For Pete's Sake
My former colleague Joel Bleifuss' vituperative attacks on Ralph
Nader and the Green Party seem based on a fantasy about the Democratic
Bleifuss posits that the Democrats are a functioning polity where,
in his words, "the majority of African-Americans, Latinos, trade
unionists, feminists, environmentalists, and gays and lesbians practice
politics." In fact, there's little place to practice politics in
the Democratic Party because it was long ago transformed into a
money- and vote-cadging machine run behind closed doors by professional
operatives. The truth is that when the groups named above want something
politically, there is no Democratic "there" to go to. They have
to buttonhole individual Democratic politicians.
Bleifuss' advice that Nader should have run in the Democratic primaries
is ludicrous on several counts. Modern primaries are configured
not to contest political differences, but to eliminate the candidates
with the thinnest checkbooks. Had Nader taken part in the primaries,
he would have been able to bring his message only to a tiny audience
of activist party regulars at enormous cost. And, if he had even
modest success at this, he would have faced exactly the same charges
of being a "spoiler" who was too extreme to win and therefore only
hurting Al Gore's chances. In other words, Bleifuss likely would
have been heaping the same abuse on Nader, only a year earlier.
My central Connecticut chapter of the Green Party, covering the
small cities of Middletown and Meriden, has consistently, even after
the election, had more people attending its meetings than the Democratic
or Republican town committees of the far larger cities of New Haven
and Hartford. The Green Party has permanent walk-in storefront service
centers in those cities, or exactly two more than the major parties.
Our state computer network buzzes with alerts about joining actions
with the same groups that Bleifuss says practice their politics
with the Democrats. The Democrats' site is a screen saver by comparison.
Our local chapter was happy to get past the election because our
plate is brimming with issues and alliances.
No Pie in My Sky
As a Nader voter, I could not help but respond to Joel Bleifuss'
latest piece about the Nader/LaDuke campaign and its complicity
in the "defeat" of Al Gore. As a graduate student in history at
the University of Chicago, I suspect I fall in Bleifuss' depiction
of the Nader camp as "largely white, middle-class, youthful," but
I take issue with his characterization of our vote as one based
on pie-in-the sky quasi-religious convictions.
Bleifuss (though I agree with him on many issues) has assumed an
intellectual-political posture that has been all too frequent on
the left this election year: the role of the realpolitiker
who has to pull the utopians into line, or at least remind them
of the implications of their dreamy, potentially dangerous ideas.
Along with Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin, Gloria Steinem, James Weinstein
and an array of Democratic politicians and activists, Bleifuss chides
Nader as a semi-fanatical crusader whose emphasis on moral purity
and integrity blinds him to the realities of our two-party political
system as much as it lowers the veil over the eyes of those who
Those of us who voted for Nader may not always agree with how he
characterizes the Republican and Democratic parties. After all,
the campaign largely sponsored an atmosphere of intellectual nonconformity
and enthusiasm. That enthusiasm does not and did not translate into
the righteous or self-righteous temperament of a sect or cult, as
Despite the bitter polemics of Bleifuss and others, those of us
on the left who voted for Nader will move forward. We hope to democratize
our republic, constituting a form of democratic practice that could
bring about real progressive social transformation. Along with those
like Bleifuss who insist on the viability of progressive elements
of the Democratic Party (and I think he's right there), we who supported
the Greens look forward to asking bolder questions of our politicians
and the American public and posing bolder solutions.
Joel Bleifuss replies: Like Ralph Nader, Pete Karman conflates
the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Leadership
Council with local Democratic Party organizations. Nader makes this
mistake because he has grown Beltway blinders, having spent most
of his life in Washington, a town with two types of Democratic parties––the
DLC-dominated DNC or a chronically corrupt and inept D.C. Democratic
Party organization. In central Connecticut, Karman has no such excuse.
But I am glad to read, at last, a Nader supporter who tries to
explain why his candidate didn't run in the Democratic Primary.
Karman says Nader would have been marginalized due to his "thin
checkbook." Sorry, that doesn't add up. In 1988, Jesse Jackson shook
up the Democratic Party and energized progressives with a campaign
fueled not by money, but by the promise of a "real progressive social
transformation," as Jason Dawsey puts it. Unfortunately, Jackson
was temperamentally unsuited for building a mass democratic organization.
And Nader appears to be so, too.
If the Green Party in central Connecticut is as vibrant and the
Democratic Party as moribund as Karman suggests, then it stands
to reason that Green Party activists could join the local Democratic
Party chapter and exert enormous influence. To do so would not be
a sellout of principle, but a strategic, tactical maneuver. Of course
to do so would entail working with people––the Democrats––who are
not as evolved and enlightened. It would also involve compromise
of principle. And for many on the left, leaving their absolute moral
universe is uncomfortable.
Over the past several months, a number of readers have canceled
their subscriptions because of our editorial stand opposing Ralph
Nader's third-party strategy. Many were offended by my reference
to the quasi-religious role Nader's candidacy fills. In the September
18 issue, I wrote, "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."
To expand on that, America was first settled by Puritans. That
severe form of Protestantism, with its emphasis on salvation being
dependent on individual actions, still pervades the culture in a
secular form, affecting all Americans whatever their religion. This
has a positive side. Individual deeds do matter. Acting on principle
is how people change the world. Righteous indignation at injustice
is the fuel of social change. On the other hand, polticially righteous,
highly principled people sometimes shy away from political compromise.
Some have trouble respecting differences of opinion. They feel uncomfortable,
sometimes outraged, seeing their assumptions challenged. Hence this
propensity to vote for feel-good candidates and cancel subscriptions.