Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why Not Nader?

The Nader campaign has lately taken to castigating prominent liberals, the kind who should know better, for agreeing with Nader on the Iraq War, health care, Middle East policy and so on while supporting Barack Obama or, should it come to that, even Hillary Clinton. In a recent email, they specifically name Eric Alterman, Medea Benjamin, David Corn, Ariana Huffington, Robert Kuttner, Victor Navasky, Harold Meyerson, Morton Mintz, Wes Boyd, John Nichols, Katha Pollitt, Jesse Jackson, Matthew Rothschild, Bernie Sanders, Micah Sifry, Robert McChesney, James Fallows, Markos Moulitsas and Katrina vanden Heuvel. It is hardly surprising that some of the named individuals – for example, the ones associated with America’s flagship “progressive” journals, The Nation and The Progressive – are, as the email says, “cowardly” and “shameful.” They’ve been that way for years. Eric Alterman is an extreme case – in 2000 he supported Al Gore as vehemently as Gloria Steinem and Carl Pope – and he is adept at finding ways to position himself as a “liberal” while endorsing positions barely to the left of the Clintons. Jesse Jackson is also no stranger to the cowardly and shameful. Throughout the 80s, he organized and led a genuinely progressive, multi-racial movement, the Rainbow Coalition, that, after the 1988 primary season, he dissolved back into the bowels of the Democratic Party, where he himself has been happily ensconced ever since. However some of the people the Nader campaign castigates are more surprising: Robert McChesney, for example, and Medea Benjamin. What’s up with them?

I’d feel more comfortable with the Nader campaign’s castigations if, as in 2000, Nader was running to help build a “third” party, the Greens; and if, unlike in 2000, he endorsed a “safe states” strategy that wouldn’t increase the likelihood that a doddering and irascible Bush Three might actually become President – should the Democrats succeed again in finding a way to lose. To be sure, Nader has his reasons. The Green Party has been around for a long time and seems to be going nowhere. Why bother to run for its nomination? Also, if the idea is to impel Obama leftward, running only in safe states – states sure to fall into either the Democratic or Republican camp – diminishes the pressure on him. But these reasons are not compelling.

Contrary to what the Nader campaign suggests, our world is no longer relevantly like nineteenth century America. Back then, dissident third parties could grow strong regionally and sweep their ideas into the political mainstream. In the twenty-first century, institutional obstacles (especially to ballot access), new technologies and media concentration make duopolistic electoral contests more difficult to influence than they used to be. Elections do focus peoples’ minds on politics; therefore no sensible political organization can afford to ignore them. But it is far from clear that the best way to seize the opportunities they present is to run candidates in independent or third party ventures.

There are also two special problems facing a Nader campaign this year. First, the liberals, not just the ones the Nader campaign deems shameful, but the hordes of them to Alterman’s and Jackson’s right, have had it in for Nader since 2000. They’re wrong of course: Nader didn’t spoil Gore’s chances the way the Clintons are now spoiling Obama’s. Gore did that to himself. But, no matter: it’s what they believe that counts. “Liberals” mobilized against Nader in 2000; in 2008, if he were somehow to break free from marginality (as he did not in 2004), they’d mobilize all the more and with greater vehemence. The other factor is even more disabling: it is that Obama, because he is a hundredfold more charismatic than Gore or Kerry, draws enthusiasts from precisely those sectors of the population that an independent left-wing campaign needs – from the young (who propelled Nader on in 2000) and from African Americans (where he never got much traction). Electoral campaigns can be educational, and these constituencies do need to be “educated.” But it is far from obvious that the way to educate them is to run a candidate against the one they’re enthusiastically determined to elect.

Still, given that Nader is in the mix, I imagine I will continue to support his campaign financially, and perhaps even to vote for him. I cannot imagine bringing myself to vote for Hillary Clinton. For reasons I’ve explained countless times in these postings, Obama is a (slightly) different story. Because I live in a “safe” state, I will probably feel, when November comes around, that I won’t have to vote for Obama, though I would if I had to. But I’m not entirely comfortable with this: it’s only luck that enables me to avoid voting for the least bad neo-liberal imperialist in the running. Since not voting for Obama will serve no other purpose than avoiding doing something personally distasteful, it seems self-indulgent to take advantage of the situation. But I probably will take advantage of it, nevertheless. Does that mean that I would vote for Nader again? Not necessarily. If the Greens nominate Cynthia McKinney or, better yet, someone a little less nutty and to her left, I might vote for the Green candidate instead – for the sake of the party building Nader has forsaken.

It is worth pointing out, though, that I still wouldn’t be voting my “conscience,” as the Nader campaign urges everyone to do. Nader (and Green) politics is up-dated New Deal politics – pro-worker and anti-corporate, but not anti-capitalist. If the idea is to vote one’s dreams, it is relevant that some of us have more radical dreams than the Nader campaign or the Green Party. Still what they promote is better by far than what an Obama presidency will bring, even if all the (audacious) hopes some liberals have for it come true. Therefore, if we could get from here to there by voting for Nader or McKinney or whoever else the Green Party nominates, it would be wonderful. But so long as we don’t have what other “democracies” have – proportional representation or at least run-off elections (or their functional equivalents), easy ballot access and real public financing of electoral campaigns – voting for the better, when the better is not a Democrat, is more often than not a non-starter. For Nader or Green politics to prevail or even to gain significant influence, social movements, not elections, are key.

Elections can be helpful, of course, in some circumstances – for building organizations and for promoting marginalized ideas. Whatever liberals think, those circumstances existed in 2000. Nader owes no one any apologies for that; it was the Democrats, not Ralph Nader, who loosed Dick Cheney and George Bush upon us. I’m much less sure that the conditions are propitious now. This is emphatically not a reason to support Obama uncritically, the way so many liberals now do. But it may be a reason to vote for him, where there is no better way to vote against McCain. It may also be a reason not to expend much energy or to dissipate scarce resources on someone running against him, even if it is someone whose politics are much better. No doubt, many liberals (including most of the individuals the Nader campaign has named) have come to this conclusion out of cowardice; no doubt their stance is shameful. But there are other ways to arrive at the same conclusion, and it is not at all a sure thing that the conclusion is wrong.

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