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 this election?"

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 fall.

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 Office.

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 firm."

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 food."

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 result possible?

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 leap forward.

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 Stories).

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