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Unsafe at Any Speed

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.)

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.  

Yet this is the promised end for which prospective Nader voters are being asked to sacrifice, in Sigal’s words, “the economically disenfranchised, the elderly and the ill.”

The strategy of “no friends on the left” isn’t without precedent, though fortunately, it hasn’t popped up all that often. Its most prominent manifestation was what historians refer to as “third-period Communism” — the line adhered to by communist parties, during the early Stalinist years of 1928–35, of designating socialist parties rather than fascist parties as their main enemy. The most notorious exercise of this policy came in the German elections of 1933, when the Communists insisted the real enemies were the left-wing Social Democrats, whom they called “Social Fascists.” The Nazis were just a passing phenomenon, so the Communists refused to make common cause with the other left parties (whom, instead, they attacked) against the Nazis. Whereupon the Nazis won a narrow plurality, took power, imprisoned all the Communists they could find, killed their leaders, and did worse things to other folks.

I’m not for a second equating George W. Bush, or even Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, to Nazis. But you don’t have to be a Nazi to inflict terrible hardship on the poor and people of color, and irrevocable damage to the ecosystem.

I am saying, though, that if there’s a single historic instance where the policy of “no-friends-on-the-left” or “it-has-to-get-worse-before-it-gets-better” actually worked in the long run, I sure don’t know what it is. Nader backers who should know better are suffering from a highly selective historical amnesia when they make these arguments.

Nor are they any less amnesiac in suggesting the Greens can someday supplant one of the two major parties. The only third party in American history ever to pull that off, of course, was the Republicans, and that was the result of a unique set of circumstances. The two major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, were national parties that were already crumbling by the 1850s because they could no longer reconcile their Northern and Southern wings on the question of slavery. The Republicans were a Northern party only, and in 1860, Lincoln polled just 39 percent of the popular vote — which, however, was enough to win, since Democrats had three presidential candidates that year, one from the North, one from the South and one from the border states. In the years before or after, though, no other third party has endured — not even the 1912 Progressives, whose standard bearer was the immensely popular former president Teddy Roosevelt. Absent a shift to proportional representation or the implosion of one of the two major parties — neither of which looms on or even over the horizon — a third party cannot and will not overtake the Dems or Republicans.

So is there no way to impact the electoral system from the left? Am I arguing that Nader should not have run at all?

In fact, there was one way in which Nader could have run that would have enabled him to have much greater influence than he’s having today, with none of the risk that he could make George W. Bush the next president. He could have run in the Dem ocratic primaries.

This, of course, would not have enabled him to level his attacks on the entire Dem ocratic Party as such — lock, stock and Wellstone. But, like Wellstone, Jesse Jackson and numerous other progressives, he could have leveled the very same attacks he’s leveling now on the corporatization of the party, on its rightward drift and betrayal of working people. Other than arguing for a third party, there’s nothing Nader is saying now that he couldn’t have said in the primaries. And gotten a much bigger audience, won more votes, and built a much more potent movement, while saying it.

Consider what would have happened if Nader had run in this year’s primaries. First, he would have been included in all the televised debates between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Second, progressives who wouldn’t dream of voting for Nader this November would have flocked to his banner this spring. Third, he would have been able to raise much more small-donor money to get his message out. Fourth, it’s likely he would have won the primary endorsement of two national mega-unions: the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. And fifth, he could quite conceivably have carried some states, come to the Democratic Convention with a bloc of delegates, had his name placed into nomination and addressed the convention, and the nation, at length.  

I think back to the last weekend of the New Hampshire primary, when Gore’s shock-troop volunteers on the sidewalks of Nashua came from the UAW, and Bill Bradley’s came from college campuses up and down the East Coast. When the two groups met and got to talking, however, they discovered they disagreed with their respective candidates and agreed with each other on the issue of trade; that they’d both been thrilled by Seattle and appalled by the Bradley-Gore support for NAFTA and kindred accords. Both groups supported universal health insurance and a crackdown on corporations; the list goes on. In a word, both groups were Naderites — only, Nader wasn’t on their ballots.

Certainly, Nader would have stolen much of the thunder of John McCain, especially on campuses. McCain’s candidacy gives the lie to the idea that you only really alter the political agenda by running outside the major parties. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, whose 1968 candidacies effectively and irrevocably turned the Democratic Party against the Vietnam War, would disagree. So would Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan.) Compare Buchanan’s ability to alter public discourse in his ’92 inside-the-GOP race to his impact today, where he’s crying inaudibly in the wilderness.) For that matter, the three main left-wing third-party presidential candidates of the past hundred years — Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace — all ran before presidential primaries really came into being, at a time when Democratic delegates were entirely selected by party bosses. It’s not at all clear that they (particularly Wallace) would have opted for the third-party route had they run in a post-1968 system. (1968 was the last election in which machines, not voters, selected the major party nominees.)

It could be argued, I suppose, that primary-candidate Nader might have had a hard time holding together his progressive forces and shaping them into a permanent organization after the Democratic National Convention. It wouldn’t be nearly as hard, however, as shaping the Green Party into that kind of force. No one who’s looked at the actual Greens would come away thinking that this was an organization capable of such a task. Many Greens have come to the party precisely because they have an anti-organizational perspective. Others, including a majority of the Green activists I’ve encountered, are there to insist on a kind of lifestyle purity, arguing, for instance, that the party must officially endorse veganism.

Indeed, if Nader were to cross the magical 5 percent threshold, the party might not even be up to defending its own ballot line, so few and inept are its members. At this summer’s national convention, New Mexico Greens were busily leafleting against their own nominee for a congressional seat, a non-member with no particularly Green beliefs who’d won their primary as a write-in candidate. With the party all but nonexistent in two dozen states, a takeover of the kind Pat Buchanan conducted in the Reform Party is more than plausible. That knocking on the party’s door would likely be Lenora Fulani.

Worse yet, the party chases away the handful of genuine members who actually have the skills to win election. In 1998, Audi Bock became the first Green to win a partisan office in California, when she was elected under somewhat flukish circumstances to the state Assembly from a Berkeley-Oakland district. Last year, however, she left the party after it objected to the fund-raising she’d undertaken to campaign for re-election. Late last week, three of the five Greens on the nonpartisan Seattle City Council announced they were resigning from the party to vote for Al Gore. Green sectarianism is already driving away the Greens who can actually function in real politics. This vehicle for building a national progressive movement is — to use Daniel Bell’s description of the old socialists — in but not of the world. Yet even this collection of stumblebums is capable of tossing a 51-to-49 percent Democratic district to the Republicans.

Indeed, the split between realists and fundamentalists in the ranks of the Greens seems also to be taking place within Nader’s inner circle, if not within Nader’s own mind. Just this Saturday, I received a fund solicitation from Public Citizen — Nader’s signature organization, which he founded in 1971 and over which he remains the guiding spirit. The gist of the letter is that Public Citizen is the main organization fighting for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which has fallen short of enactment by just a “handful of votes” (the letter’s emphasis) in the Senate (where, in fact, the Democrats are expected to pick up several more members Tuesday). Of course, Al Gore has pledged that McCain-Feingold will be his first priority, while W. has said in no uncertain terms that he would veto it. Yet Nader is prepared to sacrifice the number-one priority of Public Citizen to his candidacy. When he told Moberg that “this is war,” he apparently meant: against the Democrats, against Dem ocratic progressives, against progressive groups that need the Democrats, against his very own organization and its most important goal.  

Enough about parties. What about movements? For when Nader claims to be building a left, he asserts that his candidacy will be good for the groups that really do the day-to-day drudge work of building a decent America — the unions, the environmental organizations; the civil rights, feminist, pro-choice and anti-poverty groups working both in Washington and in countless neighborhoods across the country.

Time and again, Nader has argued that even if he draws so many votes from Gore that Bush becomes president, one of two things will happen. The first possibility is, it won’t really matter: Just this weekend, he argued on one of the Sunday talk-shows that “Even if Roe v. Wade is reversed, that doesn’t end it. It just reverts it back to the states.” (Young women in the anti-choice South, I guess, will just have to be prepared to travel, or look around for some back alleys.) His second possibility isn’t quite so dismissive: If a Republican Supreme Court does overturn Roe or the civil-rights statues it has already begun to erode, if W.’s minions at the Interior Department start selling off the national parks, it will lead to a huge, reactive resurgence in the strength of progressive movements. “There’s never been a retrenchment in civil rights since the Dred Scott decision,” he told me when I interviewed him shortly before the Green Party convention this summer, ignoring a string of recent 5-to-4 court decisions that limited the applicability of federal civil-rights statutes to the states. “These things are not going to be pulled back — and if they are, it would probably be the greatest source of a revival in civic action in our generation.”

(Of course, if we started bombing Vietnam again, it would be the greatest source of a revival in antiwar action in a generation, too. That doesn’t make it a good idea to put in power people inclined to do it.)

Nader refers frequently to the increase in Sierra Club membership that resulted from the tenure of the rabidly anti-environment James Watt as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of interior — indeed, to the membership increases in many national progressive groups during that time. The Sierra Club is cognizant of its membership figures, of course, but, in the words of Dan Weiss, its national political director, “the view that we can afford four years of irreversible damage to our environment is naive at best, irresponsible at worst. It’s like saying we have to destroy the â village in order to save it.”

Thus the Sierra Club — and the League of Conservation Voters, and Friends of the Earth, and the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Human Rights Campaign and NOW and the NAACP, all groups whose membership might indeed increase if Bush wins — are moving heaven and earth to elect Al Gore. “We’ll all be totally on the defensive,” says Torie Osborn, executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation and the former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “We won’t be promoting our own agendas, we’ll be trying to save the achievements of past decades. For gays and lesbians, it will be back to survival, to defending our basic humanity.”

