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 inclination.

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 sensible inclination.

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 Times.

"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 the bank.

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.

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