My first exercise in American democracy was the 1996 Presidential election. Clinton was trouncing Dole, and it was with a clean conscience that I wrote in Green candidate Ralph Nader under the "other" section of my Massachusetts ballot. '96 was an easy year for progressives to sidestep the "lesser of two evils" dilemma. You could symbolically endorse Nader's politics confident that the hard right would be kept out of power.
Not so 2000. By all accounts it is going to be a very tight race. Polls show a constantly shifting but essentially stable statistical dead heat, and barring a major gaffe by Bush or Gore, there is little reason to think it will change before November. Americans have more or less made up their minds, and seem resigned to both Bush's stupidity and Gore's fundraising bloopers. Normally, liberals and progressives would be united in a common front against the possibility of another Bush administration that included former Reagan officials.
Normally. Ralph Nader's entrance into the fray with a serious and organized national campaign upsets the setup, and the Democrats know it. A nationwide campaign to get Nader on the ballot in fifty states could easily make Nader into Al Gore's Ross Perot, whose conservative populist campaign robbed Bush in 1992. Nader claims that his campaign will draw equally from Republican and Democrat constituencies, but that seems unlikely. Nader's message is geared toward the so-called blue-green coalition that fought the Battle of Seattle, and this is red meat Democratic territory. If Nader makes serious inroads into these two cores of Democratic support, Gore is finished.
As is to be expected, there are many who share Nader's politics but fear a Bush Presidency so much that they are calling Nader's Green campaign irresponsible. He can't win, they say, and the cost of a symbolic protest vote--even a relatively large one--will be an extreme right-wing government. The argument is as old as our two-party system, and just as tired. The current version goes something like this: While there may only be a few degrees separating the two parties on the major issues, they are an important few degrees. Both Bush and Gore are free trade, but Gore at least would have an ear open to critics; both support massive military budgets, but at least Gore is pro-arms control and is not eager to start another cold war, as the Bush team seems to be. Both hold conventional views on economics and the kind of 'growth' that is fueling climate change, but at least Gore supports the Kyoto Protocol and understands the issues, which Bush clearly does not.
There is certainly much merit to this argument. And it may be that the three degrees separating Bush and Gore are the three degrees between here and WWIII. But I doubt it. Moreover, this is an argument that one can make forever, and given the near total corporate control of both parties, it is of less weight than in the past. Nader is correct to state that the real problem is not the lesser of two evils but the evil of two lessers. For too long progressives have had no alternative to the Democratic Party. The party has broken its half of the bargain and now Americans should break theirs. It's time to leave the cage, and the key is dangling before our very eyes.
Would-be progressive critics of the Nader campaign are wrong to say that 2000 is merely another symbolic protest. Breaking the 5% mark would make the Greens eligible for federal matching funds in 2004 and would catapult the Party out of their West Coast ghetto onto the national stage. And there is every reason to believe that five percent is realistic, perhaps even too cautious. A recent Zogby America poll showed Nader with 5.6% to Pat Buchanan's 3.6% nationally, and in the western states Nader polled 13%, with 51% in favor of including him in the major debates. These numbers should be considered against the backdrop of a total media blackout of Nader and his running mate Winona LaDuke, who Time Magazine named one of America's fifty most promising leaders under 40. If the major news networks were to give a fraction of space allotted to Buchanan, Nader's already impressive numbers would soar.
They would soar because most Americans already know intuitively the centerpiece of Nader's low profile campaign: that America has become an oligarchy, dominated by corporate values, which are anti-family, anti-environment, and anti-community. Many Americans are happy to follow their stocks and watch television, but just as many are not, and have a more hopeful vision of citizenship. Our leading consumer advocate, Ralph Nader has inspired this vision and kept it alive amidst the consolidation of corporate power and market orthodoxy. And lest anyone accuse the man of being an admirable but fuzzy minded idealist untested in the nitty gritty of legislation, a quick look at Nader's record shows that his Washington-based study group has published books on everything from the FDA to the Federal Trade Commission, form tort reform to airline safety. He may be an idealist, but he can policy hack with the best of them. If Nader makes it to the debates, Gore will eat the minnow Bush, but Nader the shark will devour the angelfish Gore.
Ultimately, this campaign is less about Nader than the future of the Green Party and its prospects for becoming a force in national politics. The two major parties and the rough consensus they have forged--on the environment, the criminal justice system, the drug war, and the military--is simply no longer tolerable, assuming it ever was. And the pragmatic political animal Al Gore is simply not going to go beyond the centrist version of that consensus. Despite fantasies that he will "go Bullworth" on the environment, Gore is already backtracking. His staffers are currently trying to spin his brave book The Fate of the Earth as a "youthful indiscretion" in the face of know-nothing right-wing assaults on its "extremist message." If Gore truly deserved a single progressive vote, he would defend his book and the common sense upon which it is based. If Gore was worthy of widespread support, he would go on the offensive against those who would sooner strip-mine the Amazon than propose a sensible carbon tax.
But Gore won't do that. And so we turn to Ralph Nader and the proud American Greens, who will.