Election 2000: Infamy and Hope

Thomas Harrison

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 30, Winter 2001]

THOMAS HARRISON is a high school teacher and a member of the editorial board of NEW POLITICS. He has belonged to the New Party and the Labor Party and is now considering joining the Greens.


WITH BREATHTAKING RUTHLESSNESS AND CYNICISM, the Republicans stole the election. The Rehnquist faction on the Supreme Court handed victory to Bush, as Jonathan Schell put it, "in the dead of night in an opaque, anonymous opinion rendered by Justices who gave no oral presentation from the bench (as they usually do) but instead appropriately snuck out of the Court building through the garage." The fix, evidently, was in from the beginning. Untold thousands of black Floridians were struck from voters' lists to make sure the Democrats would not carry the state. If a re-count had nevertheless produced a slate of Democratic electors, the Florida legislature was ready to select a rival slate and the Republican majority in the House stood ready to certify it. And then, after this unprecedented coup d'etat, Gore told those who supported him to let bygones be bygones and rally behind the thieves.

Mass protest? Maybe at least some gesture, like having a Democratic boycott of the inauguration? Forget it! Gore and the Democratic leadership are absolutely allergic to anything that smacks of "instability" (think of the effect on Wall Street!), and the last thing they want is a new civil rights movement in the streets fighting to reclaim the right to vote. There ought to be a constitutional crisis, but the Democrats will see to it that there isn't. Gore may have had apoplectic fits in private, but he is a good soldier for American capitalism and he knew his duty.

No, it will all be business as usual. As Bush announces his appalling cabinet appointments, with their promise of unlimited environmental pillage, billions for a new star wars boondoggle, another outrageous tax cut for the rich, congressional Democrats assure us they will be ratified. Even ultra-right troglodytes like Linda Chavez, the proposed Secretary of Labor, a hard-bitten foe of affirmative action, and John Ashcroft, the Attorney General-designate, a Bible-thumping enemy of racial justice and abortion rights, will not be blocked but only asked some "tough questions." And why not? After all, it was Clinton who laid the political groundwork for all this by, for example, accepting the idea of reviving a missile defense system, albeit on a more modest scale, permitting vast inroads on our national forests and preserving the massively regressive tax structure put in place in the Reagan era with Democratic support. And it was the Clinton Administration which diluted affirmative action and undermined welfare programs.

Fortunately, in the face of this stomach-turning orgy of sanctimony and bipartisanship, one may also derive some consolation from the Nader campaign. Despite its relatively disappointing vote, despite its vociferous detractors, who just now are particularly audible, and despite Nader's own serious shortcomings, the campaign revealed that a sizeable nucleus for a progressive third party exists. Whether or not its potential to grow into a mass movement is realized will depend on many things. But at least a breakthrough seems to have been made toward independent left politics. If all goes well, the suffocating conservative monolithism of American politics may soon be blown apart.

Re-counts and Disenfranchisement

AS EVERYONE KNOWS, more than 20,000 Palm Beach County residents intended to vote for Gore but, because of a confusing -- and probably illegal -- ballot that looked more like a spatial reasoning test, either ended up voting for Pat Buchanan or spoiled their ballots by punching two holes. Less well known, because the media and the Democratic leadership have pretty much ignored it, is the pattern of voting discrimination and irregularities directed at African-Americans and other minorities. Large numbers of black voters were kept away from the polls by various means, or found themselves standing in line and unable to vote when polls closed prematurely. Many were falsely informed that their names were not on voting lists, that they were listed as convicted felons, or that they needed voter registration cards or two pieces of identification to vote. Minority voters were harassed by police and poll workers. Haitians who asked for Creole translators to help them vote were ignored or given Spanish translators. In Republican-controlled Duval County, which includes the city of Jacksonville, 26,000 ballots were disqualified, an estimated 60 percent of them cast by blacks; this was four times the number of votes disqualified there in 1996.

Some of this was undoubtedly due to ineptitude, confusion and clerical errors by poll workers. But there was also a deliberate effort by Florida's Republican officialdom to lower Gore's vote. Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid a private company, ChoicePoint, to prepare a "scrub list" of Floridians who could be "scrubbed" from the voters' rolls because they had supposedly committed felonies. Florida, like many Southern states, legally disenfranchises convicted felons, 400,000 of them, half of whom are African-Americans and most convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Obviously the majority of these 400,000 could be expected to vote the Democratic ticket if they were allowed. But it turned out that 8,000 of ChoicePoint's list (mostly African-Americans, again) were not ex-felons; most had, like George W. Bush, only been convicted of misdemeanors. And it was "no accident," as they say, that ChoicePoint's board is dominated by major Republican funders.

