A Case for Nader Now

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Jeff Melton

In their article in ATC 110, “The Left and the Elections,” Christopher Phelps, Stephanie Luce, and Johanna Brenner argue that left organizations should refrain from endorsing a Presidential candidate or participating collectively in a Presidential campaign in 2004, instead focusing primarily on building social movements.

In contrast, I will argue that an all out independent left Presidential campaign can significantly contribute to the strength and political independence of social movements, whereas failure to mount such a campaign will weaken them.  Thus, left organizations should be involved.  I will critically examine Phelps et al.’s rationale for their position and present my alternative.

One basis for the authors’ argument is their prognostication that a leftist Presidential candidacy will draw little support from activists or the general public:

“(T)he prospects [for a repeat of the 2000 Nader LaDuke campaign’s success] are especially meager this year….”

Where did my comrades get their crystal ball?  Even when they wrote their article, fully eight months before the election, their prognosis was on shaky ground.  Ralph Nader, apparently benefiting from being the only prominent Presidential candidate to oppose the Iraq war, was polling roughly the same as at that time in 2000.

It is simply incorrect to argue, as Phelps et al. do, that “the left is experiencing its weakest clout in memory” or that an independent left Presidential campaign cannot be built upon the momentum of social movements this year as it was in 2000.  

The antiwar demonstrations of the past two years are among the largest political demonstrations in history. The lies before and during the war –  told as often by Presidential candidate John Kerry as by the Bush administration –  have largely been exposed.  Ever greater publicity is being given to U.S. human rights atrocities in Iraq, such as the torture in Abu Ghraib prison.  

By early May, the majority of the public wanted the troops home, and some liberal Kerry supporters (e.g. American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner) wondered how Kerry expected to win in November if he remained committed to an increasingly unpopular “mistake.”

Attendees at last summer’s United For Peace and Justice conference were evenly divided on whether to support Democratic Presidential candidates. Furthermore, far from being meager, support for Nader rivals that in 2000 –  and exceeds it among African Americans, Latinos, and especially Arab Americans. Is it so implausible to believe that support for Nader will be significant in November if, for example, the situation in Iraq further unravels?

Clearly, there are no guarantees about the level of support Nader’s populist campaign will receive on election day. But as revolutionary socialists, our rationale for supporting such a campaign (with appropriate reservations) has more to do with its potential benefits, in the growth of consciousness and organization of the movements and the working class, than with how many votes it receives. Granted, number of votes is a numerical yardstick that can be used to gauge the extent of such an impact, but only very roughly.

Phelps et al. characterize the Bush administration as “the most reactionary administration in U.S. history,” and (although they do not themselves support such a position) characterize the “anybody but Bush” position as a “reasonable” one for leftists to take given the Bush Administration’s nature.

The former statement is not only inaccurate, but somewhat disrespects the memory of victims of over 200 years of U.S. oppression    slavery, Jim Crow, genocide against American Indians, imperial conquest and domination of most of the globe, etc. Indeed, past Democratic administrations have engaged in similar  – or worse –  acts:

* The Espionage Act and the Smith Act, both similar to the Patriot Act, were ratified by Democratic presidents.  Many of those detained since September 11 have been held under provisions of Bill Clinton’s Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

* Thousands of opponents of World Wars I and II were jailed by Democratic administrations.

* During World War II, liberal Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which put 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps for the “crime” of Japanese descent.

* The Truman administration fired hundreds of federal employees for their actual or suspected political views.

* Democratic and Republican administrations alike have broken strikes using federal troops and calling upon the anti union Taft Hartley Act.

* Democrat Harry Truman obliterated two Japanese cities with atomic bombs.

* Over 80 U.S. invasions of other countries have occurred since 1900. These have been as frequent under Democratic as under Republican administrations.

* Democratic and Republican administrations alike have overthrown elected governments, backed military coups, and given military aid to dictatorships.

* The Korean War was launched by Truman. U.S. involvement in World War I and major escalation of the Vietnam War were both initiated by Democratic Presidents who claimed to support peace.

* NAFTA, the abolition of traditional welfare, and the anti gay “Defense of Marriage Act” were ratified by Bill Clinton.

Kerry As He Really Is

There is little reason to believe that Kerry would not follow in his predecessors’ –  including Bush’s –  footsteps in most respects. There might not even have been a Bush administration had Kerry and his Senate colleagues supported an investigation of Florida’s electoral irregularities, but none did.

Kerry’s views on abortion rights differ from Bush’s, but Kerry has supported the nomination of anti abortion judges. On environmental issues, Kerry is vastly overrated by the Democrat dominated League of Conservation Voters, which overlooks Kerry’s support for “free trade” and war, his opposition to even the tepid Kyoto Accords on global warming, and various other environmentally disastrous positions.

Although Kerry opposed Bush’s particular version of tax cuts for the wealthy, he has a plan of his own that would achieve the same end. Kerry, like all but one of his Senate colleagues, voted for the Patriot Act. Kerry also opposes gay marriage.  And on any matter having to do with the perpetuation of U.S. imperial domination, differences between Kerry and Bush are rhetorical and tactical.

In short, voting for Kerry because one is appalled by Bush’s policies is far from “reasonable,” given that Kerry largely shares them.

Do Elections Matter –  And Why?

As part of their rationale for not supporting a left Presidential campaign, Phelps et al. posit a false dichotomy between electoral politics and movement activity:

“Social change in American history has never resulted from electoral politics, but from social and political movements. Our common activity, therefore, should not be focused on the electoral arena, at least not at the national level, where the left can have almost no effect….political campaigns independent of the major parties will for the foreseeable future only win in local races for school board, mayor, county commissioner, perhaps reaching somewhat higher –  but not to the federal level.”

Presumably, given their acknowledgment elsewhere in the article of the movement building potential of (some) electoral campaigns, the authors meant to say  – more plausibly –  that little social change has resulted directly from the outcome of elections.  Oddly, they subsequently argue that electoral activity should not focus on the national level, where “the left can have almost no effect.” By “effect,” as the quote above makes clear, they mean –  getting politicians elected!

But revolutionary socialists in the “socialism from below” tradition have not advocated running electoral candidates for the sake of winning elections, or harbored illusions about how much having “our” candidates in elected positions can alter the status quo. We support electoral candidates because running candidates who represent working class views and interests potentially augments its class power and consciousness.

If anything, it is more important to be involved in electoral politics at the federal level than at lower levels, not less. Higher profile campaigns result in substantially more media and public attention, and thus have more movement building potential.

By building consciousness and pressuring those holding the levers of power, strong third party and independent candidacies can shift the political spectrum leftward, and play a role in the success of social movements.

Many periods of reform in the United States and elsewhere were, in part, an effort to co opt third party threats. Recently, for instance, conservative Democratic San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made history by legalizing same sex marriage immediately after almost losing the mayoral election to Green Matt Gonzalez. In short order, the movement to legalize same sex marriage spread throughout the nation.

Lesser Evilism Without Illusions?

Phelps et al. portray support by activists for Kerry or other lesser evil politicians as a harmless aberration that can be undertaken without illusions and without affecting their commitment to building strong social movements.

Moreover, the authors regard their “live and let live” attitude toward advocates of lesser evilism as appropriately sensitive toward those who are adopting what they regard as a “reasonable” position. To this, they counterpose a “sectarian” straw person exemplified, they allege, by a phrase from Solidarity’s recent elections pamphlet:

“Because of the widespread perception that the stakes are high at the federal level, we believe that great care must be taken when entering into dialogue with gay activists, feminists, or civil libertarians (to take but a few examples) who are troubled by the implications of a second Bush term for their lives and commitments. In such conversations, we believe, it is utterly sectarian to say that Democrats differ from Republicans only on ‘secondary questions'” (the worst phrase in the generally excellent Solidarity pamphlet, Bush’s Wars, the 2004 Elections, and the Movements”).

This is an inaccurate characterization of the pamphlet’s contents. To quote from the pamphlet (p. 13):

“There are differences, nonetheless, over questions about appointing federal judges; abortion rights; how much to partner with other capitalist powers in assuring corporate domination of the world militarily and politically; what sort of pro corporate tax and spending policies should be pursued; how hard, how fast, and how far to push in dismantling social programs, affirmative action, etc. All these do represent real differences between the major parties, and even among individual candidates within those parties.

“At the same time all of these real differences    with the possible exception of abortion rights [italics mine], where the pressure of a massive pro choice movement has sharply limited the Democrats’ option to capitulate to the hard right    fall into the category of secondary questions, especially small when compared to those programmatic elements on which the two parties agree.”

