|Salon - 10/28
Unsafe in any state
Ralph Nader's campaign is reckless, its justifications specious and its
consequences possibly irreparable. But it does allow fundamentalist leftists
to keep living in their dream world.
By Todd Gitlin
Oct. 28, 2000 | The Gore-Bush contest has been as uninspired as it is
overfinanced, a spectacle as tedious as it is dumbed-down (sorry, "on
message"). So we arrive at that quadrennial moment when the disgruntled get
tired of hitchhiking and look to their own vehicles. As citizen-viewers
stream away from the presidential debates wishing out loud that they could
vote for someone -- anyone -- other than the major party candidates, enter
Ralph Nader on the Green ticket, apparently safe at any speed. No one accuses
Nader of taking funny money, phonying his résumé, being out of his depth,
talking down or making himself over too frequently. He bashes corporations
like nobody's business, more rightly than wrongly.
I'm the sort of voter who ought to be flocking to him. I was the third
president of Students for a Democratic Society, active in New Left politics
thereafter, frequently critical of Clinton-Gore politics from the left. I
think the drug war is a disaster, the Colombia intervention wrongheaded,
insurance companies and HMOs cruel and unnecessary punishment, big-money
giveaways to media tycoons indefensible, free trade oversold, labor
underprotected. Oh yes: Along the way, I stayed out of the 1968 vote -- and
therefore, in the light of unforgiving history, did my tiny bit to help Nixon
win, and all for the best of reasons, namely, emotions in revolt, disgust for
Humphrey's pro-war position, and willful blindness about the left's
marginality and the political payoff that could be expected for going it
Here we go again. The arguments for Nader's campaign are dubious, a vote for
him reckless and the consequences of building him up severe and possibly
irreversible. As I write, Nader strength in Oregon and Minnesota looks like
enough to move those states into the Bush column; Nader could also matter in
Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, even California. The outcome might well be,
with a few other states, catastrophic -- and not only for the next four
years. Just as much of the ground lost to Reagan in the 1980s has never been
regained -- repeat, never: not in 20 years, not on labor policy, not on the
environment, not on income and wealth inequality, not on support for military
goons in the poor countries -- the ground to be lost by a Republican victory
is likely to stay lost. As for the arguments about what's to be gained by a
big Nader turnout, they dissolve on inspection.
What kind of case is made for the Nader vote? We hear, first of all, the
notion that Gore and Bush, or Democrats and Republicans, are essentially the
same -- two names for the same Republicrats. Yet how a thoughtful person can
think the differences are negligible boggles the mind.
Global warming? Gore knows it's happening, Bush isn't sure. Gore wanted a tax
on fossil-fuel energy -- a tax that was blocked by Republicans and always
will be -- while Bush governs over the worst air in the country and justifies
it on the grounds of industrial growth. Gore knows the arguments against oil
drilling; Bush looks at Alaska and sees barrels. Gore's an environmentalist
who makes political deals; Bush is half of an all-oil-company team. No
The Supreme Court? Bush's favorite justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence
Thomas. He owes the Christian right bigger than big-time. The Bush court,
one-third of whose membership he might get to appoint, might not repeal Roe
vs. Wade, not quite, not yet, but would surely tilt mightily toward states'
rights and corporate power, against labor, against gun control, against
The nitty-gritty government that shapes public life in a thousand ways
outside public attention? The National Labor Relations Board, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Civil Rights Commission
and hundreds of other boards that make crucial decisions, most of them
outside the glare of sound-bite-besotted media, affecting every aspect of
everyday life. See above. Bush will owe the fundamentalists, the
union-busters, the South Carolina Confederate flag-fliers.
Labor? Gore owes the AFL-CIO for its early support; Bush doesn't owe a thing
-- to the contrary. Gore's party has pushed up the minimum wage (not nearly
high enough), Bush's couldn't care less. Despite the NAFTA loss, labor has
started to regain strength because the Labor Relations Board has been more
hospitable to organizers. Now? The Republican Party -- who might well end up
controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House -- have
negative interest in organized labor. They'll rig what they can for the
bosses. That's what Republicans do.
Poverty? Inequality? The Republicans practice class warfare from above. The
Democrats are divided, but despite inconsistencies, President Clinton is
responsible for an earned income tax credit, and finally, belatedly, the
appalling inequality between rich and poor is shrinking, unemployment is low
(and for African-Americans and Latinos, unprecedentedly so).
