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Why I'm Voting for Ralph

By Robert W. McChesney
In These Times, August 21, 2000

Over the past few months, no one has aroused progressive political interest more than Ralph Nader, who suddenly has invigorated the most tedious and numbing presidential race imaginable. Suddenly, too, many of the crucial issues progressives care about - issues where Al Gore and George W. Bush either agree or differ only on nuance - have a candidate advancing them. And in Ralph Nader these positions are advocated by one of the most respected Americans of the past 50 years, a person whose integrity, competence, knowledge of the issues and commitment to social justice are unimpeachable.

But many progressives are lukewarm about Nader's candidacy, and some are downright hostile. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the most important one, by far, is the notion that Nader will steal votes from Gore, the lesser of the two mainstream evils. Hence, the more successful Nader is, the more likely it is that Bush will win, with the distinct possibility that the Republicans will control the White House and both branches of Congress for the first time since 1954. Although Bush and Gore eat from the same corporate trough on most issues, a Republican trifecta would be a nightmare for progressives. It could roll back affirmative action, lead to an even more direct assault on labor, unleash corporate greed and appoint judges with an open hostility to women's rights, choice and civil liberties. In short, the argument goes, George W. Bush combined with a Republican Congress would make the past eight years look like the opening weeks of the Paris Commune.

This is a serious argument, even if it tends to be overblown. And Bush is a singularly dreadful politician; he is corrupt, arrogant, cowardly and stupid. His administration will be all about explicitly serving the needs of corporate America to the exclusion of everyone else. But for progressives to vote for Al Gore would be a huge mistake nonetheless.

I am not opposed to the "lesser of two evils" argument per se. Were Nader not in the race, or were he running a faux campaign as in 1996, it would be more compelling. But Nader's Green Party effort is not a fringe or short-term campaign. It is the best chance we have to break out of the cul-de-sac of "lesser of two evil politics" at least since Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in 1988, and possibly for generations.

Moreover, if we are going to go the "lesser of two evils" route, it would sure help if the lesser part of the equation wasn't as lame as Gore. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich speaks the truth when he praises Gore as being superior to George W. Bush as a president for Wall Street and corporate America. As Reich recently gloated in the Financial Times, Gore is the "ideal candidate for American business, with a record to show it." In a nation where the core problems stem from excessive corporate power, a lack of democracy, and massive social inequality, Gore has been the standard-bearer of those who benefit from the status quo.

We need to recognize that the political times are changing. The sort of liberal-conservative mainstream analysis that still dominates journalism, punditry and academic writing is increasingly irrelevant to U.S. politics. The support for the traditional parties is weak; it is largely the electoral laws and donations from the wealthy that keep them in business, which they well understand. Specifically, the support for candidates Gore and Bush is paper thin. It is nearly impossible to engage in a heated argument with one of their supporters, because they do not generate that sort of support.

In short, there may be new openings for progressive candidates and arguments. Support for a candidate like Nader, for example, will come not only from traditional Democrats and independents, but also from people who might not vote otherwise. Some rank-and-file Republicans, believe it or not, also respond well to Nader's call for fair markets, clean elections and government, and against commercial values increasingly ruling all aspects of our lives.

Assume for a moment that Nader withdrew from the race so as not to hand the election to Bush. Say Gore were to win: Then in four or eight years we will be faced with his lame VP as the candidate and another "lesser of two evils" debate. If Gore loses, on the other hand, the conventional wisdom will be that he couldn't appeal to the "center," that he wasn't Republican enough. Then in four years, after all the big money weighs in, we'll end up with another candidate like Gore and another "lesser of two evils" plot line. As the percentage of citizens who vote continues to drop, those who do vote increasingly come from the contented classes. So pitching a campaign to the interests of the bulk of the population is ever more counterproductive, especially to the wealthy who bankroll the electoral campaigns.

The idiocy of this situation should be apparent. Like Clinton, Gore can only win elections with the support of organized labor, minorities, feminists, environmentalists and those poor and working-class people who do vote. So when Democratic presidential candidates fall behind in their races, they invariably pile on slops from the rhetorical larder attacking corporations and the rich. The desperate Gore is already in full throttle. Yet when there is an important conflict between big money and these core constituencies, Gore and Clinton put their support on the corporate side of the ledger. The recent vote on trade with China is a classic example, though there have been scores of similar episodes over the past eight years. Gore and Clinton know their progressive constituencies will never turn to the Republicans, so in the end, they will get their support.

Reich makes this clear in his Financial Times piece: Business can disregard any Democratic populist campaign rhetoric, he notes, because "once in office, Democratic presidents tend to shift to the right without risk of losing their Democratic base because it has no one else to turn to." So pathetic is the left today, that the Gore crowd is blatant in its contempt for their concerns. Yet the "lesser of two evils" crowd says we have no choice but to back Gore. If we are willing to back Gore in this context, it is clear that we will back any Democrat in any context. So there is no reason to think those who bankroll and run the party should have any reason to fear or respect us. And they don't.

