Weighing Electoral Risks

If politics is governed by an iron law, it is its very unpredictability. Citizens and commentators all see as through a glass darkly. We can and must make generalizations about politics. Nonetheless, the patterns we discern are at best rough approximations of a world that is itself subject to unexpected shocks and disruptions. The corollary of systemic unpredictability is that there is no politics without risk.

Many progressives reading this column are planning to vote for Al Gore today in order to stave off the grave risks of a Bush presidency. I understand and respect their fears, but I would ask them to recognize that their actions are themselves fraught with risks. The largely unspoken background of this election is a set of interrelated legal, economic, and political uncertainties. My reading of these risks and uncertainties leads me to advocate what I regard as the least risky course, a vote for Ralph Nader.

Gore's liberal defenders suggest that a vote for Nader is a middle class indulgence. The poor as well as future Social Security beneficiaries stand to lose the most with a Bush win. Yet Gore more than any other member of the Clinton Administration championed unnecessarily draconian welfare "reforms." These fail to support the transition to work desired by most welfare recipients.

In addition, Social Security, our most popular and successful anti-poverty program, faces the threat of "reform" in part because of Clinton-Gore rhetoric. The Administration continues to popularize the absurd notion of looming Social Security shortfalls. Social Security will fail only if US economic growth tumbles to levels unprecedented in modern times.

If the economy were to weaken appreciably, Gore's frequently reiterated commitment to stay the course of debt reduction in the face of all odds would compound the crisis. Our economic future would be especially bleak with a Democratic President insisting on Federal austerity during a deepening recession. Clinton convinced many Congressional Democrats to accept trade legislation about which many harbored inner doubts--with negative consequences for American labor. Gore efforts to disarm the traditional Democratic belief in the importance of public capital formation during troubled times would entail even more deleterious consequences. I'd prefer tax cuts even for the wealthy to a Coolidge style austerity when the economic chips are down.

Women are also portrayed as threatened by likely Bush appointees to the Supreme Court. These concerns may, however, reflect an exaggeration of the role and predictability of the courts. If progressives' goal is full equality for all women, more than formal legal standards are necessary. Even the noblest standards cannot be guaranteed simply by court appointments. If abortion is to remain "safe, legal, and rare" for all women, a complete range of reproductive and health services must be available. Although the legal right to abortion has been largely maintained during the Clinton years, effective access to full reproductive and health services has continued to shrink. I believe continued reliance on the courts to guarantee such access is risky. Unfortunately, that strategy is likely to persist as long as progressives think they can count on "lesser evil" centrist Democrats and their judicial appointees to assure their goals.

The largest risks in our decision today are political. As I write this column, Ralph Nader hovers around five percent in most national polls. Given the typical limits of poll samples, Nader's five percent might mean anything from two to eight percent. Some Progressives worry that in swing states like Maine, votes for Nader will tip the national election to Bush. I believe progressives ought also to consider the consequences of a Nader failure to achieve the five percent threshold.

If Nader receives five percent nationally, Greens will qualify for millions in matching campaign contributions for a 2004 presidential run. The quality of any future presidency depends more on the the political landscape than on the inner character of the incumbent. Bush's conservativsm will never become compassionate nor will Gore ever morph into a genuine populist without a credible Left opposition four years from now.

A Nader failure to attain five percent not only diminishes the progressive presence in politics, it also vindicates the exclusionary strategy endorsed by centrist Democrats. Not willing even to debate the merits of "lesser evil" politics, Gore's allies denied Nader an opportunity even to attend debates hosted by their corporate- sponsored debate commission. Our "Public" Broadcasting System then added insult to injury by offering free air time only to the corporate- sponsored candidates.

For me, the risks involved in lending further legitimacy to a corporate- dominated political process outweigh even the dangers of a Bush presidency. That progressives have to confront such wrenching choices is itself a commentary on how far our "two party" system has fallen.

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