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NEW YORK--In the aftermath of September 11, pundits were quick to proclaim the American left a victim of the war on terrorism, for two reasons.
It's time for a liberal philosophy focusing on social justice and inequality.
With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
The elections of 2000--resulting in the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, a historic 50-50 split in the Senate and a reduced Republican margin in the House--have supplied the basis for countless commentators to intone that Democrats must operate "from the center" or else face political annihilation. Progressives have heard this tune often enough over the past decade, invariably following every election. It seems that regardless of whether Democratic fortunes are up or down in any given year, the lesson drawn by inside-the-Beltway pundits is always the same: Operate from the center. It's easy to dismiss this stale conventional wisdom, but in the aftermath of this unusual election many progressives are legitimately wondering about the prospects of a progressive politics.
The American people do want us to govern from the center, in a sense. But it is not the center the pundits and politicians in Washington talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They yearn for a politics that speaks to and includes them--affordable childcare, a good education for their children, health and retirement security, good jobs that will support their families, respect for the environment and human rights, clean elections and clean campaigns.
One thing this election confirmed is that progressive politics can be winning politics. The public is clearly center-left on the most important issues: campaign finance reform, education, healthcare, living-wage jobs, trade and the environment. And there can be no doubt that Al Gore's championing of ordinary people over powerful interests gave a postconvention boost to his sagging candidacy. Progressive populism responds to the widespread awareness that large forces in our economy have too much power and ordinary people have too little.
Another critical lesson of this election is that progressive constituencies cannot be ignored. Union households, African-Americans and Hispanics were crucial to Democratic mobilization and turnout. It has become increasingly implausible to argue that Democrats must distance themselves from working people and the disadvantaged in order to win elections.
Yet the politics of our country, strangely, is center-right. The cruel irony is that George W. Bush won the presidency, in good part, by campaigning on Democratic issues--investing in children, education, prescription drug costs, healthcare and Social Security. His "compassionate conservatism" praises local volunteer efforts by ordinary citizens yet rejects the notion that government can make a positive difference when it comes to the most pressing issues of people's lives. This is a fine philosophy if you're a large corporation or wealthy, but not such a great deal if you're a working family.
Moreover, President Bush's agenda is bold and clear: $1.6 trillion in tax cuts flowing mainly to the wealthy, which will erode our country's revenue base and thus bar major investments in childcare, education and healthcare; a direct assault on environmental and workplace health and safety standards; massive new Pentagon spending on unworkable missile defense; the privatization of Social Security and Medicare; and an open challenge to Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose. There is more to the Bush agenda, of course, but this much ought to be enough to galvanize progressive forces around the country.
The problem is that all too often progressives have been better at denunciation than annunciation. We need both. People are as interested in what you're for as what you're against. With a unified GOP preparing to take the reins of a new administration, now is the time for progressives to put forward new ideas and new leaders. We need to take stock, compare notes, support one another and begin building today a winning progressive politics for tomorrow. Progressive politics is a winning politics so long as the central focus is on workaday majority issues.
Progressive politics is successful when it is not top-down and elitist and when it respects the capacity of ordinary citizens. That is why the impetus for change must come from outside Washington. There are three crucial ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way, in the absence of sweeping social movements, that we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable for progressive public policy. These ingredients are linked like the three legs of a stool.
As important as new ideas are, another think tank or policy institute not connected to local grassroots organizing will not suffice. Many of the discussions I have had so far in the progressive community have focused on creating a new organization as a counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council. I am sympathetic to these efforts. Without them, the DLC moves us toward a Democratic Party that gives the country what the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls "the politics of excluded alternatives"--what Jim Hightower calls "downsized politics." I am all for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But progressive politics must draw its energy and ideas from local citizen-activists. Too often we have failed to make that critical connection.
On February 28, the Campaign for America's Future will hold a conference of citizens' organizations and activists in Washington to draw a blueprint for a campaign to fight for economic and social progress. I am excited about participating in this gathering, which will be an important first step. There must also be regional gatherings held around the country to involve people in a meaningful way in an inclusive effort to create a progressive politics. As a Midwesterner, I am particularly sensitive to an exclusive focus on East and West Coast gatherings.
