Real Choices. Suppressed Voices

The Progressive magazine, October 2000


There are two candidates running for President this year who are genuinely dedicated to progressive principles. Neither is named Al Gore, and neither is receiving the media attention he deserves.

But both are carrying on, tirelessly campaigning for a more just, peaceful, and democratic country. They both take on the twin evils of corporate power and militarism, and they both demand universal health care and an end to poverty. In the process, they are helping to keep in general circulation some of the crucial ideals for transforming our nation.

We speak of Ralph Nader, Presidential candidate of the Green Party, and of David McReynolds, Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, U.S.A.

Of the two, Nader's campaign shows more promise, as he has galvanized the grassroots in a way unseen since the days of Henry Wallace and Norman Thomas and, before them, Robert La Follette and Eugene Victor Debs.

On August 25, 10,000 people showed up in Portland, Oregon, for the biggest political rally of the year to date. It was not for Al Gore, who was coasting down the Mississippi. Nor was it for George W. Bush, who was floundering. It was for Ralph Nader. You may not have heard about the Portland event because it was not mentioned in The New York Times except in passing a week later in an article that ironically noted Nader's dearth of media coverage. What made the crowd even more exceptional was that people paid $7 apiece to attend, and Nader still packed them in.

"People must realize if we never vote for the people we want, we're never going to elect the people we want," Nader told the exuberant crowd, which clamored for him to be allowed in the Presidential debates.

On military issues, Nader has become increasingly outspoken. He is for stopping the production of nuclear weapons and for deep cuts in the Pentagon budget. He is also for ending sanctions on Iraq and withdrawing military aid from Colombia. On The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on June 30, he was asked by Lehrer: "How would you decide when to use this great military force that we have in the United States?"

Nader: "Well, first of all, I would set a priority of waging peace.... If we abhor the use of violence, except as a last resort of self-defense, we will be seriously focused on how to deter it and how to prevent it. And, by the way, global infectious disease is a weapon of mass destruction, malaria, tuberculosis, mass poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. So let's have different attentions to different styles of violence that need to be prevented."

Nader, who has won the endorsement of the California Nurses Association, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, and AFSCME Local 1108 in Los Angeles, is also a much stronger advocate of workers' rights than Gore. America's leading opponent of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, Nader has impeccable credentials in this area. His platform includes giving triple back pay to workers fired illegally during an organizing drive, expanding the power of the National Labor Relations Board, repealing the Taft-Hartley Act, and imposing a ban on the permanent replacement of strikers.

"Nader's energetic and principled candidacy will bring us closer to real labor law reform, national health care, and a challenge to-if not controls on- the power of multinational corporations," the United Electrical Workers said in its endorsement. "None of this will be achieved by voting for the business friendly candidates of the major parties.... We believe a wasted vote in this election would be for pro-business Democrats and Republicans."

But since winning the nomination, Gore has not sounded so pro-business. In fact, he's appropriated some of the populist language that is Nader's mother tongue. The problem is, with Gore it's just rhetoric confected in a focus group, not a firmly held conviction. In his speech at the Democratic Convention and during the next few weeks following it, Gore talked incessantly about "working families." Here's how he arrived at that phrase, according to The New York Times: "It came up in the normal course of the focus groups that most campaigns conduct, and advisers said it was tested with a so-called people meter, a hand-held device that test-groups of consumers can use to register their reaction to products, or in this case, voter reaction to political language."

Evidently, by mid-September, the meters were telling Gore something else, as he shelved "working families" for "middle class families."

Nader addressed Gore's populist talk in a speech he gave in California on August 21. "Why didn't he and Clinton walk that talk for eight years? . . . He said he was going to fight for the people against the gouging oil companies, against the misbehaving HMOs, against the high prices of drugs by the pharmaceutical companies, against the corporate polluters. He said he was going to fight all of them, but his Democratic National Committee and his own campaign have taken millions and millions of dollars from these very corporate interests."

Nader challenged Gore "either to back down on his populist talk and appear as he really is, which is a subservient politician to corporate power, or to give the money back to the pharmaceutical industry and the oil industry."

The day before that speech, Nader appeared on Both Sides with Jesse Jackson, and Jackson repeatedly asked him whether there was a difference between Gore and Bush.

"Yes, there's a difference," Nader said. "But . . . on corporate power tying the hands of both parties, funding both parties, controlling our government, distorting our public budgets into massive military and corporate welfare allocations instead of for children's health and education and environment-there is not that much difference."

Jackson: "Well, of the two, which team . . . is the most likely to break the cycle of that military-industrial complex gridlock?"

Nader: "I'm sorry to say, Jesse, that apart from the rhetoric, both parties want to build up the military machine, reflecting the power of the defense industry rather than our national defense needs. The military budget is now going to hit over $300 billion, and that's the highest that it was at the height of the Cold War when there was the Soviet Union. There is no longer any Soviet Union. We're not demobilizing We're not putting this tax money back into schools and clinics and public transit systems and fighting environmental racism and other important issues."

At his California event the next day, Nader was asked about the ubiquitous Supreme Court question. He said that anyone who can predict how the Supreme Court will go "has a level of clairvoyance that has escaped me. I remember Earl Warren and William Brennan and Stevens and Blackmun and Souter were all considered fairly good justices of the Supreme Court-all nominated by Republican Presidents." He added that Justice Stephen Breyer, appointed by Clinton, "is an arch adversary of health, safety, and other regulatory activities by the federal government and is cozy with corporate power."

In that California speech, Nader again took on the lesser evil question. "We can go about our daily business and say that really we don't count, and we don't really matter, and that one party is not quite as bad as the other, and we'll let that go, even though we think both parties are corrupting the political system and selling our country for a mess of porridge from corporate contributions," he said. "And you know what happens when you vote for the least worst? The least worst says to you, 'You know, we got your vote because you have nowhere to go.' And the minute the Democratic Party says to its historic constituency that is its soul, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, 'You have nowhere to go because we're not as bad as the Republicans,' that's when the progressive agenda of this

He has gotten very little mainstream media play and only a smattering of articles in the left press. But David McReynolds is a force to be reckoned with when he gets hold of a microphone.

On August 22, McReynolds appeared on the ABC late-night program Politically Incorrect with host Bill Maher. Actors Shari Belafonte, Kari Wuhrer, and Joe Rogan were the other guests, but McReynolds stole the show.

Maher started by distinguishing McReynolds from other politicians, saying, "I think he is sincere about his platform. I just think his platform is whacked."

But as McReynolds and Maher explained that the planks included a thirty-hour workweek and a $12 minimum wage, the audience cheered. The rowdiness grew as McReynolds made point after point.

Wuhrer disparaged McReynold's ideas. "Where does the individual stand on your platform?" she asked. "How do you uplift yourself and become what is human nature?"

"What has happened to the individual in corporate America?" asked McReynolds in return. "Where every single wish and love you have has been put on the marketplace?"

Loud applause from the crowd.

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute," said an agitated Rogan, turning to the audience. "What are you clapping for? What are you saying?"

"They're clapping because I'm right," answered McReynolds. "Something has gone wrong." The audience again broke into cheers.

The day before, on Wisconsin Public Radio's Conversations with Tom Clark, McReynolds critiqued the corporate system. "The problem is, corporations do not have a conscience," he explained. The push to make a profit leads to the mistreatment of workers, the befouling of the environment, and a dangerous foreign policy, he said. He also denounced intolerable social problems that our society tolerates-like poverty and a racially imbalanced prison system that now houses a quarter of the world's inmates.

McReynolds and the socialists have a solution.

"Vast corporate structures" should be placed "under social ownership," he said when he announced that he would seek the Socialist Party nomination for President.

But McReynolds does not hold that the state should take over large corporations. Rather, he supports worker control and advocates putting large corporations, particularly the Fortune 500, into local, community hands.

As for small businesses, says McReynolds, "That's the spice of American life. We are not interested in abolishing small business. The enemy of small business is not the Socialist Party. The real enemy of small business is, in fact, the corporate structure."

This argument for consumer and worker control of corporations is where McReynolds goes further than the Green Party platform and Ralph Nader. Although McReynolds sees Nader as a co-crusader against the corporate octopus, he argues that the Greens favor reform through new regulations and lawsuits. But only "a fundamental reorganization of the economy to make it more fair, more humane, and more democratic" will do the task, he says.

Other measures in the Socialist Party platform include: campaign finance reform, a maximum wage of four to ten times the minimum, socialized health care, free child care and elder care, free college education, the legalization of marijuana, a 50 percent cut in military spending, abolition of the CIA and NATO, more extensive mass transit, support for animal rights and organic farming, strong environmental protections, and equal rights for all racial and ethnic minorities, women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

When it comes to foreign policy, McReynolds, a pacifist who served as field secretary for the War Resisters League for thirty-five years, can be downright scathing.

"Our military budget is seven times the total of the military budgets of all the nations listed by the State Department as hostile," he wrote in an open letter following his nomination. "A direct, sustained attack on militarism in the U.S. is something both major parties avoid."

The coming years, he argues, are a perfect time to build a strong left-wing movement. "The Cold War is over," says McReynolds. "The ghost of Communism cannot now be used to prevent a frank discussion of the need for democratic socialism."

Nader and McReynolds aren't kidding themselves. They know they are not going to win the White House, but they are running to change the climate of America. We applaud their efforts, quixotic as they may appear.

In this day and age of corporate domination and plastic politicians, it is a huge relief to find two principled progressives who are willing to bear the whips and scorns of the media and to challenge the entrenched habits of the electorate.

We need visionary leadership, just as we need a mobilized base.

Nader and McReynolds are providing that leadership this year. More power to them.

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