In fact, this claim –  that Democrats’ and Republicans’ disagreements are largely over secondary questions, whereas on primary ones they largely agree –  is valid.

Disagreement over the extent of cooperation among imperialist powers is secondary compared to agreement over imperial conquest; disagreement over details of tax policies is secondary compared to agreement that the government should give away vast amounts of ordinary people’s taxes for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy; disagreement over oil drilling in ANWR (Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) is secondary compared to agreement that oil drilling should go on everywhere there isn’t a wildlife refuge, and that our economy should continue to be centered around burning fossil fuels; disagreement about whether there should be a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage is secondary compared to agreement that gays and lesbians should continue to be denied the privileges conferred upon heterosexual couples who get married; etc.

Sliding Down

Far from being a harmless aberration that need not detract from movement building, activist support –  even if only through voting    for mainstream Democrats like John Kerry potentially undermines working class power.

A very substantial portion of the U.S. public now opposes the war in Iraq, and also takes positions opposing Kerry’s on other vital issues — to name two, “free trade” and universal health insurance. Suppose that a sizeable portion of this majority voted their conscience –  or at least refused to vote for Kerry without his making major concessions (e.g. agreeing to withdraw troops from Iraq)? Would that not contribute to major social change?  

Obviously, working people can exercise their power in many ways other than through voting. Indeed, those other ways   strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, armed self defense, etc.    are central to the exercise of workers’ power.

That does not mean that voting lacks power. The more those who oppose ruling class policies refuse to guarantee their votes to bourgeois politicians, the more impact their demands for change will have. Conversely, other things being equal, the more activists guarantee their votes to Democrats or other bourgeois politicians who oppose the policies they are advocating, the more “demands” for peace, justice, healthy natural ecosystems, etc. instead become polite requests that can safely be ignored.

Thus, “letting it go” when colleagues jump on the “lesser evil” bandwagon potentially contributes to (self ) disempowerment of the working class.

Moreover, the extent to which activists guarantee their votes to Democrats and the extent to which they are beholden to the Democratic Party are strongly correlated.  Voting “lesser evil” is a slippery slope down which even the best intentioned “lesser evil” supporters often slide.

As they attempt to justify their support for Democrats, many of them eventually exaggerate the differences and minimize the similarities with Republicans, stay away from protests against Democratic politicians’ policies, and even campaign for “lesser evil” Democrats.

The dismal state of the mainstream environmental movement exemplifies such co optation. Mainstream environmental organizations sat by and watched, or even supported, one after another sell out of the environment by the Clinton Administration.  The same has happened to every movement that has gotten caught up in supporting Democrats. That is another reason advocates of independent politics can’t afford to stand on the sidelines and watch the Presidential election.

Exceptional Cases?

Phelps et al. argue that we should not insist upon “the superiority of independent politics in every context at every level.” However, a concrete case must be made for any exceptions. Phelps et al. do not successfully make the case for the partial exception of “letting it go” when others on the left support Democrats for President.

There is no evidence that this exception is necessary or desirable. One contrary example is Germany in the 1930s. The leading German non fascist capitalist politician, Hindenberg, was endorsed by the Social Democrats and elected over Adolph Hitler in a landslide. What did Hindenburg do? He appointed Hitler chancellor and wiped out most German civil liberties, paving the way for a fascist takeover.

The lessons of history are clear: Working people have never gotten anywhere by guaranteeing their support to capitalist politicians. History has yet to make a compelling case for any exceptions to the general rule of working class political independence from the bourgeoisie, inside and outside the voting booth.

Elections are not, as Phelps et al. claim, “merely elections.” There is no such thing as voting for John Kerry or other bourgeois politicians “without illusions,” because this act entails the illusion that we are better off getting a “lesser evil” elected than in building and supporting independent working class institutions, including our own political parties.

The vast majority of those who vote for bourgeois politicians either already have, or soon develop, illusions about the usefulness of doing so, and underestimate or overlook the power of independent working class organization and action.

Socialists cannot afford to let either other leftists or the general public wander down that mistaken and dangerous path without challenge. When Karl Marx urged workers of the world to unite, he meant with each other. Bourgeois politicians were not included. There were good reasons for that.  

ATC 111, July-August 2004