Lessons of the Election (2000)

The Progressive magazine, December 2000


When it looked like George W. Bush was going to win by the narrowest of margins, the long knives were quickly drawn and aimed at Ralph Nader. He cost Al Gore the Presidency, we were told. He and his foolish, adolescent, or utopian supporters detracted from their own cause and betrayed their natural allies.


Ralph Nader held up the banner of progressive politics, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

Ralph Nader's supporters voted their conscience, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

Al Gore did not earn their votes by any stretch of the imagination. Just look at his last TV ad. He made three boasts: He fought in the Vietnam War; he broke with his party to support the Gulf War; and he played a pivotal role in the destruction of welfare. For many, this was a reminder of how unworthy Gore was. After all, here was a candidate who was for the death penalty, for the sanctions on Iraq, for the Cuban embargo, and for increased Pentagon spending.

Nevertheless, many progressives held their noses and voted for Gore. We understand that decision, just as we understand the decision of those who voted for Nader (or for the fine Socialist Party candidate, David McReynolds).

But it wasn't fair to start blaming the Nader voters. Many of them wouldn't have dreamed of voting for Gore under any circumstances.

Some would have, to be sure, but that they chose a candidate more to their liking was their right as citizens.

And in any event, it's not Nader's fault that Gore came across as a pedantic prig in the first debate, and it's not Nader's fault that Gore could not overcome his Clinton complex and allow the President to campaign more aggressively for him, at least in Arkansas.

At some point, the Nader-blamers have to face facts: Gore was a poor candidate with a poor record on progressive issues.

We were never indifferent to the difficulties that a Republican White House and a Republican-controlled Congress would create, and we will fight alongside our allies within the Democratic Party to resist any revanchist thrust, no matter the outcome.

But we also recognize the validity-indeed, the valor-of Ralph Nader's effort.

We have decried the rightward drift of the Democratic Party over these last twelve years. Ralph Nader stood up and demanded a new direction for that party.

We have been trying to promote a new progressive agenda, and Ralph Nader succeeded beyond our expectations in articulating some of its key items. On issue after issue-bioengineered foods, campaign finance reform, capital punishment, civil liberties, corporate crime, family farms, globalization (NAFTA, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank), health care, housing, the Middle East, nuclear disarmament, Pentagon spending, poverty, the war in Colombia, the war on drugs, and many more-he espoused progressive views with intelligence and defiance, thus educating millions of Americans to some of the most important concerns of our day. Had Nader not run, none of these views would have come across, and the American public would have been fed the woefully misleading idea that Al Gore represents the left-wing pole in American politics. By proudly defending progressivism, Nader did us all a favor.

He thundered about "the democracy gap," and he railed like a prophet against the overarching power of corporations in America. Who among us can say that these are not crucial issues?

He also energized a new generation of progressive activists. At rally after rally around the country, Nader spoke to young people who had never before been inspired to participate in public life, and he rekindled the hopes of thousands and thousands of others who had given up on our democracy. As he put it, "If you don't turn on to politics, politics will turn on you with a vengeance."

In so doing, he revived the spirit of rebellion in this country. Fundamental social change does not come about by curbing our hopes, shelving our dreams, and settling short. It comes about by making demands. These might seem outrageous or irresponsible at the time, but they are vital if we are ever to shake things up and get what we want. As Gandhi said, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Nader did all this with the deck stacked against him. He was excluded from the debates, maligned by members of the media (especially The New York Times), and abandoned and excoriated by many erstwhile friends (especially in The Nation). He also ran on a shoestring.

Still, he fought on. And for this we are grateful. As Eugene Victor Debs did in 1912 and 1920, as Robert La Follette did in 1924, and as Norman Thomas did time and again, Ralph Nader repudiated the choice of the lesser evil and stood on principle. No one should blame him-or his supporters-for that.

What's next? If George W. Bush ultimately prevails, Nader supporters should work with Democratic Party allies to fend off any efforts by Bush and the Republicans to roll back civil rights, gay rights, abortion rights, labor rights, or environmental protections. If Gore wins, progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party must remain vigilant to the threats he would pose: a war in Colombia, increased Pentagon spending, a renewed attack on welfare recipients, and fast track, to name a few.

For the Greens, this is a time for reassessing strategy. Despite Nader's best efforts, he was able to capture only slightly less than 3 percent of the vote, according to the latest figure available. Four years ago, doing virtually nothing, Nader got slightly less than 1 percent. So the outcome as measured in votes is sobering.

Nader and the Greens should weigh the pros and cons of another Presidential run very carefully. It may be that they would do better to focus on local, statewide, and Congressional races-especially where Republican candidates are running unopposed- than on the main prize. (We admit to being torn on this, though, since we see the value in raising issues at the Presidential level during a campaign.)

As far as the progressive community goes, this is a time for healing our wounds. We should understand that we are made of many parts, and we have varying strategies for accomplishing our goals. No one is the sole proprietor of progressive virtue; no one has the right to impose rules of conduct upon the rest of us. We all have something to contribute.

As Barbara Ehrenreich put it in the heat of the final days, "Our movement needs both its pragmatists and its dreamers, its inside-players and its utopian outsiders. We would never have begun without the dreamers, and never have lasted without the pragmatists."

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