|... And Why I'm Not
By James Weinstein
In 1948, when I cast my first vote for president, Henry A. Wallace, vice
president during FDR's second and third terms, was running as the Progressive
Party candidate against Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrat Harry S Truman.
In August, he was at 12 percent in the polls. On election day, he got 2
percent. My history professor at Cornell, a wonderful man named Paul Wallace
Gates, was the New York state treasurer of the
Wallace for President Committee. On election day, he voted for Truman. Within
a year the Progressive Party disintegrated.
In 1980, Barry Commoner ran as the Citizens Party candidate for president
against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Progressives worked hard and got him
on the ballot in 29 states. He got only 220,000 votes and the Citizens Party
quickly disappeared. Now it's Ralph Nader's turn, and his supporters repeat
the identical arguments and exhibit the same enthusiasm for Nader that I did
for Wallace and others did for Commoner. Sadly, there is no reason to expect
that the results will not be the same.
Bob McChesney says that we have to think in broader terms than the immediate
election, a statement with which I fervently agree. But he sees the Nader
campaign as a necessary step in building a progressive political movement
that will amount to more than a hill of beans. There, I believe, he is dead
First, serious politics requires participation in elections on all levels of
government and at all times. Organized popular constituencies don't come from
the single-issue movements that McChesney sees as Nader's base. These
single-issue movements focus narrowly on their issues and operate by putting
pressure on legislators to support or oppose specific legislation or policies. Broad electoral constituencies, on the other hand, must be created
by common popular action around a program that embodies shared universal
principles. The Nader campaign did not arise from such a movement, nor is it
organized in a way that will produce one. It has sprung forth out of nowhere.
It represents no identifiable constituency. Like others on the left, Nader
and his disparate supporters are simply following a well-established pattern.
Every four or eight years, some of us look around and are so appalled by the
major party choices that we are compelled to tilt at windmills by engaging in
quixotic campaigns for president.
This campaign follows that pattern. It started at the top and it will end at
the top. In part, it will because Nader is acting purely as an inspired
individual. He is a talking head without a political body. True, he is using
the Green Party in some states as a framework for his campaign, but without
him there would be no campaign because neither he nor they represent a
movement experienced in building broad electoral constituencies.
Second, few people outside the circle of true believers, and a couple of
union leaders who appear to be using Nader as leverage to get favors from
Clinton or Gore, will ever see him or hear his message. In 1980, after
spending most of their money on efforts to get on the ballot, the Citizens
Party could afford only one national radio broadcast during the campaign. In
it, Commoner said something about Reagan and Carter's "bullshit." The next
day, the New York Times reported, "Presidential candidate says 'bullshit.' "
On election day that was all the general public had heard or knew about
Commoner and his party. Today, Nader is getting more media coverage, but it
is horse-race reporting; his ideas remain as invisible to the general public
Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, did what McChesney denigrates: He ran in
the Democratic primaries in 1988. As a result, he participated in the
televised debates, outshone his rivals and made the most enthusiastically
received speech at the Democratic National Convention. His ideas received wide public
exposure. And thus he greatly increased the political visibility of the
African-American community, as well as his own clout within national
politics. He created a potential for a sustained left movement, though
unfortunately he did not pursue that goal.
McChesney also argues that the difficulties posed by a grassroots challenge
within the Democratic Party are too great to overcome; he says the
requirement for "obscenely massive campaign war chests," and the "tight noose
of the corporate news media with their pathetic range of legitimate debate"
make progressive participation within that framework impractical. But the
same difficulties are infinitely greater for those operating as a third
party. In fact, Jackson got considerable media attention precisely because he
was in the primaries. He was able to put forward his ideas in nationally
televised debates at no cost to his campaign. He needed only a small fraction
of the money Nader will have to raise if he hopes to receive half as much
media attention as Jackson did.
Instead of looking at this realistically, McChesney resorts to wishful
thinking about Nader being given a place in the nationally televised debates.
"If there is justice," he writes, "and [Nader] gets a place in the
presidential debates, his support almost certainly would climb dramatically."
Duh! Of course, that's why Jackson ran in the Democratic primaries.
Third, McChesney suggests that by speaking with authority in plain language
about power, fairness, justice and democracy, Nader can unify the masses in
opposition to the two corporate candidates. But the issue here is not the
value of Nader's ideas and principles. Rather it is two-fold: first, whether
these ideas will be heard and examined, and, second, given the potential for
taking votes away from Gore, what effect this would have on the left's
In a recent article urging people to vote for Nader in Conscious Choice, an
ecology magazine, Dan Hamburg explains the dilemma that many sympathetic to
Nader's ideas will face. In states where the Democrat or Republican is way
ahead in the polls, people should vote for Nader, he says; while in states
where Bush and Gore are neck-and-neck, those not wanting to elect Bush should
vote for Gore. But following this advice would negatively affect Nader's
vote, especially in the states where he now is polling best. The result,
among other things, would be to understate the degree of popular agreement
with Nader's ideas and thereby further marginalize him and the left.
McChesney clearly rejects Hamburg's approach, but his path might mean that a
vote for Nader would win a state, and possibly the presidency, for Bush. This
appears to be the case in Michigan, for example, where Nader is presently
polling 8 percent - enough to throw the state to Bush as things now stand.
Well, Naderites would say, what's wrong with that? And the answer is that
besides electing Bush, there would also be hell to pay with the very social
base - labor and African-Americans - that is most favorably disposed to
Nader's ideas, and is the left's natural constituency. The problem is that
these are the people most loyal to the Democratic Party. Gore will get 90
percent of the black vote, and 60 to 65 percent of labor's vote. Both
constituencies have practical reasons for wanting a Democratic president. To
them, Nader is OK, but only as long as he is not a spoiler. Hamburg indicates
that the same is true among environmentalists.
In short, the issue here is not whether we need a second force in American
politics - one that would represent the interests of the overwhelming
majority of men and women who work for a living. There's no dispute on this.
But for us to realize this goal, we have to understand the structural nature
of our political system and how to use it. Otherwise, we will remain little
more than gadflies. Consider this: No significant third party in American history, with
the exception of the old Socialist Party, ever ran more than two consecutive
presidential campaigns. And, again except for the Socialists, the second
campaign of the third parties has always been much weaker than the first. The
Socialists ran five campaigns between 1900 and 1920 and remained an important
voice in American life until their breakup three years after the Russian
Revolution. But even at the height of their influence they had no potential
of becoming a major presence in Congress, much less of electing a president.
The reason for this is that we do not have a system in which the members of
an elected parliament select the prime minister as head of government; nor do
we have a system of proportional representation for electing legislators. In
countries with either of those systems, minority parties often have a chance
to participate meaningfully in the legislature, and even, in coalitions,
choosing the prime minister.
But in a system like ours, where the president is elected directly and
Congress is elected in single-member majority districts, the system moves
inexorably toward two parties. Only in periods when one of the major parties
is fatally wounded over an issue of vital national concern - as was the case
with the Whigs and the extension of slavery in the 1850s - has it been
possible for a third party to enter the scene and grow rapidly. That, of
course, is how Lincoln won on his party's second try.
But all is not lost. When Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago, he used to
talk about the city's two parties. He didn't mean the Democrats and the
Republicans; he meant his party and little Richie Daley's. Like both major
parties throughout the country, the official party was open by law to anyone
who registered in it. Indeed, anyone can enter a primary for legislative or
executive office. And any group can promote its own candidates and thereby
become a force in national politics, as the Christian right did in the
Republican Party in the '80s. Furthermore, because only a small fraction of
the electorate votes in primaries, a well-organized force can win nominations
much more easily in primaries than in general elections.
Rather than panicking every four years, getting all wound up in an
essentially hopeless campaign, and then, when the results are disappointing,
lapsing into disillusionment and inertia, the left should begin thinking
seriously about how to intervene successfully in our political system. It's
time for us to confront reality and to grow up politically.
James Weinstein is the founding editor and publisher of In These Times.