The Nader Perplex

A small minority of Americans--maybe two million people, maybe as many as five million--will vote for Ralph Nader for president this year. Most have gotten into arguments about the decision or have had someone try to talk them out of "throwing away" their vote. Many have been told they are doing something harmful or, at the minimum, irresponsible. Bush or Gore will be the next president. To pretend there is another choice is foolish.

It would be easy to lampoon these arguments as the kind of talk that matters only in the dusty and cluttered meeting rooms of New York intellectuals and in the coffee houses filled by multiply pierced youth who aren't sure where their local polling place is. But democratic conversation happens in the damndest of places and can sometimes catch on in surprising ways. For my money, the disagreements about Nader's candidacy have been more interesting and worthwhile than most anything in the "real" campaign. To see truly frightening flakiness, all one had to do was tune in to the postdebate focus groups of "undecided voters" that the television networks kept putting before audiences this fall. On display were people who, apparently without capacity for political thought, were desperately in search of some kind of "vibe" from two candidates who must have seemed like unfamiliar life forms.

Nader voters have had to think about some difficult questions. What constitutes a "meaningful" vote? Is election day a time for conscience, or expediency? A time for protest, or accepting what the political system offers? Are the two major parties hopelessly sold out to the corporate interests? Are there realistic alternatives? Do we really want a third party? Can there be such a thing as what Nader advocates--a democratic revolt against the power of economic elites? Can real harm be caused by people motivated by overly idealistic goals?

There is something almost comically familiar to these debates about voting strategy. They're like a distant relative, at once annoying and dear, who returns for an emotional visit every four years. The older you are, the more you think you've come to understand this quadrennial ritual. Yet each time, it has the potential to throw you just a little bit off.

Certainly the disputes on the political left about the Nader candidacy are similar to those of earlier generations. Backers of Eugene Debs in his four bids in the early 1900s, of Robert LaFollette in 1924, and of Henry Wallace in 1948 were counseled against wasting their vote. And the left has never been consistent in its strategy. The Nation magazine declined to endorse populist firebrand William Jennings Bryan in 1896 over Republican William McKinley. But it endorsed socialist Norman Thomas in 1932 over FDR. The Nation's editorial board was bitterly split this time on the Nader question. The editors ended up advising readers to support Gore as the one sure way to stop Bush.

This year there has been a fine twist, though. As the presidential campaigns have become more sophisticated in targeting a few key swing states, leaving vast swaths of the country almost ignored, awareness has grown that the real battle is for electoral votes, not the popular vote. In many states, either Gore or Bush leads comfortably. So, many on the left who live in such states are feeling freer to vote for Nader. The electoral college may be an anachronism, but in a small way, it is encouraging third-party voting.

Nader himself has urged "tactical voting" (as did The Nation), saying that in a state such as Texas, the real wasted vote is for Gore, who is out of the running there. Steve Cobble, one of Nader's advisers, offered a detailed breakdown on of which states are strongest for Gore and Bush, concluding that 17 states were sure to be in the Bush column and 15 were safe for Gore. Only in five states, or perhaps as many as eight, is there any real threat of Nader voters playing a "spoiler" role, he advised.

Some of Nader's people do not concede that much. It's not certain that those who vote for Nader would otherwise be for Gore, they say. Some may be independents who voted in previous years for Ross Perot. Some might otherwise not vote at all. Still, it's not hard, especially for Gore backers, to see the risk involved. Suppose the margin in the electoral college is paper thin. If Gore comes up with 266 electoral votes and Bush gets 272 (it takes 270 to win), that means a state the size of Oregon (with seven electoral votes) could tip the balance. It's entirely possible that Gore could lose Oregon by a percentage point or two. And it's possible that Nader could receive 8 percent of the Oregon vote. Nader could also tip Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Washington State, and be widely seen as the man who put Bush in the White House.

Nader's backers say it's not their fault Gore has had so much difficulty appealing to voters. But as Cobble admits when the question is put to him, "If Gore loses, and Ralph gets 5 percent, the abuse will come raining down."

Many liberals and progressives who admire Nader oppose his run for another reason: They don't share the long-term goal of building up a third party, much less the Greens. If Nader wins 5 percent of the popular vote, his real goal, the Green Party will qualify for federal funding in 2004, just as the now-derided Reform Party did this year thanks to Perot's showing in 1996.

Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin law professor who several years ago was a stalwart of the New Party, is one who questions Nader's end game. While he describes Nader as a "great national hero," he says, "I have less respect for the Greens. I don't understand why he saddled up with them." Nor does he think running a prominent leader is the best way to build a third party, which in any case he believes is "pretty much hopeless," given the obstacles the political system puts up. He wishes Nader would have made his case in the Democratic primaries or ran in the general election as an independent, like John Anderson in 1980.

In the labor movement, terms like "self-indulgent," "narcissistic," and "childish" are being used to describe Nader voters. "This is so symptomatic of the problems of the American left," says Stewart Acuff, a deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO based in Chicago. "There's huge stakes here. A Bush election could carry with it an effort on the part of the administration to cripple the labor movement."

