US: elections – Assessing the Nader Challenge

Was it worth voting for Kerry after all?

The electoral defeat of Kerry and the Democratic Party underlines, more than anything else, how right Ralph Nader was to challenge the two-party system. The Democrats’ failure in the 2004 election proved, once again, that they are unable and unwilling to offer a serious challenge to Bush and the Republicans’ right-wing corporate agenda.

However, media pundits and apologists for Kerry are, predictably, drawing the opposite conclusions. They blame the Democrats’ loss on ordinary Americans who, they allege, are moving to the right. In this vein, the post-election commentaries on the Nader campaign have been sneering obituaries for the movement to break the corporate duopoly on politics.

Citing Nader’s low vote, reporter Scott Shane concluded: "The returns seem to repudiate Mr. Nader’s argument that many Americans are looking for a progressive alternative to the two major parties, which he describes as ‘indentured to corporate power.’" (New York Times, 11/06/04)

It is true that Nader/Camejo received only 400,000 votes, approximately 0.5%, compared to the 2.8 million votes Nader received in the 2000 election. Still, a superficial glance at these numbers would appear to support the argument that the potential for building a left political alternative in the U.S. has been eclipsed.

But actually Nader’s low vote says more about the fundamentally undemocratic, winner-take-all election system than it does about support for Nader and his program. An Associated Press poll indicated 33% of voters might vote for Nader if they thought he had a chance of winning. This number would undoubtedly be higher if the corporate media hadn’t shut out Nader’s anti-war, anti-corporate message and allowed more people to hear it.

On a host of pressing issues, ordinary Americans favor Nader’s pro-worker stands over the corporate-sponsored policies pushed by Kerry and Bush. Nader enjoys broad-based public support in his calls for universal national healthcare, ending the Iraq occupation, a crackdown on corporate crime, living wage jobs, canceling "free-trade" deals, rigorous environmental protections, increasing funding and access to abortion clinics, stopping the racist war on drugs, ending the death penalty, and much more.

At any rate, Nader’s final vote was never going to be the key measure of the campaign’s success or its historic significance. Socialist Alternative explained from the outset that, in the context of the overwhelming "Anybody but Bush" mood and a close election between Bush and Kerry, Nader’s vote would be tightly squeezed. It is striking that, even in the face of the massive anger at Bush and Democrats’ mantra that Nader cost Gore the 2000 election, polls this summer showed up to 7% (over 10 million voters) planned to vote for Nader.

Despite his small final vote, the stand taken by Nader and the small layer of active supporters behind him inspired a ferocious debate on the left, affecting the political outlook of tens of millions of people. Building on the success of his 2000 run, Nader’s 2004 candidacy forced a widespread discussion on the corporate character of the Democratic Party and the need to build an alternative party that stands up for the millions against the millionaires, planting seeds for the future formation of such a party.

The war on Nader

The most striking confirmation of Nader’s broad appeal was given by the Democratic Party itself and its allied organizations. Tens of millions of dollars were diverted from the fight to unseat Bush toward an all-out war on the Nader campaign, illustrating that the Kerry campaign fully appreciated the potential mass appeal of Nader’s anti-war, anti-corporate message had it penetrated the mainstream political dialogue.

Thousands of TV, radio, and print advertisements were purchased to slander Nader and his supporters. This against a candidate who could not afford any advertisements of his own! Anti-Nader websites sprang up, and mass spamming of potential Nader supporters was organized. An atmosphere of intimidation was consciously created. Ridiculously, Nader was widely accused of receiving most of his money and support from pro-Bush forces! Predictably, when the corporate media even mentioned the Nader campaign, they merely repeated the anti-Nader mantras developed in Kerry campaign focus groups.

Most scandalous of all, the Kerry campaign hired thousands of lawyers to keep Nader off the ballot, mounting dozens of frivolous legal challenges explicitly designed as a "war of attrition" to sap Nader’s limited resources. Nader estimates up to $20 million was spent on this effort alone! The Democrats and Republicans also conspired to keep Nader out of the presidential debates even though 57% of Americans wanted more candidates included (Zogby poll, 10/22/04).

This effort to disenfranchise Nader voters was an enormous attack on democratic rights, comparable to the massive Florida voter fraud in 2000. Alongside the pre-existing anti-democratic hurdles to ballot access, these attacks meant Nader got on the ballot in only 34 states. Being kept off the ballot in 16 states, including California, Massachusetts, and Oregon, was a major factor depressing Nader’s vote.

Historic significance

The Democratic Party’s unprecedented assault on the Nader campaign is itself an invaluable experience which will be studied and analyzed by future movements for independent progressive political alternatives, as they develop in the coming period and soberly face up to the challenges they confront.

Beyond that, however, the small vote for Nader does not mitigate the important impact the campaign had on the electoral debate and on the left. Millions of voters considered voting for Nader and wrestled with the questions his campaign brought up. Discussions over the corporate character of the Democratic Party, the undemocratic electoral system, and the need for political representation for ordinary people, among other issues, would have barely registered in the popular consciousness had Nader not run.

