From email@example.com Sun Sep 3 07:36:56 2000
Reed on Nader
Adolph Reed, 2 September 2000
[An unedited draft of Adolph Reed's forthcoming column in The Progressive.]
Here we are again. It's the quadrennial presidential charade. Every four years progressives, leftists or whatever we are - you know, the people who read the Progressive, the Nation, In These Times and such publications, who go to political forums and demonstrations, who advocate and work for social justice -- debate seriously, sometimes heatedly, among ourselves about which of the two major evils is really lesser. Of course, we know from the outset that the Republicans are generally more frightening; so the debate really always comes down to whether to support the inadequate Democratic nominee or some more or less quixotic third party initiative.
This debate has occupied our attention through every presidential election season since 1980, when Barry Commoner ran as the candidate of the Citizens' Party and John Anderson ran as a mass media-generated hologram spouting empty slogans and projecting gravitas without specific content. Then came the two Jesse Jackson Potemkin insurgencies for the Democratic nomination.
In 1992, the debate flagged in the absence of any but the most chimerical and obscure third party alternatives; however, it persisted as a frequently expressed wish for some ideal progressive candidate on a horse. Then in 1996 came the weirdness of Ralph Nader's non-campaign under the Green Party label, sort of. In addition, a specter haunting this debate all along have been the vestiges of baby boomers' bitter arguments over the 1968 election and the purported consequences of radicals' defection from Hubert Humphrey's Democratic candidacy.
This year, given that the stakes are so low, the intensity of the debate seems particularly queer. Why get so exercised about a race between avatars of two parties that are less distinguishable than they have ever been? I fear that the answer to that question is that we have internalized our defeat and accommodated perversely to our marginalization in American politics.
I'll elaborate on this charge, but first I should make my own views on the matter clear. I'm voting for Nader. However, I believe that a vote for Nader, a vote for Gore or not voting the top of the ticket at all are equally defensible -- and identically consequential.
To lay all my cards on the table, I'll disclose my entire presidential voting history, even pre-history. In 1964, I couldn't wait to be 21 in 1968 so that I could cast my ballot for LBJ and the Great Society. Well, a thing called the Vietnam War happened along the way, and I was one of those scornful radicals who couldn't bring themselves to vote for its continuation under Humphrey, who, moreover, was retreating from domestic social policy commitments as well. In 1972 I voted for McGovern, even though he had begun backing away from his progressive program five minutes after he won the nomination.
In 1976, I couldn't bring myself to vote for Jimmy Carter. I knew him as a conservative Georgia governor who had risen to national visibility as a spearhead of the Stop McGovern movement at the 1972 Democratic convention. I boycotted the presidential race. In 1980 I voted for Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primary and was a delegate to the Citizens' Party convention and a Commoner elector.
I supported neither of Jesse Jackson's self-promotional escapades for reasons that I've laid out elsewhere (see my books The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon and Stirrings in the Jug; all I have to add now is, see, I told you so). In the general elections I held my nose and voted for Mondale and Dukakis. In 1992 I worked in Tom Harkin's short-lived campaign. On election day I agonized in the booth for what seemed like minutes before voting for Bill Clinton, which I did partly out of not wanting to feel implicated in a possible Bush victory and partly because not voting a straight Democratic ticket would have required casting nearly 100 individual votes for Cook County judges and water district commissioners and the like. By 1996, the Clinton administration had proven to be worse than I and others had even feared, and the crowning outrage of welfare "reform" made absolutely certain that I would never again vote for any Clinton for anything.
So, I guess you could say that I've been all over the lot on the third party issue. Neither have I been slavishly committed to supporting whatever option the party throws up; nor have I dismissed the idea of voting for them as a matter of principle. Although I remain a registered Democrat, I appreciate the basic wisdom of Debs's line that it's better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it. At the same time, I recognize that the extent of difference - both between what's desirable and what's possible and between the options that exist in any given election - varies and that politics is about negotiating the tension between principle and practicality.
All that said, the most important aspect of this period is the backdrop against which we've had to make these judgments: the Democratic party's more than twenty-five year rightward slide. The pace and angle of this slide intensified with the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1985 after Mondale's defeat with the explicit purpose of moving the party to the right. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, significantly, all have been leaders of the DLC . Clinton's victory in 1992 consolidated the DLC crowd - now given to calling themselves "New Democrats" - as the party's dominant ideological and programmatic tendency. (Lieberman, incidentally, forced me to cast my only vote ever for a Republican when he first ran for the Senate against Lowell Weicker, who was to his left on virtually every issue.)
Despite the standard characterization on newschat television that defines the language of political common sense, the Democratic party has never been a natural or truly comfortable home for the left. There have been moments - the 1930s, the 1960s - when, mainly because of extensive, militant pressure from below, the party has been more responsive to progressive interests. But those interests have always had to jockey for position with the powerful corporate, financial and other antiegalitarian forces that take primacy in setting the party's direction. Progressives, the labor movement, women and minorities have always had to claw and scrape for representation within the Democrats' program and agenda. This struggle has become increasingly difficult in the post-McGovern period of Republicrat convergence.
This relationship to the Democratic party has meant that we're typically in the position of reacting and accommodating ourselves to political agendas that we've had no significant part in crafting and that in the best circumstances reflect our political vision, objectives and policy preferences only through half-measures, never as the top priority. Even the best that we've won - though often significant in impact on real people's lives - has been very limited and unnecessarily flawed. For example, instead of a clear, institutional commitment to universal social wage and decent social welfare policies we've gotten piecemeal responses to social crises. This is how we got social security, Federal support for affordable housing, public works employment and aid to families with dependent children in the 1930s, and how we got medicare, medicaid, various antipoverty programs like head start and Community Action and civil rights enforcement in the 1960s.
Because this jerry-built system did not rest on a committed embrace of government's responsibility to ensure a basic standard of living for everyone in the society, it was vulnerable to subsequent attacks from rightists and neoliberals, many of them New Democrats, who would now replace it with the discipline of the market and criminalization of poverty. As the Democrats have moved steadily to the right, the limitations of this relationship have been thrown into ever sharper relief. We have no leverage within the Democratic party, as the Clinton presidency and Gore campaign have shown emphatically. Think about it. Even now, as Gore faces what could be a potential threat on his left from Nader's campaign, especially in places like California, he selected one of the most visible and militant leaders of the party's conservative wing as his running mate. In fact, the Lieberman nomination is instructive in several ways.
First, it underscores the grim truth that Gore feels no pressure from the left. He has that luxury partly because we're weak and disorganized; apart from the labor movement, there is no organized left-of-center constituency capable either of imposing electoral discipline on him or of mobilizing voters for him. Having pretty much sewn up the AFL-CIO's support, he needn't worry about appealing to his left at all. He no doubt is banking on the likelihood that, even in states where a three or four per cent Nader vote might produce a Bush victory, that vote will not materialize. And history would be on his side if he were making such a calculation. As James Weinstein pointed out recently in In These Times (8/21/00), that has been the rule with left third party campaigns going back to Henry Wallace's Progressive Party campaign in 1948. Especially without support of the labor movement, it is unlikely that in November the Nader vote will extend very far beyond the ranks of committed social movement activists, and even many of those will - for defensibly pragmatic reasons - succumb once again to lesser evilism. For other of the Democrats' "traditional" constituencies, all now rusticated on the fringes of the party, Gore's vague allusions to liberal concerns will perfume his real message: "I probably won't do as much harm to you as the other guy". Uninspiring though that message is, in this election year, we don't have a truly persuasive response or alternative. For those left-of-center constituencies that are organized -- trade unions, environmental, civil rights, reproductive rights, and consumer lobbying groups - a presidential election is most of all about what is likely to happen in specific legislative and policy arenas over the next four years.
Second, Gore's choice of Lieberman speaks eloquently of how Democratic neoliberalism operates and distinguishes itself from its Republican variant. Gore's soundbite gestures to left, or conventionally liberal, concerns have centered on intimations that he will challenge corporate abomination of health care by going after some of the obscene practices of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries (not, of course, the fundamental outrage of a profit-driven health care system). Yet these just happen to be two of the industries - along with Wall Street and defense contractors - with which Lieberman has been most closely aligned. We get a speech now and then, with the same kinds of tepid proposals and emptily emotive rhetoric that we've gotten from Al's current boss, while the culprits he identifies would get the Vice-President. Former Clinton flak and current tv pundit, George Stephanopoulos, put it succinctly on "This Week in Washington" when he described the first two days of the Democratic convention in effect as an obligatory, meaningless sop to the party's left, ultimately only a face-saving gesture for those marginalized constituencies that have no place else to go. The real convention, he insisted, started after all that stuff was gotten through.
A third lesson of the Lieberman nomination may be the most significant and most revealing of the trap we find ourselves in. Selecting Lieberman has not appeared as the naked statement of rightward commitment that it is because it is sanitized by the narrow, symbolic language of diversity and identity politics into which the new liberalism has successfully channeled expression of progressive concerns. This is not to say that progressives have been fooled, or even cowed, by the fact that Lieberman is the first Jewish nominee for so high an office. However, by spinning it as an expression of "inclusiveness", and perhaps a genuine benchmark for tolerance in America, Gore has been able to present elevation of my de facto Republican Senator as a vindication of his ludicrous claim to stand for "the people, not the powerful". That, and the Bush campaign's denunciation of even Gore's obviously disingenuous cliché as an inflammatory, irresponsible invocation of "class warfare", is a testament to how far away we are from a politics that means anything, that addresses in any serious way the issues and concerns that affect the lives of the vast majority of people in this country.
The New Democrats now distinguish themselves ideologically from Republicans mainly through this rhetoric of diversity and inclusiveness and "looking like the face of America" (as well as by promising to be not quite so radical as the GOP in repealing the social gains of the twentieth century ). That's what was most striking about the heavy-handed, laughably Goebbelsian proclamations of inclusiveness and diversity at the Republican convention: they were obviously aping the Democrats practice of covering an antipopular agenda with a layer of multiculturalist folderol.
This gets to the most disturbing feature of the game we've allowed ourselves to be sucked into every four years. As the Democrats and Republicans increasingly converge, they, in effect, agree amongst themselves about how to differentiate themselves from one another. That's a reason that the Republicans were so shrill when Gore made his pitiful gesture toward recognition of the existence of inequality and injustice. They saw him as skirting the tacit agreement to refrain from any hint of class politics or redistribution (except to the wealthy, of course).
My father, who is a veteran of the 1948 Wallace campaign, always has said that the United States is a one-party state - the Property party, albeit with two wings. Never before in any of our lifetimes has that assessment been more clearly true. In redefining liberalism in terms of the language of identity politics and symbolic representation, the Democratic wing of this Property party has effectively colluded with the Republican wing to preempt from national politics the most immediate and critical issues that concern us. Where is there space in this campaign for debate about real national health care in a publicly funded, just health care system; access to decent, secure jobs at living wages; protection and extension of workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively and to exercise in the workplace our Constitutional protections of free speech, assembly and curtailment of employers' prerogative that often amounts to imposing involuntary servitude; elimination of the war on poor people being conducted via reactionary welfare "reform", the war on drugs and draconian criminal justice policy that has incarcerated more than 2 million people in this country, the double whammy of Federal support for urban redevelopment initiatives that displace poor and other working people and eliminate affordable housing combined with the Federal retreat from direct provision of low-income housing; controls on capital flight and corporate welfare; replacement of a corporate-driven trade agenda with one concerned to enhance the lives of workers here and abroad; strategies for a just transition for workers and communities away from corporate degradation of our environment; revitalizing the public sector; providing access to quality education - as well as good quality child and elder care -- to all, regardless of ability to pay?
These are only some of the basic concerns that we all know shape the lives, concerns, hopes and anxieties of the vast majority of Americans of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Yet they are absent from the discourse around presidential politics. Instead, we get drawn into a debate on terms set by the bipartisan corporate consensus and reduced to a handful of issues which, though meaningful enough on their own, are treated as symbolically encasing the concerns of specific groups that easily can be marginalized as "special interests".
These issues that have been preemptively excluded from the public agenda are key components of the Labor Party's program, which was adopted - along with the Labor Party's grassroots campaign for Just Health Care, a real national health insurance system, publicly funded and financed through fairly taxing corporations and the very wealthy -- by the Greens at the convention that nominated Nader. And his is the only voice discussing them that can be endorsed by ballot in this presidential election.
As Matt Rothschild noted in the July issue, it is true that abortion rights - at least for women who can afford to pay for the procedure - will be more effectively protected under a Gore administration than under Bush, and affirmative action and other forms of antidiscrimination enforcement will more likely survive. Gore's potential appointments to the Supreme Court are likely - though by no means a lock - to be better than Bush's. However, there's no reason to assume that he will deviate from Clinton's pledge not to nominate anyone for the bench in lower courts who would be unacceptable to Orrin Hatch, a pledge that has been borne out in this administration's actual appointments. His disgraceful behavior during the Elian Gonzales kidnapping case revealed the depth of Gore's willingness to cater opportunistically to the right. His gratuitous pandering to the lunatic Cuban-American reactionaries was only a less lethal replay of Clinton's sacrifice of Rickey Ray Rector in 1992. And can we forget that it was Gore himself who first introduced Willie Horton in his feckless 1988 run for the Democratic nomination in a desperate attempt to gain ground against Dukakis?
Gore's "I won't hurt you as viciously as the other guy" approach may be most resonant with respect to labor. He wouldn't engage in a frontal assault on the union movement, which is a meaningful difference that can't be dismissed out of hand. He'd just pursue trade and domestic agendas that continue the steady undermining of workers' rights and living standards.
In no way do I want to trivialize those differences, and voting for Gore for any or all those reasons is defensible. Nor am I as sanguine as some about the Nader campaign's potential as a springboard for subsequently building the Green party into a significant political force. In the first place, it's not even clear that there *is* a central Green party. The organization's convention was the Association of State Green Parties, and there are already different, if not rival, factions claiming authenticity. In the unlikely event that Nader receives 5% of the vote in November and the Greens become eligible for Federal election funds - the dream on which the Citizens' Party also floated, and foundered, twenty years ago - it's not at all clear that the organization would have the capacity to make good use of it.
Moreover, apart from the specific questions of capacity concerning the Greens, the dream of creating a new political force around a national election campaign has reality exactly backwards. To some extent it reflects the long-standing problem in the left of looking for a quick fix. It is fundamentally a top-down approach that has no hope of appealing to anyone except those who are already convinced. And one would think that by now all the talk about how an inspiring alternative candidate could mobilize those who are so alienated from the current system that they don't vote would have gone the way of the unicorn or cold fusion. How many times do we have to put that precious theory to the test before accepting the conclusion that politics doesn't work that way? Anyone who has ever been involved in voter registration and voter turnout work knows that registering and mobilizing nonvoters requires concerted, labor intensive effort that can only be conducted by forces with significant resources and institutional capacity rooted at a local level. It is pure folly to expect to do so in the midst of a presidential campaign, particularly without support of organizations with the necessary experience and capacity. After all, the Republicrat convergence has depended on more than two decades of pruning the national electorate to give disproportionate weight to the interests and concerns of corporations and the rich and comfortable. At a minimum, this theory presumes an at least potentially neutral news media that can be enticed, cajoled or browbeaten to convey such a campaign's issues and program fairly; the record and conduct of our corporate public information industry has shown time and again that this is a pipe dream. At worst, it reflects the persistent wish that we can make change without struggling for it, without organizing. y This to me is the really frustrating aspect of our quadrennial debate on the left: that we don't recognize that a) we're so weak and isolated that what we do or say doesn't affect the substantive outcome of the national elections and b) we need to look beyond the election cycle to focus on a larger vision - our vision of how the society would be governed in the interests of the vast majority of people who live in it - and direct our work toward building the political force required to realize that vision. This does not mean simply dismissing the election. It does mean, though, recognizing that the real tasks that confront us will be there in pretty much the same way no matter how, or whether, we vote as individuals or as a left constituency.
So I'll vote for Nader without any illusions about that act's immediate or potentially long-term significance. It is ultimately an existential choice, as was my refusal to give de facto ratification four years ago to Clinton's having rammed NAFTA and the heinous crime bills down our throats and his odious welfare reform travesty. At least this will be a vote *for* a vision and perspective, not just a rejection of a pattern of outrages. And, besides, Gore has indicated repeatedly, most emphatically with his choice of Lieberman for his running mate, that he doesn't want my vote. Why should I not respect the statement made by his actions?
So we go through another round. The cards have been dealt. I'll play my hand according to Eugene V. Debs.
Adolph L. Reed, Jr. is Professor of Political Science on the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research and is a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party. His most recent book is *Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene*(New Press)