Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links
The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #74, October 1996. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
After every exercise in Clinton-bashing that's appeared in this newsletter, we hear from readers who say something like, "Who do you want, Dole?" This happens even when the argument made is that Clinton in many ways not the lesser evil, because he can get away with things - passing NAFTA, repealing welfare, destroying 100,000 units of public housing, and privatizing Social Security - that a Republican might not be able to pull off.
So what is to be done on November 5? The purest thing to do would be to stay home, or vote for some estimable but doomed minor party candidate. But that may be too pure an approach. Voters in at least 22 states will have a chance to pull a lever for a candidate who is doomed but hardly obscure - Ralph Nader. There's a lot to be said for that choice, though not without very substantial reservations.
Nader's positives are obvious enough. He's very smart, serious, and principled. His twin themes, the hypertrophy of corporate power and the monetary perversion of democracy, are indisputably the core themes of any broad "progressive" mobilization. The populist right has made hay with them while liberals have been foolishly inventing apologies for Clinton. (There's no more absurd example of that than the latest one: re-electing Clinton is the only hope for "fixing" the welfare bill, as if he weren't responsible for the damn thing in the first place.) Nader sounds those themes without Buchanan's racism and xenophobia - which is probably why Buchanan got TV time, and Nader can't; it's always safer for our rulers to channel class anger into bigotry. That, and the fact that Nader means his anticorporate rhetoric, while the millionaire Buchanan didn't.
But that contrast indirectly brings up the first of the unpleasant reservations about Nader: his refusal to address any of what pundits call the social issues. While Buchanan thrives on them, Nader is silent. He refuses to comment on abortion or affirmative action, and ducks any discussion of race relations, surely one of the most important political issues of the last, oh, 200 years. And he's rather repellently dismissed concerns about gay and lesbian rights as "gonadal politics," as if they weren't fundamental issues of both civil rights and human social life.
And that contemptuous dismissal of gonads leads to another reservation about Nader: his humorless, hair-shirt personality. Of course, his joylessness is his own concern, but it informs his politics, which exude an austerity that sharply limits his appeal, mainly to the affluent and the voluntarily poor. Successful politicians, mainstream or radical, have to project optimism and a sense of liberation, rather than a hectoring tone that seems to promise only self-denial.
For a campaign, if you can call it that, that foregrounds economic issues, Nader's economic analysis is actually quite thin. In fact, he's a prisoner of his own legalistic view of the world. He devoted over 1,000 words of his over-15,000-word acceptance speech to the beauties of litigation. He asked his audience, rhetorically, if they realized that "the two pillars of the American legal system are the Law of Torts and the Law of Contracts." Now of course he wasn't celebrating the right of one firm to sue another, but of citizens to sue corporations that wrong them. But he has far less to say about the systemic imperatives that lead corporations to manufacture exploding cars and to poison rivers - the drive to lower costs and fatten profits. Litigation is an individualized solution to broad economic and social conflicts whose proper arena is politics, not the courtroom.
If Nader has ever ventured into serious economic analysis, he's kept the result well hidden. He denounces monopoly and promotes competition, without much apparent understanding of what these terms mean. There's little question that the economic scene today is more competitive than it was 20 or 40 years ago. Then, during the Golden Age, price leaders like U.S. Steel and GM set the terms for their industries, and smaller firms followed their cue; now, those orderly mechanisms have been replaced by a war of each against all. This is not to argue for a return to oligopoly, but it is to say that capitalist competition is a very nasty business. The increase in competition has resulted not only in an assault on labor and nature, but in an increasingly coarsened, atomized culture. Do Nader and his supporters really want to turn up the heat on that?
Now, Nader talks like a big friend of labor, but his history is a bit more complicated. In the early 1970s, his Raiders' work on transportation regulation treated unionized airline and trucking workers as among the beneficiaries of government-sanctioned monopolies; that work contributed importantly to the movement for deregulation of these industries, with disastrous effects on workers, later in the decade.
Closer to home, Nader was the prime mover in a very ugly tale about a publication he founded, Multinational Monitor. In 1984, he fired then-editor Tim Shorrock (an occasional contributor to LBO), allegedly for running a story on Bechtel's alleged bribery of South Korean officials to get construction contracts without getting Nader's approval. (So much for editorial independence.) But the sacking came after a long history of fights between Nader and Shorrock over near-sweatshop working conditions as well as editorial policy, with Nader, among other things, objecting to Shorrock's attempts to link CIA behavior to the interests of multinationals.
