The Great Debate
The Nader challenge has inspired bitter disputes
on the left. Isn't it terrific?
by John Nichols
In These times magazine, October 2000
Leaning across the coach-class aisle of his flight from Washington
to Boston, where 12,000 people would rally to protest his exclusion
from the first presidential debate, Ralph Nader mused, "If
I hadn't run, what would there be for the left to talk about in
One need not wear Green colors to acknowledge that the Green
Party nominee for president makes a good point. Love Nader or
hate him, support his candidacy as an inspired challenge to politics
as usual or oppose it as a vain and dangerous fool's mission,
but, please, don't deny the impact of this campaign on progressives.
For the first time in more than 50 years, the left is fully engaged
in an intense, issue-driven, tactically sophisticated dialogue
about how to get the most out of the electoral process.
In the thick of the debate, especially when Al Gore backers
label Naderites naive cogs in a right-wing Republican machine-or
when the Naderites counter by decrying their detractors as naive
cogs in a right-wing Democratic machine-the whole endeavor can
seem z unsettling. And it is. The dialogue over how to approach
this year's presidential ~ election is shaking up the left, rousing
it from a long neglected and frequently dysfunctional relationship
with electoral m politics. Where exactly the Gore-Nader tug of
war will land the great, ill-defined mass of progressive voters
on the ~ American political landscape remains to be seen. But
there is good reason to believe, whatever the count on November
7, that the left will end this year in a better place than where
it stood prior to the 2000 campaign.
There's even the possibility that this discourse will lead
American progressives toward an understanding of the prospects
for a politically savvy electoral strategy that mirrors the sophisticated
approach of European, Indian, Australian, Canadian and Mexican
activists. At the very least, Nader has succeeded in forcing progressives
to think anew about how and why they will cast their ballots this
Without Nader, the 2000 election campaign would have been
the most dismal presidential competition for American progressives
since Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison faced off in a 1888
campaign so hideously devoid of idealism that it spawned the Populist
movement. Yes, in a no-Nader context, the overwhelming majority
of progressives would have cast grudging ballots for Gore. But
what would there have been to say about those votes except perhaps
that, once more, in the contest between voting and not voting,
the lessons of fourth-grade civics teachers won out? And, perhaps,
that they kept the smirking Texas executioner out of the Oval
Now, whether they are planning to vote for Gore or Nader,
or whether they are still agonizing over the choice, progressives
are talking about this election campaign. Endlessly. Energetically.
And fruitfully. The initial success of the Nader candidacy-measured
by summer poll results that put the Greens' strength near 10 percent
in several key states-made real the question of whether it was
nobler to cast a ballot for the best candidate and the better
politics that might follow, or to lend a vote to the inferior
candidate with the clearest shot at defeating the really dangerous
contender. "Never in my life have I had so many discussions
with so many people I generally agree with about how to vote in
a November election," says Ed Garvey, a labor lawyer who
was the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor of Wisconsin. "People
really are thinking about where to go this year; they're weighing
the choices, asking themselves where to compromise, where to stand
Garvey, who like many Democrats is also a longtime Nader admirer,
is one of the people doing the agonizing. He appeared at a huge
Madison rally organized by the Greens and asked the cheering crowd
to imagine what a better nation this would be with Nader as president.
After he delivered his impassioned speech, however, Garvey confided
that if the contest between Gore and Bush remains close in his
crucial swing state, he'll probably cast his ballot for the vice
president. "It's hard," Garvey says. "Do you follow
your heart or do you do what you think has to be done to prevent
right-wingers from taking charge of everything?"
Yes, it is hard. The Nader challenge has inspired some of
the most bitter internal disputes the left has seen in decades.
Old "Nader's raiders" such as former Rep. Toby Moffett
(D-Connecticut) are campaigning against their mentor. Lifelong
Democrats such as former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower
have torn up their membership cards and jumped to the Greens.
Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and other Democrats have engaged
in ugly and unwarranted attempts to portray Nader as insensitive
to the concerns of women, gays and lesbians and racial minorities.
At the same time, Greens have tossed brickbats at Gore's pragmatic
union supporters, dismissing them as Democratic Party stooges
who would abandon the Seattle coalition for an empty promise of
access to the Oval Office-or perhaps a night in the Lincoln bedroom.
So intense has the internal conflict on the left grown that,
in Boston on the night of the first presidential debate, Ironworkers
gathered outside the hall to cheer Gore clashed with students,
there to demand Nader's inclusion. "I don't know if I've
ever seen so many people who agree on so many issues so divided
over a single election," says Mel King, a former Democratic
legislator who ran a "Rainbow Coalition" race for mayor
of Boston and now is campaigning for Nader. "People are more
worked up about Nader-versus-Gore than anything in years."
