Letter to a Progressive Democrat

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Paul Felton


I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and I’m proud of it. You voted for Nader and you regret it (or, you voted for Gore, even though you liked Nader better).

Ever since then, you participated in a vigorous campaign to convince Nader and the Green Party not to run in 2004.  It is unprecedented for so many progressive people to fight so intensely to prevent a progressive voice from entering the campaign.

However, I intend to support Nader and/or the Green Party candidate (and I have not given up hope that Nader will be the Green Party candidate).  I hope you will have the patience to listen to my point of view.

I know you consider me misguided and stubborn, if well intentioned (although you don’t give Mr. Nader even that much respect).  But you think, in the end, I am helping George Bush.

I consider you well intentioned and I respect your viewpoint.  But I think your viewpoint that the Democratic Party can be a useful vehicle for positive change is misguided.  And I think your behavior has, unintentionally, made it easier for George Bush to get away with all of his atrocities over the last few years.

We agree on one thing.  George Bush is the worst President in our lifetime (and I say that without even knowing your age).  Especially after 9/11, he used the cover of a “War on Terrorism” to introduce some of the most reactionary, right-wing policies we’ve seen in a long time.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush cynically manipulated our emotions to trick many people into unquestioning acceptance of whatever measures he wished to take in the name of fighting terrorism.  He didn’t trick you and he didn’t trick me—but he did trick many people.  And the Democratic Party went along with just about all of it.

This is where your role comes in. From the time you started publicly feuding with Nader; from the time you started organizing a loud chorus of progressive voices shouting out: “Ralph Don’t Run,” you unintentionally sent a signal to the Democratic Party leadership.

The signal you sent them was “you don’t have to be progressive, you don’t have to fight against Bush’s policies, you don’t have to nominate someone who stands for anything progressive—you can take our votes for granted because we hate George Bush so much.”

The Democrats’ Free Ride

From the time you started shouting “Ralph Don’t Run” you let the Democratic Party off the hook. So they could vote for a bailout of the airlines that shafted the airline workers.  They could vote for the Patriot Act. They could vote for the war in Iraq.

They knew you would support them in 2004 regardless.  So they felt no pressure to oppose these policies.  In this manner, you (unintentionally) helped make it easier for George Bush.

The war in Iraq was a critical turning point.  The political climate had changed since the days immediately following 9/11.  Most Americans were no longer rallying around their leader (Bush) in a time of crisis without asking any questions.

In the first months of 2003, there was tremendous opposition to the pending war. More than 100 City Councils passed resolutions against it. Protest marches were held in many communities that are not accustomed to holding such events—not the usual handful of cities like New York, San Francisco, Madison, Ann Arbor, but all over Middle America, the South, you name it.

Churches were coming out against the war. And of course, there were millions of people around the world who protested simultaneously on February 15th.  We had a movement that was strong enough to stop the war—except for one missing element.  There was not an opposition party in Congress with both the principles and the courage to stand up and say “NO—we oppose this war!”

The Democratic Party made a conscious decision before the November 2002 elections not to make the war an issue.  They wanted to quickly pass a resolution to support the war and then move on to economic issues.

One of the reasons they felt no pressure to take a stand was because people like you were not putting pressure on them. Oh, you certainly let them know your position on the war. But deep down, the leaders of the Democratic Party knew that come 2004, you would be there to support them regardless of whether they stopped this war or not.

And so, by letting the Democrats off easy, you actually made it easier for Bush to go ahead with his war. And it’s only because the aftermath of the war has turned into such a disaster that Bush is starting to pay a political price for it.

Parties of Money

You and I have a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Democratic Party.  I believe it is one of the two parties dominated by the extremely wealthy “political donor class” in America.  You believe that, although big business has a lot of influence in the party, there is a possibility for change in the party coming from the grass roots.

I believe, to quote a phrase I heard at a Green Party meeting recently, that “the Democratic Party is where progressive movements go to die.”  So you supported Kucinich, or maybe Howard Dean. But now you have Kerry.

