Progressives Could Choose the Next President

This was a phat week for Al Gore. With Friends of the Earth in his pocket and the Teamsters up his sleeve, he had reason to believe he'd won back the voters with a big wet populist kiss. He could take heart in a New York Times report that Ralph Nader's star is fading as Gore generates "an unexpected level of enthusiasm" among core Democrats. Even progressives are returning to the fold, the paper of record proclaims.

But some pollsters think Nader's currently modest showing�hovering between 3 and 4 percent�is deceiving. "My numbers say this is going to be a very close race," says John Zogby, "and in that sense, Nader looms large."

Nader's backers are at pains to say that his support comes mostly from folks who would otherwise sit the election out. But in addition to ragers against the machine, he attracts a lot of left-leaning Democrats�twice as many as he does Republicans�and in a hair-tight race, that could be very significant, indeed.

Consider Missouri, where Gore and Bush are statistically tied. Nader's 2 percent could clinch this state for the GOP. In Michigan, another toss-up, Zogby has Nader at a heady 7 percent. In the Northwest, his numbers are high enough to give Bush a buzz. The latest polls show Nader at 7 percent in Washington and 9 percent in Oregon. About 40 percent of those Naderites "would be definite Gore voters as their second choice," notes the Vancouver Columbian. No wonder savvy pollsters think Nader is about as dead as God.

"He's the John McCain of the general election," says Zogby. Whether people agree with Nader or not, "they see him as the only honest guy out there."

Zogby's Republican creds may be coloring his rap. But his numbers are widely respected, and they show Nader polling 13 percent among crucial independent voters, 4 percent among the elderly (think Florida), and an awesome 15 percent among the young. Most striking of all is Nader's standing among those progressives allegedly gravitating to Gore. According to Zogby, one in five lefties back Nader. "This is a core constituency for any Democrat, and if he's grabbing some of it, especially in the battleground states, he could make the difference."

For better or worse.

The Times may not take Nader seriously but the Gore campaign clearly does. In the past few weeks, it has dispatched a crew of celebrity progs to strengthen Gore's left flank. While Jesse Jackson Sr. preaches the gospel of defeating Bush, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. works the eco-hustings for Gore. But the most pointed attacks on Nader have come from Barney Frank. In a series of letters to any editor who will print them, the ambitious congressman from Massachusetts berates Nader for ignoring issues like abortion and gay rights. Nader's reply to this familiar charge is to reiterate his support for choice (with a caveat about preventing abortions) and same-sex marriage (making up for his infamous 1996 remark comparing gay rights to "gonadal politics"). "Barney Frank," Nader said on Meet the Press, "often speaks faster than his mind."

These fusillades from the Democratic faithful are a sure sign that Nader counts. With his blunt talk and earnest mien, he has created a presence for ideas that have long been regarded as marginal in American politics. Nader advocates blocking global-trade agreements that exploit workers and savage the environment, taxing stock transactions and replacing Alan Greenspan at the Fed, fining polluters and using the money to fund children's cultural centers. And despite Nader's gnat treatment by the major media, people are listening. He recently drew the largest crowd of any presidential candidate: 10,000 people in Portland, Oregon.

It remains to be seen whether this will get the Green Party the 5 percent vote it needs to qualify for federal matching funds. But one thing is clear: Nader's unlikely charisma�think Jimmy Stewart as Ichabod Crane�has transformed this chaotic coalition of progressives into the most powerful alternative to the two-party system. As a result, the Democrats are sucking up to the left for the first time in perhaps 30 years.

Not that Gore is humming the Internationale, but his speeches are peppered with rhetoric the Republicans call "class warfare." And it's working. In the industrial Midwest, his newfound solidarity has blown away the Prince Albert image. If Nader accomplishes nothing else, he will have pushed Gore to act like the people's alpha male.

In a more fundamental sense, Nader has shattered the myth that liberalism can only survive by co-opting the right. Like Joe Hill in the old union anthem, he's proven that progressive politics never died. And he's shown the centrist Democratic leadership that the left can bite.

But this halo is dimmed by the dark suggestion�circulating even on the left�that Nader's campaign has made overtures to Bush as a way of getting into the debates. A slander perpetrated by Gore? Perhaps, but while Nader often makes fun of Bush ("a corporation running for president disguised as a person"), he digs venomously into Gore, whom he calls "a legitimate political coward. He knows so much and he refuses to act on his knowledge." This may be a sincere assessment, but it's also a given on the left that your worst enemy is the one closest to you.

Ever since Karl Marx attacked the social democrats of Europe, the left has been riven by the contention that liberalism is fundamentally no different from conservatism in a bourgeois society. In America today, that translates into the idea that Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird. Greens call this creature the Republicrats; Nader speaks of a duopoly.

