This past summer, I wrote in this space about the historical limits of third-party presidential candidacies–the failure not only of such candidates to get a significant percent of the vote, but also of their parties to build on their moment in the sun. Within minutes, the magazine was deluged with protest e-mails from Nader fans. Even my father wrote in to put in a last hurrah for Henry Wallace and his 2 percent in 1948. In a particularly nutty syndicated column, Alexander Cockburn implied that I had been contacted by the Gore campaign in order to "bully" leftists into staying with the Dems. All this high drama, even though I did not urge people to vote for Gore or say I was planning to do so myself! What I did point out was that Nader and the Greens ought to acknowledge that there are (still!) some real differences between the parties and to explain more persuasively why the risk of a Bush win–to choice, the Supreme Court, affirmative action–was worth taking.
All these issues flared up again in early September, when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Patricia Ireland, head of NOW, had "lashed out" at Nader for neglecting feminist issues. Next day, Nader fired back: "I have been fighting for women's rights before Patricia Ireland knew the term"–and I'm old enough to be your father, little missy! he didn't add. Nader mentioned credit discrimination, unnecessary operations and auto-dealer ripoffs as issues pioneered by him and ignored by feminists. Wrong: NOW led the fight against sex discrimination in credit back in the seventies. Unnecessary surgery–hysterectomies, caesareans, mastectomies–has been a continuing preoccupation of women's health groups. And to suggest that organizations fighting antichoicers and father's rights-ers, rape, domestic violence, harassment, bias at school and job, in Social Security and the courts, should focus instead on auto-dealer ripoffs… well, let's see: legal abortion, cheaper car, Violence Against Women Act, cheaper car–where would you place your limited resources?
I was all set to write a column (another column!) about Nader's tone-deafness to feminism. Why, when you consider how courtly he is to the right–Pat Buchanan, Bill Bennett, even Phyllis Schlafly–can't the man show a little respect? When I reached Nader by phone, though, I have to say he was much more nuanced than I expected, not to mention livelier and more amusing. He waved away both Ireland's remarks and his own as journalist Carla Marinucci's doing–"She likes to ask you a provoking question when she knows you're in a hurry." He acknowledged that, yes, "Bush is worse than Gore on some issues–on abortion and gun control for instance, their differences are real, not rhetorical." He defended his feminist record ("I've done a lot more than I get credit for") and rather plaintively wondered, "Why do we hassle each other with these little differences when basically we're on the same page?" before launching into a description of a particularly grotesque episode of the Howard Stern show, involving a single mother being spanked with two dead fish. "Why don't women go after him? I wrote to NOW about this!" I wouldn't say Nader is particularly well-informed about what feminists are up to (attacking misogynous pop culture, including Stern, is a perennial enthusiasm–NOW has a huge media activism section), but I didn't hear in his conversation the note of white-male irredentism and cultural conservatism masquerading as "class politics" I hear from some of his supporters.
"I think Gore's got it," Nader predicted. "He's got Bush on the defensive now, and I'm slamming Bush on issues Gore won't touch, like corporate welfare, the Texas Rangers deal–you know what that is, don't you?" (Yes, I lied.) "So we may end up with the best of all worlds. The Greens will get the 5 percent and the federal funds, and I'll become a watchdog on Capitol Hill for all those great progressive organizations people pay their twenty-five dollars to join…"
"So, you're saying that in the best of all worlds Gore wins and you get the 5 percent?"
"No, that's the second-best world. In the best world, I win the White House, and Gore gets the 5 percent."
I still think Nader dismisses too lightly the threat Bush poses to women's rights and civil rights generally. Having said that Gore was genuinely better on abortion, Nader seemed to deny that this would matter: Roe v. Wade "is a settled issue. We're not going back to the back alley again. Prochoicers are too strong." But if prochoicers are so strong, how come abortion is already encumbered with more than 300 state restrictions, most carrying criminal penalties? How come George W. Bush signed eighteen antiabortion bills into law in 1999?
There's a reason my friend Ellen DuBois at UCLA tells me she knows lots of progressive couples in which the woman is furious at her man for backing Nader, and why Nader has almost no black support in polls. About electoral politics, Nader seems insufficiently skeptical: On the one hand he declared the Democrats "unreformable from within"–too corrupted and controlled by corporate interests and donations. In the next breath he talked about building the Greens to push the Dems left–as if the corporate powers he just so vividly depicted wouldn't simply flex their own muscles more vigorously.
I still think third-party politics is mostly a crock, but then, so is two-party politics. Nader may be a 67-year-old pre-multiculti sort of a guy, but he is so right on so many issues–he is the only candidate who talks about structural poverty, healthcare for all, abolishing the death penalty, cutting the military, ending the drug war, diversifying the media. I wouldn't lift a finger that would help elect George W., but I'm taking a leaf from Molly Ivins, who advises voters to take advantage of our antiquated Electoral College system and go for Nader if they live in a state that's solid for Bush or Gore. If Gore is still up in New York on Election Day, I'm voting for Ralph. I reached Patricia Ireland just as I was finishing this column, and she says that's a great idea.