The Nader ChaIlenge
The Progressive magazine, July 2000
An American labor leader finally got fed up with the betrayals
of the Clinton-Gore Administration. After Bill Clinton exulted
over winning normal permanent trade status for China, Stephen
Yokich, head of the United Auto Workers (UAW), decided he couldn't
stand it any longer.
"President Clinton and Vice President Gore once again
have sided with multinational corporations against workers here
and abroad," Yokich said. He rightly pointed out that the
labor movement was under cynical attack on this issue and Al Gore
was nowhere to be seen. "America's working families need
and deserve a President they can count on to stand with them on
their tough issues, not just the easy ones," Yokich said.
And Yokich took it to the next level, daring to suggest that
labor should exercise its option not to back Gore.
"We have no choice but to actively explore alternatives
to the two major political parties," said Yokich. "It's
time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting
candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on
what is right, not what big money dictates."
Yokich is probably under enormous pressure from the AFL-CIO
to pipe down. But we hope he won't.
If labor leaders, if progressives, don't make a credible threat
to abandon Democrats when the Democrats abandon us, then there
is nothing that will stop centrist Democrats like Clinton and
Gore from drifting farther to the right.
At some point, the strategy of staying within the Democratic
Party, no matter what, becomes self-defeating.
Is this the year to break loose?
Many progressives caution against ditching Gore. They say
he is better than George W. Bush. Well, yes and no. Gore is equivalent
to Bush on a whole range of foreign policy issues, including sanctions
on Iraq, aid to the brutal Colombian military, a $300 billion
Pentagon budget, and first-use of nuclear weapons. He's only marginally
better on missile defense. He's not one iota better on NAFTA,
the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and trade with China.
Gore is not better than Bush on the death penalty, the war
on crime, the destruction of welfare, and domestic economic policy
(such as the compulsion to balance the budget or draw down the
debt). And Gore can make only the most laughable case for campaign
finance reform, given his own indiscretions.
Nor is Gore better than Bush on fundamental issues of corporate
power or the mal-distribution of wealth and income in this country.
Gore doesn't go near these.
But, yes, Gore is definitely better on abortion rights. While
early in his career he favored restricting abortion rights, Gore
for the last eight years has steadfastly supported a woman's right
to choose. Like Clinton, he should be counted on to defend this
right against the conservative onslaught. If abortion rights is
your number one concern, voting for AL Gore is certainly a sensible
And yes, Gore is definitely better on gay rights, though he
does not favor gay marriage. Unlike Bush, he actually seems at
ease with lesbians and gays. And he appears to understand that
the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement is part of
the greater civil rights and liberation movement that has been
sweeping the country over the last four decades. If gay rights
is your number one concern, voting for Al Gore is certainly a
Yes, Gore has a better record on civil rights, too. You won't
see him visit Bob Jones University or trash affirmative action.
Yes, Gore would be more likely to appoint decent justices
to the Supreme Court. But there's no guarantee. Nor is it a certainty
that the Bush appointees would be abominable. Two of the most
liberal justices on the court, John Paul Stevens and David Souter,
were appointed by Republicans. And Clinton's appointees have not
been in the Douglas, Brennan, or Marshall league. There is no
reason to suspect that Gore would appoint more liberal justices
than Clinton has.
But that's not the question at hand. The question is, given
Bush's reverence for Antonin Scalia, would Bush's appointments
to the Supreme Court be a huge setback for the progressive cause?
The answer depends on how many justices he would get to appoint,
and how reactionary they would turn out to be.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist is tops on the list of justices
likely to retire. If Bush wins and gets to replace Rehnquist,
the balance on the court wouldn't change at all, since Rehnquist
is a conservative anyway. But if Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
retire, then the balance could shift dangerously to the right.
So, all things considered, the Court is a legitimate cause
for concern. But since the outcome is iffy, it should not be granted
the trump card status that it has attained in some circles.
On the environment, despite Gore's reputation, his record
leaves a lot to be desired, as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey
St. Clair pointed out in our February issue. Gore told the EPA
to slow down the implementation of tough pesticide regulations,
and he reneged on his promise to shut the hazardous waste incinerator
in East Liverpool, Ohio. "A little-reported example is Gore's
fervent efforts on behalf of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical
giant," St. Clair wrote in the April 17 issue of In These
"The Vice President made a series of forceful calls to
European heads of state, including the leaders of Ireland and
France, stressing his opposition to a move by the European Union
to ban the import of genetically engineered seeds and food products."
