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GREEN THOUGHTS IN A GREEN SHADE
Re: “Unsafe at Any Speed” [November 3–9]. Harold Meyerson’s and the liberal Goristas’ attacks against Ralph Nader and the Greens merit a response, if only because the underlying political issues won’t disappear after the election, no matter what the outcome.
First, the Moral Arguments. Damned if I can figure out why it’s Ralph Nader’s responsibility to run for president as a progressive Democrat, but not Paul Wellstone’s, Henry Waxman’s or Jesse Jackson’s. Damned if I can understand why it’s Ralph’s responsibility to turn over his 5 percent of the voting public to Al Gore, but not Al Gore’s responsibility to motivate 5 percent of the nonvoting half of the electorate, many of whom are young and poor, to vote for Democrats by offering them a program that addresses their issues. Here’s where we’re supposed to take to heart Todd Gitlin’s Iron Law of American Politics: These people are incapable of mobilization by the left, so it’s not Al’s fault. (Thank you, Professor Malthus!) Damned if I don’t recall that Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were confirmed by a Democratic majority in the Senate, but I guess we must assume the dread hand of Ralph Nader to have been guiding events from the wings in this case as well. And many more arguments of this caliber.
Next, the Historical Arguments. The most interesting argument by historical analogy I’ve seen recently is Meyerson’s diagnosis that Nader and the Greens constitute a virulent strain of third-period Stalinist sectarianism, with the disclaimer that, of course, he doesn’t really mean that (heh, heh). However, Meyerson’s serious argument seems to be the following: Ralph and the Greens will probably not become Abe Lincoln and the Republicans, so therefore the many instances in American history of mass social movements linked to third-party challenges that moved the entire political spectrum to the left, despite fierce resistance from the dominant parties, should simply be ignored. This is closely linked with the idea that past events were the result of unique historical circumstances (granted), and that therefore similar processes are improbable in the future (non sequitur). If this were true, it would be very difficult for Harold to explain how it’s possible to revive his sine qua non, New Deal democracy, a product of pressure on Roosevelt from outside the Democratic Party by a mass social movement of insurgent workers led by Communists, Socialists and Trotskyites who didn’t ask his permission before they staged general strikes and factory occupations. He could, of course, modestly settle for Todd Gitlin’s Corollary to the Iron Law of American Politics: Al Gore is the best president we’re going to get. (Thank you, Dr. Pangloss!) Too bad that the unstated assumption of the Corollary is that DLC-led democracy is the best we’re going to get. Perhaps that’s why it’s unstated.
This brings us, finally, to the Left Wing of the Impossible Argument. Meyerson argues that progressives like Nader must enter the democracy, and that his followers must defend it against the Republican hordes, or they endanger the Wellstones and the Waxmans — who are the true friends of the poor and defenseless — and effectively oppose the “social movements” that stand shoulder to shoulder with the Democratic Party. The idea here is that effective left activity is impossible outside the party, no matter how right-wing the party’s policies are, an idea that is arrived at simply by ignoring or misconstruing overwhelming evidence that it isn’t true. However, there is a Secret Magic Formula which makes the idea more palatable: Imaginary Social Movements + Imaginary Democratic Party = Imaginary American Social Democracy. Here’s how the formula works. First make the actual anti-globalization social movements, objectively opposed to the DLC Democrats and linked to the Greens, disappear by not talking about them much (or, alternatively, by branding them as sectarian and marginal). Then conflate the mainstream liberal-membership or ganizations (NOW, Sierra Club, NARAL, etc.) and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy with “social movements.” As the general election approaches, stop whining about the bad DLC junta leading the party, focus on the Wellstones, Waxmans, Jacksons, et al., but not on Gore-Lieberman, the party’s actual ticket, and, presto, you have an Imaginary American Social Democracy. To say that a staggering amount of wishful thinking, if not downright disingenuousness, is involved here is to be charitable.
The most effective refutation of these attacks is demonstrated by the Nader Effect that is already pushing Gore to bombastic flights of left-populist rhetoric, and that has given rise to the liberal Gorista campaign of anti-Nader vilification designed to reduce the very pressure on Gore’s left which, if intelligently managed, would make it possible for liberals and progressives in the party to frighten the leadership into co-opting some of Nader’s issues, rescuing the party from future irrelevance. This should be the liberal Goristas’ inside game, but in order to play it they actually need Ralph, the Greens and Actual Social Movements on the outside, all doing serious damage. The more damage Ralph does outside, the more leverage the Wellstones have â inside. Although Meyerson claims to be unable to find one, this is a glaring example of the awkward paradox that he must live with regarding the Democratic Party’s future: The worse things get in the short term, the better they get in the long term. Can’t live with Ralph, can’t live without him.