Alienated Votes and Left Separatism
Issue #53X, January 2001
In 1913 W.E.B. DuBois wrote that socialism could be divided into two distinct camps. "On the one hand those far-sighted thinkers who are seeking to determine from the facts of modern industrial organization just what the outcome is going to be; on the other hand, those who suffer from the present industrial situation and who are anxious that, whatever the broad outcome may be, at any rate the present suffering which they know so well shall be stopped." So DuBois drew a line between theoretical purists and down-to-earth practicalism.
In the aftermath of the almighty election botch, with attention focused on Florida recounts and the Bush-Gore legal battles, the US left paid little attention to the state in which it emerged from the elections. It is difficult to remember an historical moment when American progressivism has been so eclipsed, more useful to its opponents than to its friends. These elections have left the constituencies of a coherent American progressive movement deeply alienated from each other, with charges and counter-charges hurled across a dividing line. That dividing line is the one that DuBois specified nine decades ago, between a politics based on the luxury of futurism and a politics based on social immediatism.
The first relevant observation in assessing the post-election American left is that the Green Party is walking dead meat. It was too infatuated with its 'success' in siphoning off votes and depriving Gore of victory to notice all the angry faces and turned backs standing around. Even with the running start of an established party base, Nader's three percent of the national popular vote represents almost the poorest showing by a significant third-party presidential campaign in the last century (only Strom Thurmond's States Rights Party in 1948 fared worse, finishing in fourth place with two percent). Among leading progressive third-party candidates over the past century, both Debs and LaFolette achieved better electoral success than Nader.
Despite this miserable showing, the Green Party boasted of establishing itself as "the major competition" within US national politics. This is pitiful self-delusion. The Green Party may last another election cycle or even two, but probably has hit its electoral peak and will decline, returning to its previously fractionated and uncooperative selves. The various Green parties remain in the midst of unification talks, As a political force, the Greens may remain a party capable of capturing a majority in northern California's Arcata city council, but little more.
Friends are everything in politics. Organized labor poured heart and soul into supporting the Democrats, and union officials now angrily refer to Greens, their mothers and sex acts inside three syllables. Since the Greens were always thin around union halls anyway, they haven't figured out what those three syllables mean for their future and any possible cooperation with labor (such as supported Nader's earlier work on the WTO and globalization issues). Nader campaigned most heavily in swing states where organized labor was making its most intensive efforts, a strategy that was read as anti-labor inasmuch as it certainly did nothing to propel the Greens towards their sacred five percent and federal funding. The Nader/Green forces turned strong friends into powerful enemies.
Neither have the Greens understood the meaning of another vital sign. CNN polling data confirm the obvious: people of color avoided Ralph Dubya even more than they disdained the Republican model. George Bush took nine percent of the African American vote; Nader took a magnificent one percent, his support from Cornel West and Danny Glover notwithstanding. Among Hispanics, Nader doubled his vote share to two percent. In precisely the communities where the Nader/Green program might be thought to have greatest appeal, it suffered the worst rejection. It probably was not the Nader/Green stand on issues that provoked this disdain. Rather, high political principles here boiled down to the message 'let's all lose together gloriously towards a better future'. People of color have been on the losing side of social power in the US for far, far too long not to recognize an exploitative political call for self-sacrifice.
White America hears year after year after endless year that people of color want social power and equality now and not in the future, but there are many in the American left who have still not absorbed this repeated message. No one can escape noticing that it is the African American community that lead a passionate defense of democracy and electoral fair play in Florida and in behalf of Al Gore. It seems they can figure out the differences between Gore and Bush that were supposed not to exist. They perceived that a Gore administration would benefit them, even within neo-liberal constraints, and how a Nader-launched Bush administration which — in that utterly co-opted phrase — 'celebrates diversity' while promoting institutional racism will do nothing but try to send minority communities to the back of the bus.
All those impoverished and hard-working folks living at the minimum wage and less did not smile with toothy joy and shout "Yassuh!" when Nader used Orwell-ese to proclaim that short-term worse-off would be long-run better-off. Parents failed to understand how fewer environmental controls and more toxins under a Bush administration in the near future would give their children long-term benefits. Gays, who gave seventy percent of their votes to Gore, clearly did not understand that it was in their best long-term interest to prevent hate-crime legislation against gay-bashing. "Make it worse to make it better," the unofficial Green slogan late in the campaign, was no more than a pseudo-rationalization for cutting off many noses to spite a few Democratic party faces.
With the damage done, the Nader/Green camp couldn't decide whether to preen themselves or act like the kid who, having thrown a rock through a window, claims that a meteor did it. With Gore short some 150-odd votes in the unfinished recount, Nader pretended that his approximately 96,000 Florida votes did not represent a proximate cause for Gore's defeat. Petulant Nader supporters asserted that no one owned their vote and they could exercise the franchise as they pleased, as if anyone questioned either proposition. There were laughable explanatory tautologies ("Gore defeated Gore"), and there were even more laughable statistical demonstrations that Nader changed nothing (viz Tim Wise in Z Magazine).