We must recognize that there is a wealth of effective labor, community and citizen organizing going on all across the country. The Service Employees International Union is showing the way by organizing a grassroots campaign for universal healthcare. The grassroots campaign for clean money/clean elections is our brightest hope for political reform. The nationwide grassroots campaign for a living wage has supplied new energy to the struggle against inequality. And the Seattle Coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, family farmers and people of faith is providing a democratic counterweight to corporate-led globalization.
Even so, I often ask myself, "Why doesn't the whole equal the sum of its parts? How does this organizing translate into more national clout for a progressive politics?" If we are to make this grassroots politics part of an effective national politics, grassroots leaders must be included. We must reach out to these leaders, including those disenchanted with party politics. A lot of these leaders' energy is focused on progressive issues, not party politics. Likewise, most citizens are not interested in party strategies; their politics is much more concrete and personal. If we don't speak to the concrete and personal issues that affect people's lives, we will miss out on some of the best opportunities for organizing people.
We need to build a progressive force that does a lot of organizing within the Democratic Party--especially candidate recruitment and elections. But this cannot be the only goal. This new force must not only introduce new and exciting perspectives into the political dialogue of our country; it must also recruit candidates; provide training, skills and resources for successful campaigns; build an infrastructure of field directors and campaign managers to support progressive candidates; have a savvy media presence; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; and otherwise build political leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.
This is more a democratic than a Democratic challenge, though I hope there is a strong connection between the two. It is a challenge that is certainly bigger than any one leader or campaign, and it will require progressives to work together and to pull in the same direction. But building such a grassroots-based effort to advocate effectively for the progressive agenda, and to put more progressives in office at every level and across the country, is a goal worth fighting for.
Mandate or no, George W. Bush is forging ahead with Cabinet appointments, policy forums and talk of a "first 100 days." Bush and his team have assembled a Cabinet faster than any administration since Richard Nixon's, and before Bush takes the oath of office on January 20 they'll have laid the groundwork for passage of an agenda that closely resembles the worst-case scenario painted by Bush critics during the 2000 campaign.
Bush's appointments to the EPA, Interior and Energy look ready to lead a furious offensive against environmental regulation and common sense. His appointments to Labor and Justice promise an assault on choice, civil rights and worker rights. His heralded national security team looks resolutely backward to a cold war that isn't, and seems oblivious to the world as it is. No wonder the Reagan cinematic fantasy--Star Wars, missile defense--is paraded as an early priority.
Post-mortems and recriminations must now give way to action, beginning with a flood of e-mails, telegrams and letters of protest to the Capitol Hill offices not just of Republicans but of wavering Democrats who have the power to brake the Bush bandwagon. This is no time for bipartisan blather. "Those who are with the civil rights agenda must not choose collegiality over civil rights and social justice," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Democratic members of Congress need to know that they cannot expect the core of their party--women, minorities, workers--to turn out on Election Day only to have their interests abandoned the day after, and that those who surrender in this fight will not be forgotten and not be forgiven. We must make it clear that we are not prepared to refight the battles of the last decades on basic human rights. We are not prepared to surrender to another era of race-bait politics, or to send poor women back to the alleys for abortions, or to lay waste our environment in the interest of big oil.
The frontline troops of this movement are already mobilizing. Civil rights groups and others will take to the streets of Washington starting on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, and continuing through the Inauguration; they will raise necessary questions about the legitimacy of Bush's election and press for voting reforms that guarantee more representative results in the future. The AFL-CIO has pledged to oppose archconservative John Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General, as have People for the American Way and the Black Leadership Forum (see comments on Ashcroft on pages 4 and 5). Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have joined that challenge while also promising to oppose Health and Human Services Department nominee Tommy Thompson, who presided over a severe curtailment of access to reproductive rights as governor of Wisconsin.
But the real work must go on at the grassroots--starting now and continuing up to and including the 2002 elections. (For more information on protests and ways to get involved, go to Counter-Inaugural Calendar at www.thenation.com). It is only by exerting constant upward pressure that we can explode the myth of bipartisanship and prevent the Bush presidency from rolling over the will of the great majority of Americans.
