Nader’s anti-war challenge

George W. Bush is in serious trouble. The ghost of his father – a triumphant war-president who was defeated in his re-election bid – haunts the White House. Junior’s approval ratings are now down to 42% - the lowest in his presidency – with 51% disapproving of Bush’s overall job as president (New York Times/CBS Poll, June 2004).

The catastrophe in Iraq is the main factor pulling Bush down. The same poll shows that 60% in the U.S. believe the Iraq war was not worth fighting and 40% want US troops withdraw from Iraq “as soon as possible.” Just 15% said the Bush administration had told the entire truth about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, with 79% believing they were hiding something or mostly lying. Support for Bush’s handling of the “war on terrorism,” Bush’s only “strong point”, has fallen to 52%, down from 90% following September 11.

Anger against Bush runs far deeper than the Iraq war. Despite the talk of an economic “recovery,” most Americans do not see any real economic gains in their lives. 57% say the country is going in the wrong direction.

Despite these developments, John Kerry and the Democratic Party are not coasting to an easy victory over Bush. Kerry has not gained substantially from the collapse in support for the Iraq war and Bush—the presidential race remains extremely close. Representing the same fundamental big-business interests as Bush, Kerry has not seriously challenged Bush or presented a real alternative to the right-wing agenda dominating US politics.

Once Kerry secured the Democratic nomination he swiftly slanted his rhetoric to the right, highlighting his centrist credentials and reassuring big business that he is a “safe” candidate. New York Times columnist David Brooks described Kerry’s strategy in an article very aptly titled “Right Face, March!”: “John Kerry is … the policy twin of Joe Lieberman: a pro-trade, fiscally conservative centrist Democrat who is willing to pour more troops into Iraq to win the war. [Kerry is playing] the quadrennial game that smart nominees play: Shaft the Left. Kerry now vows to cap federal spending and reduce the size of government. He’s proposed a reduction in the corporate tax rate. Kerry now insists he is not ‘a redistributionist Democrat.’ He flees from the word ‘liberal’” (May 4).

One place where Kerry’s Bush-lite policies have been gaining support is within the circles of the ruling elite. In a clear indication of increased big-business support, from March until May, Kerry raised almost twice as much as Bush - $100 million to $55 million.

Kerry strategists, realising their conservative strategy has gone too far, pushed Kerry to choose John Edwards as his vice-presidential running mate. Edwards ran in the Democratic primaries by appealing to workers by using populist rhetoric. Selecting Edwards suggests that Kerry may begin to use more populist rhetoric in an attempt to reach out to workers and left-wing voters. His “two America’s” rhetoric aside, Edwards is a conservative Democrat who voted for the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil-liberties shredding, racist Patriot Act, and who supports the death penalty and opposes universal healthcare and same-sex marriage rights.

The majority of Kerry’s support comes from the on the tens of millions of Americans who are desperate to oust Bush from the White House. Many of them view Kerry with skepticism or even hostility, but they intend to vote for “Anybody But Bush.” They support Kerry because they believe he is the candidate most likely to defeat Bush.

Nader’s Challenge

Despite the anti-Bush rally around Kerry, the support of millions for Ralph Nader’s independent, anti-war, anti-corporate, pro-worker campaign reveals that a important minority is looking for an alternative to the two parties of big business and war. Since launching his campaign, Nader’s support has steadily grown to 5-8% in various polls. Despite the prevailing wisdom among media pundits and the liberal-left that the strong “Anybody But Bush” mood would render support for Nader completely insignificant or at least below than the 2.7% he received in 2000, Nader is actually polling higher than at the same stage in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Nader, a left-wing populist (who appeals to ‘the people’ or ‘citizens’, rather than the working class), is running an insurgent campaign that challenges big business and the two-party system. Nader’s platform speaks to ordinary people, advancing a host of radical demands: opposing the Iraq war and occupation; repealing the Patriot Act; creating millions of jobs through public works programs; $10/hour minimum wage; universal single-payer healthcare; expansion of workers’ rights and repealing the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act; same-sex marriage rights; abolition of the death penalty; and lowering the voting age to 16.

