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Choking on Progressives for Kerry

A Response to Dave Lindorff’s Gag Reflex

by GREG BATES

I got to know my good friend Dave Lindorff while editing his excellent book, Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which I was fortunate to publish. I decided to drop usage of the more distant last name; we’re on a first name basis and might as well be in print too. Now I find myself in awkward opposition to Dave’s call for all progressives to gag but nonetheless vote Kerry, saying that a vote for Nader is no more than a dangerous protest. (Counterpunch, September 27, 2004) Behind every plea of this ilk is a simple demand: THINK STRATEGICALLY! Okay, let’s get real.

I’ll leave aside Dave’s argument that there is no such thing as a safe state, an argument I have reviewed extensively elsewhere. The guy needs a train ticket to Massachusetts, or Texas, or Illinois, or California, or he can practically walk from his hometown of Philly to DC so he can check it out for himself. The value of a vote for Nader in a safe state is obvious: a growing protest vote, or even a steady one in these times, would show that the politics of fear may not be enough to keep progressives in line, and that to win, real policy change may be needed to head off a bigger vote next time.

This was essentially the lesson of Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas during the Great Depression. Powerful social movements had an impact on FDR. He started out more fiscally conservative than the man he replaced, Herbert Hoover, coming out strongly against deficit spending, before becoming the voice of the New Deal. The pressure of the social movements was aided by pressure from Norman Thomas. In 1932 Thomas got over 887,000 votes; some evidence suggests the number voting for him was much higher, and that many socialist ballots were thrown out rather than counted. Then, responding to the threat, FDR’s New Deal stole the thunder from Thomas’s challenge. The massive appeal of FDR’s programs helped reduce Thomas’s votes in the election of 1936 to 187,000, which FDR won in a landslide. The New Deal was, at least in part, a victory for the threat and pressure of a third party.

Let’s turn to consider the logic of Dave’s position that we should all vote Kerry and reserve our protests for the streets, confining any progressive presidential electoral strategy to working inside the party during primary season. He writes:

"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."

But wait a minute. Part of the punch of the street protest is an implied threat: change your policies or we will vote you out of office next time. March loudly and carry a big ballot. Dave would change the deal: We protest what you are doing, but don’t worry; we’ll vote for you no matter what you do. True, protests exert pressure in other ways besides threatening a politician’s re-election. But taking that electoral tool completely off the table-or relegating it to local elections, as Dave is in effect advocating-robs movements of essential thunder.

Dave would confine progressive electoral politics on the presidential level to the primaries. How can any serious progressive argue this on the heels of what the Party did to the platforms of Kucinich, Dean and others? This in effect says: don’t worry about the fun we are having in our progressive sandbox in the spring, we will vote for whoever you nominate. As I have pointed out elsewhere, reformers inside the party need progressives outside the party to demonstrate that, if the Democrats don’t move left, we will walk. Otherwise, why would the party, drunk with corporate cash, hand over the keys to reformers? The existence of large numbers of progressives working and voting for other options can be used as leverage to pull the Democrats along. It may not work, but without it reforming the party is all the harder.

Dave argues:

"The problems with this [Nader voter] 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.)"

Concerning Dave’s first argument, the lack of mechanism, I disagree. As I argue in my book, if Nader’s run does not invigorate an existing third party, and a new party isn’t founded in the wake of his efforts, little will have been gained. But if a party is founded, and starts running candidates locally and nationally, its presence would serve as potent leverage on the Democrats to stop aping Republicans-or a foundation for replacing them.

On Dave’s second point, I do agree: third party efforts may not sway these Democrats. But an argument that Democrats are inured to political pressure from the left is a powerful argument for starting third parties, not an argument for continuing to work inside the party.

Dave later states,

"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."

I am writing in a future column about the prospects of replacing the democrats. But Dave has fundamentally lost touch with the power of third parties. Their success does not necessarily rest on winning office, but on applying pressure. In No Debate: How the Two Parties Secretly Ruin the Presidential Debates, George Farah reviews the impressive history that has gone hand in hand with social movements,

"From the early labor parties of the 1830s, to the Free Soil Party of the 1850s, to the Prohibition Party of the 1890s, to the Bull Moose Party at the start of the twentieth century, to the Reform Party in the 1990s, third-party movements have forced policies and issues onto center stage and into mainstream political discourse. The result of these third-party campaigns has been the adoption of some of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history, such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the establishment of pensions, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, Social Security, child labor laws, public schools, public power, the direct election of senators, the graduated income tax, paid vacation, the forty-hour workweek, higher civil service standards, the formation of labor unions, and democratic tools such as the initiative, the referendum, and the recall."

We can see this critical lesson in perspective by further analyzing the Norman Thomas/Hoover/FDR match of 1932. FDR got nearly 23 million votes against Hoover’s nearly 16 million and Thomas’s less than 1 million. Thomas came nowhere near overtaking FDR, and didn’t even make the election a close call. But FDR took action nonetheless to address the grievances Thomas raised. Thus for a third party to exert meaningful pressure-especially when combined with social movements-it may not have to reach as large a size as we might think to have a big effect. Kerry’s meeting with Nader, and the Democrats desperate attempt to keep him off the ballot are signs that the day we have a real impact may be sooner rather than later. Kerry could still win, and Nader could still have some influence this time; a third party could have a greater one next time.

Ironically, without being aware of it, Dave then backs up exactly that point, providing evidence that Nader’s candidacy is actually working to pressure Kerry. Dave writes:

"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)."

Dave is right: this is a shift of some sort, even if less than skin deep. But note the timing: it comes just days after the Democrats finally failed to keep Nader off the ballot of the largest swing state in the country, Florida, and amidst new polls that suggest Nader voters could still be a factor in the election’s outcome. Perhaps it’s not all Nader, but I’m sure glad he’s out there. And I’m sure glad there are enough progressives smart enough to refuse to declare for Kerry prior to Election Day. Maybe many who represent what appears in polls to be a 2 plus percent support for Nader will in the end vote Kerry. That is up to them. In the meantime, the choice to keep saying "I’m for Nader," especially in the swing states, keeps the pressure on.

Dave then unravels into wishful speculation, writing,

"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."

Confining to a "risk" the possibility that Kerry could become like Clinton rather than understanding it is a full-blown certainty is like the buyer of a lottery ticket saying that there is a "risk" they might lose. To assess that risk you need only look at Kerry’s record:

* voted to confirm Antonin Scalia for Supreme Court;

* backed many of Clinton’s initiatives;

* voted for the USA Patriot Act and complains that in the War on Terror, Bush has done too little, not too much;

* voted for Bush’s No Child Left Behind;

* switched from death row opponent to favoring it for terrorists (a shameful advocacy of death to those least able to defend themselves because they can lack access to lawyers, evidence, and regular due process, as bad as it is);

* and advocated we go into Iraq to rid it of WMDs-in 1998, years before Bush, and crucially years before the new era of 9/11; among many other policies.

For some juicy details, I cannot resist putting in a plug for Dave’s new fine book, This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of Democracy, that takes Kerry as well as Bush to the mat, and which I have the honor of publishing. It’s great, in my unbiased opinion!)

There is no "risk" of Kerry running to the right. He’s been there for decades, and an accurate assessment would predict a further march right. What Dave hopes for is a conversion to moderate. I do too, but I am much less sanguine. I just don’t see the case for giving up the threat of third party and independent alternatives.

Dave may well be correct that Kerry "will be desperate to elect a Democratic majority in 2006, and to widen his base in preparation for a re-election bid in 2008." But if that desperation does not include a real fear that progressives could walk to a third party or independent candidate, then he will logically concentrate on expanding his base by pandering to the right, secure in the knowledge that, courtesy of missives from the likes of Dave, the left promises to stand by his side when the crucial vote comes.

Nader voters aim to stop that from happening.

GREG BATES is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case For Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at: gbates@commoncouragepress.com