Congress cannot salute Dr. King's dream and then go on to pass the dream-busting Bush agenda. Beginning with the Bush nominations, every lawmaker on Capitol Hill must be challenged to stand up, as Dr. King did, for justice.
A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.
On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.
My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.
In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.
I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.
Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.
The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.
I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.
"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."
Death came as a release for Daniel Singer on December 2, but we feel like protesting its rude intrusion. In one of the last things he wrote for us, a review of some books about Sartre, he quoted a friend's son, on the day of the French philosopher's funeral. Asked where he had been, he said he was coming "from the demo against the death of Sartre." We'd like to join a demo against the death of Daniel. Better, though, would be one celebrating the life of our valued colleague, The Nation's Europe correspondent for nearly twenty years.
He wrote about many a demo in his reports to us, incessantly probing for signs of vitality on the European left--or the rot of fascism on the far right. During the 1980s, as Reaganism and Thatcherism blanketed the Continent, he seemed, at times, one of the few remaining Marxists. A protégé of the great Marxist intellectual Isaac Deutscher, he held a steadfast faith in democratic socialism but not in any hard doctrinal way. Indeed, the book of his that prompted Victor Navasky to send associate editor Kai Bird to Paris in 1981 to talk to Daniel about writing regularly for us was The Road to Gdansk, a study of Solidarity, which he presciently celebrated as the first crack in the monolith of Soviet Communism and another exemplar of the power of working people to change the world, which was his abiding faith.
When the neocon intellectuals of France, here and elsewhere jumped aboard the funeral hearse of socialism, Daniel stood defiantly on the sidelines. He never modified his conviction that capitalism's injustices were as glaring after the wall fell as they were before. In his last book, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? he ended with a ringing affirmation: "We are not here to tinker with the world, we are here to change it!"
We'll miss Daniel--his wisdom, his courtly kindness, his brilliance, the stubborn courage that carried him through, from his Polish boyhood before World War II when, as a self-styled "deserter from death," he narrowly escaped the Holocaust, until the end. Before he died, he sent readers the following message:
"These are the last words I shall write to The Nation. With my normal absence of modesty I believe that over the years I acquired a radical readership. Radical need not mean sure of itself; nor does it rule out compromises and calculations. But a 'Luxemburgist socialist' (the definition I like best) could not resign himself to the idea that with the technological genius at our disposal we are unable to build a different world. Nor can we accept the fashion that capitalism will vanish without a vast social movement from below.
"That something can happen does not mean that it will happen. I, for one, shall not see this world. Yet, I am departing with the feeling that on the whole I have followed the right road and even with a degree of confidence. Among my young interns, Carl Bromley and his companions, among the youthful fighters from Seattle to Seoul, one can detect a refusal of resignation. You must join them as they now begin to show the way."
A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism.
Ralph really ran. Against the record of his own faux campaign of 1996, against the expectations even of friends who said he lacked the candidate gene and against the calculations of Democratic strategists who were forced to go from dismissing him to clumsily attacking the Green monster, Ralph Nader mounted a presidential campaign that in the closing days of the election defied the pundits' tendency to consign most third party candidacies to endgame obscurity.
As political players began counting down the hours to voting day, Nader was thrust into the national spotlight by media that had long disregarded his candidacy. The man who had been prevented even from attending three dismal debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush found himself portrayed by a New York Times editorial as the "wrecking-ball" of the postdebate campaign. There was Nader, just days before an election to which he was supposed to have been an asterisk, staring ABC newsman Sam Donaldson in the eye and asking, "Do you think Gore is entitled to any votes? Do you think Bush is entitled? Am I entitled to any votes? We have to earn them. If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he?"
Conscious of the Nader threat in states that had been securely married to the Democrats as far back as 1988 but began swinging in 2000, mainstream environmental and abortion rights groups diverted late-campaign energy and resources to scaring Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin Nader supporters into stopping Bush by abandoning the Green for the Gore. But the a-vote-for-Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush drive ended up buying Nader millions of dollars' worth of free media attention. And what voters saw was a Nader far removed from the stiff scold who launched his Green bid last winter. After watching Nader joust with news anchors desperately seeking to get him to abandon his critique of both parties and declare some hidden sympathy for the Democrat, conservative commentator George Will was heard asking when it was that Nader evolved into so able a candidate.
