Ralph, Don’t Run

Ralph, Don’t Run

Let’s take back the Democratic Party and do all we can to beat Bush in 2004.


Given the GOP sweep in the midterm elections, progressives and populists must position themselves to play a pivotal role in the next presidential contest. As we demonstrated in 2000, we are a fragmented political force, divided between those who supported, however reluctantly, the Democratic choice, Al Gore, and those who backed the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. But the Bush disaster, compounded now by the meltdown of the Democratic Party on November 5, is an emergency. We cannot afford another division in our ranks that will bring about the election of George W. Bush in 2004.

His selection as President by the Supreme Court in 2000 was a presidential and judicial coup. Progressives may believe this coup stains his Administration as illegitimate, but apparently he and his inner group take it as leave to cast aside the Bill of Rights and international law. Now the President is out of control and threatens American democracy and the peace of the world. At home, there is mounting evidence that we are living in a land ruled by a crypto-fascist government: The FBI spies on law-abiding political organizations and churches, citizens are deputized to spy and inform on one another, an underground parallel executive government has been activated, lawyer-client consultations are bugged, the government keeps citizens locked up without lawyers or hearings and talks of using the military to police the United States, and the Pentagon is making a vast database of the American people. We are being cudgeled into agreeing to wars of aggression, to make first use of nuclear weapons and to put weapons in outer space. Setting a lethal example for other nations, the Bush government prepares to initiate an attack on a small nation 6,000 miles away and asserts the right to wage a war with no discernible end by attacking any nation that one man–an unelected President who has rarely traveled overseas–determines to be harboring terrorists or seeking weapons of mass destruction. This same unelected President schemes to exempt Americans from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court, which punishes crimes against humanity. The will to dominate the world is explicit when he tells Congress he will not allow “any foreign power to catch up with” or surpass “the power of the United States.” If Bush and the Pentagon control the government through 2008 we will become a militarized nation bent on world domination, a third-millennium Rome. Intensified terrorist attacks on us and a series of widening wars can be expected. All of this is dramatically worse in kind and degree than what Al Gore would have done as President.

These are the realities that tell us Bush must be beaten in 2004. Not only the nation, but the world, depends on it. If we divide our votes for President again between the Democratic nominee and Ralph Nader, we will very probably help elect Bush. Therefore, Nader should not run for President as a Green in 2004.

I have played a role in supporting Nader. I presented him to the Green Party conventions that nominated him in Los Angeles in 1996 and in Denver in 2000. Although I knew that supporting him risked helping elect Republican Presidents in both of those elections, we who supported him and began to forge a third-party politics were acting within our democratic and idealistic rights, believing that the short-run damage to good causes that we were risking was outweighed ethically by the long-run damage to democracy and social justice that the capture of the Democratic Party by major corporations has caused and, if not stopped, will continue to cause. We were taking a calculated risk, but we underestimated what we were risking. The Bush presidency is worse than we could plausibly have imagined, and the run-up to 2004 is not just another election, it is a crisis that leaves us no more time or room to maneuver.

We, the Nader people, certainly put Bush close enough electorally for the Supreme Court to seize the presidency for him. Gore “lost” because of many factors–including his own empty campaign–but the fact that an event has a multiplicity of causes does not dissolve any of those causes or absolve any group of players of their responsibility. National exit-poll data published the day after the election suggested that Nader’s candidacy cost Gore about three-quarters of a million votes, but even exit polls that Nader himself cites indicate that arguably we Nader voters made it possible for Bush to win New Hampshire’s four electoral votes (remember, Bush “won” by just four) and clearly converted a Gore victory in Florida, with its decisive twenty-five electoral votes, into the mesmerizing seesaw that the Supreme Court stopped when Bush was allegedly up on Gore by 537 votes. It is very clear–who can persuasively deny it?–that the more votes Nader gets in 2004, the likelier it is that Nader and his supporters will elect Bush.

As obvious as all of this is to me–and to at least some others who voted for Nader–evidently it may not be obvious to him. This June I called on my friend Ralph in his offices at the Carnegie Foundation building in Washington to discuss with him why I believe he must not run again. A shocked conviction is growing among some people who backed him, I said, that as we love our country and care about the world, we must do everything we can to beat Bush.

