First of two parts.
In 2000, with incidental help from Nader voters, the Democrats lost an election they should have won. This year, the party proved they could do it all by themselves. Or, if they won as some are suggesting, they caved again. While the Republicans gave their constituents hope and principle (the wrong principles but clear nonetheless) “Anybody But Bush” didn’t work because it was the politics of fear coupled with the unappetizing option of the “least worst,” as Ralph Nader puts it. The Democrats’ strategy can best be summed up by a saying of Catherine Aird’s, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”
Meanwhile, there is much good that can be learned from Nader’s example, regardless of whether you liked his strategy, regardless of whether he runs again. One lesson can be applied to many projects in life, not just politics. When Nader ignored his allies who worried that his campaign would throw it to Bush, he was derided as an egomaniac by people who professed concern for his legacy. They couldn’t fathom his mantra that he would take more votes from Bush than Kerry. He kept repeating that, if the election were close, his progressive support would melt and those who wanted to vote for him wouldn’t end up being a pivotal factor in a Bush re-election. I haven’t seen poll data on the breakdown of how many would-be Bush voters vs would-be Kerry voters voted Nader. But we do know that Nader was bang on when he said progressive support would dwindle in terms of a final vote count. Several groups and many pundits wasted enormous effort to blunt the Nader vote, not seeing that he had in fact called the dynamic correctly. Many states were as close or closer in 2004 than 2000, yet Nader supporters didn’t swing a single one. Sometimes, when you see the world clearly, it is the right thing to do to ignore your friends, regardless of how unanimous they are in denouncing you. Accurately understanding when you are correct in going against an overwhelming tide takes careful judgment. As I’ll discuss in the next article, it’s exactly the quality I believe we will need to get out of the mess we are in.
I traveled to DC for election night to congratulate Nader and staff on his campaign, and to draw inspiration from the group that kept democracy on life support even as the Democrats tried to choke it off. From the feisty Kevin Zeese, who argued that success requires that we start small, to the calm but searing Theresa Amato, who spoke of the courage of ballot access workers who braved being harassed, jeered, spit on, and who spoke of lawyers defending Nader’s candidacy pro bono all the way to the Supreme Court, these were the troops on the front lines of democracy.
As the lights blazed on Nader at the podium, I noticed the entrance at the back of a frail elderly woman who sat in patient silence. The multiracial audience spanned all ages. Turning to listen to Nader, for me the most salient point of his speech that night was his argument about America’s place in the world as its only superpower. Nader pointed out that suicide bombers have nothing to lose. But as the wealthiest most powerful country in the world, we have the most to lose. He has pointed out elsewhere that if we don’t start recognizing resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan for what it is and keep mistaking it for terrorism, we will just perpetuate the cycle of violence. The idea that suicide bombers in Iraq are resisting occupation has about as much currency in the halls of the powerful as airbags did in 1970. I look forward to the day when an understanding of our occupation is just as clear as our understanding of auto safety.
Later the New York Times would report on Nader’s speech with reference to his tired thin frame, evoking the question on everyone’s mind that night: whether he runs again or just keeps fighting the good fight in his myriad ways, how long can this 70 year old soldier on? I don’t know the answer, but two things struck me that night. Nader had yet again inspired a group of lawyers and activists who will carry on long after he departs the scene. The second thing to hit home was being introduced to that woman sitting in the back. At 98, she held a clue to the question of how long Nader might fight on: she was Ralph’s mom. It’s one thing to get the chance to thank Ralph for his 40 year record, quite another to express thanks to his mother, a woman he credits as instrumental in his own character development.
I have no idea if Ralph will run again. But I know the task in front of us is to build a third party to work on both the national and local levels. Not wanting to waste a moment, I presented Ralph with a bumpersticker:
Draft Nader 2008: Because we need a real president.
He laughed and took one. I had a second version to offer in the event that Bush was declared a winner, but the Nader party disbanded before that became clear. It reads:
Draft Nader 2008: Because backing a Democrat is too risky.