Harris' scrub list only came to light almost a month after the election, but allegations of minority voter harassment and intimidation started surfacing soon after the polls closed. Nevertheless, these were not the issues that Gore and his managers chose to bring before the courts or draw to the attention of the general public; consequently, neither did the media. Nor did the White House show any concern; Janet Reno's Justice Department is not even officially investigating the situation but merely "assessing" it informally. No, Gore and his fellow DLCers refuse to "play the race card." Blacks voted 90 percent for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Black leaders like Jesse Jackson guarded Gore's left flank by doing their best to crush the Nader campaign. And this is their reward. Apparently, Jackson threatened at one point to lead demonstrations in Florida, and he was told by the Democratic National Committee to back off -- meanwhile leaving the field clear for mobs of Republican congressional staffers who were flown down to intimidate vote counters.

The Democrats' fear of disruptive protest was consistent with the overall conservatism and defeatism that was displayed by the leadership in this election and, particularly since the Reagan era, has become the party's distinguishing feature. In the first few days after November 7th, a chorus of Democrats, led by Bill Bradley, New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli and former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, began calling on Gore do the "statesmanlike" thing and give up "for the good of the country" or the "Constitution." Others, like former New York mayor Ed Koch, warned Gore not to insist too strongly or for too long that the GOP might have stolen Florida -- it might shake the public's confidence in our magnificent two-party system. Of course, there was also some partisan calculation going on. Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt were known to feel that the party's chances of capturing Congress in 2002 would be greater under a Bush presidency. But from the standpoint of the Democratic leadership, the main danger of continuing to challenge the election results was the possibility that prolonged confusion and uncertainty would undermine popular confidence in the system. The party's leaders do not want street demonstrations, nor do they want to give the world the impression that American "democracy" runs with anything less than clockwork precision. Therefore, the rabble are not to get involved. Everything must be done though the proper channels. In a "mature democracy" such as ours, the proper function of ordinary citizens is to vote and go home and leave the really important business of the nation -- keeping down the standard of living (a.k.a. "preventing the economy from over-heating"), policing the world and creating optimal conditions for capital accumulation -- to their betters. It is crucial that this business be carried on with as little fuss as possible.

As that much-revered statesman and outstanding Establishment intellectual New York Sen. Daniel Moynihan put it: "It doesn't so much matter who wins. The important thing is the legitimacy of the system." Of course, when Nader says it doesn't matter so much, the liberal pundits and Gore's "progressive" supporters scream bloody murder at the criminal recklessness of denying the absolutely essential differences between the two parties. But Moynihan and his ilk know better. True, he and fellow Democrats believe their party would do a better job of managing the system, but they realize it will be reasonably safe no matter which party occupies the White House or wields a majority in Congress.

Blaming Nader

BUT FOR THE PRO-GORE LIBERALS, this election was something akin to Armageddon, and Ralph Nader was in league with the Beast, no less. In the last months of the campaign -- led by Gloria Steinem, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, columnists Anthony Lewis and Bob Herbert, and many others -- they went all-out to vilify Nader personally ("arrogant" and "egomaniacal" were two of the favorite epithets) and to persuade his supporters that "a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush." Nader voters were told that they would be responsible for an anti-choice Supreme Court and other horrors. After it turned out that Nader's Florida votes may indeed have enabled Bush to carry that state (with considerable illicit assistance from Republican officialdom, as we now know), the liberals' rage and venom knew no bounds. AFL-CIO head John Sweeney called the Nader campaign "reprehensible," and there were threats of revenge from environmentalist leaders and liberals on Capitol Hill ("we won't forget this"). In contrast, none of them, at least in public, had much to say about the responsibility Gore and his team might have borne for the Democrats' poor showing -- apart from complaints about the Vice-President's wooden personality and clumsy campaigning style.

This contrast was particularly unbecoming to Sweeney. Even Clinton's own former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has admitted: "No administration in modern history has been as good for American business as the Clinton-Gore team. None has been as solicitous of the concerns of business leaders, none has generated as much profit for business, and none has presided over as buoyant a stock market or as huge an increase in executive pay." Yet Sweeney professes loathing for a man who has worked tirelessly on behalf of working people for more than 30 years. True, Nader's strong support of the labor movement is of relatively recent vintage, and he has apparently been guilty of anti-labor practices in his own organizations. But these sins of the past pale into insignificance when compared to the glaringly pro-corporate, anti-labor and current record of the man Sweeney endorsed and poured labor's resources into electing. Reprehensible? A campaign that calls for doubling the minimum wage, paid family leave, a national daycare system, a real war on poverty, repealing Taft-Hartley, triple back-pay for workers fired illegally in organizing drives? That opposes NAFTA and the WTO and proposes universal, single-payer health insurance? And this sycophant has scarcely a word of criticism (whatever his "private" misgivings, reported by the press, which are politically worthless) for Gore, who offers nothing to labor and has served a Democratic administration more indifferent, when it is not outright hostile, to labor's agenda than any since Grover Cleveland's.

