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.
In Chicago, in mid-October, I did a radio show with the Bill Buckley-ish Milt Rosenberg of WGN, a big station. Rosenberg said that because of the fairness doctrine our discussion of Al Gore: A User's Manual, written by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself, could not be broadcast until after the election. So we spent an hour bathing ourselves alternately in the dawn light of the impending Bush and Gore administrations.
It's Bush in the White House! And yes, he's there in part because of the Nader vote. The big liberal public-interest organizations, green groups, NOW, begin to roll out their mass mailings, delightedly fundraising against a backdrop of predicted catastrophe: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pincushioned with test drillings, polar bear cubs licking at the gobs of crude oil on their fur. With any luck Bush will nominate some James Watt look-alike for the Interior Department. Watt got nothing done, but he sure scared up a lot of money for green groups.
Ralph Nader holds an unapologetic postelection superrally. It's packed to the rooftop with exultant young people, who will carry the memory of the Nader/Green drive of 2000 as their transformative political moment. He reminds the Democrats of why they lost. They offered no appealing reasons for enough progressives to vote for them. He points out that throughout American history there have been moments of renewal, of creative destruction and then refreshment of the political process. Nader sketches out the line of march for the next four years.
It's Gore by a nose! Enough progressives who had been tilting toward Nader and the Greens were scared back into the fold those last weeks. Four more years of you-know-what.
"A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." How quickly the Gore liberals adopted a totalitarian mindset, sounding like Soviet commissars back in the old days, who would urge the voters toward a 98 percent turnout for the Communist candidate, arguing that any deviation from absolute loyalty would "objectively" play into the hands of the imperialists.
A vote for Nader was first and foremost a vote for Nader. And since the programs of the Democratic and Republican candidates are pretty much the same on issues ranging from corporate welfare to Wall Street to the war on drugs to crime to military spending and the war in Colombia, a vote for Gore was actually a vote for Bush, and a vote for Bush a vote for Gore. You're getting them both.
Those waning days of the campaign there was a desperation to the alarums of the Gore people about Nader. For one thing, they knew that the Nader superrallies in New York, across the upper Midwest and in the Northwest had a hugely energizing effect on young people. Nothing like it since Jesse Jackson's populist bid for the nomination back in 1988. Back at that time Jackson folded in behind the Democratic ticket and rolled up his Rainbow, leaving hundreds of thousands of supporters with nowhere to go and nothing to do. It was one of the most despicable acts of self-interested betrayal of people's hopes in living memory. If Jackson had led the Rainbow out of the Democratic Party back then, it would have been a far better base for a third party than what the Greens have to offer.
The enthusiasms of these young activists weren't about to be quelled by lectures from Gloria Steinem or Barney Frank or Jesse Jackson Jr. about the need to take the mature view and root for Gore/Lieberman. For one thing, they watched the debates. Did they take from those labored encounters any nourishment from Gore on issues that they have an appetite for, like trade or sweatshop labor or the drug war or the growing divide between rich and poor?
Gore liberals such as Steinem, Patricia Ireland of NOW and Carl Pope of the Sierra Club have been trading in false currency for so long that they don't realize that as shills for the Democratic Party their credit was used up long, long ago.
Listen to Ellen Johnson, an organizer for the Arizona Greens, who teaches at Arizona State in Tempe. "Since the onset of the Clinton presidency NOW's once-stalwart support of many women's rights issues has eroded. While reproductive rights are important, so is quality childcare, a living wage, healthcare and eradication of environmental toxins. Although Clinton/Gore promised to address these issues in '92 and '96, no acceptable plans for improvement have been implemented. Why is NOW so willing to give Gore another chance? Oh yeah, I forgot, for abortion rights. What is Roe v. Wade worth to you, NOW? If it's the wholesale sellout of a constituency you once pledged to serve, then you are on the right track."
What the fall campaign did most of all was to show up the bankruptcy of people like Ireland and Pope--the people who soft-shoed for Clinton and Gore for eight years. The sort of people, come right down to it, who are now trying to fire Pacifica's Amy Goodman. Yes, Mary Frances Berry, consultant to the Pacifica board, was a prominent presence at an October 24 gig organized by People for the American Way, presided over by Bill Clinton, and designed to scare progressives back to Gore.
Of course they want to fire Amy Goodman! She puts on the best show on public radio, doesn't she? The liberals who run Pacifica would much rather have manageable mediocrity than Democracy Now! There's nothing so irksome as success not achieved on their terms, under their rules and their rubrics. Amy has edge. She doesn't take "guidance." She's a loose cannon. She brought Ralph Nader onto the floor of the Republican convention in Philadelphia. She's not Tweety Bird or Terry Gross. So she has to go!
How is the Pacifica directorate trying to dump the most popular voice on the network? Easy. Choke the woman with bureaucracy. Demand that she file broadcasting flight plans a week ahead. Insist that she get prior approval for all her speaking gigs. Put it about that Pacifica needs "new voices," a bigger share of the yuppo audience. Murmur not so softly that Amy is old hat, is not really and truly part of the big Pacifica Picture.
It's a control thing. There's nothing on this earth liberals hate more than radicals straying outside the reservation. Let's stray. Onward!
What a deal! Elect George W. Bush President and you get government
lite--eat all you want without gaining a pound. Bush promises to cut
taxes for all, dramatically increase military spending, finance a
trillion-dollar private Social Security system and eliminate the national
debt. And Bush claims he will put you, not some Washington bureaucrat, in
charge of your life (unless, of course, it concerns your right to
Just to state the main themes of Bush's campaign is to demonstrate
their inherent absurdity. But there's method to the madness. Make no
mistake: A Bush presidency, abetted by a Republican sweep of Congress and
increasing right-wing control of the courts, portends frightening
consequences for our lives.
Anyone who's been awake these past eight years should know that it's
the Republicans, dominated by their right wing, who tried to block every
measure to make government more responsive to the health, environmental
and educational interests of ordinary Americans. At the same time, these
false prophets of smaller government were pawns of the Christian right's
crusade to intrude the federal government into our most personal
decisions, beginning with a woman's control of her body. At no point has
Bush disowned that Republican agenda.
So why are so many otherwise reasonable people planning to vote for a
candidate selling them this ludicrous bill of goods? It's because the guy
comes on as a moderate with a disarming smile that could make him the
impish star of a sitcom. Just when you realize he's conning you and the
bleary face of Newt Gingrich hyping his "contract with America" starts to
come into focus, reminding us that we've been through this destructive
drill, Bush turns on the all-inclusive charm.
The great deceit of the Bush campaign, beginning with the GOP
convention last summer, has been to get voters to forget that it's been
the Republican Congress that has threatened America with gridlock and
political chaos unless we bend federal government to its skewed
agenda--an agenda that Bush has assured the right wing he endorses. The
religious right has gone along with the charade, muting its criticisms
while Bush plays to the center. Let him fake the moderate for now, they
say, knowing that is what it takes to win. For example, Pat Robertson
told reporters that he refrained from criticizing the Federal Drug
Administration's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 for fear of costing
Bush the election. Bush also avoided the issue. The payoff for the
right's reserve in the campaign, as Bush has made amply clear, is that he
will deliver to them on the judiciary. If the Republicans maintain
control of the Senate, which now seems highly likely, a Bush victory
would guarantee judicial appointees from the Supreme Court on down who
are drawn from Jesse Helms's wish list.
For all of his talk of bipartisanship, Bush, in citing Antonin Scalia
and Clarence Thomas as his ideal models for future Supreme Court picks,
has promised to mold what should be the most independent branch of
government in the ideological image of the far right. Indeed, the
oft-repeated promise of the Bush campaign to the religious right is that
Bush would never repeat the "disaster" that his father made in appointing
moderate David Souter to the court.
With the court divided by one vote on most environmental and consumer
regulatory matters as well as affirmative action, with only two votes
needed to overturn Roe v. Wade and with at least three or four of its
members likely to leave the court, the next President will have enormous
power through his judicial appointments to shape the future of our
government as we know it.
The "strict constructionists" Bush prefers are people who believe the
federal government should be crippled as a regulator of big business, as
an advocate for racial and economic justice and as a protector of the
environment. On the other hand, they would weaken constitutional
protection of individual rights and blur the separation of church and
The Republican right wing is concerned about personal freedom only
when it comes to indulging the National Rifle Association or corporate greed by
savaging government regulation. But in matters of individual freedom, be
it reproductive rights, protection from job discrimination or hate crimes
because of sexual orientation or racism, the Republican leadership,
including George W. Bush, is eager to intrude a narrow religious and
ideological bias into the most important decisions of our lives.
That's why this election is of crucial importance. What we're facing
is the possibility of right-wing control of the presidency, Congress and
the courts. And with that will go the saving grace of our system of
checks and balances.
It won't be a revolution, but progressives see support for much of their agenda.
"When the ax came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'" There is more intellectual content in this old Turkish folk warning than in the entire output of the "lesser evil" school. Here comes Albert Gore Jr., striding purposefully toward us with a big chopper resting easily on his shoulder.
Multiracial and populist, New York's Working Families Party gains ground.
Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time--in the early eighties, actually--there was a progressive coalition in Vermont designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the idea that America needed a third party of the left.
In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont's single seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn't the concern of an independent force. Just as he's now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed Sanders' candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up Poirier's liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.
The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs, to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican. The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.
Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November 2000.
Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of liberals that Pollina's candidacy will install Republican Ruth Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn't like or a mountaintop he wasn't willing to sell to a ski-resort developer. Pollina, who had led Vermont's successful fight for public financing of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22), then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But not for long. A court threw out the law's spending limit, and immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the Democratic Party.
Pollina and the Progressives have taken the Democrats' scare strategy straight on. They say, Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears. The campaign is rich with proposals on healthcare, environmental protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in the White House. It's the pathetic national story. In Vermont, 95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency. In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent, while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department.
And Pollina doesn't shrink from reminding voters that at the very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill this year that would have established prescription-drug price controls.
Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk the talk. They don't move a finger to expand human freedoms or opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the hero's mantle for signing Vermont's civil union law giving gay couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera. So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He's no longer part of a movement. He's not a member of the Progressive Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his re-election race for November, he's outflanked on both politics and gender, facing a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders' dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.
"This race, a lot like Nader's nationally, has posed the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again want to squander our power on business as usual?" Thus Ellen David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont. "People under 30 don't give a damn about the spoiler stuff. Most of Pollina's campaign workers are under 25. They want to be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive campaigns in the years to come."
THE NOVEMBER 7 ELECTION is not merely about ending six years of GOP dominance but also about assuring that the next Congress is pulled in a more enlightened direction. Starting early this year, The Nation began tracking races around the country, keeping an eye on contests where progressive incumbents are battling to keep their seats and identifying the next generation of leaders on economic and social justice issues. The Nation adopted author and activist Michael Harrington's "left wing of the possible" standard--looking for candidates who combine a chance of winning with a commitment to use the victory to fight for real change. None of the contenders profiled in this year's "Nation Dozen" list--which represents only a fraction of the progressive candidates running as Democrats, Greens or independents--are assured victory; indeed, several had to overcome daunting odds just to earn a place on the November ballot. But they have put themselves in contention with strong support from groups like the AFL-CIO, NARAL, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Peace Action PAC, the Human Rights Campaign Fund and the National Committee for an Effective Congress. A decade ago, Minnesota professor Paul Wellstone beat an entrenched Republican US senator and went on to serve as a mentor to other progressives, including several of this year's Nation Dozen. Says Wellstone: "Progressives have got to get serious about these Congressional races around the country. We need to recognize that it matters a great deal when we elect members who understand human rights and economic justice issues; that those members will have the power to raise issues, to shift the direction of the Democratic Party and to build coalitions that can actually prevail." With that thought in mind, here is the "Nation Dozen." With support from Nation readers and other progressives, they have the potential not only to win but to change the way Washington does business.
ED FLANAGAN, Vermont, US Senate
When Ed Flanagan won the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Republican Jim Jeffords, the incumbent warned that Flanagan's progressive populist style would not go over well in the tradition-bound Senate. "He makes a lot of noise, shakes things up, and that's the last thing we need down in Washington," said Jeffords, who is best known for singing in a barbershop quartet with Trent Lott. Jeffords is right about Flanagan; he would shake things up. A former intern to liberal Republican Senator George Aiken and a four-term state auditor, Flanagan condemns "the military-industrial complex that does not have America's defense interests in mind, but is simply out to make the big bucks," and he asks how the Senate can justify a failure to implement living-wage legislation "in the context of an economy that is so rich but has concentrated so much wealth with so few people and so few huge multinational corporations." The odds against Flanagan are long, in part because he is an openly gay man running in a state where conservatives are stirring a backlash against Vermont's just-implemented civil union law. But he is betting that the state that sends Bernie Sanders to the House is, indeed, prepared to shake up the Senate (www.flanagan2000.org).
NANCY KEENAN, Montana, House, At-Large
To understand where Nancy Keenan is coming from, you need to know the story of the Smelterman's Day Picnic that used to be held every August 8 in Anaconda, Montana. Keenan, the daughter of a boilermaker, would line up with the other kids at the picnic to receive a silver dollar from the copper-smelting company that gave the town its name. "As you stepped forward, the management representative would look you straight in the eye and press that shiny silver dollar firmly in your hand. The message couldn't have been clearer: You knew who owned you," Keenan recalled in a speech to the state AFL-CIO. "But the company was wrong. They might have owned our sweat, they might have owned our labor, but because we were members of a union family, they could not own our souls." Keenan, who is seeking to be a voice for hard-pressed factory and farm families in a state where annual incomes are among the lowest in the nation, got into politics to battle for corporate responsibility: After Atlantic Richfield shuttered the Anaconda smelter in 1980, she was elected to the legislature and helped pass a plant-closing notification law. Now, the three-term state superintendent of public instruction is running for Congress against a right-wing opponent on a platform that includes pledges to fight for labor-law reform, vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws against agribusiness monopolies and guarantees that farmers and workers "are not sacrificed at the altar of international trade relations." She says politics beats her old job--shoveling ore and wrangling buckets of boiling copper. "You wore an asbestos suit and counted on your workmate to beat out the flames when you occasionally caught on fire," recalls Keenan, who promises to fight to toughen workplace safety regulations (www.nancykeenan.com).
BRIAN SCHWEITZER, Montana, US Senate
Long before Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee read polls that told them prescription drug prices were a potent political issue, Brian Schweitzer, a peppermint farmer with no political experience, began loading senior citizens onto buses and driving them over the border to buy cheap drugs in Canada. The first-time candidate's political instincts proved so good, and so threatening to troglodyte conservative incumbent Conrad Burns, that a faked-up "citizens' group" funded by drug manufacturers began blanketing the state with anti-Schweitzer commercials. Schweitzer took the attacks as a badge of honor, while the Billings Gazette joked that anti-Schweitzer forces would have a hard time convincing Montana voters to fear him as a candidate "coming to strip us of our God-given right to be shafted by the pharmaceutical industry." After Burns voted against a proposal to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers that harm Montana farmers, Schweitzer detailed Burns's $198,608 in contributions from agribusiness lobbyists. When he is not banging away at corporations, Schweitzer works to heal rifts between unions and environmentalists that Burns and other Western conservatives have fanned in order to divide progressive voters in states with depressed economies and threatened natural areas. "The debate over the past ten years has been jobs versus the environment," says Schweitzer. "The results are in, and it's clear that we're losing both" (www.brianschweitzer.com).
LANE EVANS, Illinois, District 17
Congress has no truer heir to the prairie populist tradition of the Midwest Progressive, Farmer-Labor and Non-Partisan League movements than Illinois's Lane Evans. In nine terms as the representative from a farm-and-factory district that hugs the Mississippi River, Evans has been one of the few members who consistently earn top ratings from the AFL-CIO and progressive groups. In a district where Republicans remain a powerful political force and where business groups pump thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his Republican challengers, Evans talks tough about corporate crime, wages lonely battles on behalf of family farmers and helps lead the fight against Wall Street's free-trade agenda. This year the GOP has made Evans a top target. The Congressman is suffering from Parkinson's disease, and while he is fully capable of performing his Congressional duties--which would include chairing the powerful Veterans' Affairs Committee if Democrats retake the House--his weakened condition has been the target of whispering campaigns and none-too-subtle jabs from Republican backers of his opponent, a former TV anchorman (www.laneevans.com, www.house.gov.evans).
ELEANOR JORDAN, Kentucky, District 3
With Eleanor Jordan in Congress, the House of Representatives would be a lot more representative. An African-American woman old enough to remember segregation days in the border state of Kentucky, a onetime teenage single parent who understands the challenge of meeting childcare and health bills, a neighborhood activist who got mad enough about legislative neglect to run for and win a seat in the General Assembly, she has lived the issues that most members of Congress only debate. Jordan, who directed a childcare center before her election, has emerged as one of the Kentucky House's most effective advocates for programs that aid children and working moms--winning a high-profile battle to prevent the gutting of the Kentucky childcare policy council. Now, Jordan is challenging incumbent Anne Northup, a conservative Republican who came to the House as a Newt Gingrich protégée and who has established one of the most reliably reactionary records in Congress. Jordan proudly identifies herself as an "outspoken advocate for women, working families, minorities, the poor and children." She says she's not proud of all the earlier choices she made in her life. "But they were choices I had to live with, and people get the benefit of your experience only if you tell them" (www.jordanforcongress.com).
BETTY McCOLLUM, Minnesota, District 4
Even before she won the Democratic Farmer Labor Party nod in a hard-fought, four-way primary to fill an open St. Paul-area seat, Betty McCollum had lined up support from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and other green groups that usually withhold endorsements until after nominations are settled. It wasn't that her foes were so bad but rather that McCollum was so good. She was a leader in the fight to secure funding for one of the first urban wetlands restoration projects in the country. And as a member of the Environmental Policy and Environmental Finance committees of the Minnesota House, she earned a national reputation for developing and advancing innovative legislation to combat air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl and environmental racism. McCollum, who continued to work as a clerk at a St. Paul department store during her years as a legislator, is outspoken in her support of living-wage initiatives, organizing rights for unions and protections for working women. Normally, her labor, feminist and environmentalist backing would be enough to secure victory in this liberal district. But McCollum faces a tough race against a former Democratic prosecutor running as the candidate of Governor Jesse Ventura's Independence Party and a well-funded conservative Republican state senator (www.mccollumforcongress.org).