Nuclear weapons? Bush is for abrogating the anti-ballistic-missile treaty. He
loves Star Wars. His party crushed the nuclear test ban. Gore has been
flabby, alas, on these issues, but he is budgeable. Bush lacks even Reagan's
nutty antinuclear utopianism.
I have not even mentioned the limited (but scarcely unimportant) issues the
candidates talk about: the Social Security hoax Bush wants to perpetrate; the
Bush tax cut that Puts Billionaires First; affirmative action, which Bush
wants to end, not mend; campaign corruption (sorry, "finance"), the
auctioning off of access and bias at which W. is so spectacula that he did
not even need the Lincoln Bedroom -- he could offer an entire government.
And none of this is to mention the person whom Nader stands poised to tip
into power -- the lazy, intellectually slovenly Bush, the Bush who sneers at
the "Buddhist temple" (would he denounce a church fundraiser with quite that
curl of the lip?), the fumbling, evasive, thickheaded Bush, the disingenuous
Bush, the deceiving, dynastic Bush who aims to ratify stupidity as a
qualification for high office.
We come to the claim that a Nader vote is costless because his candidacy
creates its own constituency, bringing masses hitherto demobilized (and
rationally so) out of the woodwork. Turnout is surely important, especially
for the unregistered blue-collar voters, but waiting for a rescue mission
from suddenly lefty voters is the political equivalent of the beam-me-up
wishfulness practiced by millennial cults -- and it has the same function.
The trouble is, there's no persuasive evidence that large numbers of voters
have been staying home because they've lacked a left-wing alternative. That's
not the country we're living in.
We have some recent and relevant experience to consider. Liberals supported
(rightly) the motor voter bill to make registration easier, a bill that
George H.W. Bush vetoed twice and President Clinton signed, not just on
principle, but in the hope that the poor would register and vote to the left.
That hope was more vain than not. It didn't happen. Most scholars who've
studied the subject believe that people who don't vote have the same views as
people who do. In the real world, Nader is plainly picking up support from
Gore (not least because of Gore's lummox debate performances). Minnesota is
one state where, last week, Bush had, surprisingly, crept ahead of Gore in a
statewide poll, and, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "Nader has
eroded Gore's base of support by attracting one-fifth of liberals, young
voters and independents -- and one in 10 Democrats." Maybe it's not true in
other states. Maybe it is. Maybe it's true enough in the right (or wrong)
states to throw the election to Bush.
In limited and belated recognition that there are real costs to a Green vote,
some now propose "strategic voting" and urge people who live in states where
Gore-Bush poll margins are great to cast their ballots for Nader believing
that they will not thereby be spoiling Gore's electoral vote. This is
supposed to be a free vote, but there is no such thing as a free vote. That
calculated vote is both morally problematic and politically short-sighted.
Letting the polls make up your mind for you conditions a moral choice on the
presupposition that polls are reliable (when in fact they are swinging all
over the place), and amounts, moreover, to a sudden burst of pragmatism from
people who ordinarily despise the pragmatism of Gore support.
Then, on practical grounds, we hear that a Nader vote builds up popular
support for the Greens so they can get to 5 percent and therefore receive
federal funds in 2004. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Nader does get
5 percent, and the Greens get federal funds in future elections. Then what?
On the off-chance that the Greens can avoid breaking into warring camps, à la
the Reform Party, what they can realistically look forward to is someday
becoming, say, an 8 percent party. And then? After at least one term of
Republican rule, with its unambiguous passion for big oil, against a nuclear
test ban, for Star Wars, against labor organizing, for HMO's, for kindness
toward the Pinochets of the world, etc., maybe eight years on we get to -- 9
percent? 11 percent? The odds are for shrinkage, not increase, in a third
party. This is a doomed enterprise. The Constitution is decisively tilted
against it. In parliamentary systems, a single-digit party can win seats,
enter governments, make policy -- as witness the Greens in Germany and
elsewhere in Europe. But in the American winner-take-all presidential system
-- which is not going away -- the payoff for a third-party effort is the
chance to be a spoiler again.