Nader's Achievement

WHAT DID THE NADER CAMPAIGN ACCOMPLISH? He got 2.7 million votes, and had it not been for that last-minute onslaught by the forces of lesser evilism, which included millions of dollars in anti-Nader ads by the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL, and a veritable blizzard of pleading and threatening emails to potential Nader voters, he would certainly have gotten more. How much more is hard to say. On the eve of the elections, Nader's support hovered around five percent in the polls, and in July it had stood at ten percent. The Washington Post estimated that there were more than five million would-be Nader voters who got cold feet at the last minute. If those five million had stood firm, that would have given Nader almost nine percent on November 7th.

But Nader's political appeal was actually far more extensive even than this. And his impact among young people, some of them still too young to vote this time, was clearly enormous. Polls indicate that as many as 20 million Americans were strongly attracted to Nader's program and agreed with his attacks on the two-party system. All of this shows pretty clearly that a mass base for a new progressive third party movement exists.

And what if Nader had gotten into the debates? Imagine how effectively he might have exposed the fraudulence of Gore's appeal to "the people versus the powerful" for example, or Bush's attacks on "tax-and-spend liberals" and "big government" while the Republicans (and Democrats) continue to pour billions down the maw of the military-industrial complex. Nader could have ripped off both candidates' mantle of statesmanship and revealed them as the corporate lackeys they really are. But more than that, think how Nader would have changed the very terms and parameters of the debate, going beyond this or that government program to what is at the heart of it all -- plutocracy versus democracy, rule by the rich versus rule by the people. What would Gore and Bush have said about that?

Had Nader been able to participate in the debates, he would probably have doubled or tripled his vote in November. But far more important would have been the educational impact of such a visible and dramatic confrontation. Even without significant media exposure, the Nader campaign changed millions of people's consciousness, including people who didn't vote for him in the end, by persuading them not only that the system is rotten from top to bottom but that something can be done about it. Had he been able to directly challenge Bush and Gore in a debate format -- so different from the few interviews he was allowed on national TV -- the political effect might have been enormous and long range.

"Plutocracy," "oligarchy" -- these were the words Nader used. Nader is no socialist -- he is not even opposed to capitalism and the market as such. His rhetoric is very much like that of old-fashioned American Populism and Progressivism. But Nader's campaign relentlessly drew attention to the problem of class rule. Not since Norman Thomas in the 1930s has a prominent candidate for the presidency made this an issue and forced people to think about it. But even by the 1930s, building an explicitly socialist movement rather than a broader, labor-based and ideologically populist or, at best, social-democratic party-movement was no longer a viable option. Today, a broadly populist program, including the limited but still quite radical critique of capitalism that Nader presented, is probably the appropriate transitional politics for an American Left. Anyone who attended the "super-rallies" (I was at the one in Madison Square Garden) must have sensed the immediate mass appeal of a radical-democratic, anti-corporate politics -- an appeal that reaches far beyond the media caricature of pony-tailed Birckenstock-shod Greens. The Naderite program is one around which, potentially, millions can be organized and brought into motion -- and, above all, broken away from the Democratic Party. Political independence, even around a nebulous left perspective, would represent an immense step forward if it were embraced by significant numbers of the oppressed. Within such an independent Left, and in the altered political climate it would inevitably create, explicit socialism could gain a hearing such as it has never had since the early decades of the twentieth century.

How to Fight the Right

IT IS ONLY AN INDEPENDENT LEFT, one without the ties to corporate interests that bind the Democratic Party, that would be free to combat conservative ideology, which is the thing that really powers the Republicans, and compels ever greater concessions from Democratic Party liberalism as well. A central component of this ideology is the belief that the demands of capital must always be met for fear of jeopardizing investment and jobs, and this is never adequately challenged by the Democrats because they, with varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm, have accepted it. As long as a blindly pro-business ideology thrives in the current political climate, the Right -- with all the other things it stands for, such as outlawing abortions, driving gay men and lesbians back into the closet, abolishing affirmative action -- just to name the few issues on which the Republicans and Democrats still do differ -- will always be on the offensive.

Since the 1970s, conservatism has become the dominant political trend in this country, and despite momentary setbacks, the tendency is for it to gain momentum. But the point is, the Democrats are part and parcel of this trend, not something fundamentally opposed to it. That is why, in the short run or the long run, but probably in the short run, we will lose even those things that the Democrats still defend -- the gains of the 60s and even the 30s -- if we stick with the Democrats. To reverse this rightward trend, we have to persuade millions of Americans that it is not in their interest to bow to corporate power. The trouble is, right now most of the people we need to reach are politically paralyzed and deeply pessimistic about the possibility of standing up for their rights, or of effecting any sort of basic change. It won't be easy to overcome the debilitating effects of decades of unchallenged conservative supremacy, but in this presidential year, a start was made. Nader raised people's expectations and enlarged their vision. Gore inspired almost no one, and his drumbeaters on the Left did their best to quash any heightening of expectations by waging a disgraceful campaign based entirely on fear and hopelessness.