In Nader’s list of all the groups that increased their membership during those exciting Reagan years, there’s one category of organization that he rightly omits: unions. The membership of unions does not swell when an anti-union administration is in power, because the effect of such an administration has been to make it easier for employers to thwart their workers’ efforts to form or join unions. By the refusal of their Labor Board appointees to protect workers rights, Republican presidents since Nixon have accelerated the decades-long decline in union membership and power.

But George W. Bush has vowed to do a great deal more than just appoint anti-union activists to oversee workers rights. In his speeches, he routinely calls for “paycheck protection” — that is, for limiting the ability of unions to devote their resources to political campaigns (on which business currently outspends labor by an 11-to-1 margin). This proposal was essentially the substance of California’s Proposition 226, which state voters rejected in 1998.  

In fact, busting unions will surely be the chief strategic political goal of a Bush administration. It’s only by virtue of the election-time activity of the newly revitalized labor movement that the Democrats have been able to pick up congressional seats since the 1994 debacle. More than that, though, unionists are one group of people whom the Great Uniter has never in any way included in his gubernatorial administration. W. is the first governor of Texas not to appoint a single union representative to the state’s boards overseeing occupational health and safety. And should congressional Republicans resurrect the TEAM Act — a bill they nearly got through Congress during Clinton’s presidency that would have allowed employers to set up their own “worker associations” to compete with genuine unions in the workplace — Bush would certainly sign it.

The damage to the American left from any of these actions would be huge. Since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO in 1995, labor has become the sine qua non of American progressivism — the force behind the municipal living-wage movements and all efforts to raise the minimum wage, the chief opponent of for-profit HMOs and the chief advocate for universal health care and affordable prescription drugs, even the foremost champion of immigrant rights. Under Sweeney, the four-decade slide in union membership has finally stopped (last year was the first in the last 17 when the share of unionized workers did not decline), but the union share of the work force is still a very shaky 13.9 percent. If George W. Bush becomes president, there’s no doubt that labor will come under a fierce, and possibly terminal, attack, dragging a panoply of other worthy causes down with it.

So we have, in Ralph Nader, a candidate who personifies the spirit of Seattle — articulating a democratic vision counter to global order run by and for corporations. And we have, in American labor, the movement that is the linchpin of the Seattle coalition, that is the leading force, not just in the U.S. but in the entire world, for establishing global standards for worker rights. This November, progressives have to choose between the man and the movement. They have to choose between a party that will never become a vehicle for building the left (indeed, that already sets the left against itself) and a movement that has already given progressivism a new life in many cities, most especially our own, and without which no progressive American future can even be sketched.

This is really that hard a choice?

If the strategic rationales for the Nader campaign are ultimately spurious, there remains the claim from countless Nader supporters that they — presumably unlike anyone else — are voting their conscience. The assumption here is that you betray your conscience by settling for less than a candidate who champions and personifies your ideals. But I would think (at least, I would hope) you just as surely betray your conscience if the consequence of your vote is to impose avoidable hardship on others more vulnerable than you. Yet I get the sense from many Nader die-hards that since the intent of their vote is pure, the effect of their vote is really of little or no matter.

So let’s look at just one utterly predictable consequence of voting for Nader over Gore, at least in states that are hanging in the balance on election day (most likely not our own), and see if it withstands this consequence-based conscience test. During the 12 long years of the Reagan and Pappy Bush presidencies, there was a single begrudging raise in the minimum wage. Since Clinton has become president, there’s been one (along with significant increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit) and he is currently trying to pry one more from the Republican Congress. Al Gore is clearly committed to a hike in the minimum wage; George W. Bush is just as clearly opposed. In fact, he’s opposed to the entire idea of a federal minimum wage, preferring a system where states get to set their own. (In Bush’s Texas, in the year 2000, agricultural workers — one group of workers who are exempted from the federal minimum wage — make a breathtaking $3.35 an hour.)

Ralph Nader is for a federal living wage (that is, an hourly wage of about $8.50 with health benefits), as am I — but his support, even augmented by mine, doesn’t put this proposal within three light-years of enactment. What is on the agenda in America is merely raising the minimum wage, and that will only happen during the next four years if Al Gore becomes president next Tuesday.  

So imagine you are a swing-state voter talking to a nonunion janitor making the legal minimum in one of the 40 or so states whose government has no interest in setting a state minimum wage that’s higher than the feds’. (There are up to half a million nonunion janitors in these low-wage states, and surveys of this work force have shown that the janitor you’re talking to is most likely an immigrant or African-American woman with children.) Tell her that you’re sorry she’s going to have to work for at least the next four years without a raise, but that it’s more important to build a “new progressive coalition” (even though a successful Nader candidacy will have precisely the opposite effect), or that you’re tired of voting for a candidate who favors only a fraction of what you think we really need, and who will deliver on even less. Tell her you’ll feel better voting for a candidate you agree with on everything.

If you can look at her and tell her that with a clear conscience — then, yes, you should vote for Ralph Nader. And shame on you.

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