These demands stand in sharp contrast to the pro-big business line of the Democrats and the political hollowness of the labor leaders and Anybody But Bush liberals. “Politics is broken in this country. They put a "For sale" sign on many offices in Congress and government departments.  And as a result, the necessities of the people are not being met.  We have 47 million workers that work full time [and] don’t make a living wage, they work at Wal-Mart wages.  We have 45 million … who don’t have health insurance.  The environment is still being devastated.  And giant corporations just have turned Washington into corporate-occupied territory” (Ralph Nader, interview on Meet the Press, July 4).

Nader remorselessly denounces the corporate domination of the political system, stating “we don’t have free elections in this country. We have one corporate party with two heads wearing different make up going through an auction system, selling our elections and our government to the highest bidders.”

This hard-hitting, anti-corporate message is striking a chord with millions of workers and young people. Anti-corporate feeling has grown dramatically the past few years, most spectacularly with the wave of Enron-like corporate scandals in 2002. There is deep resentment at the gross accumulation of wealth in the hands of big business and the super rich, while workers’ wages stagnate, debt grows, and healthcare becomes ever more inaccessible.

But the key factors driving Nader’s growing support are the war in Iraq and the conservative character of Kerry’s campaign. Deeply compromised by his corporate policies and his support for the Iraq war, Kerry has been unable to seriously gain from the collapse in public support for the war and Bush. Meanwhile, Nader has increasingly brought to the fore his anti-war stance and call for a full withdrawal of US troops and corporations from Iraq.

“As the news from Iraq gets even worse, Nader…could become the candidate of choice for the most hard-core antiwar voters, who may see little difference between John Kerry’s stay-the-course approach and Bush’s. ‘Unlike 2000, Nader now has a single issue that can fuel him,’ says a worried Democratic official. Party strategists also say they are seeing signs that Nader is drawing some support from the kind of anti-Washington voters who flocked to Ross Perot in 1992.” (Time Magazine, May 24)

Discontent with Kerry is rife among large sections of supporters of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich (left candidates in the Democratic primaries) and other left-wing voters, with growing numbers going over to Nader. An editorial in the Seattle Times commented, “The one thing Democrats haven’t done, and won’t do, is speak clearly enough on Iraq (and in favor of a rapid exit) to steal Nader’s thunder. That’s why Nader’s stronger-than-expected showing in the polls may be carried right through to the election. Back in 2000, his campaign was basically warmed-over class warfare and an anti-corporate fury. This time he has real grist for the mill with … an anti-war left that is furious … Looking at the trajectory of the polls, Nader’s candidacy has gained momentum in proportion to Kerry’s waltz back toward the center” (June 24, Collin Levey).

To counter this, Dean has been drafted to lead the Democrats’ attack on Nader and urge his supporters to stay within the Democratic fold. To avoid a wholesale defection of his left-wing base to Nader, Kucinich has been compelled, absurdly, to continue his anti-war, pro-labor campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and avoid endorsing Kerry. However, this sideshow will end at the Democratic Party national convention, where Kucinich will endorse Kerry, which could lead to another chunk of Kucinich’s base moving to Nader.

Significant layers of left activists, particularly from the anti-war movement, have gathered around the Nader campaign. This radical trend is most pronounced among young people. But it is among “fresh layers” who are not yet very politically active that Nader is getting the best response. They tend to be more working class, oppressed, and disenfranchised. This layer is deeply alienated from the two mainstream parties, often registered as independents, and normally do not vote. They are far more willing to judge the candidates by their programs and less susceptible to the Anybody But Bush virus than many who supported Nader in 2000, and are now being swept away by the lesser-evil hysteria among the middle-class, liberal left.

While a layer of several million are supporting Nader, so far this has been mainly passive support, with only a small, but growing, activist base for the campaign

At the end of June, Nader announced Peter Camejo as his Vice Presidential running mate. Camejo is the best-known Green Party representative in the US after getting 5% as the Green candidate for California Governor in 2002 and almost 3% in the 2003 California Governor recall race. In the 1960s and 1970s Camejo was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Since then he has moved to the right, becoming a leading exponent of “socially responsible” stock investment as a tool to democratize capitalism.