On the issue of reproductive rights, for example, the strategy of the pro-Gore liberals is blinkered, defensive and defeatist. Obviously, if a realigned Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, this would be a huge setback for women. Meanwhile, however, in practice the right to have an abortion is already under threat. Abortions are now available in only fourteen percent of U.S. counties, largely because providers have been successfully intimidated by clinic blockages, phone threats, and outright terrorism. True, most of the counties where abortions are still easily available are the most populous ones, and women who live in the other counties can travel to another locale, for the most part. But the trend is clear, and it's not just a practical problem. Pregnant women are often afraid to seek abortions because of the conservative stigma still attached to this decision.

Conservative ideology is dominant in America today not because most people adhere to it in any finished form, but because there is no compelling and coherent ideological alternative. Instead, everything in our political culture conspires to bolster conservatism. Take "family values," a matrix of beliefs and attitudes that is heavily religious and traditionalist and inevitably subordinates, when it does not actually stigmatize, women -- and homosexuals. Far from combating this ideology, and offering a more libertarian and inclusive alternative to it, the brand of "centrism" represented by the Democrats has for years basically accepted its permanent domination of public opinion and accommodated to it accordingly. Gore, when he was a senator, for example, gave a tremendous boost to the Far Right and put women's rights and all other democratic rights at grave risk by voting to confirm the ultra-authoritarian Antonin Scalia; and it was members of his party who allowed Clarence Thomas to be confirmed even in the teeth of the Anita Hill scandal. In this election we have seen Gore and Lieberman going out of their way to embrace family values and to further the saturation of American political discourse with religious obscurantism. Far from combating the Right, then, the policies and rhetoric of Gore and the Democrats have consistently attested to its power and enhanced its aura of inevitability.

Meanwhile, abortion will not become more acceptable or widely available because of any appointments a President Gore might have made to the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade, though still on the books, is being undermined at the grassroots. If there is any hope of protecting and expanding reproductive freedom as a practical reality for women, it lies in the revival of a militant, activist feminist movement, one that defends abortion providers, confronts America's Christian Taliban in the streets, and educates public opinion through its interventions. The single-minded and defensive focus on Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court does not contribute to such a revival, nor does the subordination of the women's movement to the Democratic Party. And the same thing is true for other social movements. There needs to be less reliance on lobbying and gaining access to the powerful, and more emphasis on open struggle and direct, confrontational action. But above all, we need to begin now building a new political party that brings together and speaks for all these movements. Only with this can we persuade the millions of Americans who are presently confused and disoriented by fear and pessimism that there is an alternative that means business -- one that argues with citizens, tries to win them over and grapples with the Right for political power.

Few Americans have any idea what a real progressive, campaigning, anti-corporate, militantly democratic politics even looks like. The Nader campaign -- even though it was essentially only one celebrated individual running as the candidate of a small grassroots party, to which he did not even belong and which is invisible as far as most Americans are concerned -- began to suggest the possibility of a new, participatory, labor-oriented, independent Left, and to argue forcefully that building such a party-movement is the only way to fight the depredations of the Right and the corporations. Despite all the many things that were wrong with Nader's campaign, he was, with occasional lapses, clear about this.

Nader's Flaws

THAT SAID, IT MUST ALSO BE ACKNOWLEDGED that the shortcomings of the Nader campaign were serious indeed, so serious that they may prove fatal to the prospects for an ongoing Naderite movement now that the elections are over. For one thing, in his opposition to globalization, Nader failed to distance himself sharply and clearly enough from economic nationalists, including right-wing nationalists like Pat Buchanan. This was and is a problem not just for the Nader campaign, but for the anti-globalization movement as a whole, dominated as it is by overtly nationalist union leaders who care only about American jobs. For another, Nader's discomfort with feminism, with the politics of gay rights, and with many of the concerns of African-Americans and Latinos, was all too obvious. On paper, Nader and the Green Party had excellent positions -- for a woman's right to choose under all circumstances, for full rights to civil unions for same-sex couples, in favor of reparations for slavery, etc. The trouble was, Nader rarely talked about these things, except when pressed and even then usually in the most impatient and perfunctory manner. Often, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid uttering the word abortion.