He says his campaign will make it possible for Democrats to take back the House. (The idea is that when all those new voters cast their ballots for Nader, their choice for Congress will be Democrats.) But his less judicious comments support the charge that he wouldn't be a candidate for Prozac if Bush takes the White House. Telling the crowd in Portland to vote Green even if it means a GOP victory, Nader crowed, "It'd probably be the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats because then they'd have to wake up and say, 'What are we here for?'. . . . The choice will be to shape up, liberate itself from the corporate power brokers, or [the Democratic Party is] going to shrink down."

This is the nub of Nader's pitch: that the two parties think alike on the core issues of economic life. But there are real, if incremental, differences to be considered. Check out the top 20 contributors to each party and you'll see that the oil and gas industries as well as the National Rifle Association rank high for Republicans, while five of the top seven Democratic donors are unions. Then there's the bottom line of policy. Gore progs cite things like the Democrats' targeted-tax program, which favors working people over the wealthy, as opposed to the Republican package, which would give away the surplus to the rich and superrich. They talk about George Bush's failure to provide health care to poor Texans and his horrific record on the environment.

Of course, Naderites can cite their own figures about the expansion of logging under Clinton, the accelerating climate change, and the growing army of people�21 percent of blacks and 17 percent of all children�who faced hunger in 1999. The big blow job notwithstanding, Clinton's real shame is replacing the Great Society with a culture many leftists refer to as "imiseration and incarceration." Liberals hope Gore will do better�especially with a Democratic Congress behind him�but no one thinks he will lead a new war on poverty.

The warmest feeling Gore arouses on the left is realism, and that doesn't lend itself to passion. As radical critic Barbara Ehrenreich points out, "none of them are sporting Gore buttons or bumper stickers and I don't expect any of them to invite me to a Gore house party anytime soon." What does fire these folks up is the Naderites' catty contempt for their fears. "I suppose it's possible to use the threat of Christian fascism one more time to terrify the liberals," snarks Christopher Hitchens (never one to coddle nervous nellies), "but it's pretty obvious that Governor Bush is not a hostage to his party's Jurassic wing. Sinister little mediocrity he may be, but who's seriously frightened of him?"

The answer is: most folks who care deeply about affirmative action, abortion, and gay rights. These so-called social issues are the starkest contrast between the two parties, as even Nader agrees. Yet he's easy about who occupies the presidency, since "The White House is a corporate prison." This gives Barney Frank his sharpest salient: "If Nader really believes there are no important differences between Gore and Bush, then it must follow that these [social issues] are not important differences. And in fact, this is what Nader does believe."

Maybe not. But his campaign has clearly made a calculation that the way to grow the left is to build the so-called Blue/Green alliance between workers and environmentalists. This means tying women's rights to global wage equity and rarely mentioning police brutality or affirmative action except when the faces in the crowd are black. Though Nader has some strong support among blacks, he's also drawn fire for "relegating race to the peripheries," as a recent piece in ColorLines contends. One black activist who confronted Nader was appalled by his reply: "You ask what I've done to reach out to the black community . . . and I ask you, how many black people did you bring here today?"

As for Nader's embrace of gays, it's like the sort of hug men give each other when they want to show that they're sensitive but not queer. It's a quick in/out that reads as something less than love.

But why blame Nader for a dismissal of identity politics that's all but trendy on the left? With the perception that these issues have become liberal shibboleths, there's been a reaction among radicals, some of it justified, some of it suspect. "If anything, the homophobia is more smug on the left," says gay progressive Martin Duberman, whose new book is aptly called Left Out. "They don't want to know about our lives�and yet they claim that they do know." For Duberman, the subordination of sexism and homophobia to "universal" issues �read class�is a dialectical disappearing act. "When they call our issues particularistic, they're saying that they aren't sufficiently important to be featured�and that seems to apply to Nader himself."

Though the left has been a nursery for liberation movements, no matter how arcane they might seem at first glance, there have always been radicals who were appalled by the identity glut. Class-centered progressives object to what the neo-Marxist critic Terry Eagleton calls "culturalism"�the belief that "identity is the continuation of politics by other means." They have noticed quite rightly that these liberation movements tend to ignore the question of poverty. It's free to be you and me and chablis! But there's a big difference between Eagleton's attack on subcultures that replicate the norm and Michael Tomasky's contention that flirting with feminism is why progressive politics has been "left for dead."

Nader has shattered the myth that liberalism can only survive by co-opting the right. And he's shown the Democrats that the left can bite.

Now comes Nader, resurrecting that prefeminist icon, the working-class hero. True, he makes room for the she-ro, and he tempers his class analysis with props for the environment. But under the Green veneer lurks the same old white man's populism. Ellen Willis, whose new book, Don't Think, Smile!, is a critique of social conservatism on the left, calls this blue-collar fixation "an identity politics of class. It is its own cultural nationalism, and it's a substitute for real class politics, because if you're really interested in doing away with the class system, then you have to realize that it's cultural as well as economic."

