Behind The Anti-Nader Attacks

by Louis Proyect

May 24, 2004   


No matter how much the liberal and social democratic disillusionment with Senator John Kerry deepens, there is still no sign that the Anyone But Bush (ABB) crowd is ready to break ranks with their candidate. Whatever fervor is missing from their endorsement of Kerry, it is more than made up for by a well-orchestrated attack on Ralph Nader -- the only clear alternative to Bush and Kerry in 2004 -- that is now reaching a fever pitch.

In the May 3rd edition of NYC's liberal Village Voice, Harry G. Levine heaped all sorts of abuse on "Ralph Nader, Suicide Bomber." Since Nader is of Lebanese descent, Levine's attack has racist overtones on top of the usual "lesser evil" sermon. For Levine, Nader's runs for President have little to do with politics, but are just exercises in personal ambition: "Hand it to Nader -- he ran a brilliant campaign, approaching the loony task of punishing the Democrats by defeating Al Gore with typical hyper-rationality. A mad scientist in both senses of 'mad,' he devoted his enormous skills, knowledge, and reputation to a bizarre personal agenda. Nothing he has said since indicates he thinks he made a mistake."

It is singularly indicative of the ABB mindset that there is not one single mention of John Kerry in the entire article, nor the word Iraq. With the inability of the Democratic candidate to excite the liberal left (Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway has urged Kerry publicly to step down), why not flail away at Nader? And if you cannot find anything seriously wrong with his program, accuse him of personal ambition -- a fault that no sensible liberal would find in the Democratic Party standard-bearer.

Although Nader ran as the Green Party candidate in 1996 and 2000, he is running as an independent this year. The simple explanation is that after liberals began using Nader as a scapegoat for Gore's loss, the Green leaders caved in. The Greens are torn between two poles politically. On one hand, they seek to challenge the Democrats around a range of domestic and international issues. On the other, they are anxious not to alienate the rather large milieu of nonprofit staffers, professional peace activists, feminists, trade union officials and intellectuals who have made support for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 a litmus test for the left.

Nader himself initially appeared susceptible to this message. In July of 2003, Nader was advising Democrats to vote for Kucinich in the primaries, stating that "there would be less reason" for him to run if Kucinich won the Democratic nomination. He was also favorably disposed toward Howard Dean, telling The Wall Street Journal: "Reading his position papers sounds eerily similar to what we've been saying. He speaks clearly ... not in Senate-ese ... and projects vigor. We need a macho Democrat."

After Dean had been eliminated and Kucinich safely marginalized by the Democratic Party establishment, the field was left to Kerry and John Edwards, neither of whom could be regarded as true to the Democratic Party ideals that Nader himself identified with. Most importantly, neither candidate would commit to a US withdrawal from Iraq -- something that transcended the sort of safe, bread-and-butter issues they felt comfortable speechifying about. In the moral calculus of the ABB contingent, it appeared that increased health care benefits might make up for the killing of more than 10,000 Iraqis.

After Nader announced his candidacy last February, it became obvious why he could not rely on Green Party support. To begin with, the Greens had decided to hold a convention in June of 2004 where a candidate might be chosen from a pool of front-runners. It was obvious to Nader that an effective campaign could not be mounted if it was put off until this late date.

Even more to the point, the Greens would not commit to a full-bore campaign in 2004 for fear that they would once again be blamed for helping to elect George W. Bush. They crafted a "safe state" strategy that would make sure that their friends in the Democratic Party would see them as reasonable and not suicide bombers like Ralph Nader. It is entirely likely that David Cobb will be the Green Party candidate in 2004. He now has 143 delegates committed to him, just a month before their convention. Peter Camejo, who supports Nader, is second with 103.

Cobb has promised not to run in so-called "swing states" where votes for a Green might tip the scales in Bush's favor. A Cobb strategy paper stipulates that this policy would be abandoned if the Democrats nominate a "pro-war, corporate-friendly conservative" candidate. Inexplicably, Kerry does not fall into this category. Like the Village Voice, Cobb questions Nader's motivation this time around. According to a New Mexican newspaper article on his website, Cobb describes Nader as having "no apparent goal" and taking contributions from "thinly veiled racists" to boot.

This is a serious charge, but one that fits in with all the other mud being flung at Nader. Much is now being made that he is running on the Reform Party ballot line. In the Feb. 27-Mar. 4 L.A. Weekly, Doug Ireland makes an amalgam between Nader and the New Alliance Party in N.Y., a cult that has taken over the Reform Party and that "morphed into supporters of Pat Buchanan in the Hitler-coddling commentator's 2000 takeover of the Reform Party."

Although it would be better if Nader ran as a Green, there is little alternative except running on the Reform Party line in 2004, given the exigencies of electoral laws in the U.S. Rather then seeing this as dictated by circumstances, Kerry supporter Doug Henwood characterizes this as a culmination of a rightwing agenda that was apparent in 1962, when Nader wrote an article attacking federally funded public housing in a libertarian journal called The Freeman.

Contrary to Doug Henwood, there is stronger evidence from four years earlier identifying Nader as a leftwing critic of the two-party system. Co-written with Theodore Jacobs for the October 9, 1958 Harvard Law Record, the authors raise the question: "Do Third Parties Have a Chance?" They write:
This is no place to catalogue the contributions of minority parties in American history. Their importance, as any history text will attest, has been far greater than their size.

Herman Singer, editor of the Socialist Call, spoke of history when he stated that "minor parties have, by and large, contributed to American political life by submitting criticism, offering suggestions and challenging the values of existing parties, thus contributing toward the expansion of political discussion."