Toward the end of the campaign Nader did make an effort to reach out more directly to people of color. He featured denunciations of racial profiling in his speeches, emphasized the idea of a Marshall Plan for the cities, and spoke more often to black audiences, including a well-publicized visit to Harlem. To be fair, this outreach was made more difficult by the strong ties many black political and religious leaders have to the Democrats; apparently, for example, the Nader campaign did try but failed to get invitations to speak at black churches. Still, some of these obstacles might have been overcome had there been greater will to do so -- and above all, greater understanding that the problem of racism must be absolutely central to any principled and effective progressive agenda in this country. Nader should not only have spoken more often to audiences of color, he should have made racism a major theme of his campaign as a whole, because it's something white people need to hear and think about as well. And in the aftermath of the election, he should have put himself in the thick of the Florida events, leading demonstrations against voter racial profiling, joining Jesse Jackson and the NAACP and putting pressure on them to be more militant than they were. Instead, his invisibility during much of the Florida controversy lent credence to the supposition that he was somehow embarrassed that he had "cost" Gore the election -- or even that he was just as reluctant as Gore to "racialize" the situation there.

Why did Nader maintain such a rigid, almost sectarian fixation on an anti-corporate campaign to the near-exclusion of so many vital social issues? It may be that he shares, in some curmudgeonly, half-conscious way, elements of the social conservatism to be found among many (mostly older male) leftists, who camouflage their retrograde attitudes with the claim that "identity politics" is crippling the Left -- although most of these types were fiercely hostile to his campaign. He may have opportunistically calculated that it was best to relegate abortion, gay rights and similar issues to the pages of his web site in the interests of building the broadest possible base around a platform of anti-corporate populism. (Actually, these were the very issues that might have significantly broadened his base.) Nader's rhetoric often suggested that he wanted to frame his anti-corporate program in terms of "traditional values," a rubric under which it is very difficult to contain unorthodox sexual orientations or a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. Whatever the reasons, Nader's silences and evasions on the rights of women and racial and sexual minorities were unprincipled and politically disastrous.

For one thing, the campaign's avoidance of race, gender and sexual orientation, or its implicit tendency to treat them as "special issues," made it easy for those, like Steinem, Jackson, Conyers and Frank, who are thoroughly and more or less comfortably enmeshed in the political Establishment and committed a priori to the Democratic Party -- and would have opposed Nader even if he were perfect in these areas -- to discredit the Nader campaign to their constituents. Jackson in particular loves to suggest that third party efforts like Nader's are a frivolous exercise in self-indulgence by middle-class whites -- and that allegedly more serious and realistic minorities and the poor know they have to stick to the Democrats. The absurdity of this argument should be easy to expose: how "realistic" is it for the most oppressed to vote for a party that abolishes welfare, supports capital punishment and mass incarceration and pushes job-destroying globalization? Minorities and the poor are more victimized than anybody else by the Democrats' collusion in a grossly unjust system. But Nader's disconnectedness from communities of color made it almost impossible for him and his supporters to counter this bogus line of reasoning.

Nader's reckless dismissal of the importance of the Supreme Court and the threat to Roe v. Wade understandably infuriated women (and men). He never really tried to repudiate his 1996 dismissal of issues of sexism and heterosexism as "gonadal politics," nor, as already mentioned, did he make much of an effort to reach black audiences until the very end of the campaign. As a result, most Nader voters, according to exit polls, were white males. Tragically, Nader himself helped insure that the overwhelming bulk of black, feminist, and gay voters stayed in the Gore camp. But these voters should be in the vanguard of a new progressive third-party movement, and unless Nader and the Greens change their tactics, this movement will be still-born.

And yet, what the Nader campaign has shown, despite its political shortcomings and despite the relatively disappointing results of November 7th (themselves partly a function of the campaign's shortcomings), is that the time has come for a progressive third party. Since the WTO protests in Seattle, a new popular movement has sprung up. Left labor elements have formed coalitions -- shaky and still uncertain, it is true -- with environmentalist youth and the campus anti-sweatshop movement. In loose association with them are people fighting to democratize the media. Within the African-American community, there are movements against mass incarceration, capital punishment, racial profiling and police brutality. Nader's ability to inspire and politically mobilize tens of thousands of young people provided a glimpse of the potential for bringing all these currents together around an electoral vehicle, one that can reach into the living rooms of millions of Americans and get their attention.

Low-Expectation Liberalism

BUT AS YET IT IS STILL POTENTIAL. The dominant view on the Left is still what Nader has called "low expectation liberalism." After the election, The Nation's editorial (Nov. 27, 2000) somehow managed to "find a lot of hopeful evidence" that "the Democratic Party now has a progressive opening to the future." It suggested that the success of unions and black churches in turning out the vote for Gore will show "which way Democrats must turn if they hope to regain Congressional majorities two years from now." But this mass mobilization for the Democrats was nothing new. For years labor and blacks have made up the core of the Democratic constituency, and for just as long Democratic politicians have ignored and betrayed them, knowing full well that they will vote for the Party and work for its success no matter how little the Party does for them in return. In 1996, union and minority voters were just as important in re-electing Clinton as they were in nearly electing Gore in 2000, and yet there is no evidence whatsoever that this had any impact on the Democrats. This time, moreover, labor, blacks, women and gays hardly even asked for anything in return. If Gore had won the White House, he would have known that virtually his only "obligation" to progressives was to see to it that the Supreme Court does not reverse Roe v. Wade. That's it. He and his fellow DLCers, and most of the other Democratic leadership as well, know exactly "which way they must turn"; with such meek, undemanding supporters as the "progressive community" there's absolutely no risk in turning further and further to the right.

