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The Nader Campaign and the Future of U.S. Left Electoral Politics

The unlikely postelection contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, which ultimately led to the anointing of Bush as president by the Republican majority on the US Supreme Court (despite the fact that Bush received fewer popular votes than Gore both in the United States as a whole and most likely in Florida as well—the state that gave Bush his electoral college win), has tended to erase all other developments associated with the election. But all of this should not cause us to forget that the Ralph Nader Green Party campaign for the presidency was arguably the most extraordinary phenomenon in US left politics in many years. On election day he drew nearly three million votes, representing about 3 percent of the vote. Even former Vice-President Henry Wallace did not fare so well in his third-party run for the presidency in 1948, the last progressive third-party presidential campaign of this nature and magnitude. Although exit polls show that Nader received few racial minority votes (a major weakness of his campaign), he nonetheless drew his strongest support from those without a college education, those with incomes less than thirty thousand dollars a year, and those without full-time employment. Until the intense scare campaign instigated by the Democrats in the final two weeks before the election, Nader was getting as much as 7 percent in some tracking polls.

Nader ran quite far to the left on issue after issue; this was no warmed-over version of mainstream liberal Democratic politics. The Green platform was an antineoliberal progressive platform that any socialist could support openly. At the same time, Nader enjoyed tremendous and enthusiastic crowds on the campaign trail, often appearing before paying crowds that ranged from ten to fifteen thousand with hardly any advance work. Were there no public opinion polls, one who merely watched the size and nature of crowd responses to the candidates on the campaign trail might have thought Nader the likely winner or at least a strong contender for victory. Moreover, these crowds were dominated by young people. Such a response would have been unthinkable one or two decades ago.

Nader was the best-suited and arguably the only feasible candidate to make a progressive third-party run in 2000. He came of age in the 1960s when progressive political figures had some opportunity to gain exposure in the media culture; he has long been a household name. (As Nader notes, with the rightward shift of our political landscape and the hypercommercialism of our media culture, serious progressive critics of the status quo have had far less opportunity to gain national exposure in the past two decades, unless they are political humorists like Michael Moore or people who become celebrities for other reasons and then discuss politics, like Susan Sarandon.) He is also highly regarded for a list of accomplishments in the public interest that is nothing short of stunning. Nader turned to electoral politics only when it became clear that the degree of corporate domination over both parties made the sort of public interest work he did nearly impossible to pursue with any hope of success. Nader is not a socialist, but he is a principled democrat who has the courage to call for sweeping reforms in the political economy when it is apparent that corporate domination and class inequality are undermining democracy. Nader spoke brilliantly in plain language to everyday Americans from a range of backgrounds about the need for sweeping structural reform, a lost art among many on the left.

The issue that was the foundation of the Nader campaign was his opposition to the World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the entirety of the global procapitalist trade, investment, and regulatory system. Unlike nationalist opponents of the WTO like Pat Buchanan, Nader’s opposition was on democratic grounds: these agencies were not subject to popular control in the United States or elsewhere and were therefore illegitimate. Moreover, Nader was and is arguably the world’s foremost expert on exactly how these institutions of global capitalism are generating disastrous results across the planet for workers, consumers, and the environment. Nader and the Greens also favored deep cuts in the US military budget and apparatus and opposed US material support for reactionary regimes and policies around the world. Nader, who drew 19 percent of the total Muslim vote (72 percent of which went to Bush), declared that there will be no peace in the Middle East “without justice for the Palestinians.” In sum, Nader and the Greens offered a progressive and nonimperialist foreign policy that was decidedly outside the “bipartisan consensus” that is almost never debated in the US electoral arena.

This is a point that merits consideration because the discussion of the Nader campaign, even on the left, has focused almost entirely on his critique of the domestic imbalance of power, giving very slight attention the international aspects. The United States is the dominant imperial power in the world and this is the central unspoken truth of our times. In the global capitalist order, the US state has a number of responsibilities: to keep the system functioning; to control the underlying populations; to safeguard the United States as the center of the international financial system; to maintain the United States (and, specifically, US capitalists/corporations) in the top perch in the imperialist pecking order; and to prevent countries from breaking away from the system of global controls. For these reasons, in addition to domestic pressure from the military-industrial complex, the United States maintains, by a very wide margin, the world’s largest military, though it has no rival whatsoever in any traditional sense. Although the wider foreign policy implications of Nader’s campaign were almost never reported in the media, they clearly represented a threat to the global status quo.

Indeed, Nader the candidate never got the opportunity to communicate these or any other positions to the great mass of Americans because his campaign was absolutely butchered in the news media. Nader’s coverage in the New York Times resembled, in some respects, the coverage Andrei Sakharov got from Pravda and Izvestia back in the 1970s. This should be no surprise but it was sobering nonetheless. Without gobs of money to purchase TV advertising—the lingua franca of US politics—or, better yet, without the sort of massive grassroots operation that could overcome the media blackout, many citizens never had any idea that Nader was running vigorously or what his positions were on the issues he was addressing. (If the winner of the election were determined by who spent the least for each of their votes or who received the least amount of news coverage per vote, Nader would have won in a landslide.) Most of the media attention Nader did receive was obsessed with how his candidacy would affect the fortunes of Democrat Al Gore. This was true even on the left and among progressives. Numerous leftists who supported Nader on the issues opposed his candidacy, often with startling bitterness, because it would take votes away from Gore, the “lesser of two evils”—which became a mantra to a greater extent than any time since 1968. The 2000 race highlighted again how the US electoral laws have a deeply conservative and undemocratic bias that increases dramatically the degree of difficulty for both third parties and progressives.

In our view, the Nader campaign was the electoral side of the mass organizing that produced the extraordinary demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 and in Washington, DC, and at the two national political conventions in 2000. As with those demonstrations, there is no guarantee that this upsurge in activism will produce a sustained movement capable of fundamentally changing the existing order. But we believe the evidence suggests that there are new openings for popular left organizing in the United States, and that the chance to organize for progressive electoral candidates is better than at any time in memory. It is possible that a left electoral movement can, within a generation, become a dominant political force in the nation. It may not be an explicitly socialist movement that will invoke the icons of the left that MR readers cut their teeth on but it will be a progressive anticorporate movement by any measure. There is an important and necessary role for the socialist left in this movement. The implications of these developments go well beyond the United States, in view of the US role as the dominant global capitalist power. If a viable prodemocracy, anti-imperialist movement can emerge here, it will improve the possibilities dramatically for socialists and progressives worldwide.

The Electoral Politics of the Left

It is an indication of how much times are changing that we can actually discuss the US left and electoral politics in the pages of MR without being purely hypothetical or dismissive. The last notable attempt at a left third-party presidential campaign was Wallace’s run in 1948, the year before MR was founded. That Wallace was clobbered so badly was a signal that the left was under attack and entering a long period of decline. The notion of an electoral third party was soon abandoned. Many on the left, along with those generally sympathetic to the left, opted to work through the Democratic Party in the second half of the century, to make it more progressive than it would have been otherwise. Communist Party USA-instigated groups, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Rainbow Coalition have been but a few of the vehicles used by progressives in attempts to push the Democrats to the left. Other leftists downplayed electoral work, though they usually hoped the Democrats would win (to the extent that they cared). With little to show for these efforts, it was easy for some on the left to dismiss electoral politics as inherently corrupt and limited in value, if not a waste of valuable time and resources.

The left’s suspicion of political strategies that emphasize electoral politics to the exclusion of everything else, or privilege electoral strategies over all else, is firmly grounded. It is an illusion to think that electoral work is the be-all, end-all of politics. Parliamentary systems are the result of intense mass struggle, among other things, and ruling classes will invariably dismiss the results and turn to extralegal measures if their interests are threatened in a fundamental manner. Indeed, as the 2000 election highlighted, capitalist political parties will abandon their commitment to fairness even in squabbles with each other, let alone a socialist party. The moral of the story is that there is always a necessary place for nonelectoral (what in Europe is called “extra- parliamentary”) left political work.

Viable left electoral politics has always found its basis in well-developed nonelectoral political organizations and activism. With nonelectoral popular movements in place, the electoral campaigns have a foundation to build upon, and answer to. If this link is broken and the electoral campaign achieves success yet loses touch with popular movements, bad things tend to happen. Likewise, if a progressive candidate gets caught up in the personalization of politics, and loses the necessary sense of humility and political principle, worse things tend to happen. This justifies skepticism toward, but not outright dismissal of, electoral politics. Relatively well-conducted electoral movements, like the Nader campaign or, going back in history, the Eugene Debs Socialist Party campaigns early in the century, can help build nonelectoral movements, and vice versa. Although Debs never got more than 6 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate, his campaigns were instrumental in galvanizing socialist and union organizing. And in our current closed political culture, a presidential campaign is one of the very few places where meaningful political issues can be raised at a national level and political education take place. Even with all the obstacles in its way, the Nader campaign probably exposed more Americans to progressive positions on political issues than anything else has for quite some time. The campaign was an important and necessary step to take the straightjacket off US political debate. But electoral campaigns without corresponding nonelectoral movements end up being mostly of the protest variety and of limited value.

Moreover, electoral politics does not mean simply working on presidential campaigns. It might be judged strategically sound, for example, for those on the left to emphasize referenda and other races over making another presidential run in 2004. That will depend upon circumstances that develop over the next year or two. In recent years, there has been a debate among US progressives who do electoral work over whether it is best to emphasize local races or national races. The argument for the former goes that local races are more winnable and less expensive and can therefore give left parties a chance to be effective and attract new supporters. The argument for the latter, like we state above, is that in a depoliticized society like the United States, it is only in presidential races that people (and the news media) will pay much attention to political ideas; it is an opportunity to be used for political education. An electoral strategy geared to the genuine transformation of society would ideally pursue both local and national races, as well as link with nonelectoral popular movements. In Brazil, for example, as Michael Löwy described in the November 2000 MR, the Workers’ Party is using its control of local offices to democratize decision-making and bring poor people and workers into the process that determines budgets. Some of the success of the local Workers Party candidates is attributable to the publicity for the party generated by the dramatic presidential runs of Lula over the past twelve years. Eventually Lula, or another Workers’ Party candidate, may win the presidency of Brazil and, if she or he does, that person likely will find an aroused and involved mass base, both in the electoral and nonelectoral arenas. It is as intriguing a recipe as we have seen for using electoral politics to assist in establishing democratic socialism.

It is the rise of several popular movements in the United States in recent years that laid the foundation for Nader’s relatively successful run. To Nader’s credit, he made clear the importance of nonelectoral activism to any progressive electoral movement. Likewise, Nader and the Greens always argued that the 2000 campaign was part of building a longterm majoritarian movement to overturn corporate domination of politics and the economy. These points seemingly were lost on (or dismissed by) some of the left critics of Nader, who argued that it was incomprehensible to “throw away” a vote for a lost cause like Nader and therefore assist in electing the greater of the two evils. In 1992, such a claim might have carried some weight, when Nader ran as a symbolic “protest” candidate in the New Hampshire primary, or in 1996, when he did not campaign although he was on many ballots as a candidate for president. But in 2000, with rising movements against sweatshops, military imperialism, corporate globalization, capital punishment, the prison-industrial complex, economic and racial inequality, and environmental devastation, among others, it would have been absurd to tell activists to bury the hatchet and work for Gore, who upon election would become their direct opponent in most battles on these issues. Indeed, exit polls showed that a large share of Nader’s voters would not even have voted if Nader had not been on the ballot.

In addition to rising popular movements, and related to them, is another factor that explains the surge of interest in left third-party electoral activity: the thoroughgoing deterioration and collapse of the US electoral system over the past three decades. In discussing this deterioration of citizen participation in and influence over the electoral process, we are by no means arguing that there was a “golden age” of electoral politics in the United States to which we should return. Even at its best, electoral politics in the United States in the past century has been fairly gruesome, with the wealthy holding far too much power and the poor and working class significantly depoliticized (and in some cases, such as the Jim Crow South, disenfranchised).

In fact, far from there ever being a “golden age” of democracy in the United States, in the broadest sense the marriage of political democracy and class society has always been a contradiction. From the heyday of Athens through the founding of the United States, the major battle on the part of the ruling classes in quasidemocratic societies across the world has always been to limit the franchise, so that the propertyless majority could not dominate the wealthy few. The masses, of course, struggled to extend the franchise, and truly great democratic milestones are marked by those victories. Capitalism subtly but importantly reduced the immediate threat of political democracy by removing direct control over crucial economic matters from the political sphere to the sphere of investors seeking maximum profit. But the threat of popular rule remained and, once universal adult suffrage became the norm during the twentieth century, it posed a distinct challenge to the ruling class and to the survival of capitalism.

Brute force in this context was ineffective, except in times of severe crisis. Rather, as C. B. Macpherson has written, the best way to reconcile inegalitarian economics with egalitarian politics was to foster depoliticization by the masses. Sometimes, as sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward note, this has taken the form of extraordinary measures to limit the ability of working-class and poor Americans to exercise their legal right to vote. (This is still evident in the African-American precincts in Florida where, through a number of dubious measures, tens of thousands of African-Americans who tried to go to the polls in November 2000 did not have their votes counted.) More often, it means ideological warfare by business, through various forms of public relations, to limit the capacity of working class and oppressed people to act in their own interests or, as historian Alex Carey has put it, “to take the risk out of democracy.”