Regardless of what the small activist base built around Nader does in the next period, the ideas popularized and the example set by the campaign will undoubtedly contribute to future attempts to build a left-wing, working-class party in the future. The 2000 and 2004 Nader campaigns established that it was possible and necessary to build a pro-worker, anti-war political alternative.

Major social upheavals and movements are inevitable in the years ahead. The occupation of Iraq, the deepening economic crisis, and the ferocious attacks by the right will force workers, oppressed communities, and young people to organize a fight-back. On this basis, the question of forming an anti-war, working-class political challenge to the two parties of big business will arise again and again. Viewed historically, Nader’s campaign has played a pioneering role.

The debate on the left

In the 2000 election, Nader’s campaign rose on the high tide of the movement against corporate globalization, and a host of progressive celebrities jumped onto the bandwagon. In contrast, Nader’s 2004 run took place amid the demoralization of the anti-war movement after it failed to stop the Iraq war. Most middle-class progressives drew pessimistic conclusions from this experience, and turned to Kerry in their desperate desire to see Bush defeated.

But it is moments like the 2004 election, when taking a principled stand isn’t so fashionable, that every political tendency shows its true colors. Nader’s campaign functioned as a sort of litmus test for the left, sharply distinguishing between those willing to bend under the popular pressures of the moment and those with sufficient clarity and perspective to maintain a principled position, keeping their eyes on the prize.

With few exceptions, the "official" representatives of the U.S. left fell into line behind Kerry, using their political influence to attack Nader. Michael Moore, among Nader’s most prominent supporters in 2000, toured the country in September and October, holding mass rallies to bolster Kerry’s tepid support among young people and progressives. Everywhere he went, Moore did the Democrats’ dirty work, mocking Nader supporters and even spreading the lying smears about Nader’s alleged alliance with Republicans.

Absurdly, Moore argued that Nader had succeeded in moving the Democrats to the left and should now retire. Falling into the classic trap of lesser-evilism, Moore attempted to justify his support for Kerry by telling fairy tales about Kerry’s progressive credentials and continually implying he would bring the troops home from Iraq.

Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, after being crushed by the Democratic Party leadership in the primaries, were compelled to expend their political capital attacking Nader. Sections of their supporters, outraged that pro-war, Corporate Kerry had won the nomination, argued that Dean and Kucinich supporters should back Nader. Faced with these defections, Dean was pushed into a nationally broadcast debate with Nader. At the Democratic National Convention, Kucinich betrayed his anti-war supporters by bowing his head, praising Kerry, and avoiding criticism of the occupation of Iraq.

The Green Party also came under massive pressure to deny Nader their ballot lines. In what many considered a rigged convention in June, the Green Party leadership capitulated and endorsed David Cobb who ran a purely symbolic "safe states" campaign that posed no threat to Kerry. However, the party is split down the middle on the issue, with half mobilized around Peter Camejo’s Greens for Nader grouping. This election provoked the inevitable clash in the Greens between those who see the party mainly as a pressure group on the Democrats and those fighting for complete independence from both corporate parties.

Noam Chomsky

Prominent radical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who have done a lot to popularize radical ideas, unfortunately also urged a vote for Kerry in swing states (using very left-wing, clever-sounding justifications for their capitulations).

In an October 21 interview on Democracy Now! Chomsky said: "[The] election is a marginal affair, it should not distract us from the serious work of changing the society, and the culture and the institutions…. You should spend five minutes, maybe, thinking about what you should do. In that five minutes, you should recognize there is some difference between the two groups contending for power…. So in that five minutes that you devote to the topic, you should come to the rational conclusion, if it’s a swing state, keep the worst guys out."

It takes less than five minutes to see through Chomsky’s attempt to throw up a left cover to what is, in essence, a position adapted to his liberal intellectual milieu. Far from being a "marginal affair," the 2004 election was a colossal event. Despite the distorted, confused character of the electoral debate, tens of millions of Americans were tuned into politics intensely discussing the issues on a scale unparalleled in recent times. Moreover, hundreds of millions across the planet were following the election.

Chomsky’s call to essentially ignore the elections (aside from casting a tepid vote for Kerry to "keep the worst guys out") amounts to a contemptuous dismissal of the millions of ordinary people who have illusions in capitalist democracy and who look to use their vote to change society. Chomsky correctly explains that we should not allow social movements to be "distracted" by the elections, but by offering his blessings to Kerry supporters, he fails to warn against the mother of all distractions – allegiance to the Democratic Party.

The central justification for the Nader campaign, in fact, was that it gave voice, within the white heat of the electoral battle, to the demands of working people and our social movements. It provided a lever to help pry social movement organizations away from their allegiance with the Democrats, which only serves to limit their demands, their tactics, and their expectations to the needs of the party’s big-business backers.

While the broad social forces that could build a powerful mass party of working people have yet to be mobilized, when these do develop in the coming period, the pioneering traditions established around Nader will help guide their way.

From Justice, paper of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

See also Ty Moore’s article: Learning from Nader’s mistakes

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December 2004