The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Nader:
"Hammering the Democrats"
– But for What Purpose?

Oct 26, 2000

This year, for the first time in 20 years, there is an important challenge addressed to the traditional base of the Democratic Party. Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke are running for president and vice-president as candidates of the Green Party.

As of the middle of October, they were on the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia; they had raised five million dollars through individual contributions, and more than 100,000 people signed a petition which was circulated via the Internet, demanding that they be included in the debates. Nader's campaign says that an estimated 25,000 students are active on more than 850 campuses, registering students as voters and holding meetings to protest his exclusion from the debates, as well as to explain his positions.

In general, Nader has enjoyed much larger rallies than have either of the two major parties. His campaign announced that by election day, it will have organized eleven what it calls "Super Rallies" to raise funds and publicize his candidacy, with 12,000 people paying to attend in Minneapolis; 10,000 in Seattle; 12,000 in Boston; 10,750 in Portland, Oregon; 9,500 in Chicago; 16,000 in New York City; 5,000 in Austin, Texas; 6,500 in Oakland, California; with rallies yet to be held in Milwaukee, Long Beach, California, and Washington D.C. Nader also appeared in dozens and dozens of smaller rallies, many on university campuses, some with a thousand or more people in attendance.

This is a far-cry from four years ago, when Nader and LaDuke also ran on the Green Party slate, but without campaigning, spending only about $5,000 on the election. Nonetheless, with even just the formality of a candidacy, Nader and LaDuke were put on the ballot in 21 states and received one percent of the vote.

Of course, Nader is someone whose name alone, even without a campaign, could be expected to draw votes. From the issuance of his first book in 1965, Unsafe at Any Speed, which documented the auto industry's disregard of consumer safety, up to last year's Congressional hearings into corporate subsidies, Nader has been a gadfly, stinging the major corporations. Not only is he known as a long-time consumer advocate, who used his own personal wealth to set up research teams to get beyond the screens erected around the corporations; he also has the widespread reputation for incorruptibility, which, in the context of usual American politics, counts for something.

But this year, Nader had several other advantages. First of all, even though no major union endorsed him, Nader benefitted from the decision made by some unions to take a distance – temporarily, at least – from the Democrats over trade issues. After the vote to grant "Permanent Normal Trade Relations" to China, the UAW's Steve Yokich declared: "We have no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major parties...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." As late as June, standing on the same platform with Nader at a protest just before the China vote, the IBT's James Hoffa proclaimed: "There is no distinction between Al Gore and George W. Bush when it comes to trade. We agree wholeheartedly with what Mr. Nader has said about trade agreements and job loss." And, he added, "No one in the political arena speaks stronger on the issues important to working American families than Ralph Nader." The two unions together announced that they might call on the Federal Election Commission to grant equal time in the debates to Nader and Patrick Buchanan, whom they called "legitimate candidates."

From the beginning, it seemed highly unlikely that the UAW and the IBT would really break with the two major parties – or even just force the debate issues. But even their minor flirtation with Nader, during the months leading up to the Democratic Convention in July, helped give his candidacy a push forward.

Nader's candidacy was also given a boost by the protests which had grown up on college campuses, even as marginal as they were, around the question of the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, and various trade agreements. Some of the students who had called on their universities to boycott imports of clothing produced in "Third World sweatshops" have now thrown themselves into Nader's electoral effort.

"Reject the Politics of Dismal Choices"

Nader declares over and over, as he did in his Boston rally, that "the central issue of the election is whether the nation has the political will to wrest power from the oligarchy of ever larger multinational corporations."

Drawing attention to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, Nader explains, as he did in the announcement of his candidacy, "In the early 1970s, our economy split into two tiers. Whereas once economic growth broadly benefitted the majority, now the economy has become one wherein 'a rising tide lifts all yachts'...." His campaign material paints a devastating picture of the situation "working families," "family farmers" and small businesspeople find themselves in today.

He presents his campaign as the opening wedge in a movement to create an independent alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. In a letter sent out addressed to supporters of liberal causes, he declared: "Now is the time to reject the politics of dismal choices. To stop settling for the least-worst candidates, as we have done every four years for so long."

When questioned about the fact that his candidacy might allow Bush to be elected, Nader explained at one rally, "Even in '96, I didn't mount a serious campaign, trying only to bring issues into the debate. But a hundred years from now, it will always be one is worse that the other. When you vote for the lesser evil, you still end up with evil."