Kerry, who supported the war in Iraq, saying “Every nation has the right to act preemptively if it faces an imminent and grave threat.”  Kerry, who asked, “Can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might provide weapons of destruction to some terrorist group bent on destroying the United States?”

Kerry, whose justification for going to war with Iraq sounded exactly like a George Bush speech.  Kerry, who voted for the Patriot Act. Kerry, who just a few months ago, vigorously attacked Howard Dean for saying trade agreements should be reworked to protect labor.

In short, if you make a list of all the reasons why you and I think George Bush is so terrible, you’ll have to admit that Kerry supported most of these measures.  But what you don’t realize is that by telling the Democrats that you will fight against any progressive third party challenge, you gave the Democrats the ability to comfortably ignore your point of view on these issues.

I never accepted the “spoiler” argument.  I agree with Ralph Nader that it is contemptuous, anti-democratic, and an insult.  My standard response is that if you lose a basketball game by a score of 113-112, you can blame it on a shot your second string point guard missed in the second quarter, but you can also blame it on any other play in the game.

A lot of people have singled out the Nader factor and turned their venom on him. What puzzles me is why Democrats are spending so much time yelling about Nader, but for the most part are silent about the outrageous civil rights violations that helped Bush win Florida.

I’m referring to the fact that massive numbers of African Americans were taken off the voter rolls on the grounds that some of them might have been felons, or had names similar to the names of felons (please read Greg Palast’s research on this topic if you haven’t done so).

With a few exceptions, the people who are pointing the finger at Nader have been practically silent about this atrocity.  When you lose a close election, why should you scream at the one progressive in the race, while turning a blind eye to these civil rights violations (which is an accurate description of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and many of their progressive supporters)?

A Choice for Us

I remain convinced that there needs to be a progressive voice in the race. I am not going to vote for Kerry—I consider him part of the problem.

From the time Bush started manipulating the emotions of the American people after 9/11, I started hoping that the 2004 elections would be a referendum on the ugly right-wing agenda that lay hidden behind his “War on Terrorism.”  But this cannot happen if the only other candidate is someone who supported every key point of that agenda.

In trying to drive Nader and the Green Party from the race, you would deny my right to a political choice by denying my opportunity to vote for a candidate who supports my viewpoint.  And, if you had succeeded, you would make it easier for the leadership of the Democratic Party, whether or not they occupy the White House, to take your support for granted while ignoring your viewpoint.

I guess what I’m saying is that for all the time and energy that you spent pointing the finger at Nader and the Green Party, you should have spent it demanding that the Democratic Party oppose the Bush offensive against the world and the American people, and demanding that they nominate someone who truly opposes the Bush agenda.

Such a demand only has meaning if you are willing to go outside the Democratic Party if needed.  I don’t know that you would have succeeded; as I said, I have no illusions that the Democratic Party represents the people in any meaningful sense.  But by not making those demands, you assured that the Democrats could feel comfortable supporting the Bush agenda.

In any event, the policies in Iraq, on civil liberties, on labor rights, on free trade and all the other issues on which we share a common concern, can be influenced by building a mass movement in the streets, as well as by the election results.

Let’s agree to work together and build a movement to fight around those issues regardless of who’s in the White House.  Let’s agree to disagree about which party to vote for; while we each think the way the other person voted is partly responsible for the mess we’re in today, let’s not point fingers and get angry with each other.

Don’t try to muscle us out of the race, and we won’t condemn you for supporting a candidate who shares responsibility with Bush for the war, Patriot Act, etc. We can calmly and respectfully discuss our points of view on the elections while we engage in common struggle around the issues.

Just don’t tell me not to vote for Nader or a Green, and please stop trying to silence one of the few prominent progressive voices on the political scene.

Paul Felton is co-chair of the Detroit Green Party Local, and also an executive board member of his Local of the American Postal Workers Union.

ATC 110, May-June 2004