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The Right to Your Vote

From a perspective concerned with the rights of labor, ethnic minorities, women, the environment and other social justice issues, Gore is clearly the lesser of two evils. But he is also clearly an evil.

Jonathan Sterne

Tuesday, November 28 2000, 7:39 AM

Contra many Nader supporters, I have no problem acknowledging the differences between Gore and Bush. From a perspective concerned with the rights of labor, ethnic minorities, women, the environment and other social justice issues, Gore is clearly the lesser of two evils. But he is also clearly an evil: Gore has in one way or another contributed to NAFTA, welfare reform, the continued assault on Affirmative Action and abortion rights, environmental degradation around the United States, and the Defense of Marriage Act. Gore has worked hard to damage many progressive causes.

From a left perspective, the problem with the Democratic Party is simple: it thinks it owns our votes, no matter what it does.

Watching the Democrats blame Nader for Gore's (impending) defeat is an object lesson in presidential politics. The Dems have almost unlimited patience for undecided voters, bending over backward to make sure that Gore is neither too threatening nor too stiff. They court aloof independents like I court a cat into my lap as I watch television: sweetly scratching their pants, cooing sweet and meaningless phrases, promising love and pleasant scratching. While the split among these so-called undecideds helped make the election as close as it was, they are not a meaningful political constituency. Lack of political affiliation is too easily confused with independence of mind: independents cast their votes for all sorts of reasons. In a great deal of news coverage and focus-group reporting, they are represented voting on vague personal impressions, often ill-informed on significant issues, and often aloof from any kind of serious political analysis. It's nothing new to note that politics is conducted on the affective level as much or more the level of rational cost-benefit analysis on the part of each voter. But the Democrats hold Nader and his supporters to a different standard. They accept that independents will be irrational. Those to the left of the party, however, should "know better" than to vote for another candidate.

Nader supporters are chastised, scolded, and blamed. "It's going to be your fault if Bush wins," they say. In a column published shortly before the election, Molly Ivins takes personal responsibility for the Nixon presidency because of her idealistic refusal to vote for Hubert Humphrey. was set up to assuage guilty consciences (why didn't they call it Gore-trader, since it's Gore who needed the trades?). Post-election, the Democrats put a tiny vote margin in Florida squarely on Nader's shoulders. The message for Nader supporters is clear: "You should feel guilty for not giving Gore your vote." "Cling to your ideals, but not when it's inconvenient for the democrats!" In fact, this message appears as a nice synecdoche for Democratic Party politics in the age of the Democratic Leadership Council.

The mainstream press isn't much better. The New York Times has repeatedly chastised Nader's campaign as nothing better than an ego trip, one damaging to the Democrats. Yet the Times is perfectly willing to take George W. Bush at his (utterly preposterous) word about his commitments to principle and morality. American mainstream politics and press coverage has ceded the terrain of conviction to the right wing. The only admissible public stance for the left is irony: holding left wing ideals is only acceptable so long as we're sufficiently distanced from them. Are we supposed to simply forget welfare reform, NAFTA, and the Defense of Marriage Act on command? One can certainly respect a vote for Gore on the basis of strategy or principle, Democrats have shown an inability to understand why leftists might turn to Nader instead of Gore. For them, the only good leftist is an ironic leftist: one unmoored and lacking conviction.

Back in the old days when communists were scary, this rhetorical technique was called redbaiting. If you got too far to the left of the Democratic Party, you were branded a communist and summarily blacklisted, excommunicated, or at least browbeaten. Socialists of all stripes threatened the legitimacy of the Democratic Party's claim on the 'left' space in American politics. Today, we hear an updated version of that story. As the Democratic Party moves further and further to the right, a growing range of political positions gets painted with that 'ideological leftist' brush. To suggest, as some key Democratic commentators have, that Nader and the left are now no longer welcome in Washington is to forget that the DLC has been working hard to keep us out for some time now.

It is the Democratic Party that betrays the left, not the other way around. As Alexander Cockburn points out in last week's Nation, the DLC got together with the aim of wresting critical Southern states from Republican control. It tried to do this in the Clinton years through a decisive move to the right. The result? Gore's Southern campaign was a total failure. Not one major Southern state went for Gore, unless he can scare up enough hanging chads to pull out a last-minute victory in Florida. It is the staple Democratic constituencies, like African Americans and labor, who most widely supported Gore. If the Dems had any conviction at all, they'd work harder on behalf of these constituencies.

Instead, the DLC-era Democratic party depends on the tactic of claiming to fight for labor, human rights, and the environment while consistently ceding ground on these issues to please big business interests. There is no better example of this than Al Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention: it began with 'core Democratic issues' dressed in populist rhetoric; it ended by listing the destruction of the welfare state among his achievements as vice-president. For his part, running-mate Lieberman was falling all over himself to outdo Bush with his piety — so much so as to raise concerns from the Anti-Defamation League.

While the condemnations of Nader supporters coming from the Democratic establishment are unsurprising, it is disappointing to see the same blame song spun by left writers. Democrats and their supporters have an investment in perpetuating a two-party system. Leftists in the United States should neither assume nor respect the legitimacy of that two-party system: we should actively fight for a more democratic political system. At no time in recent memory has left activism treated electoral politics as its epicenter and it shouldn't do so now: elections and parties need to be part of a larger overall program. Only time will tell whether Nader's campaign helps build a stable and powerful Green party; only time will tell whether Nader's candidacy will help push the democrats back to the left, where they belong. But his success or failure in these long-term goals is beside the point. In the present, a vote for Ralph Nader is a perfectly ethical choice to make given the alternatives. Nader is not a knight in shining armor — he's the least of many evils.

The Democrats have decided to name Nader and his supporters as public enemy #1, instead of turning their wrath at Bush and his voters. The truly pathetic aspect of the Democrats' attempt to blame Nader and the Greens is that they didn't cost Gore any states, except Florida. With Florida as close as it is, the claim that 18% of Nader's votes would have pushed Gore into the win column is pretty skewed. The 18% figure comes from a poll which claims that 43% of Nader's votes would have gone to Gore, 25% would have gone to Bush, and the rest wouldn't have voted. More deserving of the Democrats' wrath is the faulty election system, where statistically insignificant results are allowed to decide an election. Instant runoff, anyone?

The truly sad aspect of all this is that Nader is the only one whose right to run is being challenged by the parties or the press. Candidates are being portrayed like a pack of wild animals: Bush feeds on votes first, then Gore gets his share, then Nader (and Buchanan and . . .) get the scraps. Since Nader may have cost Gore Florida, there's a sense that he didn't wait his turn. Nobody's asking what proportion of Bush's votes would have gone to Gore had Bush not run. And the Republicans, bless their souls, are actually much more gracious on this point. When Ross Perot cut into Republican votes, they recognized his right to run. I do not recall a flurry of op-ed pieces calling Perot an egomaniac (though the Reform party was a clear case of building a party around a single individual) nor do I recall Republican bile being directed at him for having the audacity to run and appeal to voters.

The Democrats' treatment of Nader and the finger pointing on the left is an embarassment to representative democracy. This would be a classic case of scapegoating, except that Nader and much of the radical left had already been excluded from the Washington establishment. You can't banish a goat if it's already outside the city walls.

Jonathan Sterne is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.