Camejo, however, stands to the left of Nader on a number of important issues. He calls for an immediate withdrawal of the US from Iraq (Nader says it should take place over six months), and has a strong anti-war profile based on his leading role in the anti-Vietnam war movement. His profile will further strengthen Nader’s appeal to the growing anti-war movement. Camejo has a far more intransigent attitude towards the Democratic Party than Nader, explicitly opposing the idea of trying to reform the Democrats, whereas Nader regularly makes comments that suggest he is trying to pressure the Democrats to move to the left.

Camejo will significantly strengthen the appeal of the Nader campaign among Latinos, immigrants and people of color. A fluent Spanish speaker of Venezuelan descent, Camejo has a base in the Latino community and a record of fighting racism and supporting immigrant rights. He is the first major Latino candidate in a presidential race in US history, and is receiving a lot of attention in the Spanish-language mass media. When Camejo ran for Governor of California, he had twice as much support among Latino and Black voters as among whites.

A Breakdown of Nader’s Support

Contrary to the media portrayal of Nader’s supporters as mainly middle-class white students, Nader’s is gaining the support of important sections of workers, the poor, people of color, and women.

Nader has the support of 10% of blacks and 8% of Hispanics, as opposed to 6% of whites (Gallup poll, 6 July). 26% Muslim-Americans say they will vote for Nader (Council on American-Islamic Relations poll, June 29).

Nader’s strongest support is among the less educated, which tend to have lower incomes. 9% of those with a high school education or less say they will vote for Nader, as opposed to 6% with some college and 4% who have graduated from college. 8% of women are supporting Nader; 5% of men. By region, Nader has the highest vote in the “East” with 10%, which also saw the lowest support for Bush (only 30%) and the highest support for Kerry (58%). In the “Midwest” Nader stood at 9%, 4% in the “South,” and 5% in the “West” (Washington Post, June 22).

Nader’s strongest appeal is to young people, where he stands at 12% in polls. More than 100 “Students for Nader” campus chapters in over 30 states have been formed. This reflects the radicalization of young people that began in the late 1990s with the anti-globalization movement and is now continuing with the anti-war movement.

The buying of the President

The Bush and Kerry campaigns have already outstripped all previous fundraising records and are on track to spend over $1 billion in total. This staggering sum exposes the complete stranglehold of the capitalist aristocracy over US politics.

Refusing to take any corporate money, Nader has raised over $1 million through May 31, an impressive sum for a left-wing candidate and more than he raised at the same point in 2000. 89% of donations to Nader have been small donations of $100 or less.

Despite the financial advantage of the Bush and Kerry, Nader’s pro-worker, anti-war message means his limited resources can go a lot further. For every $1 that Nader spends to earn a vote, Bush needs to spend $15.43 and Kerry $11.29. Put another way, for every dollar Nader spends, Bush spends $117 and Kerry $93, yet Bush only has 7.33 times more votes than Nader and Kerry has 8 times the support. What would the campaign look like if it were on an even playing field?

The war against Nader

The strength of the potential Nader vote is all the more remarkable given the avalanche of attacks from the Democratic Party, the extremely hostile capitalist media, and the Anybody But Bush syndrome on the liberal left. Leaders of unions, and civil rights, women’s and environmental organizations linked to the Democratic Party have unleashed character assassinations and vitriolic denunciations of Nader’s presidential bid. The aggressive attacks by the political establishment reveal a fear of the potential mass appeal of Nader’s message should it get a footing in the mainstream political dialogue. Nader also faces a mass of anti-democratic obstacles restricting his ability to present his program and arguments to the roughly 200 million potential U.S. voters.

Simply getting his name on the ballot in all 50 states is an enormous undertaking. The two parties have designed an incredible number of roadblocks to keep out independents and third parties. For example, California requires an independent presidential candidate have 153,000 valid signatures. If that wasn’t enough, the Democrats have launched an all-out attack to keep Nader off the ballot. In Arizona, where polls show Nader pulling 7% of the vote, the Nader campaign had to abandon its efforts to gain ballot access after the Democrats brought a costly lawsuit challenging the 20,000 signatures collected. The state Democratic chairman stated “Our first objective is to keep him off the ballot. This vote is about George Bush and John Kerry, and we think it distorts the entire electoral process to have his name on the ballot.” (Time Magazine, May 24)

Such action by the Democrats indicates a desperate party losing its grip on popular support. Unable to marshal arguments or ideas, they can only survive by denying people the democratic right to vote for the candidate of their choice. The Democrats and their liberal front groups are also spending millions of dollars running TV commercials attacking Nader (who lacks the funds to even run his own TV ads). On top of this, the two parties are working to exclude Nader from the official presidential TV debates.

