Why Nader? Why Not?
BY PATRICK MAZZA
With Democrats and Republicans looking more alike with each passing election, a growing number of Americans are looking elsewhere for leadership. Voters from across the political spectrum see the two-party system as fatally flawed, morally bankrupt and driven by monied interests. In disgust, in desperation, many Americans are willing to "throw away" their vote by supporting candidates with no chance of winning.
Across the country, the disaffected are looking to third parties for something to believe in, someone to represent them. In South Carolina, the Reform Party, the Libertarian Party, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, and the Patriot Party have ballot status. All of them lean to the right.
In other parts of the country, the left has been serious about organizing an alternative to the status quo. One of the more visible campaigns has been Ralph Nader's bid for the presidency. To date, he is on the ballot in nine states; some 35 more are collecting signatures.
Nader will not appear on the ballot in South Carolina. But his campaign raises issues we would do well to consider. It is time to take a hard look at where we are going, and how best to get there. Click here for a closer look at the 3rd Party Players
Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy is often dismissed by the argument that support for third parties is "throwing away your vote." But the growing convergence of the two major parties offers powerful evidence that to vote in the mainstream this year is a reckless waste of progressive power.
While there are differences between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, they are more alike than they are different, and in ways that bode ill for the future of democracy. They share fundamentally the same world view on the key issue of our time: globalization. The world is becoming a seamless marketplace, and global corporations are the lead actors in the play.
In fact, Clinton has served the process in a way no Republican could. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a president from the ostensible party of working people and the environment could gain passage of global trade agreements that undermine both.
It is unlikely that George Bush could have peeled off enough Democratic members of Congress to win support of GATT and NAFTA. Clinton did just that, lobbying for these treaties with a vigor virtually unmatched in any other legislative campaign of his presidency.
The result is the increasing consolidation of a global, corporate oligarchy that aims to strip localities, regions and nations of any power to independently guide their own future. We will have to defend our environmental and social standards before world bodies constituted by the corporate powers.
The race to the bottom has just begun. Ironically, our rights to democratically control our own lives would probably be in much better shape if George Bush had been reelected.
The "lesser of evils" defense
This points up a crucial dynamic little acknowledged by advocates of "lesser of two evils" voting: It is more possible for progressives to organize resistance against Republicans than Democrats. This is why, even if a Democrat is more resonant with progressive positions than is a Republican, it still should not mean automatic support. A Democrat can make progressive noises during a campaign, then cut the ground out from under progressives once elected, having co-opted and destroyed any possibility for a coherent opposition. This is very much what Clinton has done, on issue after issue.
In the Northwest, where ancient forests were protected by a court injunction when Clinton came into office, Clinton's forest plan re-opened at least half to logging. In the process, a strong regional forest movement was weakened and split. Clinton later signed the "salvage" logging rider, and his later apologies have not been backed by sufficient action. Clinton has allowed acre of acre of ancient and native forest to be clearcut without exerting his legal powers to cancel bad timber sales.
On social policy, Clinton has also surrendered vital ground to the right, endorsing punitive welfare reform measures. Only the degree to which the poor will be punished distinguishes him from Republicans. Meanwhile, the military budget remains at Cold War levels while a concerted program for rebuilding inner cities and lower-income communities is not even on the table.
Affirmative action in education, hiring, contracting and political representation has represented a successful social investment program, since the 1960s creating an African-American middle class. While conservative courts lay waste to these efforts, the Clinton Administration has envisioned no replacement.
Even the modest social investments Clinton proposed during the 1992 campaign were quickly canceled due to pressure from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Clinton later reassured financial markets by reappointing free market mystic Greenspan for another term
Meanwhile, Clinton's urban policy is largely indistinguishable from the Republicans': Solve crime with more cops and more prisons. Keep crack penalties which affect mostly people of color 100 times higher than cocaine penalties, which primarily hit whites.
If you liked Ike
Clinton's great social policy promise of 1992, universal health care, devolved into Hillary's bureaucratic monstrosity which revealed the Clintons corporate tendencies. Instead of straight-up single-payer, which would have put for-profit private insurers out of the business, the Clintons opted for health care alliances, which still would have purchased coverage from private companies.
