AS THE 2000 presidential election sparks court battles in Florida, one thing has become very clear -- Vice President Al Gore was stung by the 96,800 votes cast for Ralph Nader in the Sunshine State.
While some Naderites claim they would not have voted if Nader had not run, polls just before the election show that many Nader supporters across the country were still considering changing their vote to Democrat Gore so as not to elect Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
I voted for Nader, the Green Party candidate, on Election Day in the District of Columbia. It was a big step. I had always voted Democratic before this election. I voted for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 even though I knew he would lose. When I was in graduate school in Kentucky I even kept my Virginia residency so I could vote against the GOP candidate Oliver North in his 1994 bid to unseat Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat.
So why did I vote for Nader when I knew it could "give" Bush the election?
I may be a "spoiler," but in my opinion the Democratic Party has been "spoiled." Democrats have abandoned the economic issues that have long distinguished them from the Republican Party. Like their Republican brethren across the aisle, many Democrats support laissez faire economic policies. In short, both parties support the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, corporate tax cuts and legislation to renew fast-track trade negotiations.
Republicans and a growing number of centrist Democrats also support the elimination of agricultural subsidies and regulations that are vital for the continuation of family farming in this country.
The commitment by both parties to these ideals is mirrored in the campaign donations they receive. Corporations as diverse as the Archer Daniels Midland Co., DuPont and Philip Morris routinely give to both parties. During the convention season, both parties held lavish dinners and fund-raisers for the same corporate donors.
When considered at the macro level, pro-corporate policies have done wonders for the U.S. economy. The U.S. gross domestic product has witnessed steady growth over eight years, the Dow Jones has set numerous records in the same time period, and stockholders have seen the value of their portfolios go through the roof with little or no effort on their part.
What we forget is that more than 50 percent of Americans do not own stock, and of those who do, many own negligible amounts.
The folks at United for a Fair Economy estimate that pay for chief executive officers is 475 times larger than that of the average worker, and that during the 1990s CEO compensation packages grew 535 percent, outpacing even the growth of the S&P 500, which grew 297 percent.
When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is less than it was in 1968. These facts are egregious at any time, but they are especially galling in boom times. In short, the benefits of laissez faire economics, now fashionably termed neo-liberalism, have not benefited everyone. The Democratic Party used to care about the gap between the haves and the have nots. Their concern differentiated them from the Republicans. As the commonality between the parties has grown, both have turned to cultural issues to stake out differences. The last days of their campaigns illustrate this point all too well.
For their part, the Democrats, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and activists such as Jesse Jackson, went all-out in the final week of campaigning to secure high voter turnout among African-Americans. But let us be clear, Democrats cannot and do not court blacks because they are die-hard supporters of free trade, welfare reform or the so-called drug war. No, it is because they know that African-Americans view the Republicans as insensitive or downright hostile to issues such as affirmative action, racial profiling and institutional discrimination.
The Republicans undertook a similar strategy. With the help of the National Rifle Association, the Republicans worked tirelessly to convince voters in rural areas that Gore would "take away their guns." But let us be clear here as well. Republicans do not woo rural voters in places like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia because they support Republican initiatives to cut corporate taxes, depress unions and expand NAFTA.
Rather, the Republicans know people in these places view the right to carry weapons as almost sacred, and that they could turn it into a big campaign issue because the Democrats were not attracting these voters with traditional class-based issues. That Bush won West Virginia despite intense campaigns by the United Mine Workers drives home the point.
As a political progressive, I believe there is a vital place in politics for addressing cultural issues such as racial discrimination, gender inequality, and homophobia. Legislation is how we protect civil rights and expand their reach to groups not protected. But, I do not believe these rights can be fundamentally addressed without addressing the unbridled power of corporations. The two issues are entangled.
Increasingly, corporations are our employers, and this means they make important decisions about how we live.
Corporations decide who among us will be employed, for how long, and under what circumstance.
Corporations have the power to offer same-sex benefits packages for their gay employees or to deny them.
They have the power to recruit and promote women and minorities or to ignore these considerations as they make their hires.
They have the power to decide whether they will keep their aging workers or force them out by promoting younger workers in their place.
And, they have the power to move to other countries, confident that their quest for cheaper, more exploitable labor is sanctioned and promoted by our government.
The more influence corporations have in the American political process the less likely either party will introduce legislation that protects and expands the cultural or economic rights of the voting populace. Instead, we will have a government for the wealthy, by the co-opted, and of the corporations.
So, when my Democratic friends tell me I am a spoiler, and my vote for Nader cost Gore the election, I tell them a vote for Gore looks a lot more like a vote for Bush than my vote for Nader does.
Carolyn Gallagher is a professor of political geography at American University in Washington. She has done extensive research on the Religious Right and the U.S. militia movement.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun