What a zoo. Republicans who oppose Nader’s principles and platform have sued to get Nader on the ballot in the key swing state of Michigan. And Nader’s Republican support is a national phenomenon concentrated in swing states. Their goal is to split liberal voters from Kerry and, so the logic goes, swing the election to Bush. Meanwhile, progressives who agree with Nader’s principles and platform, and who think he would make a wonderful president, have denounced him for not rejecting his Republican support strongly enough.
I argue that the best stance is to welcome the Republican support with open arms.
But first, it’s worth detailing that the support of Republicans for Nader’s efforts extends well beyond gathering signatures on petitions. Well-known backers of George W. Bush such as billionaire Dick Egan, who has raised money for Bush, have given money to the Nader campaign. Citizens for a Sound Economy, co-chaired by Dick Armey, the former Republican Majority Leader in the House, and C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to George H.W. Bush, organized to get Nader on the ballot in Oregon, making phone calls to people to turn out for a meeting. The CSE agenda includes flat tax, making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, and favoring “free markets and limited government,” positions antithetical to Nader’s political efforts over the span of 40 years. As Factcheck.org relates,
Another Oregon group, the Oregon Family Council, also said it made calls for Nader. Mike White, the group's director, told the Associated Press :
White: We aren't bashful about doing it. We are a conservative, pro-family organization, and Bush is our guy on virtually every issue.
Wrath from the progressive side has been downright righteous. As Norman Solomon told The Socialist Worker, July 23,
“In Oregon, right-wing groups--including a notorious antigay organization--have worked to get Nader on the ballot. The Oregonian (June 25) reported that the head of the Nader campaign in Oregon "said he saw nothing wrong with the Republican outreach efforts. ‘It’s a free country,’ he said. ‘People do things in their own interest.’" Building "a political alternative" while accepting tactical alliances with xenophobic and antigay forces? I’ll pass.”
Huh? Here Solomon argues against working with those whose values we detest. Yet he is a forceful advocate for voting for John Kerry, whose values Solomon detests. Solomon has been scrupulous in pointing out exactly why it is that in Kerry, “hope is not on the way.” The criticism of Kerry is well deserved: Kerry’s advisors include men like Rand Beers, who was profiled by Sean Donahue of the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse. As Laura Flanders, author of Bush Women: Tales of a Cynical Species points out:
“[Beers is] the public face of Clinton's deadly crop-fumigation program in Colombia. He once said under oath that Colombian terrorists had received training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. (A claim he later had to withdraw.) "If John Kerry lets Rand Beers continue to guide his foreign policy, a Kerry administration will be no better for rural Colombians than a Bush administration," wrote Donahue. Voters who want Sen. Kerry to offer a humane alternative to Bush should demand that the senator pledge now not to make Beers secretary of state.”
Beers was aiding the Colombian government, which has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Given that, I’m not sure if one can make a convincing argument that the scumbags backing Nader are worse than the scumbags backing the man Solomon wants us to vote for. A pissing match that is best not engaged in.
Solomon’s reasoning for backing Kerry, of course, is that electing the lesser evil is a goal worth pursuing, even when we don’t like whom we are voting for. The presence of Beers doesn’t necessarily invalidate Solomon’s argument that Kerry is the lesser evil. But by the same token, the presence of help from Nader’s enemies doesn’t necessarily invalidate Nader’s strategy of building a political alternative by being on the ballot in swing states. His goal in being on the ballot is both to give voters a choice and to pressure Kerry to move toward the progressive end of the spectrum.
We will review the crucial question of what it means to have Nader on the ballot in states where the contest between the major parties is close, as is the case in Florida, which is the largest and therefore most important swing state.
But first, what happened to diversity? Isn’t working with people who are different from us a cherished value of progressives? I thought the meaning was broader than: work with people who are different from you as long as they share your values. I thought it also meant working and talking with those whose values were antithetical to ours whenever their short-term tactical objectives were aligned with ours.
An example shows why the more inclusive stance is pragmatic—and critical. Deciding to shun xenophobes and homophobes might work in metropolitan areas where you have lots of choices about who you connect with. But in the rural county I live in, that just isn’t feasible. As parents who homeschool our children, my partner and I regularly work with other homeschooling parents who run the spectrum from “schools are too confining” (my end) to “schools are too liberal and anti-Christian.” The fundamentalists do a great job of organizing—and our family has tagged along on several of their innumerable field trips.