Email me for details on how to get either one.
But how can a campaign that garnered about 400,000 votes, a fraction of the miniscule number of 3 million votes in 2000 be something to build on? I offer two answers. First, activists and writers, many who publish with us, have toiled for years to show that the Democratic Party is an enemy of democracy. Then comes Nader and his crew, who in just 8 months’ work, battling Democrats over ballot access and their platform of war, indelibly revealed to the nation that the Democratic Party stands against democracy. Nader said he underestimated the mendacity of the party. Now it stands in stark view for all. The data he has collected across the country about how unfair the varied standards of ballot access are could form the basis for challenging this fundamental impediment to democracy.
But the second victory is much bigger. (I am putting aside some other victories such as determination, survival, demonstration of what really counts, etc., as being obvious even if crucial, to concentrate on just two.) People don’t want fear, they want solutions. And the remarkable thing is, they know Nader’s group has them. Nader’s tiny showing is not a reflection of what people really wanted. I met and emailed with hundreds this year who said, I can’t vote for Nader, but he stands for all that I believe in. Frustrating though that response was, the important part is in the second half of the statement: even if they disagree on strategy, millions of Kerry voters are united behind Nader’s politics. Behind our politics. It’s easy to see why: the platform at votenader.org represents for the most part what the majority of Americans want: universal health care, an end to the war in Iraq, regulation of corporations, separation of church and state (yes, still a majority post election) and so on. Even in some areas, where a plank doesn’t have majority approval, the margin needed to sway enough people to make it a majority position is just a few percentage points. Gay marriage is one example. Most people support civil unions. With a little debate and education about why gay marriage is the only way to grant the federal rights conferred by marriage, this, like other platform planks could join the rest in being majority positions.
The whole point that Nader’s platform echoes the majority has been eclipsed by the fracas over his strategy. The planks represent the morals of the real majority, yet are totally absent in the Democratic Party’s disastrous campaign of pragmatism and craven politics of compromise. For the Nader campaign to have articulated the principles and then have so many Kerry voters reflexively endorse the ideas signals, in my view, a way forward from our divisions. The right has succeeded in taking minority positions, on abortion, the war, the drug war, and many others, and making them dominant in American politics. We might take a leaf from their playbook to do what could be an easier task than what the right did: move our positions, including many that don’t enjoy majority support, into the political center, as they should be.
But let’s ask a clear-eyed question: can our politics, so crushed by the Bush re-election, make a comeback? We must not confuse the distance we have to travel with the question of what is possible. That distinction is a central lesson I take from Nader’s struggles, one I have tried to apply personally. In 2001, as many readers know, Common Courage Press was on the brink of collapse following the bankruptcy of our distributor. The bank that had financed the distributor took 3 months’ worth of sales that were owed to us and tried, but failed, to take our inventory. It would be six months before we saw any income. Prior to the calamity we were publishing 12-15 books a year with a staff of 8. In 2001 we collapsed to 2 staff and squeezed out just 2 books. It was clearly time to throw in the towel. No accountant would have advised anything but bankruptcy; there just was no way out of it.
Except we refused to accept “reality.” We chose to dig out. Today, we are still shoveling furiously, a long way from where we want to be. But when we chose our path, unforeseen things started to happen: people we owed money to decided to wait before calling in the chips. Someone we have never met started doing proofreading and indexing as a volunteer! Three years after our near demise, we are still just two people. But we published 20 books this year, ten times the year of our hard times. The real challenge for me was publishing 19 and writing the 20th.
Can our politics make a comeback? In 2001, I thought I knew the limits of what was possible. But there’s nothing like a test to reveal just how far you can go beyond your own expectations. Today, the nation is being tested. Many are already saying we have to face reality and declare our politics bankrupt. But this may be a time to ignore the advice of friends, resist the temptation to throw in the towel, and instead begin the work in front of us.
Next: The Death of Pragmatism and the Rise of Principle: The Silver Lining in the Implosion of the Democrats
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.