MARYANNE CONNELLY, New Jersey, District 7
Abortion is supposed to be too "dangerous" an issue for candidates in close Congressional races to touch--especially Democratic candidates seeking to grab suburban seats previously held by conservative Republicans. But Maryanne Connelly is breaking the political rules, putting her support for abortion rights front and center in her campaign to win the New Jersey seat being vacated by Republican Senate candidate Bob Franks. "I believe every woman should have the right to choose.... It's no place for the government to be involved," says Connelly. Her tough talk did not endear her to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which endorsed her primary opponent, a more pliant pol backed by powerful political machines in the region. But Connelly's emphasis on women's rights, gun control and campaign finance reform gave her the edge in the primary. In her general-election campaign against a conservative Republican, Connelly continues to eschew compromise. A former police commissioner in her hometown of Fanwood, she is fiercely critical of the NRA, promising to fight to require that all handgun owners--"just like all automobile owners"--must register their guns, have a photo license and pass a safety test (www.connellyforcongress.com).
GERRIE SCHIPSKE, California, District 38
Gerrie Schipske wasn't supposed to be the Democratic nominee against moderate Republican incumbent Steve Horn for a Long Beach-area House seat. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insiders had groomed a young, not particularly political teacher--whose chief qualification appeared to be the fact that she had been featured on national television programs as an innovative educator--for the race to reclaim the historically Democratic seat. But Schipske, a nurse practioner, lawyer and healthcare policy consultant to the Service Employees International Union, won a primary upset with backing from labor and the district's large gay and lesbian community. Allies including Congressman Barney Frank have worked with labor and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to keep Schipske, who is openly lesbian, even with Horn in fundraising. She is in an uphill fight, but, says Frank, "She's serious, she's progressive, she's got a chance to be elected, and if she wins she will immediately be a leader in Congress on healthcare issues" (www.schipske4congress.org).
SUSAN BASS LEVIN, New Jersey, District 3
Susan Bass Levin, a first-time Congressional candidate who has served four terms as mayor of Cherry Hill, doesn't try to be all things to all voters. When the House voted to cut $32 million from the Clinton Administration's civil rights enforcement budget, she angrily condemned the move as an affront not just to minorities but to women, noting that "working families already lose more than $4,000 a year on average because women do not receive equal pay." The founder of a statewide fundraising network to elect pro-choice Democratic women, Levin has thrown a scare into GOP incumbent Jim Saxton. A relative moderate, Saxton for years cultivated links with labor--so much so that after he voted with labor against granting China permanent normal trade status, the state AFL-CIO executive board recommended that unions remain neutral in the Saxton-Levin race. Not a fan of neutrality, Levin sought a roll-call of unions. She won the endorsement by a 4-to-1 ratio, capitalizing on her years of work with local unions to promote pay equity, minimum-wage increases and expansion of worker health and safety programs. "I'm an activist," says Levin. "That's why I signed on to being an elected official" (www.levinforcongress.org).
MIKE KELLEHER, Illinois, District 15
If first-time candidate Mike Kelleher wins an upset victory in his race for an open Congressional seat, it will be on the strength of a paper clip. His better-known and better-funded opponent, Tim Johnson, is a veteran GOP legislator who should be coasting to victory in a rural district with a long history of sending conservative Republicans to Congress. But Johnson got caught using a paper clip to hold in place the button that recorded his legislative votes, making it possible to appear to be present when he was absent. Kelleher, an Illinois State University professor originally regarded as a sacrificial lamb, has juxtaposed Johnson's slacker service against the work ethic of the farmers, factory hands and smalltown shopkeepers who form the core of the district's electorate. Kelleher is airing commercials that feature a construction worker trying to paper-clip shut his lunchbox, and he's launched a www/timspaperclip.com website. He backs up his populist appeal with attacks on HMOs, drug companies and paper-clip pushing Republicans (www.kelleher2000.com).
DAVID WU, Oregon, District 1
Few members of Congress were better positioned to stamp their return ticket to the House with a single vote than David Wu. The first-term Democrat from Oregon represents an international-trade-reliant West Coast district where the politically powerful business community was chomping at the bit to capitalize on "free trade" with China. But Wu, the first person of full Chinese ancestry ever elected to Congress, chose his commitment to international human rights over the easy route to re-election; he voted against the permanent normal trade relations bill, which brought to an end annual Congressional review of China's human rights record. Wu was one of only a handful of West Coast Democrats to do so. Retribution was swift. High-tech corporations in his Portland-area district--a region known as the Silicon Forest--began pouring money into the campaign of Wu's challenger, right-wing Republican State Senator Charles Starr. Wu is standing firm, telling reporters, "If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [the PNTR vote], I'll have to live with that. But I'd rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles" (www.wuforcongress.com, http://www.house.gov/wu).