Nader's focused, fact-based, unapologetic appearances were no surprise to hundreds of thousands of students, renegade trade unionists, angry family farmers, environmentalists, organic-food activists, campaign finance reformers, dissident Democrats and leaderless Perotistas who packed Nader's "superrallies" from Oakland to Minneapolis to New York City. Those modern-day hootenannies raised some of the more than $5 million with which Nader's campaign hired staff in virtually every state, developed a network of 900 campus coordinators, bought a few television ads and papered every coffee shop bulletin board from San Francisco to Boston with Green literature. For their contributions, those who rallied were treated to inspired performances by Nader backers Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, crowd-rousing appeals from Jim Hightower and Michael Moore, arguments for a split from the Democratic Party by such progressive icons as Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Nader addresses that bore less and less resemblance to college lectures and more and more to the populist orations of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette.
On a Friday night in Iowa City, just days before the election, Nader arrived to find the University of Iowa Memorial Union overflowing with more than 2,000 cheering supporters. "The two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup," the candidate declared. The line was dutifully picked up by the Iowa City papers, which, like most local media, lavished front-page coverage on the man drawing some the biggest political crowds of the year. Unfazed by criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who had appeared in town that day at a hastily scheduled Democratic rally, Nader said, "These frightened progressives say I'm undermining my own legacy of reform. What they don't know is that the Democratic Party has already done it."
Nader was introduced by one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who explained, "I have worked for the election of Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman in 1948. I have received three presidential appointments from two Democratic Presidents. I have run for Congress from Iowa as a Democrat. I have served the Democratic Party at every level from local precinct chair to a Democratic National Committee task force. So it's not easy for me, this endorsement of a Green Party candidate. But the corporate corruption that engulfs both major parties has now reached the stage when we cannot afford to wait any longer."
But where does such a leap take Nader backers? If their candidate polls 5 percent or more of the national vote, the Green Party will receive at least $7 million in federal campaign funds. As Election Day approached, however, even some in the Nader camp worried that 5 percent earned at the price of a Gore loss might lead to a damning of the Greens that would make party-building difficult, if not impossible. In the final weeks of the campaign, Nader's closest advisers debated whether to tailor their schedule to states where the race was not close--such as New York, where Gore is a prohibitive favorite--or to return to swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a strong Nader could undermine Gore. Pleas from swing-state Nader backers tipped the decision in favor of the go-for-broke strategy--even as vote-trading schemes like www.nadertrader.org promised Nader fans who agreed to trade Gore votes in states like Oregon and Washington for Nader votes in New York and Texas that they could get the best of both worlds: President Gore and 5 percent for the Greens.
But a good many Nader voters were disinclined to become election day-traders. Their enthusiasm had less to do with party-building than with raising a banner of protest and, perhaps, of faith in a vision of democratic participation. In the crucial swing state of Wisconsin, the village of Belleville took a pre-election break for its UFO Parade, an annual commemoration of a supposed Halloween visit by aliens some years back. Bush and Gore backers were no-shows. But there, between the Brownies and the Belleville Dairy Queen, were forty Nader supporters, almost all of them from nearby farm towns. They carried a banner reading ralph nader is out of this world and handed out packets of seeds with a reminder to "plant a seed for democracy on November 7."
Grandmothers grabbed the seeds, children cheered "Nader!" And Dr. Cynthia Haq, the local physician, clapped as they passed. Torn between Gore and Nader, she said, "I know we're supposed to be worried about Bush, and I am worried. But it makes me feel good to see the Nader people. There's something that feels right about voting for what you believe, as opposed to voting against what you fear. I think that's why a lot of people are sticking with Nader--no matter what."
Bernie Sanders is right. Ralph Nader is "one of the heroes of contemporary American society." How sad, therefore, that he is helping to undo so much of his life's work in a misguided fit of political pique and ideological purity. The Nation's election editorial is wrong in its recommendation of "strategic voting" in this election. Ralph Nader's campaign does not deserve a single progressive vote on November 7. Not one.
