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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 11/1/10

My Support for Ralph Nader, Ten Years Later: Lessons Learned for 2010

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At the same time, few of us realized just how far to the right this country would go under George W. Bush. Many of us expected a more moderately conservative administration similar to that of his father. Indeed, Bush's anticipated pick for Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in many ways more moderate that the hawkish Madeleine Albright, who served under Clinton, or any of Gore's likely picks to lead the State Department. While the relatively weak Texas governorship did not offer many clues, there was little indication that the younger Bush would embrace the very neo-conservative agenda his father had rejected. Indeed, during the first eight months of the administration, the more moderate elements in the new Bush administration appeared to be winning out against the far right. That all changed on September 11.

Strategic Miscalculation

Back in 2000, it appeared to many of us that the only way to stop the ongoing rightward drift of the Democratic Party was to support a credible challenge from the left. History offered a number of examples, such as the way the strong showing of the Socialist Party in the 1932 election prompted the newly-elected President Franklin Roosevelt, who originally ran as a fiscal conservative, to instead adopt the New Deal. There was some evidence at that time that the Green Party could have a similar effect.

During the 1990s, the Greens were a major player in New Mexico politics. By polling 10-15% in the 1996 election against Gore/Clinton-type Democrats, Green candidates sapped enough votes away from Democratic nominees to allow Republicans to win two House seats and the governorship. In response, the New Mexico Democratic Party moved well to the left: Fred Harris, the populist former Oklahoma Senator, became state party chair and focused on wooing the party's liberal base. (Harris' wife LaDonna, a prominent American Indian attorney, was the vice-presidential nominee of the progressive Citizens Party in 1980.) In 1998, the Democrats nominated solid progressives in the two house districts they had lost during the previous election cycle, causing the Greens' share of the vote to shrink to well under 5%, resulting in the Democrats defeating the Republicans with far better candidates than they had nominated two years earlier.

Though developing a credible third party challenge on a national level is a greater challenge, many of us held on to the hope in 2000 that Nader would receive at least 5% of the vote nationally, thereby crossing the threshold that would provide the Green Party federal matching funds for the next election. In becoming a viable third party on a national level, there would be a solid base from which to raise issues being ignored by the two major parties: challenging the domination of our economy and politics by big business and corporate-led globalization, redirecting our bloated military spending to human needs, supporting single-payer health care, enacting meaningful campaign finance reform, making environmental protection a priority, ending capital punishment, stopping arms transfers to repressive regimes, opposing the Israeli occupation, etc. Fear that the Greens might get this 5% may have been what motivated the Democrats' last-minute anti-Nader campaign even more than the fear that Nader votes might actually throw the election to Bush.

Unfortunately, following the debacle of the national election of 2000, rather than learn their lesson and move to the left, the Democrats moved still further to the right, with the majority of Democratic senators voting with their Republican counterparts in October 2002 to authorize the fraudulently elected president with the unprecedented authority to invade an oil-rich country on the far side of the world that was no threat to the United states. On the House side, most Democrats voted against authorizing the war, but the most important Democratic leaders sided with Bush as well. Though the party not controlling the White House normally picks up seats in mid-term Congressional elections, as a result of this betrayal of the vast majority of Democratic voters who opposed the invasion of Iraq, millions stayed home, resulting in the Republicans regaining control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House.

Then, in 2004, as their candidate for president, the Democratic Party ended up nominating Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who - along with his running mate North Carolina senator John Edwards - were among the minority of Congressional Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq, an abomination which even Gore strenuously opposed. Not surprisingly, even with a far weaker showing by Nader or the Green Party, the Democrats lost again.

The Bottom Line

The reality is that, if one looks at voting as strategic choice, it almost always makes sense to vote Democratic.

There will always be people who can't vote for certain Democrats on principle. I could never, for example, cast my ballot for someone who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, because such people clearly have no respect for the most fundamental principles of the post-WWII international legal system or the U.S. Constitution and demonstrated a willingness to lie about non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" and sacrifice the lives of over 4500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the sake of oil and empire. Despite what happened in 2000, then, I could not vote for John Kerry in 2004. Nor can I ever vote for Dianne Feinstein, my Democratic senator. Some people have higher thresholds, some lower.

One can also make the case that voting is a sacred right that should not be exercised for strategic reasons, but on moral principles alone. The suffragettes and civil rights advocates who risked their lives for the right to vote were not doing so simply to be able to cast their ballot for a lesser evil. There is a related argument that it is morally and psychologically damaging to compromise one's principles by voting for someone whose policies you don't agree with against someone whose policies you do believe in; that it is important to vote your hopes rather than your fears.

However, the idea that one can "teach the Democrats a lesson" by voting for a progressive third party or not voting at all and thereby allowing Republicans to win just doesn't seem to work.

Also important is that fact that, though the differences between Democrats and Republicans may be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, the power of U.S. government is so great that even small differences can make huge differences in the lives of many millions of people. Just ask the people of Iraq and other countries who have suffered so much as a result of those of us who thought we could "teach the Democrats a lesson" ten years ago. Those of us here in the United States who are relatively privileged and secure need to be sensitive about how our decisions effect those less privileged and more vulnerable, both those in this country and the billions of others around the world.

The reality is that, despite Gore's failings and the fact that it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, the world would have been a much better place had so many people like myself not supported Nader in his 2000 campaign. As journalist Robert Parry observed, a Gore presidency "would have taken the country in a far different direction. Most significantly, he might have made significant progress in getting the United States to face up to the crisis of global warming, an existential threat to mankind that Bush studiously ignored. It may be a bitter irony that the one major political accomplishment of America's Green Party will be that it helped condemn the world to environmental disaster."

So, as reluctant as I am to say it: If you can stomach it, please vote Democratic this Tuesday.

Then, even more importantly, fight like hell to make sure they stop selling out to the militarists and the corporations. With only a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led when it comes to progressive positions; they have generally had to be dragged kicking and screaming by their constituents. We were able to force many Democratic elected officials to move to the left on civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, nuclear power, women's rights, South Africa, East Timor, globalization, Iraq, gay rights, and other issues.

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Stephen Zunes is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco where he Chairs the Middle East Studies Program. Professor Zunes also serves as Senior Analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus.
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