To the Spoilers the Victory?

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

The Editors

THE REPUBLICAN AND Democratic conventions came and went, with meticulous stage-management inside and riot police and pepper spray for those outside-and more or less the reverse at the sideshow convention(s) of the Reform Party.  Now the so-called “real” election season begins, with the outcome of the ever-so-exciting Bush-Gore presidential race to be decided (so the pollsters tell us) by whether as much as half the eligible voters care enough to turn up.

This time around, however, there is another blip on the screen that the media cannot quite ignore: the Green Party’s Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke campaign.  Too big to just ignore, too serious to simply ridicule, the Nader alternative is attracting the two-party system’s epithet of last resort: “spoiler.” In large measure, Nader himself has offered the best refutation of this charge, when he observes that you cannot “spoil” an electoral system that is already rotted at its core.

There are some specific charges, however, that we want to examine in a bit more detail, mostly revolving around the notion that Nader “divides” the so-called progressive (meaning mainly the liberal, left-liberal and a fragment of the labor) vote and risks handing victory to the Republican hard right.  First, it may be useful to put the U.S. electoral setup into an international context in which, very broadly speaking, two recent developments are visible.

Standing on Two Legs

For decades it has been a truism on the left that U.S. politics were distinctly underdeveloped or “backward” among wealthy industrial countries in that the working class (or more narrowly, the labor movement) in this country lacked any kind of labor or social-democratic party of its own. “The bosses have two parties, it’s time working people had one,” is the way many activists have put it over the years.

U.S. distinctiveness in this regard seems to be eroding, though decidedly not in the manner many of us had hoped, in the degradation of the British Labour Party into the “New Labour” of Tony Blair, the parallel evolution of the German Social Democratic Party under Gerhard Schroeder and the French Socialist Party under Leonel Jospin.  All of these consciously pattern themselves on the Clinton-era “New Democrats” as a model to escape from institutional reliance on the trade unions.

These parties are thus well along a road of transition, from parties dependent on a pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy (“bourgeois labor parties,” Marxists have called them) toward parties of outright neoliberal capitalism, directly funded by and dependent on capital.  Whether this process should be seen as irreversible, and its implications for socialist strategy and electoral tactics, are questions of lively debate among European activists and well beyond the scope of this statement.

What is clearer is the enormous advantage this process confers on bourgeois political “stability.” Capitalist rule does not depend on any particular political setup-it can be exercised under fascism or military dictatorship, under multiparty bourgeois democracy or under a “left” government of reformist parties.  Yet recent experience would suggest that capitalist politics function most smoothly, with least threat of disruption, when there are two reliable capitalist parties, able to contest elections on the basis of the narrowest possible substantive differences.

This is the kind of political system the U.S. capitalist ruling class has enjoyed for the past 100 years, the “American Century.” It was the envy of the bourgeois world, and for good cause: This two-party setup was one big reason (to be sure, not the only one!!) why this ruling class was able to manage the extraordinary crises generated by imperialist war, massive depression, the explosion of industrial unionism, the Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South, northern Black Power, the ghetto rebellions and more.

So, why two capitalist parties?  Mainly, such an arrangement allows for the most risk-free alternation in power.  When one ruling-class party enjoys a semi-permanent monopoly-think of the Christian Democrats in Italy or in Germany, the Liberal Democrats in Japan- decades in power generate a level of corruption, arrogance and incompetence that ultimately forfeits popular and even elite support.

It then becomes necessary for the system to turn to some kind of social-democratic alternative, which may be mildly inconvenient-or if none is available, run the greater risk of a political vacuum that may be filled, less predictably, by neofascist types, or by radical, anarchist or Green forces on the left.

An additional bonus is that the presence of two capitalist, corporate-funded parties enables voters (individually and collectively) to enjoy the feeling of making a truly profound decision in each election, even as the real range of choice shrinks toward the vanishing point.

On the other hand, a political culture that enables the proliferation of parties (and proportional representation, e.g. in Germany) is too democratic by half-it encourages various sectors to organize around their own concerns, produces fractious parliaments and unstable government coalitions (think again of Italy since World War II in this context, or the Social Democratic-Green coalition in Germany in the wake of the Christian Democrats’ collapse).

The two-partyization of European politics, via the delaborization of the continent’s social-democratic parties, is one significant trend.  The other is the modest shift among voters toward the left side of the two-party choice-the elections of Clinton, Blair, Schroeder and Jospin-and the impulse toward some kind of Green alternative to the rampage of global corporate power.

What’s to Spoil

It is basically the two-party bourgeois political stability that the Nader campaign bids to “spoil.” Full disclosure: For us, the great virtue of this campaign lies not in holding out the hope of pulling the Democratic Party leftward, but rather in its potential for generating an authentic break from the Democrats, a break that we would like to become as big and deep as possible, on the part of all the forces in the “anti-globalization” resistance movement and especially of labor.