I rarely get the chance to talk politics with fundamentalists; there’s kind of an unwritten code between us parents: focus on the kids and stay clear of the controversies. But if one of them had been collecting signatures for Nader in my local town in Maine, I would have jumped at the chance to rub shoulders and chat. How else is social change going to happen—simply by ostracizing and vilifying them? That has its place, and I’ve published plenty of finger pointing literature over the years. But dialog during the rare opportunities is also valuable. Because diversity and dialog are important, I disagree with Solomon that we should “pass” on the chance to work with them just because we are repulsed by their beliefs.
But rightwing support for Nader is about more than just signing petitions to get him on the ballot—they’re giving him cash. As Jeff Cohen, a consultant with the Progressive Unity Voter Fund put it July 20,
“Besides activists, Republicans are deploying money behind Nader. …
“As a progressive, I've admired Ralph Nader for as many years as I've disliked the corporate centrism of Democrats like John Kerry. But compared to the corporate and religious rightwing forces behind Nader, Kerry is a paragon of progressive virtue.”
But what Cohen doesn’t tell you is that his own organization doesn’t screen donors for political affiliation any more than Nader’s does. I sent an email inquiring about this to John Pearce, who runs the anti-Nader Progressive Unity Voter Fund website. He emailed me back to say, “Like Ralph, we take contributions without litmus tests…”
What is the meaning of trying to destroy someone’s integrity for forming short-term coalitions with enemies, when the critic himself advocates doing just that, as Solomon is doing when he argues we should vote Kerry? What does a similar attack for not using litmus tests to screen money, say about the critic when his own organization doesn’t adhere to that standard either, as is the case with Cohen? I leave that for the reader to ponder.
The whole issue of integrity regarding forming coalitions with enemies or accepting cash from them seems to me to be a red herring. Sure, stories of people altering their political agendas to suit their funders’ agendas are legion, and the question of the origin of support deserves a look. And the whole idea that some people are especially inured to that force, that in this case we can trust an individual, even Nader, to withstand such wooing is probably bunk. The work of Nader and so many others on campaign reform rests on that premise: we can’t just look for principled individuals in politics; we have to structure the campaign finance regulations so that cash doesn’t become king. Or more accurately, so cash doesn’t remain king…
But, as is clear to anyone who thinks about it, Republicans backing Nader aren’t doing so in order to convert him into a pro-corporate homophobic racist fundamentalist. In fact if rightwing support did convert Nader, pro-Bush Republicans might not be so thrilled—in their eyes such a switch could increase his appeal to would be Bush voters. Republicans are counting on Nader’s integrity to help split the vote, not trying to undermine it.
And that is the real issue. Regardless of how he (or other candidates) gets on the ballot in swing states, will his presence split the liberal/progressive vote and help lead to a Bush victory?
The answer to that question is clouded by our own fear of Republican power. If what is arguably the most powerful political group in America believes that Nader’s presence on the ballot will help them, then it is all to easy to leap to two conclusions: First, Republicans must be doing the wrong thing—they always do the wrong thing. Second, they must be right: Nader’s presence will help them; why else would they deploy the resources that they have?
A closer look reveals a more complex picture. I believe Republicans are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They are promoting candidate access and voter choice—a fundamental precept of democracy—for what we consider the wrong reasons, to try and split our vote. But if we really believe voter choice is paramount, as I do, and that efforts at persuasion should be a dialog between voters, not an attempt to limit voter choice, then it doesn’t matter who helps someone get on the ballot. The principle of voter choice rules.
This isn’t the first time Republicans have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation not to free the slaves—as he made clear in correspondence that survives to this day. He did it to save the Union. Today we look back on that decision and credit him for doing the right thing—even while acknowledging that his motives were not pure. One day we may similarly look back at today’s Republicans and applaud their stand for getting Nader on the ballot, even though their motives were entirely self-serving.
But so what? Isn’t it just plain too risky to have Nader on those swing state ballots, principles be damned? Don’t Republican efforts constitute proof that his presence will cost Kerry the election? It’s important not to be blinded by the actions of a gigantically powerful enemy into believing the fallacy that whatever that group does works in their favor. Republicans, like the rest of us, make miscalculations that backfire. Republican assessment of resistance to our occupation in Iraq prior to the invasion is a spectacular example of miscalculation.
To cite another wrong step closer to home, in early spring 2004, the Republicans began running what they considered to be killer campaign ads featuring President Bush with images of 911, in an effort to portray him as a strong leader. These were going to define the issues and win the election. But then the New York Fire Department and others weighed in, saying you cannot use a national tragedy for political ends. The ads backfired and instantly went from indispensable tool to a scandal.
Similarly, in backing Nader’s ballot access, Republicans have helped give a national platform to his agenda of opposing the war and many progressive causes. This too could backfire if it then invigorates the left to drag the spectrum of debate toward the progressive end.
But at the heart of all this is a fundamental confusion: candidates do not decide elections, voters do. Nader’s presence on the ballot is a separate question from whether voters should vote for him. The two issues are hopelessly conflated. There is an example of this confusion at the end of Cohen’s article on Nader’s rightwing support for ballot access, cited earlier. Cohen ends it with:
“For many of us inspired by Nader's 2000 campaign, it was easy four years ago to dismiss the charge that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" as a Democratic defense of the corrupt status quo. Today, the sad reality on the ground is that a vote for Nader in these swing states is a vote for Bush's money, his organization, his rightwing activists.”
Leaving aside for the moment whether a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, it is just not true that Nader’s presence on the ballot—or that of any other candidate—constitutes a win for Republicans. It is a win for voters only, because they are given choice. It’s up to the voters to decide who wins, not the candidates. If Nader voters split the vote, the fault lies with the voter, not with Nader. We cannot have a democracy in which voters are prevented from exercising choice because we know what is best for them.
Of course, having Nader on the ballot constitutes a risk—people may not see the landscape the way those seeking to elect Kerry do, and the only choice is to convince them of the wisdom of the position. But that’s the essence of democracy: let the voters, in their wisdom and dialog with each other decide.
This is perhaps the core of the misconception: candidates should run on platforms, voters should vote their strategy. Solomon and Cohen, among many others, would have the candidates decide strategy for the voters by, in Nader’s case, pulling out of the race and limiting voter choice. That weakens rather than strengthens democracy.
I view the money that people like billionaire Dick Egan and his family have given Nader as a boost to our progressive cause. With that money, Nader is acting as a billboard for progressive politics. I cannot think of a better use of rightwing funds than to argue against their corporate agenda, and I hope Nader makes the most of this odd opportunity.
I can’t predict whether progressive swing state voters will do as the Republicans hope, vote for Nader and thereby become a factor in electing Bush. But the whole tone of the progressive attack on Nader is that the choice is “blindingly obvious,” as the Nation put it. If it is so patently obvious, then why spend so much time knocking Nader off the ballot, as the Democratic Party has tried to do relentlessly, and engaging in specious efforts to damage his reputation, as Cohen and Solomon have done? If it’s that obvious, why are there still about as many people saying they will vote Nader as did in 2000?
There are many answers to that question, as anyone who talks to would be Nader voters quickly discovers. Some are unconvinced of the difference between Kerry and Bush. Others live in safe states and realize they are free to vote how they please. Still others say it’s a matter of conscience. And I say that while ousting Bush is imperative, so is putting pressure on Kerry and building alternatives by voting for independent and third party candidates. I have detailed some of these issues in my book, and hope to make them the subject of a future column.
In any case, for a large number of would be Nader voters, the choice is more complex than his detractors make it out to be, and persuasion to vote Kerry will require real dialog. Simplistic urgings in petitions signed by luminaries don’t address these issues.
In the meantime, the whole phase of Nader fighting for ballot access is drawing to a close. Having secured his place on at least some swing states, he has strengthened democracy by putting the voters, not arcane ballot access laws designed to limit choice, in the driver’s seat. I am glad to see Nader’s progressive opponents reduced to having to get their hands dirty and convince the voters, not the candidate, about what our choices will mean for the future of the country.
Next time: What if Nader’s Critics Get What They Ask For?
Greg Bates is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion.
Other Articles by Greg Bates