Terrible, terrible, terrible gripe the cautious minders of
an almost always too-cautious left. They worry about "wasted"
energy and "wasted" votes. They fret about the damage
the dissing discourse will do to a broad constituency that, when
it disagrees, in the words of New Party founder Joel Rogers, can
mirror the worst excesses of "hungry people fighting over
But I see nothing terrible in this discourse. On the contrary,
I think it's terrific.
Nader's challenge has demanded that progressives take electoral
politics as seriously as do their comrades in other lands-and,
perhaps more importantly, as seriously as do their domestic foes
on the corporate and religious right. Finally, progressives are
asking the right question: How do I use my vote, my energy, my
talent, my influence, my resources to achieve the most left-wing
That the answers will differ is not merely understandable
but necessary. To achieve the most left-wing result that is possible
in Kansas, for instance, may require progressive populists to
cast their ballots in Republican primaries for moderate state
school board candidates-if only because they want their children
to be taught evolution. To achieve the most left-wing result that
is possible in this year's New York Senate race, trade unionists
from Buffalo to the Bronx will eschew the Democratic line and
cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton on the line of the Working
Families Party-theorizing that because New York allows the fusion
of votes from different parties,
Clinton will read the results and know that she could not
have won without the votes of people who object to the Democratic
Party's rightward drift. To achieve the most left-wing result
that is possible in several Vermont state legislative districts
this fall, local activists will cast their ballots for candidates
of the newly chartered Vermont Progressive Party- which should
win more seats in a state legislature this year than any left
party since the Minnesota Farmer Labor and Wisconsin Progressive
parties folded their third-party efforts in the '40s. And what
of the presidential race? Again, the pursuit of that most left-wing
result will take voters in myriad directions. In the District
of Columbia, where a Democratic victory is only slightly less
certain than that of the Assads in Damascus, progressives will
cast their ballots for Nader-in hopes that the D.C. Statehood/Green
Party alliance will displace the Republicans as Washington's No.
2 party. In Alaska, where Gore is about as competitive as, well,
Nader, progressives will take a serious shot at pushing the Greens
into second place.
In other states, it gets harder. But, for those who would
like to see the left become a more serious player in American
electoral politics, hard is good. If we recognize that it is unlikely
either the Democrats or the Greens are going away after November
7, then the task of determining the issues and the circumstances
that might lead a voter to break with the Democrats-or to stick
with them-is healthy for progressives who have been on the losing
end of a dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party
pretty much since the day FDR died.
For the first time in decades, the term "tactical voting"
is being given its proper place in the language of the American
left. Progressive voters are actually checking poll figures, not
to figure out which of the evils is ahead, but rather to determine
whether they can safely cast a ballot for the good. These are
people who would not risk handing the White House to Bush, but
who hope to be able to cast a Green vote as a warning to Gore
and Democratic Party leaders that there is indeed a constituency
that stands to the left of the Democratic Leadership Council.
The point at which any particular progressive voter decides
to embrace or abandon the lesser evil is not the point. What matters
is that the Nader candidacy has opened dialogues-both internal
and external-about the wisdom and potential for tactical voting.
This, as they say in China and at Billy Bragg concerts, is a great
If there is a single constant in left electoral work internationally,
it is an understanding of the value and the power of tactical
voting. Indeed, before the 1997 British election that dispatched
the Conservative Party from power after 18 years of Margaret Thatcher
and John Major, the watchword of the left was "tactical."
The week before the election, Britain's New Statesman magazine
published a chart suggesting the best vote that its lefty readers
could cast in each of more than 600 local contests for Parliament.
The strategy involved backing the strongest contenders against
the Conservatives from a list that included candidates of Labor
and the smaller Liberal Democrat, Welsh and Scottish nationalist
parties. The strategy worked-not only were the Tories defeated,
but voters elected the largest Labor and Liberal Democrat blocs
since the end of World War II.
In more recent European Parliament elections, the tactical
approach has expanded to include instructions to vote for Greens
and left-wing offshoots of the Labor Party, with considerable
success. In the recent London mayoral election, which put Labor
renegade Ken Livingstone in the mayor's chair and Greens in a
number of key positions, tactical voting was raised to something
of an art form by creative new coalitions of traditional Labor
voters, Greens and independent leftists.