Nader declares, in his letter, that he is "running for President in order to mobilize citizens who are demoralized, who are disgusted by the single-party corporate system, who have withdrawn from political activity because they believe it is too seedy, too corrupt, or irrelevant."

"Opening Up Working Class Politics"

A number of left organizations have stepped up to support Nader's candidacy. Included among them are the International Socialist Organization; the Socialist Socialist Alternatives (formerly the Labor Militant); Labor Notes and members of Solidarity which provide much of the structure for Labor Notes; a number of small local groups, including some which consider themselves Trotskyist; as well as a range of former leftists. Many of the leftists who did much of the work to keep the Labor Party still breathing have now thrown their support to Nader, as "an important step toward the construction of the labor party." An article in the August-September issue of the International Socialist Review, magazine of the ISO, is typical of the views of that part of the left which supports Nader: "Nader's campaign has already achieved extraordinary progress for this new movement. It has helped break the conservative consensus, shifted national debate to the left, broken the monopoly the Democratic Party has over progressive social movements, and is weakening lesser-evil attachment to the liberal wing of big business.... Most significantly, it has opened up working-class politics. A few million workers and students have been won to the idea of a vote against corporate capitalism. It is raising the question of an independent working-class party."

Of course, not every organization on the left is supporting Nader. The Communist Party, as usual, is supporting the Democrats, under the guise of stopping "the main danger." And the Socialist Workers Party and Workers' World, two organizations of the far left, try to present their own electoral campaigns, although they were able to gain ballot status in very few places.

"Wresting Power from the Oligarchy" – Well, Not Exactly...

Nader may expose certain consequences of capitalist society, denouncing big business, exposing its machinations and greed.

But his whole program is imbued with the idea that it is possible to achieve significant reforms doing exactly what he has been doing for years. Nader, in the letter announcing his candidacy, declares that the work he has done as a consumer advocate over the years, helping set up citizen action groups around specific issues, "developed a model for how a vibrant civil society can use the available levers of government – legislative, judicial, and executive – to restore our democracy."

Not only is Nader simply proposing to "use the available levers of government," he often would do so in the service of really reactionary proposals. For example, he argues that prices on fossil fuels should be "allowed to rise," with more taxes added, in order to force a "desirable" change in consumer habits – in other words, let gas prices double or treble in order to force people to take public transportation – which, by the by, may not exist.

What is notably missing from Nader's program is any call on working people to organize themselves to fight for their own goals in their own class interests. At best, they can function as one part of a kind of "citizens" pressure group.

In the September issue of Harper's Monthly, there is a revealing comment by Nader: "change invariably begins with people whom the defenders of the status quo denounce as agitators, communists, hippies, weirdos. And then, ten or twenty years later, after the changes have taken place, the chamber of commerce discovers that everybody's profits have improved. The captains of industry never seem to understand that a free democracy is a precondition for a free market."

This is an idea that appears over and over in Nader's writings and in his campaign. He proclaimed, in announcing his candidacy, for example, "Democracy works, and a stronger democracy works better for reputable, competitive markets, equal opportunity and higher standards of living and justice. Generally, it brings out the best performances from people and business." He reproaches big business for being "myopic." The goal that he gives to people who would struggle is "to make business responsible and to put government on the right track," as he declared in his statement of February 21, announcing his candidacy.

This is a far cry from proposing "a vote against corporate capitalism," as the ISO enthusiastically imagined. Nader, in fact, is quite open in what he wants. It's just that certain leftists prefer to ignore him when he makes his goals clear.

"The Historical Role of the United States"

One of the most telling things about Nader's campaign is the stance that he takes on the issues surrounding the various protests about "free trade."

Nader shares with American union leaders their explanation for problems workers face in this country: competition with low wage labor around the world. His campaign, to the extent that he will be heard in the working class, reinforces the chauvinist propaganda they regularly spout.

The Nader campaign website offers this critique of the WTO, for example: "they basically have turned progress on its head in countries such as ours, where we've progressed by subordinating the commercial to the human rights, labor rights, and environmental rights imperatives. And the WTO reverses that. The WTO basically says, to coin a phrase, 'Everything is for sale.'"

In his acceptance speech at the Green Party convention, Nader declared: "The WTO undermines our legitimate local, state and national sovereignties which enable America to lead the way in worker, consumer, environmental standards." The Green Party's electoral platform explains the problem this way: "The historical role of the United States has been to raise living standards, not to be dragged down by the lowest common denominator abroad."

