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Unsafe at Any Speed 

Why a vote for Nader will weaken, not build, the progressive movement

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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Photo by Virginia Lee HunterLet’s start with two propositions. First, Ralph Nader is a genuine American hero who is running on what is the progressive community’s dream program for America. Second, his third-party presidential candidacy is a monumental exercise in wrong-headedness that, far from building the left “for the long haul,” as Naderites are wont to say, will cripple it for any haul, long, short or in between.

It’s one thing to vote for Nader in a state like California that appears to be a likely win for Gore (but keep checking those polls). In states too close to call, however, a vote for Nader could surely trigger a Bush Fratboy Restoration, with all that entails. Some prospective Nader voters acknowledge that a vote for Ralph comes at a real cost — but not one that in the end is too high to pay. Writing in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Clancy Sigal (author of one of the greatest unsung American novels, Going Away) concedes that “people may be hurt by my Nader vote . . . the economically disenfranchised . . . the elderly and the ill” who would suffer if W. becomes president. However, he argues, “I am into a long-term struggle to help build a ‘new, progressive coalition’ that outflanks the Democratic Party . . . ”

This raises the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means — but we need to pose an easier question first: Does a “successful” Nader candidacy (which Naderites define as one that pulls 5 percent of the nationwide vote, thus qualifying the Greens for federal funding in 2004) build a “new progressive coalition” at all? (This is a question that pertains even in states that are safe for Gore, since we’re talking about aggregate national totals.) Suppose the Greens do become political players after this election. What will that mean for the future of left politics?

To the best of my knowledge, Nader has addressed this question specifically only once: in an interview with David Moberg in the October 30 issue of In These Times, the independent left periodical. Nader begins by acknowledging that if he lived in the congressional district of Henry Waxman, the West Los Angeles Democrat who’s long been the most successful legislative champion of consumer rights and higher health and environmental standards, he’d vote for Waxman unhesitatingly. (Indeed, when he was asked by a reporter at this summer’s Green Party Convention to name three things he liked about America, Nader listed Waxman as thing number two.)

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At this point, though, Nader’s sketch of his strategic vision for the Greens becomes mind-boggling. Two years hence, if a Green runs against his number-two favorite American thing, says Nader, he’ll back the Green. “There’s an overriding goal here, and that’s to build a majority party,” he says. “I hate to use military analogies, but this is war . . . After November, we’re going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democrats in a particular district] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we’re going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They’ve got to lose people, whether they’re good or bad.” Moberg goes on to report that “Nader is willing to sacrifice progressives like [Senators] Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or [Paul] Wellstone [in Minnesota].” Nader explains, “That’s the burden they’re going to have to bear for letting their party go astray. It’s too bad.”

I’ll say it’s too bad! What Nader is proposing is a policy of “no friends on the left” — that the Greens target as their main enemy such left leaders as Wellstone and Feingold, the only political members who both share their beliefs and who actually win elections. Most progressive Democratic House figures have safe seats — but some don’t. The late George Brown Jr., who cast the first House vote against the Vietnam War, who led the successful fight against Reagan’s Star Wars lunacy and who voted against the welfare-reform bill of 1996, represented for nearly 30 years a center-right district in San Bernardino. He was repeatedly re-elected by 51-to-49 percent margins, at best, and he went right on casting one politically suicidal vote after another to follow the dictates of his conscience.

It’s precisely the George Browns whom Nader’s Greens would defeat. And progressive senators (since senators represent states, not safe congressional districts) like Wellstone — the Senate’s leading advocate of universal single-payer health insurance — and Feingold — the Senate’s leading advocate of campaign finance reform.

And to what end? There isn’t one chance in a million the Greens could become a majority party in the U.S. Nowhere in the world (except, for a time, in Tasmania) have the Greens even managed to win a plurality in multiparty elections. Where they are in government as minority members of left coalitions, as in Germany, it’s because they have won between 5 and 10 percent of the vote — in nations where such a vote entitles a party to seats in parliament. And in these nations, voting Green isn’t agonizing; it’s easy. In these nations, a Green vote doesn’t come at the expense of the Social Democrats: The two parties can and often do join together in coalition. In the American electoral system, by contrast, with its winner-take-all vote count, Green votes will always come at the expense of the Democrats. Which is to say, the only possible effect of running against the all-too-few Wellstones, Feingolds and George Browns of this world will be to elect Republicans.

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