Some of those progressives who respect Nader but criticize him for taking votes from Gore argue that Nader should have run as a Democrat. Then he could make his case in the primaries and not worry about helping the Republicans win the general election. It is clearly too late for that route in 2000, so the insinuation is that we should attempt to nominate a progressive Democrat in future years, after we make sure Gore defeats Bush. But it is worth asking if that route really is plausible at all. Let's face it: The last time a progressive outsider took the Democratic nomination was 28 years ago, and much has changed in the world since then. There are crucial factors that seem to undermine the ability of progressives to mount a successful internal Democratic grassroots challenge la McGovern.

These include: the necessity for obscenely massive campaign war chests; the tight noose of the corporate news media with their pathetic range of legitimate debate; and the requirement of progressives to show their party loyalty by agreeing to support the considerable deadweight in the party. Is there any reason to think these factors will lessen in 2004, 2008 or beyond? A large percentage of the nominally Democratic voting base may well support progressive positions on many issues - and oppose the pro-corporate agenda of Clinton and Gore - but the system works to see that support does not translate into a progressive Democratic Party.

I am agnostic on the question of whether, ultimately, the Democrats or the Greens or some other party will advance progressive politics in the electoral arena. I do know we need a popular front or coalition to advocate basic democratic and progressive values, and that much of this coalition must come from elements of the Democratic Party. But I would argue that even those who think the Democratic Party is the only possible place for a progressive challenge to corporate rule should support the Nader campaign. If Gore loses due to a strong Nader showing, the Democrats will finally have to realize they cannot take labor, feminists, environmentalists and other progressives for granted. The post-mortems for Gore will not say he was not Republican enough, but that he wasn't progressive enough. And that can only be for the good. A strong Nader campaign this fall also will certainly help the numerous progressive Democrats in tight races across the nation. And in generating a broad base of support, Nader and the Greens will have jump-started the hard work of asserting progressive values in the Democratic Party. It might lay the foundation for a progressive Democrat to succeed in the primary process in the coming years.

My point is simply that the only way to jolt life into this system is from the outside. This is why the Nader campaign is so impressive and so important. Nader and Winona LaDuke, the Green vice presidential candidate, are thinking long-term, toward building a progressive electoral majority in the next 10 to 20 years. The issues they campaign on are the issues we are organizing around all the time - so even if they lose, the campaign can still have a constructive role. Their campaign is not based on a bunch of "fringe" positions that the bulk of Americans detest - despite the efforts of those that oppose progressive politics to so characterize them. On the contrary, Nader and LaDuke speak with authority in plain language about power and fairness and justice and democracy in a manner that has broad appeal.

In view of the imbalance in media coverage and money, the support for Nader is astonishing. At the present rate, polls show him possibly getting 3 to 12 percent of the vote in November. If there is justice, and he gets a place in the presidential debates, his support almost certainly would climb dramatically - which is why Gore and his cronies are desperate to keep Nader off the ballot, out of the debates, and discredited by the mainstream media. If voters began to actually think that Nader could win the election, all bets would be off about how well he would do.

I understand why so many progressives I respect are apprehensive about the Nader campaign. There is the distinct possibility that a successful Nader campaign will lead to a Bush victory, with all that entails. There is also the chance that the Nader campaign will be a total dud, but that the energy which goes into it instead of the Gore campaign will contribute to a Bush victory as well. And, in certain areas, a Bush administration will be markedly worse than a Gore administration.

But I think the risk is worth taking. Gore is so bad on so many issues that the difference between him and Bush may well be less than that of any two mainstream candidates in memory, and that is saying a lot. The payoff for supporting Gore, on balance, is low and strictly short-term. It is out of place in a historical moment when millions of Americans are blatantly dissatisfied with the political status quo and grasping for new ideas.

We have to think in broader terms than the immediate election. The Nader campaign is a necessary step in building a progressive political movement in this nation. There is no better time than now, and no better standard-bearer on the horizon than Nader. It will take time; we not only have to attract current voters, but we have to get the millions and millions of disaffected voters to come to the polls because they will finally see politics as addressing issues that mean something to their lives and their communities.

There are grounds for optimism. There may be more political vibrancy today - around issues like corporate-run globalization, the death penalty, sweatshop labor, the environment - than at any time since the '70s. The Nader campaign is part of this progressive resurgence. Indeed, if we try to stoke progressive non-electoral movements on the one hand while adhering to a lesser-of-two-evils support for Gore on the other hand, the resulting confusion can be disastrous for any nascent left. It makes progressives look like a bunch of political nincompoops.

All told, a strong Nader showing in 2000 can be a platform for rejuvenating progressive politics in the United States for the coming generation. It is a risk that must be taken.

Robert W. McChesney is a research professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and Library Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1988 to 1998 he was on Journalism and Mass Communication faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McChesney earned his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington in 1989. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies. He is the author of Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-35, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, and most recently, It's the Media Stupid!, with John Nichols. A paperback edition of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (2000) with a new preface by the author is now available. The video of recent lecture on Rich Media, Poor Democracy is available in Real Audio Format.

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