This anti-Nader war also played itself out at the June convention of the Green Party, which ran Nader as its candidate in 2000 and 1996. Capitulating to the Democrats anti-Nader offensive, the Green party leadership maneuvered to deny Nader the Green endorsement (despite the majority of Green Party members supporting Nader), blocking Nader from using the Greens’ ballot line in 22 states. Instead, the Greens chose an unknown party activist, David Cobb, who will run only in “safe states” (avoiding challenging Kerry in close states where a strong Green vote could hurt Kerry and swing the election to Bush, as Nader is accused of doing in 2000).

Failure to get the Green endorsement was certainly a set-back for the Nader campaign, and will mean further difficulties getting on the ballot. However, the Cobb campaign has little capacity to achieve any electoral significance, which, after all, is the entire point! Following the convention the logic of this strategy was revealed when Cobb’s running mate incredibly told a journalist that she might not even vote for herself if it would hurt Kerry’s chances of beating Bush!

The bitter debate and the maneuvering of the pro-Cobb leadership has opened up deep divisions within the Greens. Rallying around Peter Camejo, who Nader picked as a running mate just a few days before, a large minority of Green delegates organized themselves into “Greens for Nader” following the decision to nominate Cobb. This loose network unites the left-wing of the Green Party, and the internal debate has served to educate and solidify this layer around the need for an intransigent independence from the Democrats.

Reform Party

Responding to these ferocious attacks, Nader argues that his campaign will help the Democrats by drawing the majority of his support from conservatives and Bush voters. However, the evidence is clear that the bulk of Nader’s votes are left-wing and are hurting Kerry more than Bush.

While Nader is picking up some support among conservative workers, almost half of Nader’s support is coming from registered independents, 11% of whom favor Nader. Business Week points out that these are “left-leaning independents who are wary of Kerry’s support for the [Iraq] war” (May 31). Nader is also drawing support from the many left-Democrats angered at the Democrats’ right-wing policies and collaboration with Bush.

Nader’s strategy of appealing to conservatives was brought into sharp relief in May when he was endorsed by the Reform Party. The endorsement allows Nader to use the Reform Party’s ballot line in seven states where they have automatic representation.

However, the Reform Party has a right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant program and is widely associated with its 2000 presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan, a man best known for his virulent racism, homophobia, and far-right nationalist agenda. In fact, the Reform Party split in 2000 over the Buchanan endorsement, with the more “moderate” anti-Buchanan faction endorsing Nader in 2000. Since then the Buchanan forces have largely left the party and the anti-Buchanan wing has regained control of the party.

Nader has stated that he is not running as a candidate of the Reform Party and will continue running as an independent. But he welcomed their endorsement and has indicated that he will likely use their ballot line. This is a very serious mistake. While Nader may see this as a pragmatic way to get his name on the ballot in more states, it is politically unprincipled and it will taint his campaign with the association of an anti-immigrant, racist, right-wing populist party.

Nader’s acceptance of the Reform Party endorsement, however, is in line with his populist character, rather than a clear working-class or socialist position. Populism is a highly contradictory phenomenon which often mixes together left-wing with right-wing populist appeals. By accepting the Reform Party’s endorsement, Nader has allowed an element of right-wing populism into his campaign.

On balance though, Nader’s campaign remains predominantly left-populist, anti-corporate, and anti-war. Nader has made no moves to adopt the Reform Party’s right-wing program. In fact, the left-wing character of Nader’s campaign has been reinforced over the past few months. Nader has increasingly put opposition to the war in Iraq at the center of his campaign, significantly strengthening his appeal in the anti-war movement, has stepped up his criticisms of the Democratic Party, and selected Peter Camejo as his running mate.