Sooner or later, the contradictions in Nader's strategy are bound to show. Some shop steward will notice that he wants to abandon the combustion engine and raise the wages of auto workers. Some Green will wonder about marching behind a leader who wants to clean up the culture. And someone will draw the obvious conclusion from the profile of Nader's supporters in the latest Gallup Poll. They're the most highly educated Americans, not the hard hats. Then there's the Nader gender gap. Men are twice as likely as women to back him�a margin that pretty much matches Bush's.

This is not to say that Nader has no support among feminists. Ehrenreich throws a large wrench into the argument that only voting for Gore will preserve abortion rights by pointing out that this freedom has been slipping away despite the Supreme Court's support because so many doctors are terrified to perform the procedure. Only a militant movement can preserve choice, Ehrenreich maintains, and that might actually be more likely to happen if women faced a more hostile judiciary (which is why she thinks the Republicans don't really want to overturn Roe v. Wade). Nader echoes this sentiment when he says that a "provocateur" like Bush would rally the left more than an "anesthetist" like Gore.

On the far side of this reasoning lies the most fundamental error of the left: the belief that crisis inevitably produces progressive change. It's what the Communists of Weimar Germany thought when they shouted, "After Hitler, us!" and what the protesters of 1968 imagined when they rioted in the streets of Chicago, shouting "Smash the state." What they did was destroy Hubert Humphrey, a very compromised liberal, and what they got was Richard Nixon.

Eugene V. Debs, the great American Socialist, liked to say "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it." But that doesn't help much when the choice involves which nostril to hold while you vote.

"I don't like Nader," says Ellen Willis. "I think he's fundamentally a social conservative with no sympathy for the cultural issues." Indeed, Nader has thrown down the gauntlet of family values complete with a critique of American culture that could have come from Joseph Lieberman. Yet Willis may end up voting Green just to help the party reach that magic 5 percent. "I can't vote for Gore. I've done too much teeth-gritting in my life. My teeth are worn down to stumps. Always my rationale for voting for Democrats is that at least with them we won't have the religious right on our backs. But with Gore we're going to have the religious right on our backs."

It's unlikely that Gore would do what Bush did in Texas: permit religious organizations to push conversion in their social-service agencies and even set up a Christian prison in one state facility. But it's not easy to vote for a Democratic ticket that embraces "charitable choice" with only slightly less fervor than the Republicans, not to mention a candidate raring to declare a pogrom on Hollywood for the sins of a violent culture. And for cultural radicals like Willis, Lieberman (who sits on boards with William Bennett and Gary Bauer) is the last straw. "He's a surrogate Christian," Willis says. "A liberal Jew would never have gotten on the ticket."

All summer, such grenades have been flung along the front lines of the left. The barrage would be exhilarating if it weren't so consequential. It says something about the crucial nature of this election that both Gore and Nader supporters speak in almost existential terms about the Choice.

"What, then, is a vote for Gore?" asks Ehrenreich. "It is a vote for the plutocracy that has supplanted American democracy. A vote for Gore sends a message to the powerful that, hey, we have no fundamental objections to what's going on: We're down with the plan." To which Joel Bleifuss, editor of In These Times, counters: "One must conclude that candidate Nader fulfills [the role] of confessor. Citizens disgusted with the status quo can leave the voting booth with their integrity reaffirmed. Their message is clear: We are not serious about political change."

If this election were being held in Europe, where a parliamentary system prevails, it would be easy for progressives to vote Green, since that party could negotiate with the rest of the left for power in a coalition government. But in America, the system mandates a clear choice�and the winner takes all. The closest we can come to voting strategically is to watch the polls in each state, and that's what a growing chorus of progressives is urging. If you live in New York, where Gore is comfortably ahead, voting for Nader means helping the Greens to grow. But if you live in a battleground state and the race is neck and neck, that same vote will probably benefit Bush.

It may well be that Nader's best shot is a strong Gore lead on Election Day, since that might make wavering progs feel more comfortable about voting Green. On the other hand, never underestimate the sentiment among radicals to kick out the jams.

Progressives have always been torn between two impulses: to smash or to sustain. The former has given us revolution and rock 'n' roll. But the latter has enabled crusaders like Susan B. Anthony and Dorothy Day to build a new world on the ground; it's allowed Quaker activists to stand vigil against war; it's kept teachers, preachers, and organizers fixed on making the future, person by person, act by act. This, too, is a radical choice.

Perhaps the left should always be riven between political necessity and what sociologist Max Weber called "the flame of pure intention." But this election requires acting on ambivalence. Leftists could actually choose the next president of the United States. Their decision will affect the course of the country, but it will also shape the soul of radical politics for years to come.

The old labor slogan still pertains: Which side are you on?

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