competition in uncontested districts should be stimulating for small-d democracy.

Certainly, it might be far more effective if the major constituencies (labor, blacks, enviros and others) decided to impose their own, more aggressive electoral tests on Democrats who stray. These groups have the battlefield experience and resources to get everyone's attention, but as effective players inside the legislative system, they are also inhibited by some of the same factors that make the party itself risk-averse. Labor brings the most muscle, for instance, but it also has to play defense against Republican assaults on a variety of bread-and-butter issues. Many incumbent Democrats who swing conservative on the more visible issues will give labor their votes on parochial matters vital to union members but not the general public. It's difficult to threaten retribution against an incumbent if you have to stop by the senator's office the next day and ask for a vote.

What Nader and the Greens might bring to the table is fear--"nameless, unreasoning fear," as FDR put it in a different context. That emotion is (or ought to be) a powerful motivation in representative democracy--the fear of being defeated by the next unknown. In my experience, the one thing sure to alter thinking among comfortable incumbents is seeing a couple of their colleagues cut down--blindsided by a new issue or a swarm of discontented voters they didn't see coming. Typically, politicians will do what they can to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to them. Even safe incumbents are eager to avoid the harassment and risk of a dedicated challenger. This fear helps explain why presumably marginal forces like the NRA can accumulate so much influence or how the antiabortion camp gradually swallowed the Republican Party, despite opposition from the American majority. Winning elections depends on amassing big numbers, but political leverage exists on the margins for those with intensity of purpose. The Democratic Party, for that matter, could benefit itself from a little more intensity of purpose.

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