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An Alternative to the Lesser of Two Evils

Nader’s Challenge

by ALAN MAASS

The Democrats claim that they oppose George W. Bush and his right-wing agenda. But they save their real poison for challengers from their left.

Last weekend, Ralph Nader announced that he would run as an independent candidate in the 2004 presidential election–and was met with a tidal wave of abuse and slander. "It’s dishonesty of the highest level to say ‘I’m running as an independent,’ when all he’s doing is helping elect Bush, and he knows it," ranted New York City Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of Congress. "He’s nothing but a shill for George Bush."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared that "it’s about [Nader], it’s about his ego, it’s about his vanity, and not about a movement." It takes a special kind of arrogance to dismiss as a "shill" someone with Ralph Nader’s decades of political accomplishments–or for a power-hungry hack like Bill Richardson to suddenly offer himself as a spokesperson for "the movement." But when it comes to denouncing Nader, nothing is out of bounds.

Predictably, the loudest voices in the anti-Nader chorus are from self-identified "progressives." In early February, the liberal Nation magazine printed an "Open Letter" warning Nader that "the very progressives distressed by the prospect of your candidacy would contribute eagerly" to "recriminations about being a spoiler or, worse, an egotist."

For weeks after, the mainstream media quoted from the Nation open letter as "proof" that Nader was out of touch with his "supporters." The Nation’s editors should think about how often the corporate press has asked their opinion about the war on Iraq, or Bush’s tax cut giveaway–and why the media’s interest seems to be limited to the subject of Ralph Nader. In other words, who’s shilling for who?

Nader’s real "crime" is that he represents an alternative to the Washington status quo, which he accurately describes as a "two-party duopoly." As the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2000, his campaign was a lightening rod for millions of people fed up with the Democratic Party’s ongoing shift to the right. Nader challenged the argument, served up at every election, that people who care about peace and justice have no choice but to hold their nose and vote for the least bad of two similar candidates.

His pro-worker, anti-corporate appeal won 2.7 million votes–the best showing for a left-wing third party candidate in half a century. Democrats and their left-wing apologists say that these votes cost Al Gore the election.

But Gore won the popular vote–beating George Bush by half a million votes. It took vote fraud in Florida–which the Gore campaign didn’t effectively challenge–the skewed winner-take-all Electoral College system, and a 5-4 decision by the unelected justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to install Bush in the White House.

It is true that had Gore had won a portion of Nader’s vote in Florida or New Hamphire, he would have won these states’ electoral votes and moved into the White House. But votes for Pat Buchanan of the right-wing Reform Party were greater than George Bush’s margin of defeat in Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and New Mexico in 2000–yet no one called Buchanan a "spoiler."

The Democrats’ complaints about Nader assume that our votes "belong" to the two mainstream parties–and any third party challenge is, by definition, stealing them from their rightful owners. This reasoning allows Democrats like Al Gore to position themselves just barely to the left of their Republican opponents, offering nothing to the party’s liberal and working-class base but their claim to be the "lesser evil."

The consensus on the broad left today is that the Bush administration has proved to be so right wing that "anybody but Bush" would be an improvement. As the Nation’s open letter argued, "[W]hen devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hard truths must be faced. Ralph, this is the wrong year for you to run: 2004 is not 2000."

But this shortsighted reasoning has been the rationale for supporting Democrats every four years–sacrificing more far-reaching goals to the immediate aim of defeating the Republican candidate. The logic is self-defeating–preventing the U.S. left from ever developing a genuine political alternative outside the Democratic Party and allowing the Democrats to move ever rightward politically without fear of losing their liberal voting base.

This year, the man who is likely to win the nomination–John Kerry–has a reputation as a "liberal." Yet he voted for the Patriot Act, for the war on Iraq, for Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" law, for the North American Free Trade Agreement–and now he is on record opposing gay marriage and supporting the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq.

As Nader made clear when he announced his candidacy on NBC’s Meet the Press, "This is a fight for all third parties…I don’t think America belongs just to the Democratic and Republican Parties." To be effective, however, Nader has to clearly aim his campaign toward the left–and abandon any notion that he can also appeal to "conservative and libertarian Republicans," as he claimed on Meet the Press.

Nader’s campaign can only be meaningful if he forcefully emphasizes the left-wing character of his platform–in support of universal health care, taxing the rich, ending poverty, expanding workers’ rights, enacting a living wage, the right to choose abortion, and the right of gays and lesbians to marry, in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, the death penalty and the war on drugs.

Nader disappointed his supporters during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by failing to take a clear stand against Bush’s war drive. And during his appearance on Meet the Press, he had to be prodded to speak out against the occupation–though his campaign’s Web site now features a statement in opposition to both the invasion and occupation.

The question of U.S. imperialism can’t be avoided in this election, since the U.S. government’s stated aim is to use Iraq as a launching pad to reshape the entire Middle East in its own interests. By the same token, the right-wing offensive led by the White House on issues like gay marriage, abortion and affirmative action has set the stage for important conflicts that are radicalizing growing numbers of people. These confrontations can’t be dismissed or downplayed.

Nader needs to raise his voice on all the issues that are sparking resistance today, and he has to carry out a full campaign, without concessions and compromises. Aside from these political considerations, there’s the concrete question of how prominent Nader can be in this election. As an independent candidate, he will have to meet requirements set in each state to get on the ballot–overcoming the many obstacles designed to discourage third party candidates.

The Green Party itself is divided between those swayed by the "anybody but Bush" argument–and those who would like to draft Nader as the party’s nominee at their convention in June. It will take some months to see where Nader will even be able to compete for votes.

The Nader campaign in 2004 is unlikely to be the kind of galvanizing force that it was in 2000. Nevertheless, with the Democrats set to nominate a political insider like John Kerry, a significant minority of people will be disgusted with election-year "politics as usual."

Many will be receptive to Nader’s description of Washington as "corporate-occupied territory"–and the election campaign as "the two parties…ferociously competing to see who is going to go to the White House and take orders from their corporate paymasters." With Nader in the running, these people have the opportunity to ask themselves some hard questions.

Would they rather vote for John Kerry, who has spent the last 20 years in Washington loyally serving the corporations that provided the bulk of his campaign contributions–or Ralph Nader, who stood up against corporate greed and for workers’ rights? John Kerry, who opposes the right of gays and lesbians to marry–or Ralph Nader, who supports it? John Kerry, who supports the occupation of Iraq–or Ralph Nader, who opposes it?

There is a difference between Kerry and Bush–but as Nader says, "It’s a question between both parties’ flunking." We deserve better than this choice between two evils.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: maass@socialistworker.org