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A Progressive Case for Voting for (Gag) Kerry?



This isn’t easy, for someone who has long admired Ralph Nader, and who voted for him in 2000: We progressives need to consider voting for John Kerry.

The sad but obvious reality is that Ralph Nader offers nothing but a protest vote. And in this election, a protest vote by a Democrat is a vote for the candidacy of George Bush and for continued war, at home and abroad. If the polls are to be believed, Bush is doing well even in some states where he lost last time, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (There are arguments being made for doubting them, but I suspect that in the end they will prove to be reasonably accurate in aggregate) That makes protest voting risky even in Kerry “safe” states, and doubly dangerous in swing states.

I realize that for many people it’s not going to be easy to vote for Kerry, but before you fire off an email flaming me, hear me out.

Voting for Kerry is only the first step. Any progressive who casts a vote for this unprincipled, calculating, Democratic Leadership Council member needs to simultaneously take a vow to remain active-no, to become even more active–in pushing for a progressive, anti-war agenda after November 2. A President-elect Kerry must be confronted with a million anti-war demonstrators at his inauguration ceremony. He must face a one-million-member jobs march in April 2005. Having helped elect Democratic candidates this November, we on the left also need to get involved at the grass-roots level in remaking the Democratic Party, which we have for years left to rot in the hands of the DLC and their willing accomplices at the ward level.

The mistake that the left made in 1992, with the election of Bill Clinton, was that we all breathed a huge sigh of relief at being rid of the Reagan/Bush era, and went about our business, figuring that we had a Democrat in the White House, and so all would be well. But he turned around and screwed us.

Now I know if you’re a progressive, anti-war Democrat, a leftist or independent, or an advocate of a third party, the thought of voting for Kerry is revolting, even nauseating. He shamelessly conspired in the trashing of anti-war candidate Howard Dean in the primaries. He voted for the war resolution that authorized George Bush to go ahead with his Iraq invasion plans. He voted for the dreadful and terrifying USA PATRIOT Act. He continues to advocate U.S. intervention in Latin America and other parts of the world. He even calls for continued military operations in Iraq for as long as four more years.

And yet, if we’re honest and realistic, what is the alternative?

Sitting out the election or skipping the presidential part of the ballot is a cop-out. Let’s examine the argument for the other option then: voting for Ralph Nader. (And let me stress here that I’m talking only about the issue of voting for Ralph, not the issue of whether or not his name should be on the ballot, which it absolutely should.)

There are three basic arguments for a Nader candidacy.

One is straight-out principle. Though he’s been kept so busy by the Democratic Party just fighting to get on ballots that he hasn’t had much time to state his views, Nader stands for everything that a progressive voter could want-open government, national healthcare, an end to corporate-run government, serious action on the environment and global warming, gay rights, equalized funding for education, genuinely progressive taxation, real Social Security, an end to the war in Iraq and to American empire, democratic control over corporations and trade issues, and on and on. There is no question that if you believe in all these things and want to make that statement, the only way to do it, at least in 2004, is to vote for him. Of course, Nader is at best going to win a small percentage of the vote, so that’s all you’ll be doing: making a statement. A very small statement.

Related to this first reason is a second: pressuring the Democratic Party to move to the left. The idea here is that by withdrawing our votes from the sell-out Democrats and casting them for a genuine progressive alternative, we force the Democratic Party to shift its position more to the left on a variety of issues. I’m sure there is logic to this idea, though it seems to me that a better way to go about it would be to generate more disciplined support around a genuine liberal or progressive candidate during the primaries so that the party actually ends up with a progressive nominee. That could have happened had Nader run in the Democratic primaries instead of against the party in the general election, but it’s too late for that. The problems with this approach are two-fold. First, the next presidential election is four years away, and there is no mechanism for transforming the pressure of a third-party protest vote in 2004 into a leftward swing by the Democratic Party in 2008. Second-there is little evidence that prior such third party efforts have led to shifts in Democratic Party position. If anything, Nader’s 2000 run created a toxic reaction in 2004 among Democratic voters to those who supported Nader in 2000. If votes for Nader in 2004 swing this election to Bush, the same reaction can be expected among Democratic voters in 2008, only worse. (It might even be argued that another 2-3 percent vote tally this time around for Nader could just convince Democratic candidates that there’s no point trying to win over that group of voters, so they can just be ignored.)

The third reason to vote Nader is to help build a third, an anti-corporate party that could offer a real alternative to the Republicrats. The problem with this admittedly beautiful idea is that it has been tried many times and hasn’t worked. (A third party alternative had its best shot in years in California’s recent recall election for governor, when Ralph;s current running mate Peter Miguel Camejo ran as the Green candidate, and it was a disaster.) We can decry all we want the stacked deck that locks American politics into a two-party straightjacket, but the evidence is there that it is. The courts, the election system, the debates, the media, the moneyed interests, it’s all rigged to keep third parties on the fringe. Even when they have managed to make significant inroads into the vote tally, as in the case of George Wallace’s American Party or Ross Perot’s Reform Party and their presidential campaigns, it was a matter of one-shot deals built around a personality, not a movement. Pretending, or hoping, that Ralph Nader’s campaign, or a Green Party campaign, could somehow grow into an alternative to the Democratic Party is akin to those Socialist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party fantasies of imminent socialist revolution by the American working class. It ain’t gonna happen.

As the fiasco of the Green Party’s convention this year demonstrated, even if a third party did start to grow, the likelihood of its fracturing into ineffective factions and self-destruction before it could become a significant electoral force is almost 100 percent. We’re talking about the American left here, remember, where one person is a party and two people are two splinter factions. If the U.S. is to have a third party-one that could aspire to replacing the Democratic Party, or perhaps to merging with and subsuming it-it would have to come out of the labor movement, and that work needs to be done not by helping Republicans win elections, but by helping to revitalize, democratize and politicize the labor movement (a movement that only grows weaker the longer Republicans are in power).

So where does that leave us? With the Democrats, and this year, that’s John Kerry.

(Pause here to gag or upchuck.)

Hopefully the Clinton years have taught us on the left that a Democrat in the White House these days doesn’t mean much–just that we should, hopefully, be able to hold rallies in the capital without being subject to organized police assault and mass arrest. And more importantly, that there will be someone in the Oval Office who will have to turn to us for help if he hopes to regain Democratic control of the Congress. While we can’t expect a return to the New Deal, what we will have is the possibility of regaining some leverage over White House policy–if we stay organized and focused after Election Day. How do we know a President Kerry would pay attention to us? He’s already doing it. After having run since he declared for the presidency as a pro-war candidate, he has finally started calling the war a mistake-the first step away from the deep hole he dug himself during the primaries and this past summer. For the first time, he is openly citing his 1972 anti-war credentials, instead of just his medals. He has clearly recognized that he cannot hope to get elected without the support of the anti-war movement and is belatedly going about trying to win that support. Even if it’s just posturing, this is an enormous rhetorical shift, and we should recognize it for what it is-evidence of our power. Faced with a hostile Congress in January, he will have to do the same thing, not just on the war but on every issue (but only if we stay organized and in the street).

To those who say, “Talk is cheap, look at all the cheap talk we got from Clinton,” all I can say is, yeah, you’re right, it is just talk, but what else do you hope to get during a campaign? The only way we’ll be able to see talk converted into actions will be if Kerry replaces Bush and we push him to do the right thing in office. We never really pushed Clinton. We believed his blather (or we were just too lazy or self-involved to challenge him) and gave him a pass when he stiffed us.
The other argument made against voting for a DLC Democrat like Kerry is that he might just copy Clinton, who decided, in a major betrayal of progressive Democrats just two years into office, that he’d rather work with a Republican Congress than fight for a liberal Democratic one. There is this risk with Kerry, but I suspect that while such a pact with the devil might also seem attractive to him, the times and the Republican Party are different, and he wouldn’t be able to do this even if he wanted to. Kerry, if elected, will face open hostility from a Republican Congress, and will need all the help he can get from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Stymied at every turn by an opposition-run Congress, he will be desperate to elect a Democratic majority in 2006, and to widen his base in preparation for a re-election bid in 2008.

As for the alternative? The current president, unelected and ruling through the support of a solid right-wing majority in Congress and the support of a conservative political base and the corporate elite, will be increasingly immune to pressure from the left, as he demonstrated by ignoring an unprecedented domestic and global peace movement in his rush to war, and by his passage of grotesquely reactionary legislation such as his tax cuts, his change in overtime policy, his education bill, etc. We have had no ability to influence this president, and we should face that reality. George Bush is no Richard Nixon. He’s certainly not trying to go down in history as some great statesman.

The prospect of possibly having some small amount of influence on the next president may sound like small beer, but I think the left needs to face realities here-not something we with our political weakness, or single-issue fetishism and our sectarian predilections are very good at. The right is in a powerful and dangerous position in America right now. It holds control of all three branches of the central government, and a majority of state legislatures. We have an outside shot of taking one piece of that triad away, or at least making it a bit wobbly, in Washington, and we cannot let that chance slip. To those who respond, “What makes you think that the left could pressure a President Kerry to end the war or to take serious action on global warming or to stop blindly supporting `free trade’ policies?” I have to say this is a valid concern, but then, what chance is there of getting President Bush to do any of that? Unless we are saying that democracy is already dead in the U.S.-and while it may be on life support, I don’t believe it is dead yet–one has to assume that well-organized citizen campaigns by Democrats and progressives to put pressure on a Democratic president to do the right thing will work to some extent at least some of the time. The key word here is organized. We can’t expect the right thing to happen just by casting our votes. We need to keep the pressure on.

Meanwhile, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. With the Justice Department preparing to push ahead with Patriot II next year, and with Bush and his neo-con cabinet making war-like noises about Iran and Syria and even Cuba, while quietly working on plans to restore a draft, and with the prospect of three or four Supreme Court vacancies, not to mention the elevating of Antonin Scalia to Chief Justice, there is a real danger of the country’s sliding into one-party rule. (I should add the apocalyptic note that there is also a real chance of the Antarctic ice shelf sliding off into the sea as global warming continues unchecked and the Bush administration continues to pretend it doesn’t exist.)

If that sounds alarmist, it should, but let me phrase it another way. The chance that this country will become a one-party state under Republican Party domination is surely far greater than the chance that a third party option will develop over the next generation. (Here’s a thought for Nader supporters: If in 2000 you had known that George Bush, if elected, would initiate a global “War on Terror”, invade Iraq, push through a law undermining half of the Bill of Rights, scrap the Kyoto Treaty and grant himself the power to strip the right of citizenship from native-born Americans, would you have cast a vote for Ralph?)

For progressives, the choice this November is clear, if stomach-churning. There may, as my colleagues Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair so eloquently demonstrate in their new book, only be a “dime’s worth of difference” between the policies of the Republicans and the policies of the Democrats, but to be honest, as devalued as the currency is these days, I still bend down and pick up a dime when I see one on the street.

So vote for Kerry, but keep those protest signs at the ready in the closet. If he wins, we’re going to have a lot of marching to do.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at

He can be reached at:


Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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