Nowhere is there a hint that U.S. imperialism and the U.S. state apparatus which defends it dominate the WTO and other such "supranational" bodies, nor that they are the ones leading an attack on the workers, both here and abroad. Rather, Nader's openly chauvinist stance conveys the idea that the U.S. is being victimized by some "supranational" forces.

Buchanan may be more crass when he openly declares, "Put America First," but he's hardly worse. It wasn't at all strange to see Nader and Buchanan showing up together in Seattle; after all, they share a certain number of reactionary views. It's no more strange to see Paul Truax, co-founder with Ross Perot of the Reform Party, and other Texas Reform Party officials accompany Nader on his recent Texas tour to endorse his candidacy.

Nader's chauvinism, along with his elitism, comes across clearly in the way he discussed immigration during that tour of Texas, as well as in California. According to Nader, computer specialists, scientists, engineers, and other professionals with higher education and qualifications should not be allowed to immigrate into the U.S. looking for jobs in high tech industries. Conversely, he would, however, give temporary work permits to poor immigrants from Mexico, who "want to do work for a short period of time that Americans don't want to do." (The California Growers Association asks for the same thing!)

And while talking about "decriminalizing" the border with Mexico, Nader also says: "We can't have open borders....It would depress wages enormously.... We obviously have to pour more resources into the border with Mexico. There's too much corruption, too much smuggling, too much infectious diseases and too much pollution since NAFTA went into effect."

Nader may garb his proposals in a show of humanitarian concern for the poor from other countries, but basically he reinforces the idea that the blame for low wages in this country can be put at the door of immigration and imports from other countries.

This is nothing but demagogy which helps divert the anger of American workers onto immigrant workers – and this can rebound back on the rest of the working class. The interests of the whole working class are not served when workers let themselves be divided from each other.

What Nader says on the WTO and trade, on immigration, even on smaller issues like oil prices, clearly reveals his anti-working class stand.

Saving the Democrats from Themselves

While Nader repeatedly puts Gore in the same bag with Bush, at the same time, he goes out of his way to reassure liberals that his candidacy will not harm the Democrats. For example, in an interview appearing in the June30-July 6 issue of the Los Angeles Weekly, Nader said that the liberals, fearful of what his candidacy might do, "are not thinking tactically. There are very few Green Party candidates....only 16 Green Party candidates for the House of Representatives. So where are these millions of [Nader] votes going to go in the House races? To the Democrats. That's why it was clear from my meeting with Gephardt [the Democratic Party's leader in the House of Representatives] a few weeks ago that he's not displeased with this candidacy....A few thousand votes here and there, and he's the speaker. That's pretty important."

Nader calls his tours of college campuses, "non-voter" rallies – addressed to those who otherwise wouldn't vote – in Nader's words, votes which will go to the Democrats in the House races.

In the presidential race itself, Nader has been very prudent. Even while focusing his critique on Gore, Nader repeatedly was quoted as saying that his main campaign will focus on those states where one of the two parties is so far in the lead, that his candidacy would not affect the outcome: Minnesota, Massachusetts, or Washington D.C., for example, where the Democrats hold a commanding lead, or Texas and Illinois, where Bush will most surely defeat Gore anyway.

Nader's campaign, in fact, is partly directed toward resurrecting the Democratic Party. In the Los Angeles Weekly interview, Nader explained that voters in states where the race is not close "can say: Look we want this Green Party to cross the 5% threshold, because then it's going to be a real hammer on the Democrats. It's going to pull them in the right direction, where now the corporate lobbies and DLC's [Democratic Leadership Council] are pulling them in the other direction."

In a letter he wrote to the New York Times, Nader explained: "If my candidacy as the Green Party's nominee for president subtracts more from Mr. Gore, it's because the Democratic Party under this administration has become little more than a corporate shadow of its former self." In other words, the problem is not really with the Democratic Party itself, but with its recent functioning under the Clinton-Gore leadership.

It's clear that Nader is not "raising the question of an independent working class party." He may present a third electoral choice, but he is not giving a perspective to the workers who have had to suffer the effects of the policies led by both big parties.

Nader may have changed the political landscape a little, but he doesn't give the workers a way out of the impasse they find themselves in, without a party of their own, one which would stand squarely on the standpoint of the working class.