Thursday, July 15, 2004

Matt Gonzalez: Why Vote for Ralph Nader?

Matt Gonzalez explains why everyone should vote for Ralph Nader:
Why Vote for Ralph Nader?
By Matt Gonzalez

These days it's popular, particularly in progressive circles, to attack presidential candidate Ralph Nader and his running mate, Peter Camejo.

Votes for Nader would likely otherwise go to Sen. John Kerry, and so the fear is that President Bush will be re-elected -- a possibility that naturally engenders strong feelings. But why is the right solution to attack Nader, who genuinely holds views different from those of Kerry and Bush? After all, Nader and Camejo are simply running for public office in a democracy.

The problem isn't that Nader and Camejo represent a duplicative platform, or fail to address issues being ignored by the two major parties -- it's simply that their running cannot be accommodated within our two-party system. So the answer, for many, is that they shouldn't run. But why make the solution an undemocratic one? Why not insist that the system be changed?

Do you really think it's an accident that the Democrats can't come up with a solution to the spoiler problem? Ask yourself, have they spent four years trying to reform the Electoral College? Or calling for majority elections so that we don't get a repeat of Florida -- an election decided by a plurality victory? Why blame Nader?

One need only look at the two major candidates for president to see how much of a failure our political system is. On virtually every issue of significance, the candidates appear to be in agreement.

For instance, they both supported the war in Iraq (although Kerry believes Bush is mishandling matters and would like 20,000 more troops in the region), and both supported the Patriot Act (arguably the worst attack on civil liberties this country has seen in the last half-century). Both opposed the Kyoto Accords, which would have begun to address global warming, and both supported the World Trade Organization agreements, which subjugate our national and local interests to international commercial ones. Neither supports gay marriage, and even concerning the abortion question, Kerry says he'll appoint anti-abortion judges to the federal courts (but he says he'll make sure they don't want to repeal Roe v. Wade).

So, who is kidding whom? The progressives who are self-righteous in their condemnation of Nader, or those who believe the Democrats are not an opposition party?

Continuing to excuse the Democrats for not addressing the spoiler problem only ensures that the problem will not get fixed. Excusing Kerry from making concessions in this regard before you vote for him likewise ensures that the problem will not get fixed. Participating in attacks on Nader for running only props up an undemocratic system that must be reformed.

The stakes are not one presidential race, but rather whether a diversity of ideas will ever reach Congress. Without this reform there will only ever be one congressperson with the courage to oppose the war in Iraq. There will only be one senator to vote against the Patriot Act. This state of affairs is so bleak that pretending there is an opposition party in our two-party system can only charitably be called foolish. I hate to say it, but it's true.

Those who continue to say that Nader ruined the 2000 election ignore that over 7 million Democrats voted for Bush -- 250,000 of them in Florida. They ignore that 6,600 votes in Palm Beach were spoiled by a butterfly ballot designed by a Democrat. Instead, they attack Nader, who has dedicated his entire adult life to fighting for consumer and civil rights. He has been a stalwart against growing corporate power. His running mate, Peter Camejo, has written on post-Civil War Reconstruction and has been a pioneer on socially responsible investing. The Nader/Camejo ticket offers voters something very different.

Attack them all you want, but years from now Nader and Camejo's effort will be remembered with Upton Sinclair's "End Poverty in California" campaign for governor of California and with the presidential efforts of Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace, Eugene Debs and Bob LaFollette. They will be remembered as men who fought to make this a better democracy.

Matt Gonzalez is president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

(Matt Gonzalez, "Why Vote for Ralph Nader?" San Francisco Examiner, July 14, 2004)


Anonymous said...

The Presidential Race and Green Party Strategy in 2004
Patrick Barrett

With the nomination of David Cobb as the Green Party’s presidential candidate, the debate over party strategy for 2004 has taken a potentially very destructive turn. While the debate was already quite negative prior to the Party convention in Milwaukee, it has now sunk to a new low. Indeed, for many, it appears that the overriding goal is not to persuade fellow progressives with a well-reasoned argument regarding the best way to build the Green Party and advance a progressive agenda, but rather to score points against others in a battle in which “anything goes,” particularly ad hominem attacks. Although anyone familiar with the history of the left in this country should not be shocked by such a spectacle, it has nonetheless been truly disturbing, even depressing, to see self-described progressives turn on each other in this way. If we are serious about building a broad-based progressive movement, and the Green Party as a key player in that movement, this is the last thing we need. Given the enormous obstacles we face, we cannot afford to become our own worst enemies. However, in addition to reminding ourselves that unity, mutual respect, and humility are essential to our success, we also need to begin discussing strategy in a more systematic, reasoned, and disciplined way. I would therefore like to offer what I consider to be the essential elements of such a strategy and how this has informed my own view of the choice faced by the Green Party at its recent convention.

In my opinion, there are three fundamental criteria by which any progressive strategy should be evaluated, regardless of the place or time. First and foremost, we must always adhere to democratic principles. This not only means that we should reach our decisions in a deliberative and egalitarian manner. It also means that we recognize that progressive social and political change always comes from below (not from above), which in turn implies that we should never trust anyone in a position of power or leadership, however enlightened we may believe them to be. Instead, to the degree that we place our trust anywhere, it is in the democratic movement, and our paramount responsibility toward our spokespersons and office holders is to hold them accountable. Second, we need to pursue actions that have clear strategic benefits. Most importantly, they cannot be ends-in-themselves, but rather must be means to an end. This is what makes them strategic -- the degree to which they enhance our capacity to effect change and make advances in the future. Closely related to this point, we need to allocate our very limited political resources as wisely and efficiently as possible. This means that we need to be very cognizant of the real set of obstacles and opportunities that we face and determine as carefully as possible where we are likely to make the greatest headway and where we are likely to run into dead ends.

It is with these three strategic criteria in mind that I approached the question of the Green Party presidential nomination, and on all three counts, nominating David Cobb seemed a far better option than either endorsing Ralph Nader or running no candidate at all. On the first count, it seems clear that Nader’s decision not to participate in the Green Party’s internal nominating process meant that he did not want to run the risk that he might lose and, even more importantly, that he did not want to be restricted by party strategy should he win. This amounted to a declaration of un-accountability. He apparently wanted the mass organizational support and ballot access that the Party could provide, but he would not be held accountable to it. The unmistakable message was that only he was in a position to decide on his candidacy and the direction it would take, and that the Party's role was simply to follow his lead. This should have been enough to settle the matter, with Nader embarking on a truly independent campaign and the Green Party choosing its own candidate, or none at all. But he wanted it both ways by trying to gain the Party’s endorsement. Moreover, the last minute choice of a prominent Green Party activist as his running mate only made matters worse, since it amounted to a heavy-handed attempt to influence the Party’s internal decision-making process while still remaining un-answerable to it. For the Green Party to have endorsed him would therefore have been a mistake of monumental proportions. It would have been the equivalent of what the AFL-CIO does vis-à-vis the Democratic Party -- throwing its support to their candidates unconditionally and thus without any capacity to hold them accountable. In so doing, it would have set a precedent regarding the relationship between leaders and followers that the Green Party would have had great difficulty overcoming in the future.

So, on this count, there was no contest -- the choice of David Cobb, someone who submitted himself to the uncertainty of the Party’s internal democratic procedures and made it clear that he is accountable to the Party, easily beat the option of endorsing Nader. Some have countered this assertion by saying “OK, I see the point about accountability, but Nader’s far greater name recognition, and thus greater capacity to run a strong campaign, easily trumps that concern.” To this, I have two responses. First, it is not enough to violate such a fundamental democratic principle. In fact, it reminds me of the many progressive Democrats who in 2000 were more than willing to accept the exclusion of Nader from the presidential debates because they saw it as advancing their own candidate's fortunes. They might have been persuaded that Nader’s exclusion was undemocratic, but in their minds, that concern was trumped by the desire to beat Bush. We have to be better than that. If we are going to offer a real alternative, and set an example for others to follow, we cannot engage in the same practice of sacrificing democratic principles to political expediency. Seen in this way, the nomination of Cobb should therefore be regarded as an indication of the Green Party’s strength, for it demonstrated a determination to stand for what it believes, even under difficult circumstances.

