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An Open Letter to Eric Alterman

 

(Originally written 9/23/04 and submitted to The Nation, which after two weeks declined to run it. That’s the last time I wait for a print journal to ponder, when exchanges between writers can be happening on Internet time)

“What in God’s name will convince Nader’s remaining supporters to abandon his lemminglike march,” writes Eric Alterman in The Nation, October 4, 2004. Thanks, Eric. Finally, someone has asked the right question. Here are my answers.

First, let’s define the dispute by dispensing with attacks about “Bush’s useful idiot” that say more about you than they do about who you are attacking. You paint Ralph Nader as inconsistent-on his desire to build a party, on accepting Republican support to get on the ballot, etc. But even if those accusations were accurate, it’s embarrassing to see The Nation’s media critic, charged with debunking spin, pleading that we should vote for John Kerry because Nader has flip flopped. Instead, let’s focus on the real issue: regardless of Nader’s integrity, you don’t want votes for him to insure four more years of Bush.

Many Nader voters, myself included, agree with you: we want Bush out. But contrary to your perceptions, Nader voters aren’t marching anywhere, lemminglike or otherwise. Nader is doing what he has done consistently: run for president. Please don’t accuse Nader voters of marching off in some wild direction, when we stand pat while the Democrats rush right.
Our crucial difference with you is that we ask an additional question: is there room for two other goals of pressuring Kerry to move left and building electoral alternatives? Both goals are vital and worth the risk.

Maybe the choice of who to vote for is easy for you, but as a swing state resident, I find it difficult. A few weeks ago I took my daughter to see the movie I Robot, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics. In contrast to those rules, parenting has just one supreme law: keep your children from harm. Kerry has said he will add 40,000 troops to the war in Iraq, telling the Wall Street Journal that if he is president, some of our troops will remain through 2008. Worse, Kerry has a plan to make the war effort sustainable: share the burden by enticing our allies to send their children to war in exchange for a more equitable division of the spoils. In that bleak future, I’m lucky: both my children are girls, and are statistically far less likely to die in combat than male soldiers. But being a parent has forced a visceral understanding of the responsibility we face to refuse to send our nation’s children-or those of any other nation-off to war. You are asking me to cast a vote to throw the next generation in harm’s way, when the choice between Bush and Kerry should put any thoughtful parent on tilt. As swing state voters struggle to sort this out, your argument that we are idiots because we can’t see the obvious doesn’t begin to address our concerns.

Contrary to the swing states conundrum, for most Nader voters, this is election is a no-brainer. Seventy-five percent of voters live in safe states. They can vote how they like without affecting the election. You demand that we upgrade our view from 2000 that the difference between the Democrats and Republicans amounts to no more than Tweedledee and Tweedledum. We’ve done that. Now we ask you to add a little nuance and report on the election as if the Electoral College existed. Otherwise, you miss the profound implications caused by the difference between swing and safe states.

On the one hand, by voting for Nader-or David Cobb or another alternative-safe state voters can keep Kerry’s victory, if he has one, as narrow as possible. As Nader has argued, “power has to be insecure to be responsive,” an elemental political reality that I would find a powerful reason to vote Nader if I were voting in a safe state.

On the other hand, swing state voters can hold Kerry’s feet to the fire-by refusing to say they will vote for him when the pollsters come calling, and by supporting Nader’s efforts to get his antiwar message heard. To endorse Kerry now is to endorse the Democrat’s move right. Nader’s presence on the ballot in swing states is crucial to this pressure, regardless of whether we vote for him in swing states or not.

Some argue the pressure won’t work, so why bother? It doesn’t appear to be working. Yet Nader’s exposure of the Democratic Party as a lost cause, at least at the presidential level, has created the most effective demonstration of why we need to build alternatives now.

But what justifies the risk of voting Nader? It is unlikely that Nader voters in swing states will make the difference. That concern is only valid in a tight election, today a receding possibility. In Ohio, for example, Nader polls 2 percent while Bush polls 54 percent to Kerry’s 43 percent. Looks like the Democrats may prove this time that they can lose an election without our help.

Even if swing-state Nader voters are a factor, it will be tiny, as they were last time. The largest factor in a Kerry loss will be the 30 million plus voters who won’t turn out to vote, not the 3 million who may vote Nader. Why do you inveigh against the smallest factor in the election, when you have a better chance of motivating the largest?

The real opportunity for victory or defeat lies in Kerry’s hands. He may have blown it by favoring a war that most oppose, by not providing an economic policy that would reverse the economic decline of the middle and working classes. He could be arguing for a Marshal Plan to end poverty, as Nader is. Instead, Kerry’s offering incentives for companies not to outsource, and suggesting we share the war’s death toll with our allies. Uninspired window-dressing.

Your misplaced anger at Nader and his voters masks the real problem: As the Democrats keep moving right, the constituency they have abandoned is not only growing, but now actively looking for alternatives. That may explain why, despite being abandoned by the big names and organizations that backed Nader in 2000, his support remains at the level of the votes he received last time. Combined with those behind Cobb, support for alternatives is growing. The Greens are already trying to run in swing states, a sign that more and more politicians understand the value of this political arena. If you want the defections from the Democrats to shrink, ignore Nader and pull the party back to its base.

This problem of Democrats abandoning constituents may grow large enough to become a turning point in history. In the middle of the Nineteenth century, the Whigs had a lock on the presidency as they elected one member of their party after another to the office. But when they failed to have an answer to slavery, they vanished. Today, we need an answer to the most pervasive force in politics: corporate power and its attendant problems, including war and environmental destruction. The Democratic Party’s answer has been to battle Nader’s ballot access, revealing a desperation to quarantine the truth that Nader voters, and many disaffected Democrats, already know: Bush’s useful idiots are Kerry and those who nominated him.

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

 

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