The net result is that in the United States, half the adult population never votes and only a bit more than one-third of the adult population votes in nonpresidential years. Whether a person is likely to vote is directly related to class: the more wealth and income a person has, the more likely that person is to vote. The higher the voter turnout, the greater the likelihood of a serious left presence in the electoral system. So it is that the greatest left victories in electoral politics have generally come in environments where 80 to 95 percent of the adult population votes.

Consider the class dimensions of voting in the United States, based on exit polls following the November 2000 election. Those Americans making less than fifty thousand dollars per year, nearly 80 percent of the adult population, accounted for only 47 percent of the voters. Or, to put it another way, the top fifth or, to be generous, the top quarter of highest income Americans accounted for more than half the votes cast. Moreover, the class bias has become more pronounced in the past twenty-five years, as an inordinate number of working-class and middle-class Americans have stopped voting, or have never begun to vote.

Those proponents of capital über alles, like economist Milton Friedman, are explicit in their contempt for notions of political democracy. This point must never be forgotten in the barrage of propaganda that equates markets with democracy, all to enhance the power of the rich at the expense of everyone else. In Friedman’s dream world, people put all their energy into commercial affairs and the point of government is to protect private property. Voter disinterest, apathy, and cynicism are highly desirable, especially among those eligible voters who might have insufficient appreciation for the joys of class society and capitalist living. An informed and active public sphere, argues this line of reasoning, can only produce negative effects because it might lead to government policies that interfere with profit maximization.

The situation is not hopeless for the left, though the playing field is sloped. Working-class parties can make headway, especially if backed by powerful nonelectoral movements, most notably trade unions. So it has been that in Scandinavia, where left parties have managed to generate social policies quite beneficial to the working class although sharply opposed by nearly the entirety of the ruling class. In recent years, these victories have been cut back, as they have been under sustained attack by business. The United States has never come anywhere near the degree of left influence in electoral politics as Scandinavia. A key difference was that the ostensible “progressive” political party in the United States—the Democratic party—was always a party with strong ties to Wall Street and corporate interests and, until the 1970s, embraced by the most vicious racists and segregationists in the nation. The high-water mark for progressive electoral politics in the past century was the New Deal in the late 1930s, fueled by a massive upsurge from below and, in particular, the rise of militant trade unionism. From the standpoint of US history, some quite radical reforms reforms were passed, most notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under which the unemployed were given jobs fitting their abilities, working at socially useful tasks—entirely independent of the market. But even in FDR’s administration many far-reaching measures that business found unacceptable were blocked or had their original purposes subverted. The left was soon met by a crushing ruling-class response that culminated in the red scare of the postwar years.

Then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a result of massive popular protests, a range of unusually progressive domestic policies were adopted, even by such notorious figures as President Richard Nixon. The business community reacted with alarm to its decline in prestige and influence during this period. As the global neoliberal group the Trilateral Commission noted in the mid 1970s, the United States (indeed the world) was awash in a “crisis of democracy,” created by the fact that traditionally apathetic poor people, young people, women, and people of color were getting too involved in the political process. They did not use the term “crisis of democracy” with any sense of irony.

In response to this “crisis of democracy,” the stage was set for our current predicament. The concern of the right in the 1970s was that, in the prevailing culture, capitalist business as usual, militarism, and “being tough on crime” were regarded as negative factors and there was far too much sympathy for the interests of workers, women, ethnic minorities, poor people, and the environment, along with approval for aggressive government policies to serve these interests. The political right mounted a well-funded, full-throttle ideological assault on labor unions, social welfare policies, and “liberalism.” This assault took many forms, including lavish monies spent by rightwing foundations and business groups to push the media debate to the right and make it more probusiness, which was assisted by the deregulation of media ownership.

Today the range of political commentary in the news media extends from the far right to the neoliberal “center,” and in a medium like commercial radio there is hardly anything but the right. What passes for political journalism effectively bounces between the walls of legitimate debate that are set by the two main parties. It is easily manipulated by the powerful and highly resistant to, and contemptuous of, issues and positions that fall outside the narrow mainstream. The assault also pushed university teaching and research to the right. The use of sophisticated propaganda techniques and fire-tested buzzwords, like “markets,” “entrepreneurs,” “competition,” “deregulation,” “growth,” and “choice” abounded. As has been well documented, the campaign has been remarkably successful. In short, the political right ideologically promoted an environment conducive to the adaptation of ferociously antilabor, probusiness neoliberal policies in the United States and worldwide—policies which had been anathema to the vast majority of citizens for generations.