At a minimum, minor parties have many times in our history deeply stirred opinion and illuminated the murky atmosphere of politics with a flash of idealism. From the standpoint of the electorate, this is bound to have substantial educative value.
Evidently, people like Harry G. Levine, Doug Ireland and Doug Henwood see little value in illuminating the murky atmosphere of politics with a flash of idealism. They would much prefer to see an uncontested John Kerry coast to victory, even with the likes of John McCain as his running mate. With the eyes and ears of the nation riveted on the election campaign this year, they prefer that a candidate who favors withdrawal from Iraq, the rights of gay people to get married, single-payer health insurance for all, repeal of the Patriot Act, etc., to shut up and go away. This would leave the race in the hands of two candidates who not only disagree with Nader on these questions, but his ABB critics as well.

In 2000 there were few such critics of Nader, mainly because the Democrats were the incumbent party. It was widely assumed that Gore would coast to victory on the coattails of Bill Clinton, who had been the first Democrat since FDR to serve more than one term. When Gore proved to be such a wooden and inept candidate, voters chose Bush with help from the Supreme Court. Of course, if Gore had simply carried his own state of Tennessee and Clinton's Arkansas, then he would have been free to continue the Clintonian legacy of neoliberalism and "humanitarian" intervention abroad, just as Kerry pledges to do so today. Instead, the liberal left decided to scapegoat Nader.

If you probe beneath the surface of the Nader controversy, you will soon discover that the differences reflect a deeper divergence between the radical and liberal left in the U.S. over a range of questions. Over the past ten years or so, it has been divided over Yugoslavia, the direction of the Pacifica radio network, whether to withdraw immediately from Iraq or not, etc. Although it is doubtful that Nader sees his candidacy as fitting into this larger picture, others have.

In an October 20, 2003 article titled "The Dirty War of the Tough-Minded Liberals: Democrats Seek to Disappear Chomsky & Nader" (http://www.counterpunch.org/hand10202003.html), Mark Hand mapped out the terrain. Zeroing in on Michael Tomasky, a hysterical opponent of Nader and proponent of bombing the Serbs back into the Stone Age, Hand comments:
Tomasky is the new executive editor of American Prospect, the house organ for such tough-minded liberals of the Democratic Party as Robert Kuttner, Paul Starr, Robert Reich and Bill Moyers. Prior to taking over as executive editor of TAP in September, Tomasky wrote an attention-grabbing treatise in July on the proper methods for stamping out the voices of political parties that might siphon votes away from the chosen candidates of the Democratic Party.

Tomasky attacks the Green Party for daring to consider running a candidate in the 2004 race, what Democrats are promoting as the most important presidential election in U.S. history -- because the marketing message, "Vote for the lesser of two evils," didn't work in 2000. The Democrats want to scare those leftists who are disgruntled the two-party system into voting for whomever is the nominee of the Democratic Party. Unlike many people attracted to the democratic political message of the Green Party, Tomasky takes pride in the fact that he and his fellow TMLers [tough-minded liberals] have had the decency not to abandon the Democratic Party.
If anything, it is remarkable that so many liberals broke ranks with the Democrats in 2000 and endorsed Nader. This, perhaps, is as much a testimony to the unsavoriness of Al Gore as it is to Nader's appeal. However, seen in a broader historical context, this was the exception to the rule of a "lesser evil" politics that has gripped much of the left since the 1970s. Despite the wholesale rejection of the Democratic Party by the 1960s generation of radicals, the 1970s were marked by a steady retreat from this position and a growing accommodation with the party that brought on the Vietnam War in the first place.

A good deal of responsibility for this should be put at the doorstep of intellectuals grouped around Dissent Magazine who were intervening in the milieu of New Leftists who felt chastened by the breakup of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other traumas from this period and persuaded them to return to the fold. Since there were fortunes (modest to be sure) to be made as Democratic Party flunkies, this was an attractive pitch. Why knock your head against the wall trying to persuade working people to break with the capitalist parties when you could get a good job as a journalist or with an inside-the-beltway think-tank preaching moderation and good sense? In "Prisoners of the American Dream," Mike Davis describes what was happening at the time:
From the McGovern candidacy of 1972, however, sections of the former New Left, together with a younger cohort of 1970s activists, began to slip back into Democratic politics, initially on a local level. At first there was no sharp ideological break with the sixties' legacy. The 'New Polities', as it was typed, seemed just another front of the anti-war movement or another tactical extension of the urban populism espoused by SDS's community organizing faction. By 1975, with the sudden end of the Vietnam War, a strategic divergence had become more conspicuous. On the one hand, an array of self-proclaimed 'cadre' groups, inspired by the heroic mold of 1930s radicalism, were sending their ex-student members into the factories in the hope of capturing and radicalizing the widespread rank-and-file discontent that characterized the end of the postwar boom. On the other hand, another network of ex-SDSers and antiwar activists -- of whom Tom Hayden was merely a belated and media-hyped example -- were building local influence within the Democratic 'reform movement': the loose collocation of consumer, environmental and public-sector groups, supported by a few progressive unions, that had survived the McGovern debacle.
Although it is very difficult to anticipate the ultimate impact of the Nader candidacy in 2004, it is safe to say that it is a necessary corrective to the sorry retreat of some 1960s activists. Ultimately, what will make this type of initiative successful is a powerful mass movement that can confront the ruling elite and its twin parties across a spectrum of social and political issues. With the continuing debacle in Iraq, rising gas prices, a jobless economic recovery and other problems generated by the capitalist system itself, our wait might not be too long.

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Published May 24, 2004
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