Are progressives irresponsible in supporting Ralph Nader? Won't they enable a Bush presidency, just as liberals' aversion to Hubert Humphrey helped elect Richard Nixon? As a Nader voter, I accept the importance of this question. Nonetheless, I am not convinced that progressives today must support Al Gore to avert social catastrophe.
I am more impressed by the similarities than the differences between the major candidates. Furthermore, I believe any election analysis that merely juxtaposes positions misleads us. Promises are made during campaigns, but the most important result of an election is the forces mobilized both for and against the incoming administration. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised to "put people first" by rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. He won a bare plurality of the vote and the undying hatred of the bond market. He quickly backed off and became a born again fiscal conservative.
Both George W. Bush and Gore are ardent supporters of corporate globalism. Gore's devotion in the face of evidence that global capitalism weakens workers' bargaining position and degrades the environment speaks volumes about his candidacy. Just as significantly, in the post-Cold War era both Gore and Bush promise to increase military spending and confine debate to the best Star Wars option.
Bush and Gore do differ on Social Security and tax policy. Bush would privatize part of Social Security. He would cut capital gains and estate taxes further. Both steps would exacerbate our gaping inequalities and make our prosperity even more dependent on market fluctuations.
These would be dangerous steps, but we must ask why these themes resonate. Ten years ago, any Republican touting Social Security privatization would invite disaster. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has done so good a job selling the absurd notion that Social Security is fiscally unsound that a majority now believe it won't be around when they retire. These dire prognoses are, however, based on projected rates of national growth slower than those of the Depression era. Should these projections prove correct, Social Security shortfalls will be among the least of our difficulties.
The administration's response to this pseudo problem is to "lock up" the growing budget surplus in order to save Social Security. These funds are, of course, not actually stored in a separate vault but are used to pay off government debt. Though paying down the debt may sound like a worthy idea, its consequence is that social investment in schools, energy- efficient transit systems and basic research is neglected. The much touted productivity gains of the last few years owe more to past government development of the computer and the Internet than to Bill Gates. Unfortunately, current austerity only diminishes future seed corn.
A Gore presidency would face continued worries about Social Security -- and probably in the context of an economy less robust than the past two years. Having sworn off activist government, it will likely need to embrace some combination of Social Security cuts, partial privatization and tax breaks for the rich in order to stave off media criticism.
Looking at our politics over the last quarter century, two trends stand out: 1) a shrinking electorate, and 2) the gradual erosion of working-class support for the Democratic Party. As Ray Teixeira and Joel Rogers have argued in a new book, high school-educated clerical, service sector, and factory workers are the real swing voters in American politics. A quarter century of economic stagnation and social conflict have caused some of these voters to move right. Economic decline at the end of the Bush administration gave Clinton's campaign a chance to regain some, but his trade agenda and botched health care initiatives leave the Democrats a weakened presidential party facing a hostile Congress.
A victorious Bush may be able to push Social Security "reforms," but he will likely bring few Democrats along and he will tag his party as responsible for the consequences. Nor will he, unlike Clinton or Gore, be able to mobilize the many Democrats any administration needs to enact more "free trade" deals.
Neither party attracts an effective majority of the population. A Nader candidacy is good for our politics even if it means a Bush victory. Nader is the only candidate who combines progressive reforms of international commerce, universal health care, reproductive rights and a positive role for government in providing necessary social capital. Democrats in power will never address these concerns unless they face the threat of losing voters to someone who will.
The very presence in the race of a well-known third-party nominee will also force a long overdue discussion of the laws and semi-official practices that sustain the two party monopoly. Paradoxically, Nader could also force Gore to advance more progressive initiatives He may also excite more liberal voters and thus benefit congressional Democrats. Al Gore's greatest enemy isn't Ralph Nader or George W. Bush. It is the unimaginative centrism that currently passes for political wisdom.