Clinton or Nader?: Escaping the Two-Party Trap
The two-party trap presents us with an ethical problem. The prevailing interpretation of this trap is the idea that if progressives vote for a third-party or independent candidate whom we believe in, but who as a practical matter has little or no chance of winning, we are helping to elect the candidate we most dislike -- this year Dole -- by withholding our vote from his only opponent with a chance to win -- this year Clinton. By doing that, the argument runs, we are giving ourselves the satisfaction of voting for the candidate we believe in, but only at the real expense of regular people, the poor, working families, who will have to pay the costs of our smug self-indulgence as the Gingrich Republicans continue their class war against the people in order to further enrich their masters, the already very rich.This is a powerful argument. I have conformed my voting behavior to it since I was twenty-one, supporting every Democratic nominee for President since Adlai Stevenson. But with rising disgust. Now for me, this year, the trap is sprung.Through the decades, locked in the two-party trap, we lose and lose and lose and even when we think we win we lose again-because we have gone on accepting being led by Democratic leaders who betray us in their pursuit of their own ambitions and their rationalizations about how little it is possible to get done. They never, never test the responsiveness of the people to audacious vision.And the two-party trap has one characteristic that is seldom noticed --- I have never seen or heard anyone refer to it. The logic of it goes on forever. It's a trap for life that requires us to agree to die betrayed. If we had proportional representation (the way of deciding winners in elections that prevails in most of the rest of the democratic world) we would almost always win by getting someone in office who represents our views. But in the two-party trap as it has now devolved, progressives always lose. The sold-out Democratic candidates for President understand very well how the trap works, so they keep it baited and set for us. (Clinton is re-baiting it now -- he's for tax credits for middle-class college students, and so on.) They lie to the people about their progressive, compassionate plans, or throw us a few symbolic votes or rhetorical flourishes, just before every national election, and then they return, once they are re-elected, to corrupt and servile obedience to the corporate oligarchy that buys their re-elections.That was tolerable, an ethical cynicism we had to swallow to achieve the minimum loss, as long as we had a democracy. But now we have lost our democracy. We have lost our self-government. As I wrote in the Observer last September, we are ruled by Big Business and Big Government as its paid hireling, and we know it. We still have the forms of democracy, but the content that is permitted to pass through those forms is bought and paid for by the corporate oligarchy. The American democratic system, therefore, has become a sham, and the big corporations and the centimillionaires and billionaires daily control, through their elected puppets, our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our pension funds, our bank and savings deposits, our public lands, our airwaves, our elections, and our very government.It is no coincidence that we have lost our democracy at the same time the corporate oligarchy has taken control of what used to be the party of the people. In this situation, if we go on forever backing the sold-out Democratic nominee on the logic that we must be hypocrites in the voting booth every four years in order to help produce a less evil society, we are accepting the death of American democracy -- and therefore the death of the leading example of, and case for, democracy in the world. Both parties now belong to the big corporations, and by voting for either one, in my opinion, we abet those corporations as they continue to rule us. We abet them, that is, as they kill out our last remaining amplitudes and establish a new world-wide aristocracy of wealth and power: world government by the transnational corporations.Now, to submit to that when we still have a fighting chance of stopping it is, in my opinion, unethical -- more so, I think, than accepting the worry, the burden, and the ethical responsibility for the short-run costs of voting for Nader, if those costs materialize in the lives of everyday people.In my judgment now, it is the endlessness of the two-party trap and the fact we are losing our country, our very self-governance, that makes it more immoral to stay in it than to get out of it and fight for what we believe.What was only a bad political situation has become a democracy-destroying disaster and we must make a break. We must go back to our generic standing as free persons and start a new country in this one. We cannot do that by voting again for Clinton, who will continue conspiring with and helping the oligarchy to consolidate its one-world corporate government, turning democratic nations all around the world into Potemkin villages for corporate tyranny.Even within the logic of the two-party trap, it is not at all clear, or obvious, that we do more for regular people in the short run by voting for Clinton and letting the oligarchs continue their ruthless self-enriching rule, than we do for regular people by saying no, by voting for Nader -- getting him on the ballot in our states, or writing him in. When I vote for Nader, as I am going to do, I personally mean to send my bit of a message to the Democratic Party that I will never again vote for a sold-out Democrat for President. If enough of us send that message there is a fair chance, I guess, since politicians adjust