A political culture is under siege. Hear the panic as the waters pour into Atlantis.
Jesse Jackson cries out that “Our very lives are at stake.” Paul Wellstone quavers that George W. Bush will “repeal the twentieth century.” Martin Peretz, owner of the Gore-loving New Republic, writes furiously (and foolishly) that “Naderism represents the emotional satisfaction of the American left at the expense of the social and economic satisfaction of women, blacks, gays, and poor people in America.”
Back in 1992 Jackie Blumenthal, wife of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, was asked why she and her husband were such rabid supporters of a con man from Arkansas called Bill Clinton. “It’s our turn,” she hissed at once, as though that settled the matter once and for all.
And so indeed it was: the turn of that whole class that had endured the twelve long years of Reagan/Bush time to take their rightful place in Washington. Of course, in terms of substantive change, America remained a one-party state, under center-right government.
The amazing thing is that Clinton has never endured mutiny from his left. He stuffed NAFTA down the throats of labor and the AFL-CIO endorsed him in 1996. He threw the crime bill and the welfare bill at the liberals and they took it with barely a bleat. In 1996 he never faced a challenge, as had Jimmy Carter in 1979 from old-line liberalism embodied in the form of Ted Kennedy. In 2000 the only halfways-serious threat to Gore came from another neo-liberal, Bill Bradley. By the early summer we were set for another status quo election, a reaffirmation of the one-party state.
Somewhere in the third week of October the Gore crowd woke up to the clear and awful thought that they might not make it, that maybe it wasn’t their time any more and that the man to blame is Ralph Nader. Gore had bombed in the debates. The Greens had organized a whole string of Nader super-rallies across the northern half of the country from Seattle and Portland, through the upper midwest to New York. In Minnesota Nader was polling over ten per cent on some counts.In Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine, maybe even California, Nader could make enough of a dent to put Bush over the top.
And so the Get-Ralph campaign began in earnest. In many ways the contour of the attacks reminds us of the last time the Democrats had to deal with dissidence, back in 1988 with Jesse Jackson’s populist challenge. “What does Jesse want?” was reborn as “What does Nader want?” But Jackson was running inside the Democratic Party. By the time the ’88 convention in Atlanta rolled around, Jackson was back on board. By the start of 1989 and the Bush years, he’d brusquely disbanded the Rainbow and fallen in line.
“If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless.” That was the French revolutionary, Max Robespierre, back in 1794. I’ve always seen Ralph as our Robespierre, having to make do with class actions suits instead of the guillotine. Years ago the late Jim Goode, at that time editor of Penthouse, used to look across the piles of pin-ups with a shudder of distaste (he was gay) and snarl at me, “Alex, is your hate pure?” “Yes, Jim.” Ralph’s hate is pure.
So when the Democrats came at him, when he saw Toby Moffett, formerly a Nader Raider and until recently a Monsanto lobbyist, lining up squadrons of Nader bashers, Nader didn’t blink and say he’d just had a long conversation with Al Gore and he’d was suspending his campaign, was instructing his supporters to vote the Gore-Lieberman ticket, and would be accepting an “influential” position inside the next Democratic administration (something we’ll bet the Gore camp has already tried). He’d no doubt prefer to be running at over 30 per cent, but short of that, the privilege of being able to influence the race in at least six states is exactly what Nader had been waiting for all along: the power to remind the Democratic Party it can’t take for granted the progressive slice of the country.
Even if the Nader/Green run vanishes off the margin of history by the end of the year (which we hope won’t happen) it still will have given many young folk a taste for the excitements of radical political organizing. People carry such hours and days with them for the rest of their lives, as the inspiring leaven in our business-as-usual loaf.
A final irony. As the Gore attack whippets snapped at Nader the most conspicuous effect was a turn-off by Democratic voters, in the form of lower predicted turn-out. Early checks of Oregon’s postal ballots showed a sharp fall-off from the vote four years ago, but with Nader’s numbers going up. This bodes ill for any hopes of a Democratic recapture of the House of Representatives. Not that Gore probably cares. Back in 1996 he denied House leaders vital campaign funds with which they might have recaptured the House back then. He didn’t want to see his rival Dick Gephardt as house majority leader. There’s Gore for you. And they attack Nader as bad for the Democratic Party! CP