If Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower, and Ralph Nader's former running mate Winona LaDuke haven't convinced you that voting for Nader is too great a risk this election, maybe nothing will. But the stakes are high enough to try.
As Nader supporters continually point out, Kerry is a compromised, centrist Democrat, ambivalent at best on a host of key questions including the Iraqi war. And yes, Nader's positions are better, and it may feel personally gratifying to vote for them.
But this election isn't about abstract stands. It's about Bush's threat to democracy. Not just Bush, but a larger Republican machine that purges African Americans from the Florida voting rolls, throws away voter registrations in Nevada, jams New Hampshire Democratic phone banks with hired telemarketers, shouts down Palm Beach vote counters, and shuts Congressional Democrats out of the legislative drafting process entirely, replacing their voices with those of industry lobbyists. That doesn't count waging preemptive wars and lying about their justification, passing over a hundred billion dollars a year of regressive tax cuts, smashing unions, plundering the environment, and branding everyone who disagrees with you an ally of terrorism.
Either we stop these trends or we don't. And what we do this with is the ballot. If we place all our hopes in awaiting some nebulous citizens' revolt, we throw away a concrete opportunity to stop this assault in its tracks by voting Bush out. And that gives away an aspect of power that citizen movements have fought and died for. That's what we do by replacing a real vote against Bush with a symbolic vote for Ralph Nader.
Think of the court appointments. Four years ago, the issue seemed abstract. After the gang of five justices installed Bush in office, it's urgent. William Rehnquist is 80 years old sick, with thyroid cancer. John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have had cancer as well, and Stevens is 84. Do we really want another Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas to replace them? Or another Rehnquist? These justices didn't just anoint Bush as president. The same 5-4 majority recently validated Tom DeLay's mid-census reapportionment of key congressional districts in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania, to give the Republicans a near unbreakable short-term lock on the House of Representatives. Maybe O'Connor will have a change of heart, but if they appoint one more ultra-right justice, all three branches will be controlled by a party that seeks not just victory, but the total annihilation of all opposition, as if we were the rats and insects that DeLay used to exterminate. Stopping this trend means stopping Bush.
There's a reason Republicans have put so much money, time and organizational effort into getting Nader on the ballot in key states: it's a chance to consolidate power. And there's a reason every major progressive organization in this country begged Ralph not to run. And that three quarters of participants in Nader's "Committee of 100" from four years ago are now mobilizing for Kerry in efforts like the Unity Campaign (www.theunitycampaign.org). As Chomsky says, "...Anyone who says 'I don't care if Bush gets elected' is basically telling poor and working people in the country, 'I don't care if your lives are destroyed... I don't care about you'... Apart from [this] being wrong, it's a recipe for disaster if you're hoping to ever develop a popular movement and a political alternative."
In fact, there's an odd parallel between Bush's total lack of accountability and belief in his divinely anointed infallibility, and Nader's. Nader insists that no matter how many how many long-time allies ask him to pull back, he has a direct line to the truth, and knows he's right. It's tragic that someone who has spent most of his life fighting to expand democracy is doing his best to make the worst of Florida's plantation politics our national political model.
I've heard Nader supporters say their vote won't matter. Or that Nader will actually take votes away from Bush. As a recent Nation Institute survey showed, Nader actually draws three to one or more from those who'd otherwise support Kerry, but if you'd otherwise support Bush, please do vote for Ralph. If you want to get Bush out, however, and your state is remotely close, then you need to act as if every vote matters, including your own, and those of everyone you turn out. You need to assume that the 366-vote margin in New Mexico (where Nader got 21,000 votes) or the 537 votes that Katherine Harris certified in Florida will be the outcome in your state this round, and that your actions will make the key difference. You don't want to become one more Republican tool.
Think about the 2002 French election. Progressives split their vote in the initial balloting, allowing neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen to edge Socialist Lionel Jospin to make it onto the final ballot. In response, French progressives and moderates rallied around Conservative Jacques Chirac, because Le Pen was too great a threat to ignore. And Chirac surprised us all by refusing to go to war in Iraq. Bush's politics aren't as rightist as Le Pen, but their global impact is infinitely greater. Bush's Euro-bashing aside, this is one time to learn from the French.
I'm all in favor of acts of conscience. But we also have to be strategic. We can find ample ways to express our direct voice after November 2. If Kerry wins, I expect to be marching soon afterward to get America out of Iraq, because it's going to take persistent citizen action no matter which way the elections go. But symbolic statements and symbolic actions will not stop the Republican assaults on democracy. At some point we'll need to vote them out. That point is now.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books. Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller writes "Paul Loeb brings hope for a better world in a time when we so urgently need it." Barbara Ehrenreich says, "For anyone worn down by four years of Bushism, The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a bracing double cappuccino!" And Bonnie Raitt writes, "This inspiring collection is such a song of hope in these difficult times." Loeb is also the author of Soul of a Citizen. See www.theimpossible.org. To be added to Loeb's monthly email list, email email@example.com with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles.
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