The Democrats: No Way to Fight the Right

Thomas Harrison

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 31, Summer 2001]

THOMAS HARRISON teaches history at the Brearley School in Manhattan and is a member of the editorial board of New Politics. He has written for New Politics, The Nation, Z Magazine, Balkan War Report, Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, Sanity and Peace & Democracy on such subjects as American third party politics, U.S. foreign policy, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, nuclear disarmament, the Gulf War, the New Left of the 1960s, and democratic political theory. He contributed to the anthology, Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War and co- authored the introduction to Ban the Bomb: Prospects for Nuclear Disarmament and World Peace After Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is former co-director with Joanne Landy of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.


IN THE AFTERMATH OF THIS STRANGE ELECTION, Nader voters like me, and many of you, are taking a beating. Liberal columnists like Tony Lewis and Eric Alterman are carrying on a relentless, obsessive vendetta against Nader himself. There's a very nasty outburst against us by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz in the latest Dissent along with a wonderful reply by Ellen Willis. We're blamed for Gore's defeat and every bad thing that's happened since. With the news of each fresh atrocity from the Bush White House, Gore supporters say, essentially: "See what you did? Now are you satisfied?" Nader's -- in my opinion, sloppy and misleading -- remarks during the campaign belittling the differences between Democrats and Republicans are endlessly dredged up to prove his fanatical blindness, arrogance, sectarianism and a host of other sins. And now, the tax cut, arsenic in drinking water, the Alaska pipeline, global warming, carbon dioxide, endangered species, all these are supposed to prove that it was sheer madness not to vote for Gore. "Now that you can see what was at stake," these people say, "you must realize how reckless, self- indulgent, and self-righteous it was to vote for Nader."

Actually, I think that what we're seeing in Washington proves the exact opposite. When you look at the Democratic response to these atrocities, when you remember how Gore and other members of his party handled the contested election last fall, and when you think about some of the other big issues, issues that don't happen to be controversial right now because there really is no fundamental disagreement about them between the two parties, then I think it ought to be clear that voting for Nader was the acme of common sense and realism.

There are big differences between the two parties and Nader was foolish, I think, to deny or minimize them. Had Gore won the White House, he'd be proposing different policies on a number of things, certainly on environmental issues. He would probably not be demanding another huge tax cut for the rich. His Cabinet would not have included fundamentalist loonies like John Ashcroft.

This is scary, dangerous stuff Bush is doing, but look at the Democratic response. Where is Gore, the "environmentalist"? Virtually silent. What about Congress? Again, silence, passivity, deference or indifference. The Democrats act as though they've been overwhelmingly repudiated by the electorate. But they won the popular vote. What's keeping them from raising absolute hell about what Bush is doing? Why didn't they filibuster to block Ashcroft's appointment? Why aren't they calling for the impeachment of those five Supreme Court justices who brazenly stole the election for Bush? Why didn't even one Democratic Senator join the Congressional Black Caucus in its protest against registering the electoral votes in Congress a little while ago? Where was Paul Wellstone? I think if even Paul Wellstone lacks the backbone to do anything about one of the most scandalous acts of political larceny in our nation's history, then that tells you the Democrats are really washed up as an opposition.

Remember how Gore refused to make a stink about the scrub lists and the harassment of black voters in Florida? I gather he refused on the basis that this would be "playing the race card." If Gore is incapable of sticking up for the civil rights of African Americans, even when he might win the election by doing so, what does this tell us? In the first place, that the strong loyalty shown by blacks to the Democratic Party is sadly misplaced. And in general that it's really suicidal to look to the Democrats even to defend us against the Right, let alone for any progressive change.

Liberalism has been reduced these days to a purely defensive posture: unconditional allegiance to the Democratic Party to defend what remains of the gains of the 60s or the 30s, to defend abortion rights, to avoid losing ground. Nader called it "low expectation liberalism." Liberals are in the historically unprecedented position, for liberals, of defending the status quo -- that is, of being conservatives in the literal meaning of that word. Their slogan is basically "stand pat!" They condemn the Right for being . . . radicals! They hope for nothing, they aspire to nothing -- to nothing new that is, for example a redistribution of wealth, the reallocation of resources from the military to education, health care, repairing the infrastructure and other social needs, a democratic, non-militaristic foreign policy. You hardly ever hear any talk about these things today.

But the Democrats will not even do that much -- that is, they will not even "stand pat." Surely the last 20 years or so demonstrate that they will cave in over and over again to the Right, as long as the Left has no independent political presence, no electoral voice of its own, pulling them in the opposite direction. The Democratic Party has moved left only when it is threatened by mass upheaval -- like the industrial union movement in the 30s, the civil rights, anti-war and women's movements in the 60s and early 70s, or by third parties like the Populists in the 1890s and the Socialist Party in the early part of this century. The problem is that labor, minorities, women, gays are imprisoned within the Democratic Party and can therefore be taken for granted by Democratic politicians. They exert no pressure from the left.

THE NADER CAMPAIGN WAS AN OPPORTUNITY to make a breakthrough, to begin to create a force that can pull American politics to the left. For most of the organized progressive forces, however, it was a missed opportunity. Worse than that, it was a deliberately spoiled opportunity. The big, progressive groups, feminists, environmentalists, civil rights organizations, and the unions not only stuck to their lesser evil commitment to the Democrats, they went all out to destroy the Nader campaign itself.

Nader got 2.9 million votes. How many might he have gotten had it not been for the frenzied demolition job launched by the Sierra Club, NARAL, the League of Conservation Voters on the eve of the election? In the summer polls, he was close to 10 percent. That's significant. One out of ten voters, instead of the one out of 40 that he ended up with. In fact, perhaps twice this number or more were attracted to the campaign's message, especially young people, many too young to vote. I had an opportunity to see this for myself as a high school teacher.

What if Nader had been in the debates? Imagine how he might have turned them upside down, forced Gore and Bush to talk about things that have been taboo in mainstream American political discourse for most of this century: Plutocracy, oligarchy, how the rich rule this country, workers' rights. Nader had an exciting, immensely popular message, a message with the power to inspire and educate many millions of people, not just 2.9 million -- but it reached only a small portion of the electorate.

But Nader himself also helped to spoil his chances, I think. Blacks, feminists and gays are among the most combative and progressive constituencies and should naturally be in the forefront of a third party movement -- but Nader seemed almost willfully to keep them at arm's length. Until the end of his campaign, he rarely spoke about racism, hardly ever mentioned homophobia and consistently went out of his way to avoid using the word abortion. I went to the big rally at Madison Square Garden and I didn't hear him use that word once. Whatever blind spots or retrograde attitudes Nader might have on these matters -- and I can't speak to that because I don't know -- this was a strategic mistake of major proportions because these constituencies were badly needed by the campaign. If Nader's silences and evasions on race, gender, reproductive rights, homophobia and so on were part of some political calculation that this would broaden his appeal by avoiding touchy subjects and focusing exclusively on anti-corporate themes, then this was not only stupid, because it actually narrowed his appeal, but unprincipled.

And all this provided a field day for people like Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem and Barney Frank, by giving them free ammunition in their efforts to smear and destroy the Nader campaign at all costs, which they would have done even if Nader had been perfect on these issues, because of their a priori commitment to the Democratic Party. It will take a lot of hard political work to detach black, feminist and gay activists from their self-destructive dependence on the Democrats, and even if Nader had been perfect, we probably wouldn't have seen the NAACP, NOW and other such organizations supporting his campaign last fall -- but at least many more of their constituents might have been won over this time, and thus started the ball rolling.

And now, actually since the election, Nader has been almost as invisible as Gore, which is a terrible shame and a waste. He should have been in the thick of things in Florida, and with the dereliction of the Democrats as glaring as it is right now, it's crucial for him to make himself heard as loudly as possible. It would be natural for him to feel crushed and bitter after the way he's been treated, but it does make you wonder if there's any future for a continuing Nader-led third party effort.

With all its faults though the Nader campaign did provide people with the chance to declare their independence from Democratic Party lesser evilism, or at least to seriously consider doing so. We'll never know how many millions really wanted to vote for Nader but got cold feet in the end. And it provided a glimpse of the potential for bringing social movements together around a common, anti-corporate, pro- democracy program and an electoral vehicle.

It didn't come together this time, which doesn't mean it never can. And anyway, what's the alternative, short of giving up that is? But giving up is precisely what Gitlin, Wilentz, Jackson, Steinem, Frank, Sweeney and co. advocate -- that's what it means to support the Democrats no matter what they do on the ground that at least they're not Republicans. They know the Democrats will never bring about real change, and they've made their peace with that. "Low expectation liberalism" is really "no expectation liberalism."

NADER VOTERS COURAGEOUSLY RESISTED THIS COUNSEL OF DESPAIR. They rejected the trap of rightward-moving lesser evilism -- but I have to say, not always consistently. There was and is still a lot of reluctance to "hurt the Democrats," and a belief, sometimes encouraged by Nader himself, that building a third party is actually a way of reforming the Democratic Party.

I think the Democratic Party is not and never has been reformable. It's as much a servant of corporate power as the Republicans, but with a different style and a more liberal approach. I realize some will hear this as "there's no difference between the two parties," which I earlier criticized. But all I'm saying is what should be obvious: whatever the parties do differ on, there are more and greater areas of agreement. Consider, for example: foreign policy, trade, nuclear weapons, unconditional support for Israel and the oil despots of the Middle East, constructive engagement with China, a $300 billion plus military budget, poverty-level minimum wage, punishment and executions as the answer to crime, rather than a real war on poverty, keeping health care in the hands of private enterprise, ending welfare. These are all things the parties continue to agree about. And even where there's verbal disagreement, it's important to remember that talk is cheap. On the environment, for example, it's true that Gore at least believes in global warming -- but so what? Clinton signed the Kyoto agreement, promising that the U.S. would cut carbon dioxide emissions by seven percent from 1990 levels by 2012 -- but they've already risen by 10 percent. The point is that when the corporations say no, Gore and Clinton almost always back down.

We need a party that offers progressive alternatives on all these matters. But to build it, we have to win over most of those who currently vote for the Democrats, and we can't do this without sometimes electing Republicans. There's no other way. That's why "strategic voting" -- you remember, that was the idea of only voting for Nader in states that were safe Gore states -- was, I think, a mistake. Our message needed to be: "vote for Nader, period, because this is the first step toward a progressive party that can win some day" -- not "electing Gore is our top priority, and we'd also like to get a lot of votes for Nader, but only if it doesn't hurt the Democrats." That's saying that we don't really think of ourselves as an alternative, as a rival to the Democrats, but only as a pressure group, or a protest vehicle. I think that a third party movement that takes itself seriously as a contender for political power has to say: "we're in this for the long run, we're going to go for every office within our resources now, and more at the next election, and we're running against both Republicans and Democrats; we want people to have a clear choice."

SO WHAT ABOUT THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE? Obviously, it's no good sitting back and waiting another four years until the next presidential election, hoping that Nader will run again. And frankly, I'm not even sure that Nader himself isn't more of a liability than an asset. No, what we've got to do is build on whatever momentum still exists from last year's campaign, keep working on a third party movement. But a movement must be much more than recruiting people one at a time to the Green Party. I wonder if the Greens by themselves can ever grow big enough to provide the needed critical mass. In any case, there's got to be campaigning for third party politics in the unions, the women's movement, the environmentalist movement, the black and Latino communities. That's where the big divisions are -- the environmentalist organizations have 20 million members, for example! Only when we've pushed some of these existing groups -- and the labor movement is especially key -- towards political independence, will a mass party of the Left come into being.

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Contents of No. 31

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