Enough is enough. The more pieces I read like Robert W. McChesney's
brief for voting for Ralph Nader, the more I despair for any real
self-reflection among progressives ("Why
I'm Voting for Ralph," August 21). I don't fault Nader. He plays
an essential role in American politics. But both the candidate and
his strategy should be scrutinized, not converted into a gauzy image
of a beacon of hope. The essential flaw of progressive politics
in this country has always been that when we haven't done our homework,
we look for someone to take the exam for us. We're doing it again.
I am a Lincoln Steffens progressive. I believe that the essential
task of progressives in America is not to elect extraordinary people,
but to find extraordinary ways to hold the average politician accountable
to ordinary citizens. Steffens' main theme was that "good government,"
by which the progressives of his era meant government by better
politicians (usually by politicians from a better class), failed
time and again. Instead, Steffens advocated "representative government,"
government that had to answer to the public, regardless of who held
The difference, according to Steffens, lay in politics. Walter
L. Fischer of Chicago's Municipal Voters League told Steffens how
the League could take Chicago wards that had voted Republican in
one election and turn them out for a Democrat in the next, and then
turn back to the Republicans. Fischer, and the other leaders of
the League, were politicians. Steffens describes in his autobiography
how "in Fisher's office I saw him, a reform boss, perform exactly
like a regular political boss, browbeat and control a various lot
of (honest and dishonest) politicians, and then send them out, watched
and controlled, to represent what they all knew was in the best
interest of the whole people of Chicago. ... It was a long, slow,
hard task; it lasted years, ten or twelve, and when I wrote it,
I described this as an example of a reform that was working."
Ralph Nader's entire career is about anti-politics. I have worked
on issues alongside Nader for close to 30 years. He is a superb,
fabulous maverick. He is as independent as they come--and part of
his independence is his unwillingness to be held accountable to
an organization or party. He is a moralist, and moralists do not
build political parties, or even democratic institutions. They stand
outside them, and speak truth to their inevitable flaws.
Compare what we observe of Nader with what Steffens tells us of
how Bob LaFollette took over the Republican Party in Wisconsin.
LaFollette's "method, in brief, was to go around to towns and crossroads,
make long, carefully stated speeches of fact, and appealing to idealism
of patriotism, watch the audience for faces, mostly young faces
which he though showed inspiration."
So far, so good. Nader is certainly doing the 21st century equivalent.
But then LaFollette did precisely what Nader has always declined
to do, and still declines to do--he used this idealism to build
an institution, to take control of a major party. "These he invited
to come to him afterward; he showed them what the job was, asked
them if they would do their part in their district; and so he built
up an organized following to him so responsive that it was called
a machine. As it was--a powerful political machine which came to
control the Republican Party in Wisconsin."
But while LaFollette built the machine, he was also accountable
to it. Everyone who has worked with Nader knows that he is not a
man with the slightest inclination to build a democratic institution.
Every organization he has built is run from the top. He is, simply,
not an organization man. Prophets rarely are.
Why else would Nader, while campaigning as a Green Party candidate,
and claiming that the major fallout of his efforts will be to strengthen
that party, refuse to join it? Why doesn't he see the conflict between
his claim that he is building the Green Party as an institution
and his simultaneous claim that his candidacy will invigorate the
electoral chances of congressional Democrats? One or the other of
these two statements may be true, but they cannot coexist--except
that to Nader the Green Party is his candidacy, not the institution
that supports that candidacy. Nor is Nader in search of a party
to represent. If we had a major party that reflected his values,
I suspect he would not offer to serve it by running for president.
He has, in fact, no serious desire to be president.
Nader is running as a Green Party candidate in the same fashion
that he has campaigned tirelessly for auto safety or against undemocratic
trade accords--as a maverick. He is seeking leverage on the political
process. He admits this. He tells audiences that if he succeeds
in getting enough votes to defeat Al Gore, the Democrats will "pay
more attention" to their progressive wing. They will no longer be
taken for granted. The Democrats' "cold shower" will be good for
them--and that is good enough for Nader. This raises the question
of whether it will be good for us.
By campaigning for leverage, Nader is settling for too little.
We need not just leverage. We need power. Leverage is the ability
to influence the path a polity takes to an objective. Power is the
capacity to decide the objective. Obtaining power will require a
long struggle, just as it took the Municipal Voters League in Chicago.
It will require ideas. It will also require politics. It will require
both leaders and an organized constituency to which those leaders
are held accountable. And, given the enormous institutional, cultural
and financial opposition we will face, we will need to be intelligent,
strategic and disciplined.
The reaction of too many progressives to the Nader candidacy lacks
all three of these qualities. McChesney and others argue that if
we support Gore, then four years from now we will be faced with
the same or, in their views, an even more dismal choice. However,
our opponents, in the event that Gore is elected, will not take
a four-year hiatus and reconsider their options in the summer of
2004. In fact, even if they elect George Bush, they will go to work
immediately rebuilding their popular base, strengthening their hold
on the Republican Party, further infiltrating the Democrats, finding
even more ways to use money as a substitute for popular will in
the democratic process, and completing their takeover of popular
culture. Politics is a full-time process. The quadrennial general
elections are harvest time. But if we haven't planted, weeded and
irrigated, we will not garner much when we go out to reap.
The obvious question is: Why didn't Nader run as a Democrat? (He
did once, of course, and did very badly. But he did equally badly
the first time he ran as a Green four years ago.) McChesney argues
that this route is not plausible, because of "the necessity for
obscenely massive campaign war chests; the tight noose of the corporate
news media with their pathetic range of legitimate debate; and the
requirement of progressives to show their party loyalty."
These are indeed substantial obstacles. But they apply, with equal
or greater validity, to the Green Party. It too is disadvantaged
by lack of money, by a monopoly media, by old party loyalties. Indeed,
it is not clear that either Nader or McChesney envisage that the
Greens will ever be able to win the presidency, precisely because
the obstacles the Greens face are even greater than those that prevent
a progressive from winning the Democratic nomination.
Nader talks vociferously of how big money has bought up the two
major parties. But it is candidates who control parties, not the
other way around. Imagine if Nader had spent four years building
a base among Democrats, showing up at Jackson Day dinners, campaigning
for aldermen and suburban state legislators, raising money in small-donor
fundraisers for the state party in Iowa and New Hampshire. (That
you probably can't imagine Nader doing these things is precisely
my point.) Then Gore and Bradley would have gone into their primary
battle facing a third candidate, with a real organization inside
the party--one who articulated a very different vision, for example,
of how international agreements might be used to make multinational
corporations democratically accountable.
No, Nader (or more plausibly a Paul Wellstone) would probably not
have won the nomination. But neither is Nader going to be elected
president by running as a Green. And if he, and we, had spent the
past four years on an effort inside the Democratic Party, we would
be much closer today to a meaningful instrument honed to stand up
to the power of big money. (This is true whether Nader manages to
elect George Bush or not. His Green Party candidacy does nothing
to strengthen progressive forces within the party.)
McChesney argues that "the only way to jolt life into this system
is from the outside." I challenge him to cite a single piece of
historical evidence to support this claim. The Christian right made
its mark on the Republican Party from the inside. The CIO in the
'30s, the civil rights movement in the '60s, McGovern in the '70s
did the same with the Democrats. The Populists squandered their
opportunity to shape public policy for 20 years until they came
back inside the Democratic Party. In that interval corporations
became people in the eyes of the courts. The third party route in
our history has typically been been a way station on the road to
irrelevancy--the Progressives and the Dixiecrats in 1948, John Anderson
and Barry Commoner in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.
Indeed, it is hard to tell, but I almost suspect that the reason
so many are entranced by the third party path and the Nader candidacy
is that they don't want to spend four years doing all that mucky
politics inside the system. My own organization, the Sierra Club,
has found much less enthusiasm among our volunteers for the year-in,
year-out tedium of precinct organizing and caucus-going than for
periodic crusades. There is a long "white gloves" tradition among
American progressives. An old testament prophet like Nader has strong
appeal to that tradition.
That doesn't make his candidacy either strategic or wise.
Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
Now read Robert W. McChensey's response, "Ralph's