Nader told Larry King of his delight at taking Democratic votes since he needed them to build a new party. Which one? Nader does not belong to any party. Other Nader/Green campaigners issued calls to work with "Democratic allies" against the incoming Republican administration, calls that are light years removed from any realistic understanding of an irreparable breach. Allies? There are none left. Having created history, some people refuse to understand that history cannot be undone.
Within a week after the election, as attention re-focused on the Florida disenfanchisement, Nader had already begun disappearing like a whisp. He left behind a column of American progressives that he led like a postmodern Moses (note Matthew Rothschild's post-election biblicization of Nader, "he railed like a prophet..."). But there will be no Promised Land today or anytime soon.
Instead, there is political solitude created by this left-liberal breach. After ideologically demonizing Bush and Gore as equivalent values, all options closed. The Greens dug themselves into a political hole and declared it the future kingdom, as if such pitiful results represented great beginnings. By presuming that no intelligent political life exists outside their hermetic space, the Greens ensured that theirs will be a small and suffocating house. Progressive politics thrive best in open spaces and free-flowing practice. Progressivism recognizes that its strength comes from the quality of ideas and expression, not from simplistic righteousness that alienates neighbors — and certainly not from fear of co-mingling with a broad span of allied opinion.
Left Elitism and Separatism
The results of this election demonstrated eloquently that progressive politics in the United States has permitted itself to indulge a form of cultural elitism that believes elections are token proceedings where defeat and victory are irrelevant because the outcome is fixed. In this worldview Democrats and Republicans have merged into a two-headed beast and, with collaboration from compliant corporate media, created a rigged electoral system. They have become "the two-party plutocracy".
About 98 million votes were cast for either Bush or Gore. About 2.7 million votes went to Nader. Whether progressives like it or not, political decision-making in the United States lies among those 98 million votes cast by people in equal possession of their faculties and no more inherently subject to media manipulation than a Green voter. Whether or not they meet progressive druthers, neither 'liberals' nor 'conservatives' are contemptible human beings deserving of a lip turned down with scorn. Rather, they are working people who respond to identical political stimulae and whose support will be needed if there is the remotest hope of grappling with the exploitation and powerlessness that prevails under capitalism in the United States.
There were millions of voters in this election who were intensely sympathetic — or potentially sympathetic — to programs advocated in the Green platform, but who were not interested in following this suicide charge off the political cliff. A major group of progressive figures, including Toni Morrison, James Weinstein, Todd Gitlin, and Michael Bérubé, warned against precisely this electoral outcome and form of progressive self-injury. After the election, left journals like The Progressive, In These Times and The Nation all published essays either defending or criticizing 'the Nader drain'. Some, like one friend who says "I'm just blaming the Bush voters," tried to avoid the contentious aftermath.
What troubles me more than simple contentiousness is the sense of cultural separation that hangs over Naderism. Even when invoking populist rhetoric, it is clear that Naderism voices an alienation from a mass public. Winning politics are politics that accept a common humanity and fallibility, and not those that stigmatize others as ill-educated dupes of machine politics. The pro-Nader forces are at their core no more than middle-class Reform Democrats gone Green, with a large and idealistic student following that will probably drift elsewhere. Working people have met earlier incarnations of the same phenomenon many times. It is objectionable for its bourgeois intolerance of those allegedly befuddled classes in need of uplift, and for its desire to re-create the world in its own genteel mold rather than smile at human difference.
Despite its frequently massive flaws, Dixiecrat racism, and corruption, the Democratic party was where this middle-class and Philadelphia-born child learned about the American working class, even if party politics were not pretty, intellectual or genteel. We always knew that our allegiance was to people who had less than we did, not to people who had more. Even the responsibility of Democratic party leaders for genocide in Vietnam during the 1960s never altered recognition of a basic populist commitment within the party. Corrective political ebb and flow washed through the party then, and the same eventually will have its way with today's DLC leadership.
For rank-and-file Democrats, reformers and Republicans were kissing cousins. People who had too much money and wanted to keep it were Republicans; people who had too much money and felt a little generous today were Reform Democrats. Republicans thought black people caused too many problems and they opposed civil rights; Reform Democrats patronized black people and supported civil rights so long as blacks behaved properly. Reform Democrats were better off being honest and re-registering as Republicans: by the 1980s, many had. In another twenty years there will be plenty of ex-Green Republicans too.
Class privilege in American society recognizes equivalent forms of class privilege. It is not the immediate party identification that counts so much as ability to transit through a continuum of political phases. Thus David Stockman inspired by the Port Huron Statement to become a SDS organizer is the same David Stockman who became Reagan's OMB chief. Hordes more joined such Wordsworthian left-to-right journeys of class self-discovery, arriving to join an earlier neo-con generation that also began as young reformers. Reformism is a temporary relinquishment of class privilege that, in its very enactment, re-confirms the centrality of privilege.
