The lesson of election 2000, no matter the final photo-finish outcome, is that, for better or worse, the Democratic Party is the only political home for those with a progressive agenda. That was recognized by the overwhelming support for Al Gore among union workers, racial minorities, lower-income people and voters who want government to be an active agent in preserving the environment, empowering minorities and women, protecting personal freedom and guaranteeing, as Hillary Rodham Clinton promised throughout her campaign, that no child is left behind in this prosperous nation.
It is elitist in the extreme for Ralph Nader to scorn the judgment of those who make up the core constituency of the Democratic Party: labor, women’s rights activists, minorities, civil libertarians, gays, environmentalists. What contempt he showed for his longtime allies, going into Florida on the last day of the campaign to denounce Gore in terms harsher than those he used for George W. Bush. Nader’s nearly 100,000 Florida votes likely has cost Democrats the White House and with it the veto power President Clinton has used to protect the very people that Nader was bamboozling.
Does Nader really believe that Bush, if he prevails, would push for a minimum-wage increase, earned income tax credit, affirmative action, food stamps, Head Start or child care–programs that represent the margin of survival for so many? Will Nader, now back in his role as consumer lobbyist, not be begging Democratic stalwarts Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and California’s Rep. Henry Waxman to hold the line on a Republican Congress as it betrays patients to the big health care corporations?
If Bush has the White House, will Nader not look primarily to a hardy band of Democrats to save the environment? Easy to deride the Democratic politicians who, yes, do depend on fund-raising to survive. But can Nader deny that it was Rep. Phil Burton, the late Democratic political boss from San Francisco, who did more than anyone to save the redwoods and to convince urban people of their stake in preserving the rural environment? Burton was only one of many liberals who have fought the good fight that Nader demeans.
If I sound angry it’s in part with myself for having at times in the past fallen for the siren song of what appears to be a purist politics but ends up being mischievous when it’s not downright destructive.
What Nader did was to impulsively betray a lifetime of painstaking, frustrating, but most often effective, efforts on his part to make a better world. He is a good man who went very wrong and who now seems to find solace from his egregious error of judgment by getting drunk on his own words. The day after the election wreckage he had helped to cause, he was more arrogant than ever in his condemnation of the Democratic Party as evil incarnate.
It is nothing of the sort. The Democratic Party, for all of its contradictions and shortcomings, is the essential arena for progressives to fight for their programs, just as the Republican Party provides that venue for the Christian Coalition, which rudely rejected Pat Buchanan and kept its troops in the GOP.
Nader should have done the same. Following the lead of the enormously successful Jesse Jackson campaigns, he should have run in the Democratic primaries, shaping the party from within. Jackson recognizes what Nader willfully ignores: We have had party realignment. The white “Dixiecrats” of the South are now all in the Republican Party, leaving the Southern Democrats in Congress disproportionately black.
But it is not just African Americans who need the Democratic Party to fight for their interests. It is also true of Latinos and new immigrants who have found the Democrats to be their main ally in campaigns for amnesty and in waging legal battles against anti-immigrant legislation, such as California’s Proposition 187.
Women of all races and classes also vote disproportionately for the Democratic Party because it’s committed both to a women’s control over her own body and to a level playing field in the job market. Perhaps the most significant group making its home in the Democratic Party is organized labor, which under the inspired leadership of the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney has finally reemerged to take on Nader’s nemesis: the titans of the corporate world. Gore won the popular vote and the key battleground states in the North largely because of the grassroots organizing of labor.
By sticking with the Democratic Party, most of the people Nader has devoted his life to helping proved smarter than he was in the crunch. They dared not risk losing hard-fought gains to follow Nader into the quicksand of a third party. It is time for Nader to stop playing the Pied Piper and come home.