The Observer (UK) November 12, 2000 What Did the Nader Campaign Accomplish? By Christopher Hitchens Here are some reasons to be glad that Ralph Nader put himself forward for the presidency: 1. He broke America's dirtiest and least-known secret, which is that the high-sounding "Electoral College" system is designed to keep the rabble from picking the President. 2. He broke America's second-dirtiest and best-known secret, which is that the voting process in many states - especially the state of Carl Hiassen - is tainted by corruption and manipulation. 3. He exposed the pretensions of the two major party machines, both of which covertly agree on these "rules" as long as they can share the spoils. 4. He showed it is still possible to run an intelligent and articulate campaign, using free and informal rather than paid media, while refusing any donation of more than $1,000 in a year when $3 billion, in so-called "soft" but actually illegal money, was raised and spent by the two presumptive and dynastic nominees. 5. He made a fool of the commercial media networks, all of which take the aforementioned money in advertising revenue and all of which not only misrepresented the issues in the race but messed up the one thing they are supposed to get "right" - the foreordained and poll-driven result. These, and some other things I"ll mention in a moment, make Nader the most successful and necessary American radical for decades. Yet all you hear from Al Gore's outriders and dummy- ventriloquists is that he "spoilt" things for their man. This is a ridiculous noise, compounded of self-pity and a "spoilt" sense of entitlement. Here are some obvious correctives to it: 1. In a year when the Democrats campaigned against an unpopular Republican Congress, they failed to retake either the Senate or the House. (And, in the most salient seats they did hold or take, they relied on a dead man on the ballot and on a man who spent a record $60 million of his own personal fortune.) The Green Party was not running for Congress. But if it had been, the Democrats would still have blamed Nader rather than themselves for the defeat. 2. Gore lost several key states (including his own home state of Tennessee where the Nader vote was negligible) by several other "margins". These include: (a) The almost 100 million Americans he could not get to vote for him. (b) The number of people who are disenfranchised because of non-violent narcotics convictions (estimated in Florida and elsewhere to number 13 per cent of the adult black male population, alone). (c) The number of people who voted for Pat Buchanan's ill-named Reform Party. Gore could not motivate the first group. He loudly approves of the "War on Drugs" that incarcerates and then disenfranchises the second. And nobody - certainly no Republican - ever said Buchanan had no business running on his own programme. It is only in liberal circles that one hears party pluralism denounced as something akin to treason or sabotage. The Veep's hacks ignore all the above factors and blame the crisis on those voters who decided to think for themselves (to vote for Nader, for example, because he is the only candidate who favours decriminalising marijuana and abolishing capital punishment). A few months ago there was a convention of American political scientists in my home town of Washington. They unveiled a new "model" of the American electoral mindset, and announced confidently that in a year like this the Vice President could not be beaten. No Republican challenger, they said, could hope to prevail at a time of huge prosperity at home and peace overseas. I thought this might be too complacent, but not by that much. And still Gore managed to blow it, and to make himself vulnerable to one of the most mediocre candidates in US history. He cannot whine about this; not after failing in Tennessee. Yet in the tones of his partisans one can hear an aggrieved intolerance. On election night at a party thrown by Miramax, some were overheard by the Washington Post to say they would like to "kill", not Bush or Buchanan, but Ralph Nader. The newly anointed Senatorial First Lady, in whose honour the party was thrown, echoed the thought. I have heard the same thing, in the same words, all over the airwaves and on my email, from clapped-out liberal journos and those who hoped for a job from Gore. These types ornamented the top-dollar "fundraising" events and "meet'n'greet" soirees with Hollywood's deep thinkers; their annoyance is music to my ears. They thought they had bought a share in "the process" and found the share (and much of the process) was worthless. High time. Take one example. For eight years Gore abased himself for Clinton and uttered abject defences he knew to be untrue. Then on two occasions in the campaign, he announced he was suddenly "distanced" from all that and had miraculously become "my own man". Well, it's one thing to say it, big boy, and another thing to be it. Exit polls, most notably in Florida, discovered a huge number of voters who were disgusted by Clinton and Clintonism. These people have a right to vote, too. And what does Gore tell them? "Didn't you hear me? I distinctly said I was 'distanced'." Come on. This would not be the only time this terrible candidate mistook his own spin for reality. After the Los Angeles convention he abruptly announced he was a foe of fat cats and big corporations and a friend of the "people" and the little guy. But the logos and the donations of corporate America were displayed all over the convention and paid for his campaign. Who did he imagine he was fooling? As with his excruciating performance in the three public "debates", it was enough to irritate the Republicans, but it was also enough to make people in the centre feel embarrassed and people on the left feel sick. And after this, to pose as if it's simply your turn to be President. The achievement of Nader, however, is far more than the exposure of this phoney politics. From now on two crucial matters will be established in the American mind. First, the Electoral College system must be reformed or abolished to give expression to the popular vote. This will also compel a reconsideration of the small state/swing state tyranny, whereby small and rural states outvote large, populous, urban and multi-ethnic ones. That is several decades overdue. Second, the issue of ballot-rigging and voter fraud, almost undiscussed since Kennedy's crimes in 1960, is now unavoidable. The next election will have to be "transparent". Neither major party would have mentioned either of these things if the vote had fallen "their" way, or either of their ways. Again, Nader was the only man running who dared say the process itself was undemocratic. Now US citizens can begin to catch up with Mexico and Serbia by insisting on an open election instead of a pre-arranged and money-driven plebiscite. While the Florida factor remains in play, let us recall two things the Gore ticket did to try to take this bizarre state. Earlier this year the US courts ruled that young Elian Gonzalez, survivor of a shipwreck that drowned his mother, should be returned to his father's custody in Cuba. Some Cuban exile extremists then in effect kidnapped him, and the mayor of Miami announced in a crowd-pleasing way he would not comply with the court order. It was the most flagrant assertion of "states' rights" against the federal government since the days of segregation. Gore's contribution, as a senior member of that federal government, was to announce he sympathised with the kidnappers. This gross irresponsibility and pandering was repeated last month when Senator Joseph Lieberman paid a visit to Miami, announced that a Gore administration would never open diplomatic relations with Cuba, and laid a wreath on the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa, a leading Miami Cuban mobster. This put him and the Vice President in a position well to the right of the last Bush administration. But more important, it showed they are small-timers, cheap ward- heelers and unscrupulous opportunists. There was a remark much-repeated at the beginning of this dismal campaign, when it became evident the large donors had already determined on the two nominees. "If only," people said "they could both lose." This wry comment was heard through the attenuated primaries, the fixed conventions and the scripted "debates". Well, now they both have lost. And they are both looking, and acting, like the peevish third-raters they are. Confronted by two such pygmies it would be overstating matters to call Nader a giant-slayer. But the system for all its faults does allow for insurgent candidates to make a difference and one should be grateful rather than irritable that, in this respect at least, the system worked. ---- Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for "Vanity Fair" and "The Nation". His latest book, "No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family" is published in paperback by Verso.
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