MARYELLEN O'SHAUGHNESSY, Ohio, District 12
In a Columbus district where a quarter of the population is African-American, City Councilor Maryellen O'Shaughnessy is working to build a multiracial coalition by positioning herself as a contender who won't lose sight of the need to strengthen the federal commitment to education, healthcare and senior programs. "I know how hard it is to make ends meet," says O'Shaughnessy, who put herself through college working night jobs and in recent years struggled to care for her ill mother. Running in a GOP-leaning district against a state representative who has received maximum backing from retiring conservative icon John Kasich and national Republicans, O'Shaughnessy has driven her opponent to distraction by expressing a mother's horror at his legislative votes against programs designed to protect low-income children from lead poisoning. "This woman deserves to win," says Representative John Conyers, who campaigned in Columbus for O'Shaughnessy. And, he adds, "I'm convinced that if she wins, Democrats retake the House" (www.meos2000.org).
As Bush and Gore battle for the Northwest, Nader's power grows.
Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's America's Forgotten Majority has been credited with convincing Al Gore last summer to adopt a populist campaign strategy built around "working families" and the mantra, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Republicans immediately accused the Vice President of "class warfare," and Business Week worried that Gore's rhetoric was tapping into a broad "anti-business" public mood. Pundits thought (or hoped) there would be a backlash among "suburban independents," but thus far none is visible.
Though Gore is a highly ambiguous class warrior and has skillfully targeted only the most egregious (and unpopular) corporate powers, this is a bold and welcome turn toward class politics in the United States. And though Ralph Nader and the revitalized political operations of the AFL-CIO undoubtedly deserve some credit too, there's a chance that Teixeira and Rogers have helped do for the Democrats what Kevin Phillips's "Southern strategy" did for the Republicans in 1968 and beyond.
What have they done? Simply pointed out what Michael Zweig calls "America's Best Kept Secret"--that the majority of Americans are "working class," not "middle class," and that failing to realize that simple fact leads to a cascade of illusions, both political and otherwise. This is the larger point that will endure, regardless of how Gore's populist strategy works in November (if, indeed, he sustains it until then). We cannot get our politics right, or our economics and culture, for that matter, until we have a better, more consistent grasp of the vagaries of class in our society. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters and The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, each very different in its concepts and details, lay a strong social-scientific foundation for bringing social class out of the closet and making it a permanent part of our public discourse.
Teixeira and Rogers's contribution lies most completely in their political arithmetic, which emphasizes the importance of class and unionism as well as race and gender. When they extend from that, their sense of what they call core working-class values is thinner and less accurate, in my view, and their policy prescriptions are too narrowly focused on this year's election and contain what would be a crucial strategic error if put into practice. But their arithmetic is clear and compelling, and Zweig complements and strengthens their analysis in the other areas.
The arithmetic begins by dividing voters into a "middle class" and a "working class," based on one clear and simple characteristic--the possession or lack of a bachelor's degree. About 30 percent of voters have one, while the vast majority (the working class) do not. Teixeira and Rogers understand that both income and occupation are also relevant to understanding class dynamics, but information on them is not consistently available in the voting data, and, besides, there is such a strong correlation between college education, occupation and income that it doesn't matter much for their purposes. "Managerial and professional workers," for example, are much more likely to have bachelor's degrees and are paid from 34 percent to 140 percent better than other workers; they, like the "college-educated," with whom they overlap so strongly, are about 30 percent of the labor force.
Teixeira and Rogers next divide voters into the Democratic base (union households, blacks and Hispanics) and, by implication, the Republican base (nonunion whites). In 1996 the Democratic base constituted one-third of voters, while nonunion whites made up the other two-thirds of the electorate; the base voted 66 percent Democratic, while the much larger group of nonunion whites gave Democrats about 40 percent of their vote. This combination was enough for Clinton to win without a majority, but the basic arithmetic condemns Democrats to a hard struggle to get from marginality to deadlock, at best, until they can win at least half of the white, nonunion working-class vote. Thus, the subtitle "Why the White Working Class Still Matters," to which should have been added "Particularly the Nonunion Part."
This calculus gets trickier and trickier, but the payoff is worth it. When Zweig speaks of a "working-class majority" based on occupation, he includes white, black and Hispanic, both union and nonunion. Teixeira and Rogers emphasize this same overwhelming working-class majority, but what they most often refer to as "the Forgotten Majority" is not truly one: Once all blacks, Hispanics and union whites (groups that contain large working-class majorities) have been set aside as part of the Democratic base, this Forgotten Majority--white nonunion workers without a bachelor's degree--is actually only 45 percent. But this does make them the single largest group in the electorate, and, what's more, they are the real swing vote in US politics today. Using 1996 figures, Teixeira and Rogers's map of the electorate looks like this:
This breakdown of the electorate is the single most valuable aspect of America's Forgotten Majority. The nonunion white working class is such an enormous part of the voting populace that, though an important part of the Republican base, it produced more Democratic votes than any other group of voters. Gaining a percentage point among the Forgotten Majority, then, is worth more, numerically, than two or three points among any other voter group. (In a tactic that has helped win them mainstream attention, Teixeira and Rogers laboriously show how the Republican, Reform and Green parties might win the Forgotten Majority, but their main analytical effort is directed at Democrats.)