Democrats and Republicans Go Right

A critical development in the rightward turn of the US electoral culture has been the demise of progressive forces having any meaningful influence in the higher reaches of the Democratic Party. Business has always been important in the Democratic Party and the campaign to increase corporate influence grew after progressive George McGovern won the nomination in 1972 and wrote the most anticorporate platform since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign. But the main institutional development in this regard was the rise and operation of the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) under Bill Clinton and Al Gore, among others, starting in 1985. The explicit purpose of the DLC was to make the Democrats as decidedly probusiness and promilitary as the Republicans. It was the DLC that pushed the Democrats to adopt neoliberal policies like industry deregulation, budget balancing at all costs, privatization of public services, lower business taxes, and support for global corporate trade deals like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and NAFTA. For its traditional constituencies of women, minorities, environmentalists, and labor it offered a far smaller feast of lukewarm support for civil rights, affirmative action, abortion rights, and the oft-repeated argument that “hey, we are nowhere near as bad as the Republicans.” But genuine progressive policies like single-payer health insurance, equalization of school spending, demilitarization of the political economy, quality public transportation, increasing the ability of workers to form trade unions, reducing economic inequality, rehabilitation rather than retribution for those convicted of violent crimes, opposition to drug prohibition, and guaranteed employment at a living wage—most of which had a viable basis of support within Democratic circles in the 1970s—were fully purged from the party platforms with the DLC’s inspiration and guidance.

The transformation of the Democrats was fully accomplished over the past eight years. A turning point came when Clinton selected Gore as his vice-presidential candidate in 1992. Prior to that date, conservative or centrist Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter had “balanced” the ticket with liberals like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. With Clinton’s selection of Gore, it was a formal recognition that the liberal wing of the party was losing serious clout. Any short list of the major legislative accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore administration would include: passage of a Draconian crime law; the approval of NAFTA and GATT and the creation of the WTO; the Telecommunications Act of 1996; the elimination of federal welfare guarantees to poor children and single mothers; and maintenance and expansion of military spending. These are all issues traditionally championed by the right wing of the Republican Party. There are hardly any progressive measures anywhere to be found on the Clinton-Gore report card and not one major issue where they squared off with the needs of the wealthy and put all their influence on the line to go to bat for their voting base.

Moreover, reports by administration insiders like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich indicate that in cabinet debates over nearly all of these issues, it was Vice-President Al Gore who generally pushed for the most conservative, probusiness position. The dominance of the “New Democrats” within the party emerged in full force in 2000, when they cornered the entire market on presidential aspirants, for a number of reasons but notably because the exorbitant cost of campaigning scared off all but those who could comfortably nuzzle up to the money trough. Hence, the “liberal” primary challenger to Al Gore was Bill Bradley, another DLC poster child, described approvingly by one conservative as second only to Robert Rubin as “Wall Street’s favorite Democrat.” His liberalism was based, apparently, on a more sincere and higher grade of rhetoric for the dispossessed. Then, as the icing on the “New Democrat” cake, when Gore won the nomination, he selected Joseph Lieberman, the current DLC chair, as his running mate. Gore, the most conservative Democratic nominee since 1924, managed to locate one of the only Democratic Senators whose record was even more cravenly probusiness than his own. The Republican Wall Street Journal was left fumbling, as it had to acknowledge that Lieberman was as devoted to the interests of the capitalist class as nearly any other member of Congress, party notwithstanding.

Another part of the DLC agenda—one that received considerably greater discussion in the news media—was the need for the Democrats to appeal to more socially conservative voters “turned off” by what was perceived as the Democrat’s allegiance to the interests of women, gays and lesbians, poor people, marijuana smokers, and ethnic minorities. This was especially important because all the Clinton-Gore-Lieberman rhetoric about the evils of Republicans could not keep an increasing percentage of poor and working-class voters from dropping out of the electoral process in the 1990s, for quite rational reasons. Attracting socially conservative white males (who used to be called “Reagan Democrats”) to the Democrats was to be accomplished by being super tough on crime and drug use, and supporting capital punishment and militarism. The notion that a more fruitful way to generate new votes would be to appeal to the nonvoting 50 percent of the population—disproportionately poor and working class—with a platform that delivered the goods rather than piles of rhetoric was never even countenanced, as that went directly against the probusiness orientation of the DLC, the interests of the party’s corporate benefactors, and the imagination of the braindead punditocracy in the news media.

A real progressive platform might also have appealed to many working-class social conservatives, who are rarely given a reason to vote other than their attitude toward issues like guns, school prayer, and the death penalty. Indeed, Republicans—who seem to have a firmer grasp of how to win or steal elections than many Democrats—live in fear of such a “populist” strategy on the part of Democrats. This led to constant preemptory attacks on the Democrats for initiating “class warfare,” as if this were a very bad thing, at the slightest sign that Democrats were appealing to the economic interests of the working class. The DLC Democrats fall all over themselves to repudiate the Republican charges, for fear of scaring off their wealthy and corporate benefactors, not to mention their own actual political views. Today the lack of class consciousness among the Democrats is palpable, and a clear majority of the party’s candidates and officials have backed off from any marked differentiation of politics on economic lines.

The effort by the Democrats to move “rightward” for votes was a thoroughgoing flop in the 2000 presidential election. The “New Democrat” record notwithstanding, the Republicans paint the Democrats as the party of tax-and-spend maniacs and social liberals. “We were hurt,” said DLC president Al From, exhibiting the tortured logic that insists the Democrats head ever more rightward, “because we were viewed in this election as being too liberal and too much in favor of big government.” The truth is that nearly every state that Al Gore won in 2000 could have been won, arguably, by someone like Senator Paul Wellstone from the party’s most liberal wing, assuming they had anywhere near the campaign war chest Gore commanded. (And, by our reasoning, had a Wellstone pressed economic issues on class lines in a manner that would have scared the pants off the DLC, the Democrats might have made much larger inroads with the white working class and even nonvoters.) The appeal to social conservative white males did not even net Gore historically Democratic states like West Virginia, Bill Clinton’s Arkansas, or Gore’s own home state of Tennessee; if conservative credibility is one’s criteria for voting, people logically will tend to go to what is perceived as the genuine (Republican) article.

So it is one of great ironies of our times that Democrats like Gore and Lieberman can only win elections by getting enormous support from what remains of the traditional progressive coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, labor, feminists and environmentalists. (Early in the fall, Americans witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of Gore seeking to attract voters by proclaiming his commitment to populism and protecting the little people from corporate bullies, even as Lieberman told the Wall Street Journal that business should pay no attention to Gore, because it was meaningless rhetoric only meant to get voters, not a discussion of actual policies that might be implemented.) African-Americans alone provided some 20 percent of all of Gore’s votes in 2000. Yet in return, these voters get crumbs, while the DLC’s big money backers get the keys to the country.

It was only a matter of time until there was a revolt in the ranks, like the one represented in 2000 by the Nader campaign. The Democrats’ absolute reliance on progressive voters, along with the party’s absolute refusal to offer progressive policies, might explain the hysterical tone as well as the unprincipled and generally groundless nature of the attacks on Nader and his presidential campaign by Democrats and liberal leaders in 2000. A candid and honest debate over the Clinton-Gore record and the likely contours of a Gore-Lieberman administration was the last thing liberal Gore apologists wanted. Instead, the refrain heard over and over was, “regardless of what you think of Gore, he is vastly superior to the Republicans.” (Curiously, the Republicans, hardly an upstanding bunch in any calculation, appeared far more charitable toward Ross Perot, who did serious damage to their presidential chances in 1992. Likewise, they pretty much laid off attacking Pat Buchanan in 2000, even though evidence suggests he may have done more damage to Bush than Nader did to Gore in the electoral college.)

This “lesser-of-two-evils” mantra is predicated on the sheer evil of the Republican Party and this leads to a less noted but quite significant development in US politics over the past forty years: the consolidation of the Republican Party as a hard right, militantly neoliberal party. For much of this century, and well into the 1960s, the Republican Party included a liberal wing, featuring many prominent figures with political records well to the left of Clinton, Gore, and Lieberman. When Lieberman first won his Senate seat in 1988, he did so by running from the right against arguably the last of the Senate Republican liberals, Lowell Weicker. Lieberman redbaited Weicker on foreign policy and had the support of William F. Buckley and the rightwing Cuban terrorist crowd.

In the past, the Republicans also had a moderate or centrist wing, typified by someone like Dwight Eisenhower. This offered progressive constituencies a modicum of competition for their votes in some instances. As late as 1960, for example, around one-third of African-Americans voted for Nixon rather than Kennedy for president. But the hard right takeover of the party, beginning with Goldwater and culminating in Reagan, left conservatives like Bob Dole and George Bush as the “moderates” and the liberals like John Lindsay, Earl Warren, John Anderson, and Pete McCloskey nowhere to be found. And what is called “conservatism” today has none of the principled commitment to individual liberty, small-scale institutions and the rule of law, or a skepticism toward market excess and imperialism, that was seen occasionally in earlier versions. This is a conservatism that is dedicated purely to serving the needs of the wealthy under any and all circumstances and to seizing power by any means necessary. It is this new Republican Party with its bare-knuckle, know-nothing “conservatism” that opened the door for the DLC strategy to push the Democrats to the right. Now the Democrats could march into Wall Street’s open arms with little fear of losing progressive voters to the Republicans

The bankruptcy of the US electoral system is not merely that it is well under the thumb of the rich and powerful and has a range of debate more suitable to a quasidictatorship than to a self-governing people. It is also that the electoral and governing systems have became grotesquely corrupt. It is one of capitalism’s contradictions that it ostensibly works best when there is a culture dominated by the rule of law and a governing system typified by transparency, integrity, and civic virtue. Indeed, mainstream pundits and academics often argue that it is the lack of these attributes in the “crony capitalism” of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia that prevents sustained economic growth. Yet capitalism, with its incessant pressure to reward personal greed and penalize altruism, invariably eats away at any public service values and institutions if they stand in the way of profit. That is why whenever neoliberal policies gain the upper hand in a nation, they almost invariably lead to a tidal wave of corruption. So it has been with electoral political culture in the United States—as symbolized by the renting out of the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

Corporate domination of the electoral process in the United States is locked in by a campaign system that requires enormous sums of money for candidates to have almost any chance of being victorious. The cost of the 2000 federal election campaigns was well over three billion dollars, up some 40 percent from 1996, which was up 40 percent again from 1992. Much of this money goes to pay for manipulative and insulting TV advertisements.

Unless candidates can afford TV advertising, they lose their place in the tireless roundups presented by the news media, and they cannot answer TV ads that attack them by their opponents, which has proven to be mandatory for winning races. Most of this money comes from powerful and wealthy corporations and individuals. Ninety percent of the money that comes from individual campaign contributions, for example, comes from the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) has accurately described the electoral system as one of “legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” Corporations need to make hefty campaign contributions to guarantee a slice of the action when Washington doles out the goodies. Hence, scores of major corporations gave at least one hundred thousand dollars to both political parties in 2000. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation was a classic example of how two-party politics works nowadays. His Fox News Channel served as little more than a propaganda dispenser for the Bush campaign in 2000; at the same time Murdoch was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats and candidate Gore. That way, whichever party wins, Murdoch wins. And so it is for the wealthy and corporate America. The “room for maneuver” against the interests of capital in mainstream US political culture—never very pronounced—has all but disappeared. And in the “screw you, I’m out for number one” culture that comes with the rule of money, the entire governing process has become a stinking cesspool of corruption. The bamboo prison of class rule has become an iron cage.

But the situation is anything but locked in for all time or even for very long at all. This is a political moment with notable openings for progressive organizing, electoral and otherwise. There are several reasons for this. In the broadest sense, although depoliticization is a rational immediate response to the status quo, it is untenable over the long haul. People are social beings and politics goes a long way toward shaping the quality of our lives. Social problems require social solutions, and all the public relations and spinmeisters in the world cannot eliminate that truth. This is especially true in a world with enormous social inequality, and where the civic religion is the bankrupt notion that “you are what you own.” In the United States, 1 percent of the population now has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. As Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn explains, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” The corruption of the US political system assures that conditions will only get worse for most Americans. When the dispossessed and disaffected believe that political activity can improve their lives, they get politically active and change the world. Hence, as noted above, we have seen the emergence of a new wave of social activism in the past few years. But there are openings for progressive politics that go far beyond that.

A crucial difference today from, say, forty years ago, is that support for and enthusiasm toward the political status quo is paper thin. Only 48 percent of adult Americans voted for Gore and Bush in the 2000 election. Of those, one-half said they did not really care for the candidate they voted for, they were voting against the other candidate. So that leaves 12 percent that actually supported each candidate, and we suspect a significant percentage of those voters were people who vote habitually for the Democrat or the Republican, regardless of the candidate. And it goes well beyond the personalities of specific politicians. The neoliberal thrust of Reagan Republicans has lost whatever steam it had among voters; George W. Bush and many Republicans actually ran for office in 2000 on the claim that they will use the government to improve social security, healthcare, and education. It is notable, too, that the Republicans have concluded that openly attacking gays, lesbians, and feminists and making more coded attacks on immigrants and African-Americans are also counterproductive to the goal of winning elections. We have already explained the failure of the DLC approach to attract popular support, such that Gore was forced to run as a pseudopopulist to find enough votes to win. What is striking, and what has been confirmed in research by political scientist Joel Rogers and others for many years now, is that the voting electorate seems open to more progressive policies than either party is willing or able to offer. And this does not even take into consideration the one hundred million Americans who do not vote, who are disproportionately poor, working-class, young, and people of color. It is here that the foundation of progressive electoral politics lies.

New Openings and New Uncertainties

In short, the opening for progressives to engage in electoral work in the coming years is clearly wider than it has been in some time. This new opening is emerging not as an alternative to nonelectoral organizing, but as a complement to a vibrant mass movement arising outside of the electoral sphere. Nevertheless, there are severe obstacles in the way, which may undermine left electoral activity. In particular, reactionary electoral laws that make it extremely difficult to launch a viable third party, as well as a campaign system that requires enormous amounts of money to reach potential voters (and counteract scurrilous charges by well-heeled opponents), have a deadening political effect. (US Representative Tom DeLay [R-Texas] candidly and approvingly admits that having the wealthy bankroll the electoral system virtually guarantees that the “free market” will never face a significant political challenge.) Without these laws and this campaign finance system—say the United States had a system of proportional representation and publicly funded campaigns for all parties—the actual support for the Republicans and Democrats would plummet. Our own guess is the two parties would soon receive the same percentage of the vote—say, 30 to 40 percent—that the old Communist Parties have gotten in parts of Eastern Europe after elections were opened to multiple parties. But their duopoly and the protection of their wealthy benefactors are dependent upon this system, so they are loath to change it.

Still, the debacle in Florida has opened the opportunity for a national debate about electoral systems. Necessary electoral reforms are now taken seriously—ranging all the way from publicly financing elections, making election day a paid holiday, allowing convicted felons who have done their time the right to vote, and registering voters on election day, to even more radical arguments for proportional representation, instant runoff voting, and other steps that would eliminate the case for lesser-of-two-evil voting.

Simply succumbing to the lesser-of-two-evils logic means that progressives should never challenge Democrats in general elections, even if they are as heinous as Gore and Lieberman, because they will only take votes away from the Democrat and assist in electing the greater of two evils, the Republican. This was an argument made not only by people who hate the left like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and many mainstream Democratic hacks (all determined to see Al Gore regarded as the left wing of legitimate thought). It was also made by former radicals who still flash their left credentials to earn holier-than-thou points in academia despite the fact that they are increasingly willing to accept the status quo as the best of all possible worlds, the be-damned-glad-to-have-Gore-instead-of-a-Republican crowd. Were that the extent of the criticism, it could be easily dismissed.

But the lesser-of-two-evils critique was also made by serious leftists who understand how terrible Gore and the Democrats are and who believe we can and must blow open the range of legitimate debate, but who argue that the third party option simply cannot work. In their view, the only option is to work within the Democratic Party, using a left caucus to advance progressive candidates and policies—much like the DLC moved the party to the right. Their argument is that it will be easier to take over the Democrats, or at least gain a dominant position in the party, than it would be to launch a new party that has any hope of contending for power in a system rigged by the two major parties. After all, a significant portion of the current voting base already is relatively progressive, certainly well to the left of the DLC. Indeed, the argument goes, if third party efforts only succeed in putting Republicans in office, they will open up deadly splits on the left, and between left organizers and progressive constituencies.

These are serious concerns not to be dismissed categorically. But it bears repeating that the Democratic Party has been restructured in such a manner over the past two decades as to make the possibility of a McGovern-type insurgency campaign, not to mention something to the left of that, far less plausible. The Democratic Party, at its commanding heights, is now so linked with the needs of business and the military and has so completely cast off its New Deal past, that the routine litmus test of support for the party’s candidates means endorsing an increasing number of truly dreadful candidates, like Gore and Lieberman. Any progressive approach for working within the Democratic party that has to water down its critique of the DLC one iota, or that pays its dues by serving as an attack dog on the third-party left, as seemingly was the case in 2000, almost by definition undermines the very goal it professes: to make the left more powerful in the United States.

There is no doubt that the fundamental electoral challenge for the coming generation on the left is the establishment of a viable working-class-based, antineoliberal political party that will be strong enough and large enough to contend for power. Barring a change in electoral laws, it is arguable that this party will only succeed if it is one of the existing two main parties or a new force that has displaced one of them. This means the Democratic party cannot simply be dismissed. Moreover, many traditional Democratic voters are going to have to be part of any progressive electoral movement, as well as some progressive Democratic elected officials. If those relationships explode, the entire progressive electoral project will be set back, perhaps irreparably. But because of the inherent difficulty in taking over the Democratic party and the party’s severe limitations at present, the prospect of developing a viable third party will continue to be raised. The situation calls for caution rather than bombast, organization rather than polemics. In the near term, at least, it may be wise to work both sides of the street, continue building the movement at the grassroots level, and see how events unfold. Principled progressives should be able to find a solution to this problem, though it will take time and may be influenced by circumstances beyond our control.

2001, Volume 52, Issue 09 (February)
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