Currently, the Nader campaign has strong support among people of color, immigrants and women (see Box). However, the Reform Party may re-emerge as a bigger issue if Nader decides to take their ballot line. This could weaken Nader’s attraction to immigrants, people of color, and radical workers and young people. Moreover, it will provide ammunition to the pro-Democrat union leaders, civil rights and women’s organizations.

Socialist Alternative completely opposes Nader using the Reform Party ballot line. Socialist Alternative put out an open letter to Nader and campaign activists urging Nader to reject the Reform Party’s ballot line and to publicly explain his campaign’s opposition to the Reform Party’s right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant policies. We also explain that while it is right for the Nader campaign to reach out to disgruntled Republicans and Reform Party supporters, this must be done on a principled basis. Instead, Nader has made his appeal in an opportunist fashion by downplaying issues like abortion, racism, and same-sex marriage.

Underlying all of this is Nader’s lack of an alternative to capitalism. He envisages social progress through the radical democratization of capitalism into a humane system based on small corporations. However, the logic of capitalism in this epoch inevitably tends in the direction of monopolization of the market by a few giant multinationals and the curtailing of democratic rights. As a left populist, Nader mobilizes mass opposition to the big-business system, but he lacks a viable program for transforming society or a strategy for achieving fundamental change.

While energetically campaigning for a Nader vote, Socialist Alternative raises the need to go further, not just opposing corporate power, but also opposing the underlying system of capitalism. Moreover, it is not enough to appeal to the people, or citizens: a mass movement for fundamental change must be firmly based on the support of the working class, the only social force capable of carrying through a fundamental transformation of society. While campaigning for Nader, we will be raising these ideas with the radical layers looking for a real alternative to the big-business parties.

Prospects for November

Nader’s electoral support is strong – far more than was predicated by the "experts" only months ago – and is gaining momentum. It is possible that Nader will receive a higher vote and have a greater impact than his historic campaign in 2000 because of the Iraq war. The anti-war mood encompasses a much wider layer of US society than the anti-globalization movement in 2000. There is a burning anger at the US occupation of Iraq among growing sections of the working class. Given the deep crisis in Iraq, this trend will deepen in the coming period.

If support for Bush collapses and it appears more certain that Kerry will win, Nader’s vote will likely remain quite high and could grow. Many left-wing voters, who currently feel compelled to vote for Kerry to defeat Bush, would bolt from Kerry and vote for Nader to punish the Democrats for their right-wing policies. Under this scenario, it is possible that Nader could win a higher vote than in 2000 and achieve an historical breakthrough for the US left. This could trigger a wave of other independent anti-war, left-wing and labor candidates.

If the race remains close between Bush and Kerry, however, Nader’s vote could be squeezed. The Democrats, along with the leaders of the trade unions, civil rights and women’s organizations would unleash an almighty offensive against Nader. At the same time, Kerry could be pressured to employ more populist rhetoric. This is the twin-track approach that the Democrats used in 2000, which succeeded in cutting Nader’s vote down to 2.7% from the 6% he was polling a few weeks before election day.

Given the undemocratic and unrepresentative big-business domination of the dysfunctional US electoral system, the real significance and impact of the strong interest and support for Nader goes far beyond the actual vote tally on November 2. Nader’s support points to the growing radicalization of an important layer of workers and youth.

Nader’s campaign is strengthening and deepening the radical anti-corporate, anti-war, anti-establishment mood. It is reaching tens of millions of people and raising consciousness about big business’s domination over US society and politics, the need to end the occupation of Iraq, and is helping to popularize a host of radical demands such as universal healthcare, a $10/hour minimum wage, public works programs to create jobs, etc. Nader’s independent stand is legitimizing the idea of breaking with the corrupt, undemocratic two party system of the status quo.

Growing support for Nader’s campaign reflects the deepening crisis of the corrupt two-party system. The deep tensions in US society are preparing the conditions for moves towards the creation of a new mass party that could provide political representation for workers and a vehicle for struggle for workers, minorities, women and all oppressed layers fighting the system. Effective steps in this direction will require movements of significant sections of the working class – movements that will erupt in the next few years. In this context, Nader’s campaign reinforces consciousness of the need for all those who want progressive change to break from the Democratic Party. It is helping to prepare the ground for future independent anti-war, left-wing and labor campaigns that will pave the way for the formation of a mass party of the left based on working-class forces.

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