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.