Shorrock was given three months to leave. In response, he and two colleagues organized a campaign to get reinstated, and, as Shorrock told LBO, they
enlisted the support of a number of writers, union activists and subscribers. Nader refused to meet with the group or even acknowledge its existence. Finally, our staff decided to ask for union recognition, and filed papers with Nader and the National Labor Relations Board. Within 24 hours, the locks on our offices had been changed and I was fired - by Nader's closest aides, who had been conveniently "given" the magazine as a free gift by Nader. In the next two weeks, the rest of the staff was laid off (and never rehired). From that point on, the Monitor became a scab publication.
But we kept up the fight, filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB and kept pestering Nader and his surrogates with protest letters and petitions. Then Nader retaliated: first, his aides tried to get the Washington, D.C., police to arrest me for stealing files. The case was thrown out of court. So we went public, and took our story to the Washington Post. Shortly thereafter, Nader's aides filed a $1.2 million civil suit against myself, the ex-staffers of the Monitor and one of our supporters from the Institute for Policy Studies, on the charge that we had tried to "destroy their business."
Eventually, a settlement was reached: we dropped the NLRB case, they dropped the suit. But the damage was done. Like the corporations he abhors, Nader won his fight through heavy-handed tactics and intimidation. No union was ever formed at the Monitor, and business went on. "I don't think there is a role for unions in small non-profit 'cause' organizations any more than...within a monastery or within a union," Nader told the Washington Post on June 28, 1984.
The Monitor story is not unique: around the same time, a much bigger union drive was squelched at Public Citizen, the largest of the Nader organizations....
A couple things I would add. First, Nader's campaign against me was incredibly vicious. His top aides spread all kinds of rumors about me in Washington and managed to get me pretty well blacklisted from the public interest crowd (which actually was a good thing). They even tried to convince people I was a communist (!!!) out to subvert Nader's organizations.
Ralph Nader may look like a democrat, smell like a populist, and sound like a socialist - but deep down he's a frightened, petit bourgeois moralizer without a political compass, more concerned with his image than the movement he claims to lead: in short, an opportunist, a liberal hack. And a scab.
Ancient history? Perhaps. But Shorrock's final characterization of Nader helps explain the bizarre non-campaign he's been conducting - the nominee of a party whose platform he's distanced himself from and a candidate who essentially refuses to promote himself or his cause. Why is he doing this?
Speculation abounds on just why Nader is refusing to campaign actively - why he's limiting his expenditures to the preposterous sum of $5,000, and why he refuses to lend his name to independent committees organizing on his behalf. Here's some of the buzz. One, Nader and his satellite organizations have a long history of going it alone; people who've worked on trade and financial issues, for example, have frequently complained that Nader & Co. refuse to enter coalitions, and even try to steal the limelight - a direct contradiction of his modest claims about not wanting to foster a cult of personality. Two, he doesn't want to alienate his Public Citizen donor base, which is heavily Democratic, and might be offended by anything that would threaten Clinton's re-election. And three, he doesn't want to disclose his financial affairs because he really does depend heavily on the support of trial lawyers, just as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal claim, an admission that might be very damaging to his image. Of course, mainstream politicians are paid for by forces even more sinister than lawyers, but no one expects more of them than that. But for a guy who's made a career out of demanding openness from others, it's strange for Nader to cling to his privacy.
So, having strung together over a thousand words on what's wrong with Nader, why will this screed conclude with a recommendation to vote for him? Well, there are the positives that were enumerated 1,360 words ago: he's smart, dedicated, and principled (even allowing for Shorrock's experience), and his central themes are central to any broadly "progressive" mobilization. Just having him at the periphery of the campaign keeps those issues alive, despite the best efforts of the two-party state to quash them. Sufficient votes for Nader could double the number of states where the Green Party has a permanent ballot line. The Greens are far from ideal; they seem to embrace disorder as an organizing principle, as proof of their authenticity.Still, it's a step towards dismantling of the present duopoly, and therefore much to be welcomed.
For liberals and lefties contemplating a vote for Clinton, one has to ask what is the breaking point: just how far right can he push the party without any electoral punishment - how many people will he have to impoverish, stigmatize, surveil, and jail before it's just too much, before the "lesser" evil becomes indistinguishable from the greater? Will whacking Medicare and privatizing Social Security do the trick? Or will it be too late to matter by then?
Whether you're inspired by a real enthusiasm for Nader, or merely want to lodge a defensible, effective protest vote, pulling the lever for Ralph where you can, or writing in his name where you can't, is probably the best you can do in 1996.
Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links