But the alliances would have been too large for any but the five largest companies to serve. Those companies supported the plan, but the smaller companies in rational self-interest mounted a successful opposition. Meanwhile, progressive forces that would have rallied behind single-payer were put off by the alliances. The Clinton gamble, that the five giants would have enough clout to put the health plan over the top, failed. And still we are uncovered!
Clinton's policies, foreign and domestic, have largely been a continuation of the Reagan-Bush years with a slightly more human face. His major international priority is taking down trade barriers. On the home front, it is deficit reduction and strong financial markets. Clinton is, in essence, an Eisenhower Republican.
Given his record, progressives who are still considering holding their nose and voting for Clinton might ask themselves why. The reality is that a progressive vote for Clinton, after all he has done, could sign the death warrant of any serious progressive movement in politics for years to come.
Nobody has put the case any clearer than Nader supporter Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Texas Observer and an organizer of the Alliance, a progressive populist networking effort. "Both parties belong to the big corporations," Dugger said, "and voting for either one, we abet those corporations as they establish a new worldwide aristocracy of wealth and power. Now to submit to that when we still have a fighting chance of stopping it is, in my opinion, unethical. We must make a break. We must go back to our generic standing as free persons and start a new country in this one. We cannot do that by voting again for Clinton."
The tide is moving against progressives, against democracy, and toward corporate rule. A Clinton vs. a Dole might shave off some of the harsher edges, but the fundamental direction is the same. Any defense Clinton might offer for the remnants of the New Deal and Great Society still leaves our damaged democracy wide open to corporate attack.
Nader effectively summarized the bleak political situation in his July 8 cover story in The Nation . "The two-party duopoly essentially one corporate party with two heads called Republican and Democratic, each wearing different makeup presents the citizenry every four years with a choice between the Bad and the Worse. And every four years, both the Bad and the Worse get worse because there is no counterpull to the corporate right-wing pull."
Progressives have only one option, to set up a new magnetic pole in U.S. politics. The only alternative that does not sell out completely to corporate interests is construction of a progressive, grassroots force that relies more on people-power than money-power. The Nader campaign is the best prospect on the horizon for accomplishing that task.
In 42 states, the Nader candidacy has catalyzed grassroots efforts to place him on the ballot. In a dozen states, including the entire Pacific Coast, that has already been accomplished, and by election day Nader's name will likely appear on at least 30 state ballots.
In some states, Nader is on as an independent, in others as the Green Party candidate. In Oregon, Nader is running on the ticket of the Pacific Party, Oregon's Green Party affiliate. The campaign has already boosted Green Party organizing around the United States. Overall, it promises to build coalitions among diverse constituencies, to create new relationships and communications networks, and to develop a citizen army with new skills and experience in the practice of grassroots democracy.
The arguments against
But the Nader candidacy does have its critics among progressives. They tend to focus on two arguments.
The first and perhaps most serious is that a focus on the presidential election will leave behind no enduring organization. Some alternative politics organizers, particularly in the New Party, assert the most solid strategy starts at the local election level and works upwards.
The second argument is that Nader does not plan to raise funds or undertake a full campaign schedule. Alexander Cockburn, a Nader supporter, has taken Nader to task for his "zombie candidacy".
The last national, progressive third-party presidential campaign, Barry Commoner's Citizens Party bid in 1980, offers some support for the first argument. Before the election, the party's internal debate was precisely over whether to focus on a big name national campaign or on local, grassroots organizing. The party opted to go national with Commoner. He drew less than a million votes, and the Citizens Party faded into history.
Nader's approach, more zen than zombie, short-circuits the national-local dichotomy. It is an exercise in paradox, for while it focuses on a national effort, the only way it will be successful is if it is strong at the local level. As Nader wrote in The Nation, "My goal is to encourage a campaign dependent on self-reliant citizen muscle at the grassroots, not some guy on a horse."
The campaign will be constituted of decentralized efforts undertaken by grassroots initiative. Those are the kind of organizations likely to endure past election day to run future local, state and national races. Thus the two strongest arguments against the Nader candidacy tend to cancel each other out.
The toolbox for democracy
For progressives, one intriguing aspect of the Nader campaign is its possibilities for drawing mainstream support. The centerpiece of Nader's campaign, the "Toolbox for Democracy" are common-sense ideas that transcend left-right distinctions. In Nader's words, they create "the facilities for community intelligence needed to make democracy a daily reality." Among them are:
A binding none-of-the-above voting option, which would automatically trigger a new election.
Public campaign financing through well-publicized taxpayer checkoffs, allowing contributions of up to $100, far higher than the $1-3 on the current checkoff.
Easier voter registration and ballot access rules.
12-year term limitation.
A nonbinding national referendum procedure.
Binding initiative, referendum and recall authority in all states.
A guaranteed citizen right to sue the federal government.
Creation of a national taxpayer advocacy group funded by a tax check-off.
Effective worker control over corporations, which they already largely own through their $3 trillion plus in pension funds.
Restoration of public control over public assets such as the airwaves and public lands.
Nader's platform gets down into the guts of the system and begins to repair American democracy by eliminating chokepoints used by the corporate elite. It gives people tools to balance the concentrated power of corporations.
Driving the wedge
No doubt as the campaign develops, mainstream Democrats will make their own use of social, "wedge" issues as they try to split the natural progressive coalition.
Many women will be inclined to support Clinton out of fear that Dole would destroy reproductive freedom. Gays will perhaps be reminded of Nader's comment that he does not engage in "gonadal politics," even though his point was staying on message with the Toolbox for Democracy.
It is unlikely, however, that even Dole can dislodge rights of choice supported by an overwhelming majority. And Clinton's support of the bill barring recognition of single-sex marriages at the federal level, and of the "don't ask-don't tell" policy for the military, should indicate the depth of his commitment to gay rights.
As with the entire range of citizen freedoms, it is powerful, well-organized grassroots movements that are the real guarantor of rights for women and gays. And these movements will grow best in the fertile soil of a flourishing progressive movement.
Victory, not symbolism
The Nader campaign is no symbolic effort. It is a movement to begin restoring balance to U.S. politics. Even a relatively small percentage, say 5 10 percent in the Western states that are an increasingly vital turf for Democratic Party electoral geography, can have an important effect in coming years.
Clinton consultant Dick Morris has urged the president to set himself on a pinnacle "triangulated" equidistant from the ends of the political spectrum. A strong vote for Nader would force a reelected Clinton to extend his triangulation scope to progressives.
In any case, the progressive strain in U.S. politics must develop its own distinctive voice, rather than being diluted in Democratic Party mush.
Developing their own third party, progressives can bring their own agenda to the foreground. Winning office isn't everything in politics, as Ross Perot proved in 1992. Bringing a focus to the budget deficit, he framed the overall debate of the coming four years.
In earlier times, third parties brought to the fore ideas later enacted by the two major parties: utility regulation, direct election of senators, antitrust laws, women's right to vote, unemployment insurance, workplace health and safety regulation, workers comp and social security. Today we need such a force to plant the seeds for limitations of corporate power, transformation to an ecologically sustainable economy, and rebuilding communities in our fractured land.
In the longer term, outright Green-Progressive victory is a solid prospect. Again, nobody has said it better than Dugger. "The decisive likelihood is that Nader's candidacy will contribute to the construction of a national populist/progressive people's movement that will gather force for four or eight years and if the Democrats continue selling us out to the corporations metamorphose and then replace the Democratic Party...not a third one, but the new, major, American party."
As Nader put it when he accepted the California Green Party nomination in July, "What of the future for the children nearly 25 percent of whom live in poverty in our country and future generations to come? What will they think of our generation if we do not launch the green waves and breezes of a resurgent democracy across this land?"
Patrick Mazza is a member of the Oregon Nader '96 Steering Committee.
The tide is moving against progressives, against democracy, and toward corporate rule.
Clinton has surrendered vital ground to the right, endorsing punitive welfare reform. Only the degree to which the poor will be punished distinguishes him from Republicans. Meanwhile, the military budget remains at Cold War levels while a concerted program for rebuilding inner cities and lower-income communities is not even on the table.