To listen to the Naderites--many of whom I admire--you might believe they were constructing a diverse, representative progressive movement with the possibility of one day replacing the Democrats. How odd it is to note, therefore, that this nascent leftist movement has virtually no support among African-Americans, Latinos or Asian-Americans. It has no support among organized feminist groups, organized gay rights groups or mainstream environmental groups. To top it all off, it has no support in the national union movement. So Nader and company are building a nonblack, non-Latino, non-Asian, nonfeminist, nonenvironmentalist, nongay, non-working people's left: Now that really would be quite an achievement.
Although Nader has said that he would not consciously work to elect Bush over Gore, "he is not keeping his pledges," according to his onetime comrades in Nader's Raiders for Gore. Nader has been campaigning aggressively in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. If Gore loses even a few of those states, then Hello, President Bush. And if Bush does win, then Goodbye to so much of what Nader and his followers profess to cherish. Goodbye, for instance, to affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control, campaign finance reform, minimum-wage raises, environmental protection, consumer protection, class-action lawsuits, worker-safety legislation and just about everything else the government can do to help the neediest and most vulnerable among us.
These are not the scare tactics of the "frightened liberals" that Nader and his fellow political puritans hold in such profound contempt. This is the truth. Nader supporters argue that his candidacy is likely to help elect a Democratic Congress. Oh really? In the first place, careful studies have never been able to identify the so-called silent progressive majority--the Nader voters who otherwise wouldn't make it to the polls but who once there would vote for lower-level Democrats--upon which this strategy rests. And wait a minute: I thought the Democrats weren't worth saving, anyway. The far more likely outcome of Nader's Pied Piper run is the election of a dimwitted right-wing President with Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey inaugurating an era of conservative reaction the likes of which Newt Gingrich could scarcely have imagined.
And for what? A party that polls single digits in national elections? Who needs it? While it has been salutary to see Nader speak some occasional truth to power on television, given the winner-take-all structure of national and local elections the US political system has no role for third parties other than that of a spoiler. Excluding the lunatic Reform Party, only one third party in the twentieth century, the Socialists, ran in more than two consecutive presidential campaigns. The Socialists are also alone in having won more votes in a second election than in their first. Yet as the democratic socialist founder of In These Times, James Weinstein, points out, "Even at the height of their influence they had no potential of becoming a major presence in Congress, much less of electing a president."
Nader's candidacy, moreover, manifests some of the least attractive aspects of the sectarian left. It demonstrates the old faux-revolutionary tendency to focus fire on one's natural allies on the center-left rather than one's genuine enemies on the right. Some Naderites have also displayed a streak of leftist McCarthyism in their attacks on those progressives who question their strategy of abandoning the Democratic Party to the corporations. And Nader has demonstrated extreme carelessness with his words in this campaign, calling the choice between Gore and Bush a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Given the obvious differences between the two parties (see "Bush or Gore: Does It Matter?" October 16), this posturing comes at considerable cost to the man's once unquestionable reputation for intellectual honesty and political integrity.
You don't have to like or admire Al Gore to vote for him. I sure don't. But elections are not therapy. Nor, as philosopher John Dewey reminds us, are they useful occasions for movement-building. If you have to start building your movement by the time Election Day comes around, it's already too late. Given the weakness of the left in America today, our elections are by definition a choice of the lesser evil. The mistake Naderites make is in their refusal to distinguish between those evils.
There is the Clinton/Gore evil where, yes, corporate power runs rampant and inequality is increasing, but minorities, gays, women and low-wage workers have made more economic (and in some cases, social) progress than at any time in nearly four decades. Then there is the Bush/Lott/DeLay evil where these same people will be pushed back to their traditional places, as the Republican Party revives its war against Social Security, progressive taxation, public education and the few remaining sources of democratic solidarity in America.
Had Nader taken a page from the Christian Coalition and challenged Gore and the party leadership in the primary process, he might have forced its center of gravity leftward in response to the organized populist anger we saw on display in Seattle last year. Indeed, I would have been happy to vote for him. A steady, patient challenge to the party's corporate domination at the grassroots and presidential level is just what both the party and its progressives need to build the kind of machine that can win tangible victories down the road. Instead, Nader has chosen to ape Pat Buchanan, leading his followers on a costly and quixotic march to nowhere. Too bad the poor and the powerless will be--as usual--the ones to pay.
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