Second, Nader’s capacity to run a strong campaign has been greatly exaggerated, which relates to count two, namely, the need to pursue actions that have clear strategic benefits. On this count, the argument for the Nader 2004 campaign is not only quite weak, but also based on very questionable, if not openly contradictory, reasoning. Most importantly, in sharp contrast to the 2000 campaign, the Nader 2004 campaign has taken on the character of an end-in-itself. In 2000, the Nader campaign was worthy of support first and foremost because it was a vehicle for building the Green Party. It could have been much better in that regard, but that was nonetheless its greatest virtue -- it was a means to building an alternative party, which in turn is crucial to building a multi-party system, which itself is essential to democratizing the larger political system and thus solving this country’s many problems. That is what made it an eminently strategic action -- it was a means to an end, the first in a series of steps aimed at achieving a long-term goal. This is also what distinguished it from the option of voting for Gore, which was an inherently short-term and thus non-strategic act. The situation in 2004, however, is altogether different. By launching an independent candidacy, and declaring his un-accountability to the Green Party, Nader has embarked on a personal protest campaign with no end game and thus no discernable strategic benefits. Unlike in 2000, it is not clear how his 2004 campaign will translate into greater institutional and political power and lead to further advances in the near or medium term, let alone in the long term. In this regard, it is quite similar to the option of voting for Gore in 2000 or Kerry in 2004. In fact, it is likely to be a last hurrah, and a very weak one at that. We need only think back to the last personal protest campaigns that went nowhere -- those of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. What lasting political effects did Perot’s campaigns have? None -- and he received far more votes than Nader (nearly 1 out of 5 in 1992!).

Furthermore, Nader’s message has become very muddled, particularly about what it is he hopes to accomplish by running. Not only has he said virtually nothing about the importance of building a multi-party system, much less the key role of the Green Party in that effort, but he has focused most of his attention on the very short-term goal of affecting the outcome between Bush and Kerry. At times, he has stated that his goal is to help Kerry win by pulling him in a more progressive direction, while at others, he has claimed that his goal is to defeat Bush by siphoning off some of his conservative support. While both objectives may amount to the same thing (if Kerry wins, Bush loses, and vice versa), the two strategies will very likely work at cross purposes. More importantly perhaps, there is a major irony in adopting this as his objective, since according to his supporters, his greatest virtue is that, presumably unlike Cobb, he hasn’t committed the sin of trying to defeat Bush or aid Kerry. Instead, they say, he will run all out against both Bush and Kerry -- swing states be damned -- and he will launch the most aggressive critique of the Iraq war. Somehow overlooked in this argument is Nader’s own stated reasons for running, as well as the fact that he has met with Kerry, praised him publicly, and even announced that he was considering avoiding swing states (only to contradict himself a couple of weeks later). Moreover, Nader has said very little about the war. Thus, the Nader campaign that his supporters have promoted is almost entirely a fiction. It simply does not exist.

On this count too, then, the choice of David Cobb is the right one. Indeed, Cobb’s goals are far more strategic than Nader’s. His overriding objective is to use his campaign to build the party at the local and state level, which is desperately needed to increase party strength and credibility. In other words, the campaign is not an end-in-itself, but rather a means to the end of increasing the Party’s capacity to effect change over the long-term. The reality is that no Green Party candidate is going to win the presidency for a long time to come, and this year in particular, the number of votes any alternative candidate receives will be very small (much smaller, in fact, than 2000). Therefore, the wisest use of a Green presidential campaign is to promote candidates at the local and state level (and hopefully before too long at the congressional level) and to focus attention on the need for electoral reform, which is absolutely crucial to the survival of the Green Party and multi-party politics more generally. A presidential campaign can play a crucial role in this effort because it can serve to link those local struggles to a larger, national struggle.