David Brower, one of the leading environmentalists in the country,
says that Bush and Gore "are really the same color."
On labor, despite NAFTA, the WTO, and the China deal, Gore
is still better than Bush. He supports increases in the minimum
wage, he supports family leave, and he is more likely to appoint
pro-union people to the National Labor Relations Board. Even the
UAW's Yokich acknowledged Gore's superiority here. "We cannot
turn to Republican candidate George W. Bush," he said. "His
positions on issues of concern to working families are far worse."
But Yokich understands that even though Gore is better than
Bush on some vital issues, that is not sufficient.
Gore is not a reliable ally. And a vote for Gore may not be
the best way to advance the progressive cause.
If you take the long view, a Nader candidacy on the Green
Party line has some distinct advantages.
First, it will hold the Democratic Party accountable.
Thirty years ago, the Princeton philosopher Albert O. Hirschman
wrote a slender but profound book entitled Exit Voice, and Loyalty.
He said that if you want to influence change within an organization,
you have three options: You can protest (voice); you can remain
loyal; or you can bolt.
Progressives need a credible exit threat, otherwise we will
continue to be taken for granted. Since Clinton's first Presidential
run, Democratic strategists have been assuming that we have nowhere
else to go, so they have counseled a sell-out strategy: on welfare,
on capital punishment, on the Pentagon.
But this year, we have somewhere to go. And some of us will
walk over to Nader. Those who do so should not be faulted. Their
exit will serve as an important reminder to Democrats in the future:
If you stray, you pay.
Second, the Nader campaign is articulating progressive, anti-corporate
views to millions of Americans at a time when they are most prepared
to listen: during a Presidential campaign. Nader lets people know
that the debate in this country does not start from the Democratic
Leadership Council pole and move ever rightward. He is talking
about some fundamental issues,
such as universal health care, campaign finance reform, curbing
corporate two parties power, and reinvigorating democracy. He
has the capacity to inspire millions of people who have given
up hope of redeeming the promise of America. (We wish only that
he would talk more boldly about a more humane U.S. foreign policy,
and more comfortably about abortion rights, race, and sexuality.)
Third, Nader is trying to build the Green Party into a durable
feature of our political landscape. This is not some solo ego
trip. He understands that you have to start small. His whole career
has been about establishing organizations. Unlike Jesse Jackson,
who used the Rainbow Coalition as a trampoline for his own ambitions,
Nader is putting himself in the service of the Green Party, which
may become a force to be reckoned with here in the United States
as it has in Europe.
This country needs a more explicitly ideological debate. Let's
have it out. For too long, the Democrats have been narrowing the
space between themselves and the Republicans. Dodging the liberal
label and discarding progressive planks, they have blurred the
distinctions between the two parties and shut off debate on crucial
issues. A viable Green Party would open up that debate.
This magazine has a soft spot for third party candidates.
It sympathized with Eugene Victor Debs, who won almost one million
votes in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket, though Debs was in
jail at the time for protesting World War I. Our founder, Wisconsin
Senator Robert La Follette, ran as the Progressive Party candidate
in 1924 and garnered five million votes. In 1948, The Progressive
endorsed Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate for President.
By running on principle, these third party candidates helped keep
in circulation the currency of progressive politics.
We recognize that the progressive community is split this
year on the election issue. But no matter where you come out on
the Nader challenge, some perspective is in order.
This is not the most important election in U.S. history, not
even close. We've had elections over slavery, depressions, world
wars, the Cold War, Vietnam. This year, the issues are of a lower
temperature. The contest is between a corporate Republican and
a corporate Democrat. Whoever wins, the United States will still
spend more on defense than the next twelve militaries combined.
Whoever wins, there will still be forty-four million Americans
without health insurance. Whoever wins, the wealthiest 1 percent
of Americans will still own 40 percent of the nation's wealth.
And whoever wins, big business will still laugh all the way to
But that is not to counsel despair. It is, only, to recognize
the limits of the plebiscite for President.
We need to remember how social change happens It doesn't happen
by electing a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore. It happens by pointing
out injustice and by organizing millions of people at the grassroots
to overcome it. To the extent that the Nader campaign helps serve
those functions it will be a success.
Ralph Nader page