One recent evening in Minneapolis, two couples, longtime
friends and Democratic Farm Labor Party activists, argued passionately
over Gore and Nader. To vote for Nader was an exercise in self-indulgence,
said one. The Democrats must be taught a lesson, said the other.
The discussion ended when the Nader partisans got up in the middle
of dinner and left the house. The Gore supporters fear the friendship
has been irreparably damaged.
That is just one example of the strong feelings the
Nader campaign has aroused. If the volume of mail we've received
at In These Times is any indication, this issue has
divided the left like no other. By and large, the debate is over
tactics, not policy. On almost all issues, Ralph Nader holds a better
position than Al Gore. Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone acknowledged
this during a recent interview on Minnesota Public Radio. "I'm not
going to be attacking Ralph Nader, because I agree with him on many
of the issues," Wellstone said. But he went on to explain that he
plans to vote for Gore because too many votes for Nader could throw
the election to Bush, who, as Wellstone puts it, "wants to repeal
the 20th century."
Nader supporters point to their candidate's superior
position on the issues and maintain that the differences between
Gore and Bush are not large enough to justify continued fidelity
to the Democratic ticket. When asked on Meet The Press
if he was worried about his candidacy throwing the election to Bush,
Nader replied: "Not at all. I mean, you're dealing with Democratic
do-littles and Republican do-nothings. And that's just not enough
for the American people."
Nader's absolutist argument strikes a chord with many.
We on the left have always had a hard time distinguishing between
compromising our beliefs (maintaining personal integrity) and engaging
in political compromise (participating in the give-and-take of civil
society). This sectarianism, though understandable, is something
we must outgrow.
As far as I can make out, the pro-Nader argument goes
something like this: Bush may be worse than Gore, but it is time
to take a stand against the Democrats' rightward drift and teach
them a lesson. If in the short run under President Bush things are
worse, in the long run they will get better. After all, if Gore
loses, we won't have Lieberman waiting in the wings eight years
from now, and the Democratic Party might return to its roots. Or,
if the Democrats go down in flames because of the Nader campaign,
out of the ashes will rise a bright and shining Green Party to reckon
with. Unfortunately, too often things don't get worse before they
get better - they just get worse and worse.
Remember 1980, when progressive voters also argued
that there was no difference between the Democratic and Republican
candidates and that it was time to send a message to the powers
that be. Those who "voted their conscience" and cast ballots for
John Anderson or Barry Commoner, instead of Jimmy Carter, may have
felt better, but those noble gestures were not much help during
the Reagan administration for the air traffic controllers whose
union was busted, the poor who found their access to legal aid curtailed,
and the tens of thousands of people who died in the covert wars
in Central America.
In addition to real people really suffering, during
12 years of Reagan and Bush pĆre, national political debate shifted
to the right, as did the Democrats under the influence of the Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC). As a result, you had Democratic President
Clinton championing a ham-fisted welfare reform package that aimed
not to end welfare as we know it, but to defend his right flank
in the 1996 election. Clinton could get away with that because there
was no political organization on the left to challenge him.
Centrist Democrats have the DLC to support their caucus
in Congress, the New Democrat Coalition. Left-leaning Democrats
lack their own version of the DLC. Consequently, members of the
Congressional Progressive Caucus don't have the institutional infrastructure
to put their ideas and policies into the public arena. (The Institute
for Policy Studies has tried to build public support for the Progressive
Caucus' Fairness Agenda, but the funding community, upon which we
all depend, has shied away.)
In his speech at Arianna Huffington's "Shadow Convention"
in Los Angeles, Wellstone spoke of the need to build an organization
that could provide the political muscle the left now lacks, fueled
by people rather than corporate dollars - in other words, a progressive
answer to the DLC. "Regardless of what point you take vis-ł-vis
the vice president or Ralph Nader," Wellstone said, "when this is
over I believe we need to build an independent political force -
I didn't say third party - some kind of vehicle whereby we put forward
the ideas, we put forward the policies, we recruit people to run
for office, and we back them up with people who know how to manage
campaigns. I'm tired of waiting."
Amen. That's the long-term tack to take. But first
we have to get through November, remembering, I hope, that while
the Democrats are far from perfect, there is a difference between
them and the Republicans. That difference makes a difference, maybe
not to the well-being of middle-class Nader supporters, but certainly
to those people whose quality of life depends on federal programs.