[sixties-l] Nader and the Politics of Fear

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat Feb 24 2001 - 00:05:54 EST

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    March 12, 2001

    Nader and the Politics of Fear



    Mention his name in the House Democratic caucus and Ralph Nader draws
    spontaneous boos. Among party regulars, many assume that the anger and the
    regrets lingering from Election 2000 effectively put an end to the "Nader
    moment." Every right turn by George W. Bush reminds people that Nader's
    Green Party vote of 2.7 percent deprived Albert Gore of a clean victory.
    Even some erstwhile supporters are grumbling about Nader's postelection
    silence, depicting a weird recluse who's not even talking to old friends.
    Representative Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, had a different
    idea. He invited Nader in for a friendly chat in early February and began
    by congratulating him for running "a terrific campaign." According to
    Nader, Gephardt was especially impressed by the superrallies the Green
    campaign organized in city after city, filling large arenas with
    enthusiastic young people who paid $10 or $20 to cheer Nader's dense litany
    of progressive policy issues. Nobody is paying to hear us talk about
    policy, Gephardt observed.
    Under the circumstances, it seems wiser to talk than to shun. The
    Democratic Party is now in the full
    wilderness, complete minority status for the first time since the early
    1950s, and this fallen condition
    opens space for a different, more fractious kind of party politics. Where
    are the Democrats?
    "Castaways," said Representative Dennis Kucinich, new chair of the
    Progressive Caucus. "We're back
    on the island, learning to make fires.... What happened for the last eight
    years was the Democrats
    exchanged principles for polling data."
    As the minority party, Democrats are likely to experience the pressures of
    politics, unscripted and unstable, in which numerous irregular voices claim
    the right to clash with the elected establishment over the party's
    direction and core beliefs. Democratic senators got a first taste when
    their frontline constituencies mobilized against John Ashcroft for Attorney
    General. They coaxed or bludgeoned forty-two Democrats into voting against
    their former colleague (none of the senators dreaming of a future
    presidential candidacy dared to vote for him). At a Washington conference
    on February 28, the Campaign for America's Future launches its blueprint
    for progressive ideas and action, "The Next Agenda," which describes
    leading-edge strategies for achieving universal healthcare, sustainable
    economics and other forward-looking goals (reminiscent of the Heritage
    Foundation's long-established guidebook for conservative thinking). Inside
    Congress, the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus agitate for stronger
    principles and stiffer backbones.
    Nader and the Greens, though outsiders, are among the more distant elements
    of the grassroots who intend to exert influence, supportive or threatening,
    toward restoration of a more substantial Democratic Party. Nader told
    Gephardt he expects Greens to run as many as eighty Congressional
    candidates in 2002, nearly twice their list this past year. Some of these,
    he said, will be challenging comfortable Republicans like Representatives
    Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, the House leaders who are used to enjoying a free
    ride in Texas. "At least, it will send them a message from back home when
    they think it's a lifetime job," Nader explained to him. But, of course,
    Greens will also target Gephardt's own Democrats. "We didn't talk about
    that," Nader said. "He understood, though, that this is about
    party-building. To build a party, you're not going to help the other guy
    win." Gephardt's office confirmed the meeting, but declined to discuss
    Nader and the Greens are a problem for Democrats, but might also be a
    useful asset, a force for stoking popular resistance to the party's
    rightward drift, drawing new voters and energy into the electoral process,
    test-marketing advanced issues Democrats are still afraid to touch, perhaps
    even encouraging party discipline. "I told him I'm going to continue to
    help build the Green Party," Nader said, "and, where there are no Green
    candidates running, the spillover vote is likely to help the Democratic
    candidate, and the Democrats ought to recognize that." In 2000, the Green
    vote was decisive in defeating at least one Democratic House candidate in
    Michigan and dangerously close in one or two other districts. On the other
    hand, the Green turnout clearly helped elect Maria Cantwell to the Senate
    from Washington State and probably saved a couple of House Democrats in
    very close California races. Nader directed his personal fire at several
    right-wing Republicans, who lost. He also thinks Green voters helped
    Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow defeat hard-right incumbent Spencer
    Abraham (now Bush's Energy Secretary) and could have helped more if the
    Dems had pointed them to the most promising contests. Nader and Gephardt
    talked about the missed opportunities last year. It would be helpful, the
    two agreed, to consult more closely in the future.
    If the cozy talk rankles those many Democrats who loathe Nader, they should
    consider the possibility that it reflects their new condition. A minority
    party, utterly without governing power, finds itself scolded by unrepentant
    outsiders and can't blithely turn them away, if it wishes to grow.
    Five-term Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who won as a party
    outsider herself, observed: "My ability to get elected has always relied on
    nontraditional people, bringing new people, new supporters in the process,
    so every new voter the Green Party attracts is a potential new voter for
    me. The whole idea of progressives, I thought, was to have more people
    participating, not fewer. I absolutely understand the frustration of young
    people who feel alienated from a Democratic Party that looks like a
    Republican Party, especially that feeds at the same trough."
    If Democrats manage to win back the House and Senate in '02 (a good bet if
    a severe recession unfolds), they might brush aside such critics. But, if
    not, Democrats will have to learn how to think like a minority, taking
    bigger risks because they have nothing to lose. When the Republican Party
    endured in this wilderness, its ideological reconstruction was a long and
    very nasty affair. The energetic outsiders were true-blue conservatives who
    assailed the old guard and occasionally defeated their incumbents in
    primaries or as third-party challengers. The uncompromising right-wing
    ideologues were relentless and harsh, regarded in GOP circles as the
    "frothers" and "ankle-biters," but they had real impact in pulling the
    party rightward. Think of Ralph Nader as a vigorous new ankle-biter from
    the left.
    Nader compares the Greens' potential to the electoral leverage the
    Christian right exerts over the Republican Party. "The Democrats are just
    not used to dealing with any leverage from the left," he said. "They're
    used to saying to progressives: Shut up, you've got nowhere else to go."
    This comparison sounds a bit self-inflated (as insurgent leaders often
    sound) and certainly it's far ahead of present facts. The Greens are
    growing but lack anything close to the popular base assembled by the TV
    preachers and allied groups. Indeed, the Greens barely exist as an
    organized party, though Nader has great confidence that young people will
    develop a more muscular organization. The 900 college coordinators from his
    campaign are launching Campus Greens to continue the party recruiting and
    to build active chapters on campus (in truth, mobilized young people could
    take over large chunks of the Democratic Party where state and local
    organizations are moribund). Nader doesn't have a developed electoral
    strategy for ^A'02, not yet anyway, but at this point even the major parties
    cannot think strategically until state-by-state redistricting determines
    which seats are safe, which are in play. Still, Nader did not disappear, as
    some believe, and by his count has held nine press conferences since the
    election, along with four Green Party fundraisers, and he makes the rounds
    of TV chat shows.
    Nader could flop, of course, or fail to deliver on his expansive ambitions.
    If one were designing the leader for an insurgent third party, Nader would
    probably not be the model. He is not a political animal in terms of the
    human sensibilities successful pols usually exude, an acute empathy for how
    others are reacting to him, the neediness for personal affection. He has no
    real experience in electoral politics, aside from initiative
    campaigns. His singular strength of character, the tenacity to go it
    alone, is a bad fit with the everyday give-and-take of running campaigns or
    building a real organization.
    Y et Al Gore and the Dems did not help themselves last year by
    underestimating Nader
    and the young people around him. At the eleventh hour, the attacks and
    warnings from party regulars succeeded in scaring off roughly half of
    Nader's potential voters, but an odd bounce occurred in some postelection
    polling. In late November, a Zogby International poll reported that 6
    percent claimed to have voted for Nader (twice his actual vote). In late
    December, another poll found 10 percent claiming they had voted for
    him. One shouldn't make too much of this. Some voters typically
    misrepresent themselves afterward, but usually they pretend they voted for
    the winner, not for someone who finished a distant third. Possibly, the
    Nader moment left a stronger afterglow than Washington yet recognizes.
    Nader has two essential strengths going for him.
    First, his ideas. The issues Nader articulates connect intensely with
    left-liberal activists and organizations at the grassroots, but are not
    ready for prime time, so far as the Democratic Party can see. Or they may
    even be dangerously liberal. The "living wage" campaign that has swept the
    country. Food safety and the concentration of production by agribusiness.
    The deformities in criminal law, including draconian drug sentences and the
    death penalty. The
    malfunctioning electoral system, beyond voting machines, which requires
    representational reforms
    like "instant runoff" voting. The archaic and bloated national security
    state. The federal subsidies to
    companies that abuse their own work forces, not to mention the environment.
    The overbearing influence of financial markets and corporate power. Nader
    says he reminded Gephardt: "The Greens actually have a more legitimate
    platform for the old Democratic Party than the Democratic Party does."
    Nader's other great asset is the Democratic Party. It is more profoundly
    divided than the Congressional numbers suggest, torn between serving money
    patrons and responding to its voting constituencies, and utterly without
    the means of imposing party discipline. Most Democratic incumbents are not
    deeply threatened by their party's fallen status, since they raise money
    and run largely on their own, even gain contributors and favorable press by
    going against the party on large matters. Thus, among senior liberals, 2001
    feels a lot like 1981, when the Reagan White House cherry-picked Democratic
    votes to enact its right-wing agenda. The defections have already begun.
    Instead of "Boll Weevils," the white Southern renegades who voted with the
    Reaganites, the potential defectors are now among the thirty-strong Blue
    Dogs or the sixty business-friendly New Democrats associated with the
    Democratic Leadership Council. The faithful labor-liberal vote in the
    Senate is even weaker than in the House. The DLC roster exaggerates its
    influence (since some members sign up for political cover and fundraising),
    but it wagged the dog during the Clinton years, insisting on a mushy agenda
    that did not upset business and finance. Leaders complied to keep everyone
    on the same page.
    Nader thinks Greens can help break up the party's passive strategy, at
    least discomfort it, first by identifying core-issue roll calls as "the
    markers" and then going after the incumbents who ignore them. "The marker
    is: Are the Democrats really going to fight?" he said. "If they really
    fought, they could stop Bush on anything, we know that. But, they will say,
    'Oh no, you don't understand about the Blue Dogs or the DLC.' Well, if they
    don't have party discipline on these major issues, then you don't really
    have a party. They shouldn't say, 'We, the Democratic Party, are better on
    this and that.' Don't talk about the Democratic Party, it's two parties."
    This blunt-nosed analysis sounds naive, and terribly unfair, to insiders
    familiar with the reality of intraparty divisions. Yet, if Democrats do
    disappoint energized constituencies on major matters, the Greens will have
    good talking points for recruiting.
    The Progressive Caucus, though a minority within the minority, is sounding
    a similar warning inside the party: Restoration requires strong principles
    and ideas, not more polling data. Nader, says Kucinich, "should have stayed
    within the party. We've talked about these same issues for years and have
    worked with Ralph. The issues are valid. They become more valid when they
    are taken within the Democratic Party."
    Nader's logic has a serious downside, a mismatch he does not acknowledge,
    but that could injure the party without producing therapeutic change. Given
    the nature of the Greens and their issues, they typically demonstrate the
    best potential for harvesting votes in the districts already held by
    liberal Democrats or conscientious moderates. So, as Greens go about
    building a party, they are going to run against "good guys," for sure.
    "When you're building a party, you don't go around saying, 'Hey, don't run
    against him, he's a good guy,'" Nader said. That naturally enrages
    Democrats. "His idea is making things better by making them worse," said
    Representative David Obey, a thirty-year veteran of liberal legislative
    battles. "In some cases, [Green challengers] might work, but in most cases
    it will push those members further into the arms of the people they're
    already beholden to. The answer isn't that you have to break fifteen
    people's arms. The answer is you have to win the national debate, and the
    way you do that is on the economic issues, the kitchen-table issues people
    care about." Nader shrugged. "Sometimes you've got to prune the tree to
    make it grow healthy," he told me.
    The untested Green potential is whether they can exert electoral influence
    on the less obvious targets, the New Democrats from closely contested swing
    districts or conservative-voting Democrats with safe seats and even some
    Republicans who vote more conservative than their districts. "That's a
    collateral benefit of what we're trying to do," Nader insisted. Despite
    appearances, the status quo is not invulnerable. Among the New Democrats,
    for instance, a dozen won last year by less than 10 percent, and some of
    their margins were squeakers where a third-party candidate might well have
    tipped the balance against them. The watch list includes some voluble
    champions of DLC deal-making such as California Representatives Cal Dooley
    (53-45 percent) and Ellen Tauscher (53-44 percent). A Green opponent might
    at least complicate life for some Democrats who win easily and flaunt their
    independence, Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas or Representative
    Gary Condit of California or Representative Jim Moran of Virginia (whose
    affluent district may be more liberal than he is on environmental issues).
    At a minimum, the idea of introducing competition in uncontested districts
    should be stimulating for small-d democracy.
    Certainly, it might be far more effective if the major constituencies
    (labor, blacks, enviros and others) decided to impose their own, more
    aggressive electoral tests on Democrats who stray. These groups have the
    battlefield experience and resources to get everyone's attention, but as
    effective players inside the legislative system, they are also inhibited by
    some of the same factors that make the party itself risk-averse. Labor
    brings the most muscle, for instance, but it also has to play defense
    against Republican assaults on a variety of bread-and-butter issues. Many
    incumbent Democrats who swing conservative on the more visible issues will
    give labor their votes on parochial matters vital to union members but not
    the general public. It's difficult to threaten retribution against an
    incumbent if you have to stop by the senator's office the next day and ask
    for a vote.
    What Nader and the Greens might bring to the table is fear"nameless,
    unreasoning fear," as FDR put it in a different context. That emotion is
    (or ought to be) a powerful motivation in representative democracy, the
    fear of being defeated by the next unknown. In my experience, the one thing
    sure to alter thinking among comfortable incumbents is seeing a couple of
    their colleagues cut down, blindsided by a new issue or a swarm of
    discontented voters they didn't see coming. Typically, politicians will do
    what they can to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to them. Even safe
    incumbents are eager to avoid the harassment and risk of a dedicated
    challenger. This fear helps explain why presumably marginal forces like the
    NRA can accumulate so much influence or how the antiabortion camp gradually
    swallowed the Republican Party, despite opposition from the American
    majority. Winning elections depends on amassing big numbers, but political
    leverage exists on the margins for those with intensity of purpose. The
    Democratic Party, for that matter, could benefit itself from a little more
    intensity of purpose.

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