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 Party.

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.

Pete Karman
Rockfall, Connecticut

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 support him.

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 Bleifuss implies.

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.

Jason Dawsey

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.




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