Acuff says Nader voters ignore the risk that labor, the most effective institutional power on the left and the real ground troops for a progressive agenda, could be dealt a severe blow by a Bush win. The relationship between Nader-style activists and unionists that developed in last year's globalization protests in Seattle is now under strain, Acuff adds.

Even in a state such as Massachusetts, where Gore is not in trouble, there is little appreciation among labor leaders for the Nader candidacy. "He should do the honorable thing for the country, as he's always tried to do what's best for the country, and step aside," says Kathleen Casavant, the secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.

Conversations about voting for principled candidates who have no shot at winning take place on two contradictory wavelengths. Political scientists have noted that most people think of their one measly vote more as an act of self-expression than as one of real influence. For some, casting a ballot is a matter of sentiment, principle, or anger, not grand strategy. If Nader best expresses one's political views, why not reward him with a vote?

But a central tenet of the American left is also to think about political action as a collective enterprise. James Weinstein, the venerable editor of In These Times, a left-wing magazine based in Chicago, recently wrote about his vote for the Progressive Party in 1948 and his decision this year not to vote for Nader. Noting that third-party efforts have never lasted in the United States, Weinstein faulted Nader for taking on a "hopeless" crusade. "Every four or eight years, some of us look around and are so appalled by the major party choices that we are compelled to tilt at windmills by engaging in quixotic campaigns for president," he wrote. "It's time for us to confront reality and to grow up politically."

Some Nader supporters see the campaign as part of a gathering movement against corporate domination of the political system. "He's in the running for building a new politics in this country," says Texas populist Jim Hightower, "so we're not all in the same position four years from now, standing around scratching our butts and voting again for the evil of two lessers."

As to whether the Green Party will be the focal point of that new politics, Hightower is noncommittal. "In the year 2000, the most important, constructive effort is in the Nader campaign. This is the place to be this time." He adds, "I remain a Democrat. I hope my party becomes a Democratic Party again."

Nader has not been speaking optimistically about such prospects. Nor does Steve Cobble, who worked for Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s in an effort to strengthen the left wing of the Democratic Party. Cobble argues that the "battle's over" and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council won. "The party you grew up in you don't have influence in anymore," he says. As for the prospects of a stronger Green Party, Cobble invokes Nader's track record of building enduring public-interest organizations. "I can't think of a better-suited personality on our side for this task," he says.

"The more effective strategy is to take back the apparatus of the Democratic Party," counters Acuff. But not until progressives show they are willing to "put it on the line," says Hightower, who points to past populist campaigns that succeeded in forcing the major parties to address their issues. Acuff interprets American history as showing that social movements do not spring out of electoral campaigns. And back and forth the argument goes.

Many will vote for Nader this year not out of a long-term vision about whether a new party has a chance, but out of anger or disgust with the two major parties, pure and simple. Herman Daly, the eminent environmentalist who is a professor at the University of Maryland, says he's solidly behind Nader because "Bush is 100 percent sold out to the corporations and Gore is 95 percent sold out." Even Joel Rogers, holding no illusions about the prospects for a Green Party, and with Wisconsin too close to call a few weeks before the election, hadn't ruled out a vote for Nader: "If I vote for Gore, it'll be holding my nose."

One thing that is impossible to miss about the Nader campaign is that something is taking place that is unusual in latter-day American politics. Crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 people, sometimes more, are gathering in large arenas to hear a man talk about the concentration of wealth and power, about "corporate rule," and about populist democratic solutions. Many of these potential voters are young or otherwise disaffected and have almost instinctively rejected the artificial, consultant-concocted rhetoric offered by the two major parties. Surely Nader would not be drawing such crowds and would not be succeeding in introducing this nearly lost language of democratic possibility to the young in any other context than a presidential campaign.

It calls to mind the spirit of "democratic utopianism" that Irving Howe invoked in founding the radical magazine Dissent in the 1950s, a spirit that has for so long been a vital, animating force of the American left. Meanwhile, union organizers and progressive activists are fanning out across neighborhoods and cities and states to do the hard, pragmatic, inglorious work of swinging a close election so that their cause--and Nader's? and the left's?--is not set back who knows how many years. This hard-headed realism, less concerned with abstractions and more involved with the actual stakes as they affect people at the ground level, is part of the radical tradition, too, as the late Carey McWilliams, a longtime editor of The Nation, once noted.

McWilliams associated pragmatic radicalism with the farm worker strikes of the West, and a more ideological style with the smoke-filled salons of the East Coast cities. Views about the Nader campaign don't break down geographically this year, but the split between the dreamers and the realists, the dissenters and the coalition-builders, has shown itself again. If Stewart Acuff is right that the blue-collar/green-T-shirt alliance is in jeopardy, a lot of work will need to be done starting November 8. No matter what happens, both sides will need each other. ยค