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.
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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 alone.
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 difference?
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 affirmative
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 spectacular 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
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 live here.
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."