In France, where a two-tier election system makes it possible
to cast a first vote based on ideology and a second vote for practicality,
leftists for generations have used tactical voting as a tool to
pressure the Socialist Party to move left. In the last rounds
of presidential and parliamentary elections, for instance, the
millions of first-round votes for Green, Communist and Trotskyist
candidates- yes, Trotskyists actually do top the million-vote
mark in France-clearly signaled to the Socialists that they needed
to move left. And they did, implementing a 35-hour work week and
challenging the cautious "third-way" philosophy advanced
by Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroder.
Similar stories of strategic alliances, careful plotting and-dare
we say it- success can be found around the world. Such tales are
especially common in Scandinavia, where Social Democratic and
purer "Third Left" parties compare, contrast, compete
and, at times, come together-as in Finland, where the Left Alliance
Party, which could reasonably be referred to as "Naderite,"
recently entered the government as a junior coalition partner.
Of course, tactical voting is only one hammer that can be
extracted from the toolbox of electoral strategies that could
be employed by progressives who are determined to alter the political
landscape-internationally and domestically. The variety of approaches
is actually rather well illustrated by the tentative, yet clearly
hopeful steps taken this year by New York's Working Families Party
as it makes real the promise of fusion, Vermont's Progressive
Party as it forges a genuine third force, and the Greens, who
have chosen not to run candidates against progressive Democrats
while at the same time mounting needed races against New Democrats
such as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein-who faces a spirited
challenge from Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin.
Is it possible that the American left might eventually develop
the structures, institutions and-most critically-the instincts
required to move in and out of the Democratic Party, to cast tactical
votes, build complex alliances and, ultimately, create an alternative
politics that is bigger than the Democratic Party, or even the
Green Party? Can the rare accomplishment of Vermont Rep. Bernie
Sanders, who has proved that it is possible to force the Democrats
to play nice with an independent socialist, be replicated in states
where voters outnumber dairy cows?
It is easy to suggest that America's absurd and constricting
winner-take-all electoral system renders comparison with other
countries useless. It is even easier to claim that the American
left lacks the electoral traditions, the organizational strength
and the communications infrastructure that has enabled progressive
forces in other lands to forge effective electoral strategies.
It is easiest of all to question whether there even is a left
in America-and to state with puffed up certainty that, even if
such a team can be identified, its players could never be expected
to agree long enough to take the field of political battle and
make a difference.
Dismissing the left's prospects-electoral or otherwise-is
a national pastime in this country. But I seem to recall that,
exactly a year ago, I heard questions about whether it made any
sense to try and pull together demonstrations outside the Seattle
sessions of a trade group that even some well-read leftists could
not identify. Last fall's anti-WTO protests proved that a diverse
coalition of progressives could take a page from their international
allies and mount a powerful challenge not only to corporate power,
but to the naysayers within the left's own ranks. And the great
Nader Gore debate suggests the possibility that-far from destroying
itself-the broad American left may finally be prepared to steal
a page from the electoral playbook of its international comrades.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who backs Gore
but eschews criticism of Nader, knows better than perhaps anyone
else on the American left the challenge and the potential of a
more engaged and tactically savvy left politics. Not long ago,
I sat with Wellstone in a room full of progressives who agreed
on every issue, but who were almost evenly divided on the Nader-versus-Gore
question. The dialogue between Wellstone and his friends was thrilling-filled
with the intensity, mutual respect and hope that is so often missing
from activist discussions.
"I really do believe it's important that Gore beat Bush,"
Wellstone said to me as we were walking out of the room. "But
I want to tell you something: It's just as important that we capture
the energy of this dialogue that we've got going on the left and
turn it into something. November 7 is important because it's Election
Day, but November 8 may be even more important for progressives.
On November 8, no matter what happens, we've got to take all these
questions and arguments, all this energy that's being poured into
beating Bush with Gore and into building an alternative with Nader,
and turn it into something."
Wellstone is right to see reason for hope in the electoral
turbulence that has gripped the left this fall. Ralph Nader has
stirred the pot. He has forced progressives to begin to come to
grips with the question of how they will engage with the electoral
process. And, no matter how they answer that question, the nature
of their engagement will be more sophisticated, more nuanced and
more significant than it has been since the days when no one questioned
whether there was a left in America.
John Nichols is editorial page editor of the Capital Times
in Madison, Wisconsin. A fellow with The Nation Institute, he
writes "The Beat" column for The Nation and frequently
contributes to The Progressive and In These Times. His new book,
written with Robert W. McChesney, is It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven