[sixties-l] Re: Nader Fiasco

From: Richard Schneirov (hischnei@ruby.indstate.edu)
Date: 11/27/00

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    As a historian I can't help but bring up two historical parallels to the 
    recent Nader campaign.  One occurred in 1930s Germany when the Communist 
    Party took a "principled" revolutionary stance and refused to unite with 
    the Socialists (the liberal compromisers of that time) to stop Hitler.  
    The combined vote of the Communists and the Socialists would have been 
    enough to deprive Hitler of power.  But, the Communists refused to have 
    anything to do with the Socialists whom they derided as "Social 
    Fascists." The Communists argued that voters should take the long run 
    point of view, hence their slogan, "After Hitler, Us."  The rest, as they 
    say is history.
    But, of course, Nader and his supporters are not Communists, and neither 
    is Bush a Hitler.  Perhaps an American example would make the point 
    clearer.  In 1840 and again in 1844 a group of "principled" abolitionists 
    left the Whig party and nominated James Birney for President.  In the 
    1844 election Birney polled enough votes in New York and Michigan to 
    defeat the Whig candidate Henry Clay and give the election to the 
    Democrat James Polk.  Polk proceeded to do exactly what antislavery 
    forces feared: provoke a war with Mexico that eventually was used by 
    pro-slavery forces to annex land adjacent to slaveholding states.   
    What the two cases have in common is that in refusing to make compromises 
    with potential allies in the name of maintaining purity, small groups on 
    the left wing of the more progressive party ended up bringing disaster on 
    their causes.
    Is the lesson to always maintain unity with one's allies at all costs? 
    Not necessarily.  Let's briefly return to the pre-Civil War era.  With 
    the annexation of the Mexican cession lands, a third party grew up, the 
    Free Soil Party, to protest the expansion of slavery into the 
    territories.  Six years later that party gave way to the Republican 
    Party.  And as we know, the Republican Party led the nation through a 
    Civil War that ultimately abolished slavery.  But the Free Soil and 
    Republican parties were different in several ways from the old Liberty 
    Party.  First, both eschewed moralism and appealed to "interest."  And, 
    most importantly, each party was positioned to attract voters of the two 
    major parties.  That is, they were positioned BETWEEN the two parties.  
    When a group of voters can position themselves between two closely 
    divided parties, they can have great power in a two party, "first past 
    the gate, winner take all" system.  One only has to look at the case of 
    Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and how the issues he championed have become 
    nationally viable.  To go back to the Civil War era, the Republicans 
    attracted Free Soil or Western Democrats and Conscience and Know-Nothing 
    Whigs to fashion a winning coalition in 1860 and thus bring slavery into 
    American politics as a viable issue.
    Where does the Nader campaign fit in all this? The Nader campaign took 
    the majority of its voters (though not all), from the Democrats.  They 
    were not a major attraction for Republican voters.  All estimates make it 
    clear that Nader cost (it seems now) Gore Forida and the election.   
    Hence, the Nader campaign, unlike the Free Soil and Republican parties, 
    was counterproductive electorally.  Nader voters hurt their closest 
    friends and helped their enemies.    
    But, sometimes the lessons of history have to be relearned. 
    Richard Schneirov
    Dept of History
    Indiana State University    

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