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By Barbara Ehrenreich
KEY WEST, Fla. -- As Election Day approaches with the major candidates in a dead heat, Democratic denunciations of Ralph Nader supporters grow louder and more bitter. We are accused of disloyalty and irresponsibility, of ignoring the differences between the candidates and of being willing to throw the election to George W. Bush so that we can indulge in a meaningless gesture. Or, on the assumption that Nader supporters are all of the upper middle class, we are mocked for having the "luxury" of contributing to a Republican victory for which the vulnerable poor will suffer.
But support for Mr. Nader is only one small sign of a much larger growing alienation from the electoral process and the two parties that benefit from it. Polls show Mr. Nader attracting 5 percent or less of the vote in half a dozen tightly contested states. Meanwhile, much of the electorate seems unable, even after three debates, to detect any gripping differences between the two major candidates.
An even starker sign of alienation is that a majority of eligible voters are unlikely to vote -- more than 50 percent stayed home in the 1996 presidential election. The working poor, who supposedly have the most at stake in this or any election, are especially well represented among those who now abstain from voting.
Not only do Nader supporters represent an extremely small proportion of the politically alienated, but among Naderites only about a quarter are normally Democratic voters, according to a recent Reuters/MSNBC poll; the rest are independents and Republicans. Among those of us who have voted Democratic for most of our lives, the mood is less of spiteful defiance than of sorrow. We didn't choose to abandon the Democratic Party in its hour of need; the party chose to abandon us.
Our parents or grandparents, who were, in many cases, yellow-dog, blue-collar Democrats, would barely recognize the party of Bill Clinton and Al Gore as their own. To summarize the downside of the Clinton-Gore record: They failed to lift the minimum wage even up to the poverty level, although executive pay soared to more than 400 times that of the average working person. They pursued a trade policy rejected by unions and a majority of Americans. They blew their chance to create a national health insurance program, offering instead a plan that favored the big insurance companies. Mr. Gore's vision of health reform is even more constricted, consisting of little beyond proposed extension of Medicare coverage to prescription drugs. The Clinton-Gore administration has presided over a stunning expansion of the prison system -- necessitated by an increasingly senseless, and thoroughly bipartisan, war on drugs.
For many Nader supporters, especially the feminists among us, the Democratic Party's biggest betrayal was the so-called "reform" of welfare. Instead of the generously financed welfare-to-work program that he initially proposed, Mr. Clinton signed an exceedingly punitive bill that essentially leaves the poorest single mothers and their children at the mercy of labor market, where entry-level wages remain at about $7 an hour. Mr. Gore boasts of his advocacy of welfare reform, but Deborah Leff, president of America's Second Harvest, a consortium of food banks, has said that food pantries all over the country are unable to meet the "torrent of need."
The increasingly ugly fallout from the changes in welfare undermines the argument that a vote for Ralph Nader is an upper-middle class indulgence: It is not clear that the poor would fare very well under another four years of Democratic rule.
Yes, like most Democrats who vote for Mr. Nader, I will be sorry if George Bush defeats Al Gore. I do see differences between the two candidates, not least in the kind of the Supreme Court appointments they are likely to make. But in the case of a Bush victory, don't expect me to be apologetic. It's not my fault if Mr. Gore has refused to stand up for the populist principles that might draw America's disenchanted majority back to the polls.
I see the Nader campaign as a chance to prod the Democratic Party to the left and, beyond that, to re-energize American democracy. Of all the candidates currently running, only Mr. Nader addresses the alienation of the American majority: the role of big money in elections and the need for new political parties to challenge the all-too-similar Democrats and Republicans.
A vote for Mr. Nader is neither a vote for Mr. Bush nor a vote nihilistically thrown away. For old-fashioned Democrats and adherents of a vigorous democracy generally, it's a statement of affirmation and hope.
Barbara Ehrenreich is author of the forthcoming Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-Time America.
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