We would like to see pro-Nader and Green activists be as clear in their goals as were the Democrats in running the Gore-Lieberman ticket, an unadorned Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) team that offers no concessions to the liberal and social movement sectors of the party.  Good! Those liberal, labor and civil rights leaders who urge their constituents to sweat and bleed to get out the vote do so in the full knowledge that they’re consolidating the control of the forces whose very purpose was to push Jesse Jackson, the Rainbow and concerns of the labor movement to the party’s margins.

Gore/Lieberman’s watered-down “working families” theme must be understood in this framework.  Having shoved “free trade” down organized labor’s throat and sidetracked any hope of strengthening union organizing through labor law reform, the Democrats throw out promises (a higher minimum wage, a “universal health care” rerun, etc.) as consolation prizes.  For the Rainbow remnants, there’s one line in Gore’s speech defending affirmative action (Colin Powell did better at the Republican convention).

So what is the “spoiler” bill of particulars against Nader?  Surely not that Nader will “spoil” a serious, substantive debate on workers’ rights, environmental racism, the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration of drug users, the death penalty or the wealth gap, let alone the slow genocide of sanctions against Iraq, the criminal forty-year embargo of Cuba or the Star Wars insanity.

Everyone knows the two parties are united in wanting to make sure no such discussions occur.  The main charge is that Nader might “spoil” the choice between Bush and Gore, should his vote exceed the margin of a narrow Bush victory.

This argument is most sophisticated precisely when it is most perverse, as in the contribution by Robert Borosage in The Nation (August 21-28, 2000).  “If elected, Bush will have a majority to enact [social security privatization, school vouchers and tax cuts for the wealthy],” Borosage writes.  “Worse he’ll get a bipartisan cover from the New Democrats, the money wing of the Democratic Party.” (emphasis added)

Vote for the New Democrats to forestall their acting as Bush’s partners in crime! From here, Borosage spins out the routine fantasy of how a Gore and Democratic Congressional victory would enable liberal committee chairs to “challenge Gore’s timidity-and fight to stiffen his backbone.” (Just like Clinton’s first term?)

It is remarkable that the Nader challenge to deluded “lesser-evilism” cuts straight through the liberal-left milieu, as reflected in the debates in the pages of The Nation, where the arguments of Borosage (and the more ambivalent anti-“spoiler” fears of Katha Pollitt around what Bush will do to abortion rights) have been energetically answered by Alexander Cockburn and Barbara Ehrenreich.  The latter sums it up well:

Ah, the Supreme Court! Never mind that pro-choice Justice O’Connor was a Reagan appointee or that Clinton’s man Breyer is one of the most economically conservative Justices around .  .  .  .

(W)e didn’t get legal abortion in the first place because nine men in black robes were kind enough to allow us to have it. Women fought for it by every means possible, illegal as well as legal .  .  .  .

Deep social change is made by deep social movements .  .  .  .  But the left-wing Gore-ites seem oblivious to the dynamics of real social change.  They say we have to build an alternative politics-only just not yet.” (Ehrenreich, “Vote for Nader,” The Nation, August 21-28, 2000)

We couldn’t put it any better, and we won’t take the space here to try. But there is an important point to emphasize: If breaking the Republocrat duopoly is actually going to help rebuild “deep social movements” and “build an alternative politics,” it needs to be more than a one-time tactic.  It needs to be a deep, decisive and permanent break that will be seen as serious by those crucial social sectors-most especially working-class people and the African-American and Latino communities-who are rightly cynical about the whole system but who also feel genuinely threatened in their own lives by right-wing Republican politics.

One critique of Nader from the left deserves notice in this regard, although formulated in stridently sectarian terms.  Columnist Earl Divoky, writing in the July Lone Star Socialist (published by the Texas Socialist Party), writes: “Any time a political party runs a non-member celebrity for office, it’s like an athlete taking steroids-it will bulk it up in the short term, by garnering a large-but-ephemeral vote, but only at the expense of the party’s long-term health.”

Divoky points to the experiences of La Raza Unida Party, which “started out strong in 1972, when its gubernatorial candidate almost deprived the Democrat of a winning margin, only to see its support taper off to under 5% in 1978 .  .  .  until even the militant organizers themselves abandoned it.”

While Divoky appears to have little answer to the problem he raises, his critique poses an important issue.  The point must be for Green party members, the forces of the “globalization resistance” movement and Labor Party activists backing Nader to use this campaign for purposes of long-term organizing and independent party building.

In this effort, a strong grassroots base can help to push the Nader-Green forces toward stronger and fuller positions, especially around anti-racist and anti-imperialist issues-from police brutality to the bombing of Vieques, from the “drug war” to the intervention in Colombia.

Whether the next step forward takes the form of some kind of Green-radical political unity or (more likely) coalitions of forces is secondary.  The central issue is constructing institutions for independent politics, not to tweak but to break the back of the capitalist parties’ stranglehold on politics.  Then to the “spoilers” will truly go the victory.

ATC 88, September-October 2000