For those who object to Cobb’s so-called “safe-states” strategy, this is largely a red herring. Not only does this apply to the vast majority of the country (40 out of 50 states), but Cobb has stated repeatedly that he will campaign in any state whose chapter asks him to, and that his paramount objective is to support candidates in local races and win ballot access for the Green Party, wherever that may be. Moreover, as noted above, Nader has been equivocal on this question. In addition to ignoring these inconvenient facts, the opponents of a safe-states strategy rarely offer a reasoned critique of it, or a reasoned defense of the competing claim that we must always run “all out.” What, in fact, is the substantive principle underlying such a claim? Does this mean, for example, that workers must always and everywhere be on strike, and that to fail to do so is an act of capitulation or selling out? Indeed, rather than evaluating the competing strategies on the basis of some well-defined criteria, the opponents of the “safe-states” strategy simply act as though it is a violation of some unstated commandment and impugn the motivations of anyone (except Nader) who would even entertain the idea, claiming that they are actually Democratic Party operatives whose real objective is to throw the election to Kerry in order to advance his pro-war, pro-corporate agenda. In fact, the viciousness with which some have attacked Cobb and his supporters has been truly unconscionable, particularly since this is the same tactic – character assassination – that so many Democrats have used against Nader and the Greens. In very striking contrast, the Cobb campaign has avoided such empty arguments and is instead overwhelmingly driven by strategic concerns, including a realistic assessment of the set of obstacles and opportunities that we face, and most importantly, of where we are likely to make the greatest headway. This then brings me to the last point, concerning the wisest use of our political resources.

In determining how best to allocate our limited political resources, we need to do a careful assessment of the likely costs and benefits of a particular course of action. In 2000, the Nader campaign had both costs and benefits associated with it: on the cost side, the possible election of Bush, and equally important, the risk of alienating progressive voters and having our central message get lost in all the turmoil over spoiling the election; and on the benefit side, the impetus it would give to the Green Party, and possibly, the matching funds if Nader passed the 5% threshold. As it turned out, we incurred all of the costs, and just one of the benefits -- the shot in the arm it gave to the Green Party. In my opinion, that one benefit outweighed the costs, which were not inconsiderable.

In 2004, however, we face an altogether different picture. On the cost side, it is unlikely that we will be in a position to throw the election to Bush. Given that so many people, including many of those who voted for Nader in 2000, are determined to defeat Bush, it is highly unlikely that Nader or any other alternative presidential candidate will win many votes. In fact, whether you are among those who worry that a third party candidate will throw the election to Bush, or those who believe that such a candidate will “shake things up,” it is very likely that you are both wrong. However, depending on the kind of campaign we run, we can still incur the costs of alienating people and having our message get lost. The surest way to do that is to act like we are just protest voters who have no credible alternative plan for fixing the country’s problems, no discernable long-term strategic objectives, and no commonality of interests or concerns with the great majority of voters (including their concerns about Bush!). That is what a Nader campaign is/was going to look like. Furthermore, as explained above, it was not going to garner any of the benefits. It would have obtained very few votes and would have done nothing for building the Green Party and advancing its message. It therefore would have dealt us a major setback and thus would not have been the best use of our scarce political resources.

The Cobb campaign, on the other hand, recognizes the fact that the presidential election offers only a limited opportunity. The key therefore is to make the most of that limited opportunity, which means placing the Green Party at the very center of the campaign, gaining support for its efforts at the state and local level, and advancing the cause of electoral reform. It also means avoiding self-defeating, unfocused presidential campaigns that ignore both obstacles and opportunities, alienate potential allies and supporters, and only amount to a form of collective venting of frustrations. It may feel good (albeit temporarily) to launch such campaigns, but if we are serious about effecting long-term change, we need to choose our battles more wisely. Most importantly, we need to focus on those actions that are likely to increase our scope of action and lead to greater possibilities and political resources down the road, as the Cobb campaign is attempting to do, rather than actions that amount to ends-in-themselves and thus serve to squander and thus further diminish those limited resources.

Of course, it would have been much better had there been a candidate who had the name recognition of Nader, combined with the strategic orientation of Cobb. But we didn’t have that choice. Thus, for all the reasons laid out above, the Green Party made the best choice available to it. My hope at this point is that we make the most of it, which means focusing on building the Green Party into a political force capable of contributing to the democratization of our political system. If the Green Party fails, it will create a very negative demonstration effect that will set back the cause of all progressives for a long time to come. We therefore need to get beyond our obsession with the presidential race and begin focusing on all the other, far more important things that will have to be done if were going to democratize this country and improve the lives of people both here and around the world.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! Very helpful and very critical!!!
However, in this election 2004, all liberals or simply righteous people should adjust their priorities.
This election is primarily about getting rid of Dubya, so Kerry is the practical solution.