The Nation actually believes it is possible for the Democrats to "choose" between their financial patrons and their working-class supporters. In fact, since the Democratic Party is little more than a fund-raising machine these days, and has always been led by politicians who see their first duty as shoring up the capitalist system, the "choice" is a foregone conclusion. This doesn't mean that the Democrats cannot be forced to make concessions to their popular constituencies, but only under certain conditions -- the pressure of mass upheaval, as with the labor upsurge of the 1930s and the civil rights, anti-war and women's' movements of the 1960s and 70s, or the palpable threat represented by a third party, such as the Populists in the 1890s and the Socialists in the 1900-1919 period, that working people might break away. Only then can the Democrats be forced to move a little to the left. Even in its most "progressive" phases, however, even during the New Deal of the sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party has always been as thoroughly controlled by business interests as the Republicans. Never have labor, minorities and social movements had their own party, controlled by and accountable to them.

The Democratic Party is not reformable, and it's all too obvious that the plans of Sweeney, Steinem, Jackson & co. to reform the party from within amount to little more than pious hopes. Significantly, their reaction to Gore's defeat was to attack Nader, not to blame Gore for his inability to beat a smirking, ignorant, overgrown frat boy. Liberals are mostly a dispirited and increasingly cynical bunch these days. Few of them actually believe they'll ever be able to influence the party. The editorials in liberal magazines exude a damp air of hopelessness and depression, with an occasional wan flicker of wistful fantasy ("now that the Democrats see how faithful workers, blacks, women, etc., are they'll turn left!"). Actually they assume that the mass of Americans are so rightwing and hopeless that Clintonism is the best we can get.

Typical, among intellectuals, in this respect is Michael Kazin. In an article in Mother Jones (Sept./Oct. 2000), Kazin found grounds for admiring the President: Clinton "helped make at least a mild brand of social reformism palatable to mainstream audiences again" and enabled "compassion to gain a hearing." Actually, polls show that the brutish, cold-hearted masses are a lot more compassionate than the White House, believing, for example, that the government has a responsibility to provide greater help for the less fortunate and that universal health insurance is a good idea. Kazin insists that whatever Clinton's inadequacies may be, they are the fault not of him but of . . . the Left. Our weakness insured that Clinton "would follow a cautious, poll-driven course." We are to blame for the defeat of the Clintons' health care initiative: "only a scattering of grassroots activists tried to build pressure for the Clinton plan or for a single payer plan." Here Kazin's logic becomes truly tortuous. If, as even he admits, most Americans supported the principle of universal coverage, how were Clinton's actions "poll-driven" on health care? In fact, they were driven by the need to head off and blunt any initiatives in the direction of single payer plans -- so they were poll-driven, but not in the way he means. Kazin goes even further, arguing that when Clinton embraces "welfare reform" and "smaller government," policies of which Kazin disapproves, he "stymies" the Right, rather than promoting and legitimizing it. Another example of the genre is Todd Gitlin, who wrote in Salon (Dec. 4, 2000) that the "Clintonian Third Way was a moderate means to a radical end -- terminating the Republican dominion that kicked in with Richard Nixon and solidified with Ronald Reagan . . ." For Kazin, Gitlin and others like them, "radicalism" has come down to one thing: keeping the Republicans out of office. To them, any electoral action independent of the Democrats is anathema; Gitlin has called Nader a "nihilist," and he and his friends at Dissent organized a vicious petition denouncing Nader's candidacy as a "wrecking ball campaign." That this sort of thing even passes for radicalism in serious discussion is itself a sign of how thoroughly conservative American politics have become.

The Democratic Party: From Bad to Worse

AS THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY MOVES STEADILY RIGHTWARD, all who stay onboard are condemned to follow its political itinerary. The frenzy of party loyalty we witnessed this year among liberals is part of a pattern: the worse the Democrat, the greater the hysterical demands from much of the Left to support him unconditionally and the more extreme their apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if he loses. This is a counsel of total political despair and abnegation; it simply renounces any further role for progressive politics. Fortunately, this year many progressives made the decision not to succumb to defeatism. But even among those who broke with lesser-evilism and voted for Nader, the Democratic Party retains an unwarranted legitimacy.