Teixeira and Rogers are primarily geared to argue against the New Democrat notion of suburban "soccer moms" and "wired workers" as the crucial swing vote in US politics. They show conclusively that this group (the college-educated) is simply too small and not volatile enough to constitute the key "suburban independent." White, nonunion, college-educated men are, in fact, the immovable base of the GOP, nearly as solidly and consistently Republican for the past half-century as black voters have been for the Democrats. White, nonunion, college-educated women represent more appealing ground--indeed, they've been an important part of what's kept the Democrats competitive for the past twenty years--but Teixeira and Rogers see little room for growth there. Conversely, the nonunion white working class is the true "suburban independent," constituting three-fifths of suburban voters. What's more, these voters "were far and away the most volatile segment of the electorate...the real 'swing voter'" of the nineties. They're the ones searching for a new politics because, until the past few years, their median family income was stagnating and their average real wage was declining.
Within this group, Teixeira and Rogers pay special attention to nonunion working-class white men, partly because the Democrats have more room to grow among them than with Forgotten Majority women, and partly because they have been particularly fickle at the polls over the past decade. Even more important, however, is that this particular working-class group--not protected by a union, a bachelor's degree or affirmative action--has lost much ground in wages and benefits over the past quarter-century, while often being culturally and politically lumped into the "white male" power structure with whom they share little but the color of their genitalia.
In fact, nonunion white working-class men constitute a large group that is politically open to having its existence remembered and appealed to. Teixeira and Rogers point out that this group of white men is nearly twice as numerous as the New Democrats' "soccer moms" and that "simply breaking even among these forgotten majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among...college-educated white women."
The Teixeira-Rogers analysis contains bad news for progressive Democrats as well--those who, like me, thought that registering and turning out more blacks, Hispanics and union households could lead to a majority. A great deal of effort has gone into this strategy, and it has by no means been in vain. Blacks, particularly in the South, and Hispanics, particularly in California, are a stronger presence in the electorate, and the difference between the union household vote at 19 percent of voters (as it was in 1994) or at 25 percent (the AFL-CIO goal this year) would have meant the difference between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. But for the Democrats to achieve a ruling majority (the White House plus large majorities in both the House and Senate), a mobilized class-based appeal to the nonunion white working class would be necessary.
Teixeira and Rogers are somewhat less convincing in arguing against a gender-gap strategy targeted on nonunion white working-class women, who by themselves make up more than a quarter of all voters. It's hard to rule out efforts that would bring nonunion working-class white women into a broad coalition with blacks, Hispanics and union households. But how could Democrats do that without a class-based appeal that would attract Forgotten Majority men as well as Forgotten Majority women?
Affirmative action and the right to choose, both of which are usually cast in terms most appealing to college-educated women, have probably gained Democrats just about all they can among working-class women. Thus, Teixeira and Rogers argue, "the best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base as well." These include issues like universal healthcare, starting with children; saving the Social Security guarantee without cutting benefits or increasing payroll taxes while adding a government subsidy to encourage wage workers to save (and invest); increasing the earned-income and childcare tax credits and expanding family and medical leave; and reducing school class size while increasing construction and teacher salaries. Also important are tight labor markets and strengthened worker rights, things that could make organizing a union less formidable while tending to increase wages and job security in the meantime.
This, of course, is pretty much the Gore-Lieberman program, as prefigured in Clinton's last two State of the Union speeches, though Teixeira and Rogers would do it all at a much greater magnitude. Where they disagree with Clinton-Gore-Lieberman--on affirmative action--they are wrong. But here's where Michael Zweig's broader economic-class analysis can lend a hand.
Zweig argues for a class-based politics as well and is equally compelling in pointing out the limitations of racial and gender-identity politics. But he wants to complicate and supplement identity politics, not eliminate it. Zweig is very clear that any working-class agenda that implicitly denies the continuing importance of racial and sexual injustice is doomed to fail for the most traditional of reasons: It divides the working class precisely along lines where it is most easily divisible. Though Zweig is open to the possibility of a class-based affirmative action supplementing the existing, racially based kind, he's opposed to any further relaxation of the current affirmative action regime--which has already taken a beating nationally in both jurisprudence and legislation.
Teixeira and Rogers make a huge mistake, in my opinion, when they advocate the replacement of race-based affirmative action with a class-based version. (They say nothing about gender-based affirmative action, which affects a majority of voters, but presumably it would disappear as well.) Their intention is to unify people around class interests, but the predictable impact would be exactly the opposite. Few issues in US politics play so differently at the symbolic level versus the level of actual details. There are many legitimate issues to discuss about particular programs in higher education and for specific work categories like police, fire and construction, but the issue of fairness in the details is never as simple as the widespread but false assumption that there exists some kind of sweeping government-ordered quota system based on nationally legislated group rights. President Clinton's phrase "mend it, don't end it" defended affirmative action (and thereby the continuing problem of racism and sexism) at the symbolic level while legitimizing discussion of the details. Challenging that Clintonian consensus by reopening the symbolic debate is not a winning political strategy, precisely because it forces people to choose between their race or gender interests and those of their class. If your goal is to split the Democratic base from the Forgotten Majority, this is exactly how to do it.
The larger point is one that Zweig makes particularly well. Class in America deserves special attention right now because it has been so thoroughly neglected for so long; but a class-based politics needs to be built on and around the achievements of the civil rights and women's movements, not counterposed to and made competitive with them. The whole point of "universalistic, transracial" political programs is to convince white working-class men that they can advance their interests better by adding key government assistance to all workers, not by subtracting it from blacks and women. The progress of working-class blacks and women, on the other hand, is currently stymied by the absence of a class politics that can complement (and maybe even revitalize) the fight for racial and sexual equality.
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. He sees labor unions playing a central role in such a movement and is particularly enthusiastic about the AFL-CIO's "organizing for change, changing to organize" strategy.
A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace. In this schema, there are three classes: a "capitalist class," defined by ownership and control of giant profit-making enterprises; a "working class," defined by a lack of power at work and in society at large; and a "middle class" of managers, professionals and small-business owners who have a degree of autonomy and influence at work that makes them different from the working class but nowhere near as powerful as the capitalists.
If this sounds like classic Marxism (capital, labor and the petty bourgeoisie), don't let that distract you. Zweig never mentions "relations of production" or any of the other key Marxian concepts that have been transformed into mind-numbing sectarian jargon over the past half-century. The Working-Class Majority is, in fact, a refreshing restatement of the classical Marxist view, but it is updated by its delicate analysis of occupations in the United States today and by its post-cold war refusal to call for the elimination of the capitalist class. Rather, Zweig charts a politics based on the understanding that over the past two or three decades the capitalist class has again achieved the kind of overweening power, both nationally and internationally, that was once at least partially checked by strong labor movements and progressive governments. Unchecked, the capitalist class, often despite its best intentions, will systematically make life worse for workers and eventually even undermine capitalism's splendid (but ultimately unsustainable) ability to create wealth.
No one has claimed that Al Gore's campaign theme "They're for the powerful, we're for the people" was influenced by Zweig's analysis, but Gore's rhetorical emphasis on the power of "the few" is consistent with the kind of politics Zweig is after. In the end, the current Democratic policy package, though a minimalist version, moves exactly in the direction Zweig and Teixeira and Rogers want. The difference is that their complementary class analyses offer a much more expansive sense of possibility for US politics and, taken together, a wider range of options, in both thought and action, for achieving that possibility. They are also part of a larger trend in academic thought (much of it organized around the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University) struggling toward a fresh framework for consistently remembering the working-class majority.
Both books suffer from their lack of attention to the professional middle class (which includes all three of them, as well as me and most of the readers of this review), the real cultural power we have as a class and the differences between us and the working class. Teixeira and Rogers's "core working-class values," with their emphasis on "individual achievement," sound suspiciously middle class to me, and this both oversimplifies and distorts their analysis. Likewise, Zweig's principled refusal to discuss incomes grossly underestimates the power of money in a capitalist society. "Rich" and "poor" are key terms in the vernacular sense of class because everybody realizes that the size of your income makes a huge difference in the kind of life and prospects you have.
Neither of these books adequately links its social-scientific terms and statistics with the common conception of class in America. It's also a bit embarrassing to praise two books for calling attention to a "working class" they define so differently. But each, in richly textured detail, systematically destroys the debilitating vernacular notion that almost everybody (all those who are neither "rich" nor "poor") is "middle class." This notion is so spectacularly false that precise definitions don't matter. What's important to understand is that there is a college-educated professional and managerial "middle class," and we have been doing quite well for the past two decades, whether we're white, black or other; and there is a much larger "working class" (of various races, genders, incomes and occupations, union and largely nonunion) that has been struggling and, for the most part, losing ground for most of that time. The problem with lumping all of us together into a ubiquitous "middle class" is that they tend to disappear, and we tend to think that their experience, interests and values are just like ours.
The connotations of "middle class" in the US vernacular almost always include "college educated" and "comfortable standard of living." Thus, the totemic "soccer mom" is regularly envisioned as a computer support specialist married to a systems analyst (two of our fastest-growing occupations), with a minivan and a family income approaching $100,000. She's actually much more likely to be a clerical worker married to a retail salesman (two occupations growing even faster), with a family income of $42,000 and a six-year-old Chevy Cavalier. A politics that does not recognize and speak to the real soccer moms is doomed to confusion and failure. One that consistently does, on the other hand, has many more possibilities for progressive change than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophies.