In 1948, when I cast my first vote for president, Henry A. Wallace, vice
president during FDR's second and third terms, was running as the Progressive
Party candidate against Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrat Harry S Truman.
In August, he was at 12 percent in the polls. On election day, he got
2 percent. My history professor at Cornell, a wonderful man named Paul
Wallace Gates, was the New York state treasurer of the Wallace for President Committee. On election day, he voted for Truman.
Within a year the Progressive Party disintegrated.
In 1980, Barry Commoner ran as the Citizens Party candidate for president
against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Progressives worked hard and got
him on the ballot in 29 states. He got only 220,000 votes and the Citizens
Party quickly disappeared. Now it's Ralph Nader's turn, and his supporters
repeat the identical arguments and exhibit the same enthusiasm for Nader
that I did for Wallace and others did for Commoner. Sadly, there is no
reason to expect that the results will not be the same.
Bob McChesney says that we have to think in broader terms than the immediate
election, a statement with which I fervently agree. But he sees the Nader
campaign as a necessary step in building a progressive political movement
that will amount to more than a hill of beans. There, I believe, he is
serious politics requires participation in elections on all levels of
government and at all times. Organized popular constituencies don't come
from the single-issue movements that McChesney sees as Nader's base. These
single-issue movements focus narrowly on their issues and operate by putting
pressure on legislators to support or oppose specific legislation or policies. Broad electoral constituencies, on the other hand, must be
created by common popular action around a program that embodies shared
universal principles. The Nader campaign did not arise from such a movement,
nor is it organized in a way that will produce one. It has sprung forth
out of nowhere. It represents no identifiable constituency. Like others
on the left, Nader and his disparate supporters are simply following a
well-established pattern. Every four or eight years, some of us look around
and are so appalled by the major party choices that we are compelled to
tilt at windmills by engaging in quixotic campaigns for president.
This campaign follows that pattern. It started at the top and it will
end at the top. In part, it will because Nader is acting purely as an
inspired individual. He is a talking head without a political body. True,
he is using the Green Party in some states as a framework for his campaign,
but without him there would be no campaign because neither he nor they
represent a movement experienced in building broad electoral constituencies.
Second, few people outside the circle of true believers, and a couple
of union leaders who appear to be using Nader as leverage to get favors
from Clinton or Gore, will ever see him or hear his message. In 1980,
after spending most of their money on efforts to get on the ballot, the
Citizens Party could afford only one national radio broadcast during the
campaign. In it, Commoner said something about Reagan and Carter's "bullshit."
The next day, the New York Times reported, "Presidential candidate says
'bullshit.' " On election day that was all the general public had heard
or knew about Commoner and his party. Today, Nader is getting more media
coverage, but it is horse-race reporting; his ideas remain as invisible
to the general public as Commoner's.
Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, did what McChesney denigrates: He ran
in the Democratic primaries in 1988. As a result, he participated in the
televised debates, outshone his rivals and made the most enthusiastically
received speech at the Democratic National Convention. His ideas received wide
public exposure. And thus he greatly increased the political visibility
of the African-American community, as well as his own clout within national
politics. He created a potential for a sustained left movement, though
unfortunately he did not pursue that goal.
McChesney also argues that the difficulties posed by a grassroots challenge
within the Democratic Party are too great to overcome; he says the requirement
for "obscenely massive campaign war chests," and the "tight noose of the
corporate news media with their pathetic range of legitimate debate" make
progressive participation within that framework impractical. But the same
difficulties are infinitely greater for those operating as a third party.
In fact, Jackson got considerable media attention precisely because he
was in the primaries. He was able to put forward his ideas in nationally
televised debates at no cost to his campaign. He needed only a small fraction
of the money Nader will have to raise if he hopes to receive half as much
media attention as Jackson did.
Instead of looking at this realistically, McChesney resorts to wishful
thinking about Nader being given a place in the nationally televised debates.
"If there is justice," he writes, "and [Nader] gets a place in the presidential
debates, his support almost certainly would climb dramatically." Duh!
Of course, that's why Jackson ran in the Democratic primaries.
Third, McChesney suggests that by speaking with authority in plain language
about power, fairness, justice and democracy, Nader can unify the masses
in opposition to the two corporate candidates. But the issue here is not
the value of Nader's ideas and principles. Rather it is two-fold: first,
whether these ideas will be heard and examined, and, second, given the
potential for taking votes away from Gore, what effect this would have
on the left's natural constituencies.
In a recent article urging people to vote for Nader in Conscious Choice,
an ecology magazine, Dan Hamburg explains the dilemma that many sympathetic
to Nader's ideas will face. In states where the Democrat or Republican
is way ahead in the polls, people should vote for Nader, he says; while
in states where Bush and Gore are neck-and-neck, those not wanting to
elect Bush should vote for Gore. But following this advice would negatively
affect Nader's vote, especially in the states where he now is polling
best. The result, among other things, would be to understate the degree
of popular agreement with Nader's ideas and thereby further marginalize
him and the left.
McChesney clearly rejects Hamburg's approach, but his path might mean
that a vote for Nader would win a state, and possibly the presidency,
for Bush. This appears to be the case in Michigan, for example, where
Nader is presently polling 8 percent - enough to throw the state to Bush
as things now stand.
Well, Naderites would say, what's wrong with that? And the answer is
that besides electing Bush, there would also be hell to pay with the very
social base - labor and African-Americans - that is most favorably disposed
to Nader's ideas, and is the left's natural constituency. The problem
is that these are the people most loyal to the Democratic Party. Gore
will get 90 percent of the black vote, and 60 to 65 percent of labor's
vote. Both constituencies have practical reasons for wanting a Democratic
president. To them, Nader is OK, but only as long as he is not a spoiler.
Hamburg indicates that the same is true among environmentalists.
the issue here is not whether we need a second force in American politics
- one that would represent the interests of the overwhelming majority
of men and women who work for a living. There's no dispute on this. But
for us to realize this goal, we have to understand the structural nature
of our political system and how to use it. Otherwise, we will remain little
more than gadflies. Consider this: No significant third party in American history,
with the exception of the old Socialist Party, ever ran more than two
consecutive presidential campaigns. And, again except for the Socialists,
the second campaign of the third parties has always been much weaker than
the first. The Socialists ran five campaigns between 1900 and 1920 and
remained an important voice in American life until their breakup three
years after the Russian Revolution. But even at the height of their influence
they had no potential of becoming a major presence in Congress, much less
of electing a president.
The reason for this is that we do not have a system in which the members
of an elected parliament select the prime minister as head of government;
nor do we have a system of proportional representation for electing legislators.
In countries with either of those systems, minority parties often have
a chance to participate meaningfully in the legislature, and even, in
coalitions, choosing the prime minister.
But in a system like ours, where the president is elected directly and
Congress is elected in single-member majority districts, the system moves
inexorably toward two parties. Only in periods when one of the major parties
is fatally wounded over an issue of vital national concern - as was the
case with the Whigs and the extension of slavery in the 1850s - has it
been possible for a third party to enter the scene and grow rapidly. That,
of course, is how Lincoln won on his party's second try.
But all is not lost. When Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago, he
used to talk about the city's two parties. He didn't mean the Democrats
and the Republicans; he meant his party and little Richie Daley's. Like
both major parties throughout the country, the official party was open
by law to anyone who registered in it. Indeed, anyone can enter a primary
for legislative or executive office. And any group can promote its own
candidates and thereby become a force in national politics, as the Christian
right did in the Republican Party in the '80s. Furthermore, because only
a small fraction of the electorate votes in primaries, a well-organized
force can win nominations much more easily in primaries than in general
Rather than panicking every four years, getting all wound up in an essentially
hopeless campaign, and then, when the results are disappointing, lapsing
into disillusionment and inertia, the left should begin thinking seriously
about how to intervene successfully in our political system. It's time
for us to confront reality and to grow up politically.
James Weinstein is
the founding editor and publisher of In These Times.
In These Times © 2000