The Democratic Party has always played an especially insidious role in American politics -- that of taming and co-opting popular movements that threaten the system from the left. Most progressives, including many Nader supporters, believe that the Democrats were once a kind of people's party and tend to see its decline as a recent phenomenon. Even at its most liberal, however, in the 1930s and 40s, the Democratic Party was fundamentally a political alliance of corrupt Northern big city machines and racist Southern rural machines, both at the service of capital. Labor and the party's liberal activists were never more than a subordinate element. Socialists used to call the Democrats the "party of war and racism," and even though the Party abandoned its longstanding support for segregation more than 30 years ago, it can take full credit for the Vietnam War. Vietnam, it is true, shook the Democrats and brought about a brief lurch to the left under McGovern. But afterward, it was all downhill: Carter, Mondale, Dukakis. The tendency was toward closer and closer alignment with the Republicans on the issues most crucial to the well-being of U.S. capitalism: taxation, trade, military spending, foreign intervention. But the natural tendency of voters when offered nothing but conservatism is to prefer the real thing -- the Republicans -- to a half-hearted facsimile. This led to the formation of the DLC, dedicated to throwing overboard all that remained of the Party's liberal past. In 1992 their moment came, and eight years of Clintonism were the result.

Even by the debased standards of Clintonism, Gore is pretty conservative. In his brief bid for the presidential nomination in 1988, he championed huge increases in military spending, was closely identified with the Likud government in Israel and surrounded himself with prominent neoconservatives. Within the Clinton administration, Gore was always on the right wing. And his choice of Lieberman -- who has flirted with school vouchers and social security privatization and is a notoriously loyal servant of Connecticut's insurance companies and defense contractors -- had great symbolic importance. Not only was it a reassuring gesture to the Democrats' corporate backers, but also a sign of where the Democratic Party is heading and what it is preparing to abandon tomorrow.

This year Clinton's liberal supporters often expressed outrage at the idea that there is "no difference" between the Republicans and Democrats. Nader was certainly wrong to belittle the differences that still do exist, as already mentioned -- abortion, affirmative action, as well as a greater openness (no small matter) to gay men and lesbians. But consider the vast areas on which there is now fundamental agreement, except for weak dissent by a mere handful of Democrats and the odd Republican. Both accept the current system of election financing, a flagrant form of legal bribery. On "defense" and foreign policy, there is something close to unanimity: the United States must maintain a huge nuclear arsenal; full support for Israel, no matter how many Palestinians it massacres, and also for the oil despots of the Middle East; "constructive engagement" with the dictators of China; continuing the cruel sanctions against Cuba and Iraq; and massive military spending (currently $300 billion a year), with both Gore and Bush calling for increases. This grotesque waste of resources by itself excludes the possibility of any significant social spending and therefore guarantees the perpetuation of poverty, racism, wretched schooling and mass ignorance, environmental and infrastructure decay. Under either Gore or Bush the poverty-level minimum wage will not increase more than a buck or two, while executive salaries will (barring trouble on the stock market) continue to grow exponentially. Neither party is the least bit interested in doing anything that would actually save endangered species from dying off, prevent timber companies from continuing to mow down our national forests, or restrict oil drilling in Alaska. And although Gore once had a reputation as a far-thinking environmentalist, a Gore presidency would not have even begun to do what it takes to reduce greenhouse emissions and reverse global warming.

The rights of lesbians and gay men? When Gore was in the Senate he denounced homosexuality as "abnormal" and voted against the repeal of the District of Columbia's anti-sodomy law. The overwhelming majority of national Democratic politicians agree with Republicans that gay people should be denied marriage, spousal, social security and pension benefits, and immigration and visitation rights. Both parties insist that stricter punishment and judicial murder (a.k.a. capital punishment), not a real war on poverty, are the only answer to crime, and they raise no objections to filling up the jails with nonviolent drug offenders and victims of the sadistic "three strikes" laws. Clinton's presidency has converted most of his fellow Democrats to the Republican position that no cash assistance should be given to poor single mothers and their children. Despite his proposals for a "patients' bill of rights" and other modest reforms in the delivery of health care, Gore fully agreed with Bush that health care must remain in the hands of private enterprise. And both parties are, of course, enthusiastically committed to globalization and free trade at all costs. There was a time when the Democrats and Republicans differed on some of these issues, but no more. Nader was certainly right to draw attention to this.

Non-Third Parties

THE NADER CAMPAIGN HAS ALSO SHOWN UP THE SHALLOWNESS of the New Party and Labor Party strategy -- the idea that a third party can be built by focusing exclusively on the grassroots and endlessly deferring independent campaigns for national office. In less than a year of active campaigning, Nader and the Greens have done more to raise people's consciousness and build a third party movement than ten years of efforts to pass ballot initiatives and elect people to school boards and city councils. The point is not that local elections and ballot initiatives are unimportant, but that they cannot be a substitute for electoral initiatives that reach far more people and inspire them to feel part of a growing national alternative. Moreover, Nader was clearly serious about independent politics. Though he occasionally declared that his campaign would strengthen the liberal wing of the Democrats, he refused all proposals to compromise on the issue of political independence -- such as not campaigning in swing states, or not running Green candidates in contests where Democrats might be hurt. This seriousness contrasts sharply with the perspectives of the Labor Party and New Party leaders -- though not necessarily with the hopes of their memberships. The Labor Party's leaders seem far too reluctant to break with their more conservative counterparts in the union bureaucracy to enter the electoral arena. The New Party was always explicitly viewed by its leaders as no more than a pressure group, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold state laws banning party cross-endorsements, or "fusion," some of them have shifted their hopes to New York's Working Families Party (WFP), which is little more than another ballot line for the Democrats (New York is the only state that allows cross-endorsement).

Two years ago the WFP endorsed a lifeless Democratic hack, Peter Vallone, for governor. This year they went all out for Hillary Clinton's Senate bid. The WFP has a modestly liberal program (very modest: they demand increasing New York's minimum wage to a mere $6.75 an hour and have the nerve to call it a "living wage") and is supported by some of New York's key unions, so with lots of money and volunteers it was able to blanket New York City (at least the part I live in) with literature that promised that after the election Clinton would realize she could not have won without the WFP and thereby conclude she had better start fighting for universal health insurance and other progressive reforms pronto. Actually, she knows for sure that the folks who run the WFP would have supported her no matter what she did or said, and will do so six years from now even if she spends her entire Senate term in a drunken stupor -- consider the illustrious career of her predecessor, Moynihan, who could count on labor's full-throated hurrahs even after he sobered up long enough to help torpedo Hillary Clinton's feeble health care initiative.

Among the leaders of the Labor Party, the New Party and the Working Families Party, there are people with no interest in anything other than acting as a pressure group on the Democrats. But these organizations contain others, more numerous undoubtedly among the rank and file, who have already taken the first hesitant steps toward political independence. Out of these organizations may come the builders of a new progressive third party. Nader and the Greens have taken the initiative, but unions, community organizers, the big environmentalist, feminist, civil rights and gay rights organizations -- or significant sections of them -- must become involved if such a party has any hope of achieving critical mass. Labor, in particular, can contribute serious numbers and resources, and it is crucial to win sectors of the labor movement to the idea of a real third party -- not the ineffectual half-way houses currently represented by the Labor Party, New Party and WFP. Critics of this view often object that third parties have been tried before, on numerous occasions, and have never worked. But trying to turn the Democratic Party into a people's party has been tried for much longer and by far more people than were ever involved in third party initiatives -- and this is an experiment that has failed over and over again. It is sheer madness to keep flogging this dead horse.

An Historic Opportunity

THE NADER CAMPAIGN WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY OPPORTUNITY -- an opportunity for progressives to tap into popular disillusionment with the two party system and to take advantage of a well-known and highly-respected candidate. Except for a handful of small unions, such as the California Nurses Association, labor let it pass, and so did feminist, environmentalist, gay rights and black and Latino organizations. Worse, many of their leaders worked furiously to crush the Nader campaign. They were the real "spoilers." Whether or not these leaders have succeeded in killing the new party at birth remains to be seen. Also unclear at this point is the extent to which Nader's own mistakes and political blindspots have retarded and will continue to inhibit the emergence of a significant third party.

There are grounds for optimism, though, because a breakthrough, however modest and uncertain, has been made. But building a third party requires clarity. Even among Nader supporters there was a quite widespread, and contradictory, wish to both build a third party and avoid "hurting" the Democrats. In the weeks before the election, as panic mounted at the prospect of a Republican victory, many Naderites proposed "strategic voting" -- voting for Nader only in states considered "safe" for either Gore or Bush, in other words, states where Nader couldn't affect the electoral vote. The logic of strategic voting is fatal to third party politics, however, because it clings to the premise that we can only build one when and where it will not threaten the Democrats. This is impossible. A progressive third party must win mass support from non-voters, who make up half the population and are overwhelmingly poor and working class and disproportionately minority. But it must also eventually win over the bulk of the Democratic Party's base, which is predominately less affluent and heavily non-white as well. Obviously, insofar as former Democratic voters vote for a new party, Democratic candidates may lose and Republicans may win. This is regrettable because Republicans are worse than Democrats. But how else can a third party grow large enough to defeat both Democrats and Republicans? So, yes, a serious effort to build a progressive third party means accepting the short-term likelihood of electing Republicans -- not because this is desirable but because there is no other way.

During the campaign, those progressives who admired Nader and believed in what he stood for but opted for Gore liked to describe their choice as a vote of consequence rather than a vote of conscience, or voting with their head rather than voting with their heart. But there was nothing hard-headed or realistic about voting for Gore, and its consequence is the continuation of a brutal, unjust and ever-worsening status quo. Voting for Nader was the most tough-minded realism; it was a recognition that bringing about change requires clarity, consistency and radicalism.

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Contents of No. 30

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