their courses to the winds, that progressive forces in the Democratic Party will be strengthened and in the Congress will be able to do more for everyday people even under Dole and the corporations than they could under Clinton and the corporations.There is a slight chance, too, perhaps, that Nader can win this time (efforts for his candidacy are going on in thirty-nine states) or the next. The two-party system broke up before our eyes when Perot got nineteen percent of the vote, and he is running again, I judge. With Dole making sounds of tolerance about abortion Pat Buchanan might run through to November, too. With as many as five serious and quasi-serious candidates in the field, conditions have never been better for us to break for freedom -- finally to smash up the corporate oligarchs' two-party system and replace it with proportional representation and a newly-free country. For me personally, the decisive likelihood is that Nader's candidacy will contribute to the construction of a national populist/progressive people's movement that will gather force for four or eight years and -- if the Democrats continue selling us out to the corporations -- metamorphose and then replace the Democratic Party with one new, unified, umbrella party-not a third one, but the new major American Party, to be called -- who cares? -- whatever it may come to be called. The People's Populist Party, perhaps.The two-party trap is an ethical problem, but our ethical responsibilities as citizens do not end with guesses about the short-term consequences of any one election. They do not end at what happens to the American political system. They do not end at the sufferings of the marginalized populations in this relatively well-off country. We had here the largest Western democracy and a model for the world. People seeking liberty still flock here from everywhere. Unless we start all over again together, and build a new society, a new system, a new country, in this one, what we are letting go is the best chance for a democratic world in the Twenty-First Century. Gingrich is not the subject. The human race is the subject. Because we are charged, by our times, by history, to re-implant democracy in the flagship Western democracy, our ethical responsibilities reach to the future of the human race-all billions of us -- into posterity. We may be deciding in this country whether the human race will evolve into a democracy, or a totalitarian world of consumers and victims.The presidential election of 1996 is not the main thing. It is a diversion. But it is here, and it's my best guess that we can best start to build a long-term populist/progressive people's movement, in this election, by voting for Nader.Certainly he would make a great President. He has the integrity of Thoreau and the conscience of St. Francis. He knows how the government works. As Martin Luther King achieved more social reform, Nader has achieved more governmental reform than any one person in his generation. Nader would govern for the people, and he would reject, oppose, and subordinate to democratic governance, the huge corporations that now rule us callously and arrogantly.Beyond that, after the election, and -- if one must so assume -- Nader has lost, we will have a new candidate-sized figure on the scene, who is not Ross Perot, and who is not Pat Buchanan. Nader is in his lower sixties. Voting for Nader, I feel, I will be voting for a future for the people. The two-party system of the United States is a farce, a lie, a cheat, a fraud. We should make a break and start out toward a system of proportional representation and a new democracy. I am going to vote for the candidate for President I genuinely believe in as one more step toward a new national long-term people's movement in the United States.I must admit, there is one more thing. Voting for Ralph Nader I am going to be proud of my vote. It is going to be, I guess, the way it would be, waking up one morning to realize that really, truly, you have broken free from the drug, or the booze, or the cigarette habit. By voting for Nader I break my lifelong addiction to accepting being sold out by the Democratic Party. Not again. Never again. No. On that new basis I can fight happily for a better world until I die and fight with pride in the fight. That, for sure, will make me a better fighter.Far more important than this question, though, is the underlying amity and trust among the legions, the millions, of decent, humanist, democratic, spiritual, compassionate, each-other-loving people and forces and organizations, who are going to make a new country in this one, if we can do that.I respect as honorable, and ethical, a conscientious progressive's decision to vote for Clinton. And you who will vote for Clinton should, I believe, respect as honorable and ethical a conscientious progressive's or a conscientious populist's decision to vote for Nader. The first decision is sincerely focused on the short-term consequences for the millions of victims of mean Republicanism, as ever -- more -- slightly tempered by corporation-bound Democrats. The second decision is focused sincerely on intermediate and long-term consequences for regular people of continuing indefinitely the rule of the United States by irresponsible, illegitimate, anti-democratic corporate power. The decisions arise from different intuitions; perhaps from different world views; certainly from different assays of the democratic crisis. But we must stay close together, however we vote, because the 1996 election is not the point. The point is reclaiming our country, seizing it back from the runaway corporate system and its baronial CEOs who have seized it away from us. That showdown campaign begins the day after the November election.