So reformism is a tentative indulgence of idealism that can be retracted; real redistribution of power is too frightening. Along this line many Green votes arrived through a calculation that 'Nader's program is good but he'll never win — still, I'll have done the right thing voting for him.' But the forseeability of its political futility ensured that the vote was for meaningless reformism, for a change that would not happen. This is the rotten heart of reformism: with calls for social purification, it crusades for change that stands no immediate chance of happening and so refuses change that can happen.
Reformism has indulged in an obsessive antagonism towards a choice between 'lesser evils' and so avoids the political task of identifying a better choice. Indeed, given the absence of human perfectability we embrace all lesser evils. No reasonable theory of justice could function without relying on choices between greater and lesser evils, and social justice cannot be obtained without similar exercises in choice. Given that human opinion is rarely congruent across broad populations, effective democratic politics concern choices in the direction of least disagreement. The designation 'lesser evil' has become a term of contempt through which to castigate the democratic necessity of viable candidates and electoral compromise.
When poor and disempowered communities must suffer the consequences of middle-class debates over 'lesser-evilism' — that awkward term advanced by Michael Lerner in Tikkun, who deems this a contradiction to his fatuous and half-forgotten 'politics of meaning' — then this debate advances social privilege under guise of moralism. Elitism establishes itself on such a putative ability to rise above mundane choices.
The concept of a moral elect has an old and ugly presence in Euro-American history, tracing its descent from origins in both Puritan and Catholic moral hierarchies. The secular left-wing has not escaped this history any more than the religious right-wing; rather, the concept of a moral elect simply mutates. Nader, with a record of over three decades of social activism, rose to symbolize a claim of moral entitlement. Behind Green/Nader social arguments lay an unmistakable malodor of claims to a moral elect.
It is precisely this trap of a moral claim that secular progressivism has rejected for so long, and here the American left fell for the same language of decent virtue which the various American right-wings have adopted for so long. Progressives who demand that candidates for public office have an unblemished record on social issues — and Gore's flaws were obvious — share an insistent voice with right-wing zealots who insist that candidates manifest religious and sexual proprieties. Each position argues that a particular test of complete moral fitness should govern political selection; each demands imposition of a monopolistic morality. Flexibility and contingency disappear.
The result is that the luxuries of middle-class conscience specify Moral Princes through a recombinatory and mutually-reinforcing alliance between a left and right that otherwise loathe each other. Bush and Nader spoke from opposed politics but from within near-identical self-positioning as pristine moral agents. Where Dubya offered himself for the restoration of "decency and honor" in the Oval Office, Ralph arrived as a Quixote-esque reform knight on his Green nag. They were co-dependent twins living in mutual contempt; they were an impossible Scylla and Charybidis for political navigation. Each sought to rescue National Virtue enchained, one for the right arm and one for the left. They are as mean a pair as Shelley described those two avatars of British reaction, Sidmouth and Castlereagh:
...two vultures sick for battle,
Two scorpions under one wet stone,
Two bloodless wolves whose wet throats rattle,
Two crows perched on the murrained cattle,
Two vipers tangled into one.
As a result of this perverse and antagonistic collaboration, left separatism has created a new post-Clinton political terrain. It is a terrain where 'Listen to me and only me!' politics prevails over strategic cooperation. Naderism emphasized its capacity to tilt and alter an electoral landscape over an ability to have substantive effect. Yet sitting in its petty three percent isolation a separatist left was not only thoroughly repudiated on Election Day, it proved itself the most valuable of allies to the Republican right-wing. If the American right can rely on left separatism to rationalize its isolation from broader public opinion, then the Republican party has received the most precious of electoral gifts: a left that chases its own tail instead of savaging Trent Lott's britches. Ralph Nader spent a career chasing irresponsible corporations and ended as Ralph Dubya, an alternative energy source for the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Manufacturers Association.
A new post-election species of rationalization has appeared, arguing that the Democrat-Republican near-even split will result in stalemate in any case. To achieve even minimal legislative accomplishment, the two parties will be forced to resemble each other even further. Ignoring the effects of a national sea change into Texas-style neanderthalism and indulging in unwarranted wishfulness, this argument proceeds to ignore the vast role of executive branch agencies in shaping conditions of everyday life. To take only one example, the quality of daily life has been improved in the United States (and through standards adoption, globally) by agencies like EPA, OSHA, and FDA, all of which stands at imminent risk of corporate-oriented political redirection. It is as if, having decided the contest, the Nader/Green forces have proclaimed 'No matter, the boat isn't sailing anyplace anyway.' Directionless stasis, however, does not exist. Thus illusion proceeds into self-delusion and permits George Bush to set sail for the hellholes of his choice, all sacrificial victims aboard.
Refusal to differentiate between parties and candidates ultimately leads to a refusal to differentiate between outcomes. A left separatism predicated on belief that the political system is corrupt in its near-entirety — the quintessence of Naderism — can only invent ever-new explanations to justify its choice of marginalization.
Left separatism eclipsed American progressivism in these elections. That separatism cannot prevail.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team