Seated facing each other in a small, cluttered cubicle, we had at it for an hour or so. Neither of us gave an inch. Under the circumstances I will not quote what he said–he of all people can speak for himself. In substance, the burden of what I said to him is what I have just written here, with additional references in passing to Bush’s trillion-dollar tax cut and his Administration’s plans to dissolve Social Security insurance into stock market accounts and deny welfare mothers college-level education.

I reviewed with Ralph the elements of a strategy for resistance that members of the Alliance for Democracy and some of our allies in the progressive-populist movement had worked on together during the Alliance convention in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which had ended the day before. But how can we make sense of any strategy of resistance, I asked him, if at the very same time we are splitting the progressive vote for President again? “If you run in 2004 and get, say, 5 million votes,” I said, “and Bush wins by, say, 2 million–Ralph, we cannot do that.”

To beat Bush, the question we must decide now is not what candidate to run but what vehicle we can use to win the presidency in 2004. It cannot be the Green Party. “You know you can’t win as a Green in 2004,” I said to Ralph. The lamentable truth, but the truth, is that the only vehicle with which the voters can beat Bush for President is the Democratic Party. There is no other.

Therefore, I argued, what is needed is an undertaking by the liberals, progressives and populists of the country to challenge the corporation-corrupted leaders of the Democratic Party and their Democratic Leadership Council, to make the party’s sellout course since 1978 itself the issue of the Democratic primaries, and to converge behind the nomination of a progressive Democratic candidate for President–be it Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, Russell Feingold, Jan Schakowsky or Jesse Jackson Jr. The point, I said, is to get a strong progressive candidate and to get our forces behind that candidate and a progressive platform. Among many other things, it should include a commitment to have the party fight for instant-runoff voting (IRV), which at one stroke would end the third-party “spoiler” threat to the major parties and would free citizens to vote for their favorite candidates without helping to elect candidates whose views are diametrically opposed to theirs.

Otherwise, I said to Ralph, we will look around in 2003 and see the usual marquee sellouts running for the Democratic nomination and Ralph running for the Greens, a political configuration that seems deliberately designed to elect Bush.

I continue to believe that Nader is incomparably the most valuable citizen we have. He has been Public Citizen No. 1 for forty years. Only President Lyndon Johnson, in his domestic policies, achieved as much for the public good as Nader has while holding no office at all. In 2000 Nader drew legions of young people to the polls, educated millions on a wide range of vital issues that both major candidates totally avoided, exposed the emptiness and corruption of the major campaigns and the rigged presidential debates, turned the Green Party into a national factor and helped strengthen the long-term progressive movement independently of the sold-out top Democrats. He has resumed with gusto his cannonading of Congress and the establishment, doing what he does best. Certainly he will continue fighting the good fight. But his running for President in 2004 would not be the good fight; indeed, it could well darken this entire period in US and world history.

I do not mean or believe that Ralph should give up on building the Green Party. I told him I would like to see him run for governor or senator in 2004 (what a difference he would make in the Senate!–there’d be nothing to beat it since Huey Long). And the Greens, who now hold more than 170 offices in the country, should go on running vigorously against conservative or don’t-matter Democrats to help rebuild the people’s movement long term. But there can be no assurance that the United States will have a long term left as a free and peace-loving nation if Bush is elected for four more years. Helping Bush win in 2004 is not the way to build the Greens, either.

Ralph’s own statements in the 2000 campaign, and his decision to campaign during its last days in states that were tossups between Bush and Gore, including Florida, indicate that he believes it is appropriate for the Greens to cause the Democrats to lose the presidency again if that’s what it takes to move the Democrats to the left. He does not see electing Bush as the risk of the venture, but as a means to the end of returning the party to the causes of the people. His method in 2000 was to hold forth the progressive vision and beat the Democrat, which unavoidably meant electing Bush. He is not given to saying, “Let’s elect Bush so the Democrats will return to the people,” but that turned out to be the real-world meaning of his 2000 candidacy, and it would again in 2004.

Ralph persists in advancing the view that it does not matter (or does not matter enough to matter) whether a Democrat or a Republican sits in the White House. His position derives much of its energy and plausibility from moral fury against the Democrats who, for example, helped pass the infamous USA Patriot Act and voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq in a war of aggression that will stain the national escutcheon in history. (When I told Ralph I was writing this article, he said sardonically, “I hope you make the case that Gore would not be as much a warmonger as Bush. And Lieberman.”) The pivotal issue, though, is whether we should let this moral fury become blind rage that will help elect Bush in 2004, or whether we can convert it into high-voltage energy for an all-out progressive campaign in the Democratic primaries, such as has not occurred since 1972.

Certainly the party has sold out to corporations, including military contractors. Greens–indeed, most progressives, and Senator John McCain as well–know and say that both parties have sold the people and the government to the highest bidder. That is what drove so many of us to Nader. But there is more difference between the Republicans and the Democrats than Nader concedes. The majority of House Democrats and almost half the Democratic senators rejected Bush’s request for blank-check authority to wage war against Iraq. Democrats in the Senate have blocked judicial nominees who would make the federal courts dramatically more right-wing. And Democrats in the House and Senate remain significantly better than Republicans on the major domestic issues and significantly more committed to protecting civil rights, civil liberties and abortion rights. That, along with fear of electing Republicans by voting third-party–not ignorance of the issues, as some of my less thoughtful Green friends suggest–is why overwhelming majorities of black and Latino voters, and significant majorities of women, continue to vote Democratic.

This does not mean that any of us–least of all Ralph–should pronounce ourselves satisfied with the Democratic Party of 2002. Emphatically to the contrary, the Bush disaster and the corporate scandals provide a historic challenge and a chance to return the Democratic Party to what it should be. Attempting to do this by electing Bush to a second term is an option that is neither rational nor safe. Our job is to resist Bush, not to elect him.

The months ahead should be devoted to building nonviolent resistance to Bush’s policies and his election. We need to build at once an Internet-based communications network (not an umbrella organization) among progressive, populist, labor, youth, civil rights, women’s and religious organizations and individuals. The resistance must take many forms: local protests, sit-ins, teach-ins and, yes, marches on Washington, perhaps even Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 idea of a people’s encampment in the city, in 2004–all the tactics that we know matter in building an opposition force and making that opposition heard. And we may hope that in the midst of the pressures and dynamics of the next year and a half, we will focus a substantial portion of our energies on securing the Democratic nomination for a true progressive.

Even if the candidate backed by the progressive coalition does not ultimately take the nomination, this effort alone will contribute to restoring progressives as a permanent force to be reckoned with inside the party. It will enable us to influence the platform so that it includes reformist planks that might, for openers, include IRV, national health insurance, public funding of elections, federal chartering of large interstate corporations, repeal of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy and new laws to prevent media monopolies and diffuse the ownership of radio and TV licenses. Other planks might include no attack-first wars, no first use of nuclear weapons, no Star Wars and no weapons in space, a Marshall Plan for the world’s poor, a commitment to renewable energy sources and conservation, and a strengthened, not a sabotaged, UN. A strong and coherent left working for such ends within the party should also enable us to influence what the candidate advocates, even if he or she is not our original choice. That is the way Democratic Party politics have usually worked. Even FDR was compelled to defer to his left wing.

The electoral component of our resistance is critical. Progressives should be assembling and talking to one another now about how we can do it right this time. Michael Moore is correct: We can take over the moribund Democratic Party infrastructure. Local activists in every state should begin at once to master the laws and details of the electoral deadlines, the procedures of each precinct, locality and state. The central requirement for the venture to work is that progressives run for the chairships of their Democratic precincts. As the historian and populist theoretician Lawrence Goodwyn says, “Two years is time enough, and the people to do it are out there.” But to clear the route back to a liberal-progressive Democratic Party and the kinds of fruitful relationships the likes of Michael Harrington and Tom Hayden had with the party’s moderates in the 1970s, the planning and the work have to start now.

Each Nader person has to decide for himself or herself which course is better for 2004: supporting Nader again or converging with Democratic progressives in the Democratic primaries. There are no guarantees. Both courses have grave inherent risks. The first runs the high risk of electing Bush; the second, of ending up with yet another corporate puppet as the Democratic nominee. But apart from the Bush policy and practice of aggressive warmaking, the disgrace of the corporate and financial systems since the collapse of Enron provides progressives with their best political opportunity since 1932. We should now launch a two-year drive for the moral recovery of the Democratic Party and, hence, of the United States. Bush, riding war and the patriotic psychosis he is using our White House to foment, may win whatever we do. But we should not be for Nader knowing that it will help elect Bush. In the emergency that has materialized as if in a nightmare, we may not do that. We no longer have the right.

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