There's worse. The so-called strategic vote, by lowering Gore's popular vote,
helps undermine his popular mandate if he does win, thus dashing the
prospects for progressive hopes -- as Clinton's 43 percent victory in 1992
weakened his own popular base for egalitarian policies like "don't ask, don't
tell." Like Bush, Nader supporters choose to forget that many of Clinton's
stronger initiatives -- even his small, earnest "stimulus package" of 1993 --
banged up against a Republican wall in Congress. Had Clinton been bolstered
by an electoral majority -- not to mention a better Congress, many of whose
Democrats were barely that -- he could have made better use of the bully
pulpit. (He should have tried anyway.)
Does voting for a third party contribute to "building a movement"? Claims of
this sort are always made by charismatic figures. The results are never --
never -- delivered. The claim amounts to feel-good rhetoric to rationalize a
heady campaign. Tomorrow never comes. It is a parochial fantasy.
Nader's claim that he's not the spoiler is bad faith. Perhaps he knows it,
perhaps not. But there is a deeper force at work. What is at work in the
Naderite camp, what lies behind the fantasy that the masses hanker for
radical change, is a purist approach to politics. There are Nader supporters
-- as well as Democrats of the left like Michigan's John Conyers -- who have
urged Nader to drop his campaign in the states where he might throw the race
to Gore. He's refused. He shows no inclination to deal. (Neither,
unfortunately, does Gore.) But deal-making is how politics happens.
At bottom, Nader's all-or-nothing gambit is not politics, it is moral
fundamentalism -- as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the
world by willing it so, despite all those recalcitrant people who happen to
The arrogance of this "worsism" -- the worse, the better -- is chillingly
expressed by a Nader voter in Portland, Ore., interviewed in Friday's New
York Times: "If Bush gets in, I feel that it might bring things to a head
much more quickly. Pollution's going to increase in the short term, but I
think that will bring a lot more people into the environmental movement a lot
more quickly. Sometimes you've got to hit bottom before you come back up."
Notice how the means -- "a lot more people into the environmental movement"
-- has become the end. Notice the spurious assumption that the masses will
rise up if things come "to a head." It didn't happen after Reagan's
depredations on the environment. It won't happen now. As for the Nader
movement, it's well-meaning and broad but an inch deep. In Eric Alterman's
trenchant words in the Nation, Nader's "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."
On Earth, the only land ahead is the compromised land. Politics means
satisfactions and dissatisfactions, not redemptions. There is this truth: We
are condemned to share the Earth with people we dislike, even despise. In a
democracy, we are condemned to share power with them. A large party -- any
large party -- is a coalition of interests. Imagine the Democrats away and
replace them with a left-wing party, and it would still be a coalition of
interests heading for disappointment. The question about the actually
existing Democrats is this: How to make them more green, more labor-friendly,
less punitive? And the prerequisite -- not the guarantee, but the
prerequisite -- is a vote for Democrats, starting with Al Gore.
True enough, after getting a boost from his "the people vs. the powerful"
convention speech, Gore moved fitfully toward the center, and one can fight
against his position on capital punishment and prisons, his trimming on gun
control -- dispute all this and more far more effectively if he is president
than not. If Nader had run in the primaries, or half the Naderite energy went
to organizing a Million Human March to welcome Gore to Washington the day
after he's inaugurated, we on the left would stand a reasonable chance of
seeing a Gore more to our liking. He is, as his fans and enemies all agree, a
politician. No one accuses the man of being inflexible.
Of course the parties are corrupt fundraising machines. Of course corporate
lobbies run amok. Of course the Democrats need pressure. The question is,
Whom do we want to put in a position to press? The choice of who will write
the agenda, appoint the judges, negotiate (or tear up) the treaties, starting
Jan. 20, 2001, is not between Al Gore and Jesus Christ, or, in fact, between
Al Gore or Ralph Nader. In America, we're not going to get a president better
than Gore. We may well get a lot worse: a country-club airhead whose
occasional rhetoric of compassion obscures the fact that his deepest, most
abiding, most consistent compassion is for untrammeled business. We could
slam a lot of doors. Consider the choice uninspiring, but there it is, and
will not be wished away -- not by fulminating against corporations, not by
imagining a mass movement, not by assuming that one shirks responsibility for
bad consequences because others have a monopoly on evil while we, we noble
ones, we happy new, are pure, as George W. Bush would say, of heart.
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About the writer
Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York
University, and the author of "The Sixties," "The Twilight of Common Dreams"
and a new novel, "Sacrifice".