It's your party and you can cry if you want to

Will Gore lose Florida? Who cares. The Democrats are beyond redemption.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 22, 2000 10:12PM (EST)

Here's a memo to all the whiny, sore-loser Democrats (or sore-winner Democrats, as the case may be) who are trying to blame Ralph Nader and the Green Party for your predicament: Get over it. I and the 2.7 million other Americans who voted for Nader are not your wayward children who stayed out past curfew. We are, by definition, your political opponents. We didn't vote for your party because we think it stinks, and we don't care all that much whether you won or lost. Is that clear enough? Now can we just pick a president by reading the entrails of a pregnant chad or something and move on?

Check your civics textbooks and the Constitution; does it say anywhere that the two-party system was ordained by the Creator, or that the Democratic Party has an eternal right to the votes of progressives and leftists, no matter how mealy-mouthed and corrupt the party gets? It's undoubtedly true that many Green voters would prefer Al Gore to George W. Bush, on balance. There's no contradiction involved there; most of Pat Buchanan's voters (outside Palm Beach County, anyway) would presumably prefer Bush to Gore.

But Nader voters -- and Buchanan voters, albeit in smaller numbers -- made a principled decision. Revolutionary, I know, but stick with me on this. They decided it was more important to try to build a genuinely independent political movement than to participate in the profoundly undemocratic choice between two Ivy League daddy's boys suckled on the soft-money teat, about whom the public seems equally ambivalent.

Is building such a movement within the profoundly flawed universe of American electoral politics even possible? Maybe, maybe not. But for many people on the left, the Nader campaign felt like the first genuine injection of positive energy in mainstream politics since Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. We're sick of sitting up late nights like an abandoned wife with a candle in the window, pining for a Democratic Party that ran out on us years ago yet still expects us to show up on Election Day.

Clearly, liberals and activists who still see hope for the Democrats will disagree. But the exaggerated anti-Nader venom, such as that found in an entertaining Salon article by my colleague Charles Taylor, strikes me as an advanced case of kill-the-messenger syndrome. The Democratic Party's injuries are self-inflicted; they can't be blamed on a geeky consumer advocate and his tiny, poorly organized third party.

First off, let's get rid of one canard. Even if Bush wins, we'll never know whether Nader "cost" Gore the election; exit polls suggest that many Nader voters wouldn't have voted at all in a straight Gush-Bore matchup. (And for whatever it's worth, Bush attracted about twice as many registered Democrats as Nader did.) But Nader's very presence in the race, and the enthusiasm his candidacy generated among students, environmentalists and other progressive activists, indicates that cracks are showing in the politics of fear that have held the amorphous Democratic coalition together in recent years.

Ever since the disastrous defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972, the Democratic Party has had two unwritten rules for dealing with its own left wing. Rule 1: There is no left. Rule 2: If there is a left, it must be destroyed or at least silenced. As the party slid toward the mushy center, essentially morphing into the Republican Party of the Eisenhower era (while the Republican Party itself was morphing into, I don't know, the Brown Shirts), it left its progressive-environmentalist-feminist wing increasingly homeless. Some people on this wing played along, believing that even the centrist New Democrats were preferable to the post-Reagan GOP; others abandoned electoral politics for academics, community activism or gardening.

Let's note an important historical contrast here: In 1964, the Republican Party was transformed by a wave of grass-roots activism, and nominated a true believer (Barry Goldwater) who galvanized the activist core but got slaughtered in the general election by a popular incumbent president. A generation later, these activists conquered not just their own party but the entire country, sweeping Ronald Reagan to power on an unprecedented conservative tide.

The McGovern campaign represented a parallel upsurge of activism within the Democratic Party, and produced the same short-term result. But union leaders, big-city mayors, tort lawyers, Southern congressmen and other entrenched forces essentially united to purge the activists, who terrified them politically and threatened their power. In the long run, this created a party without a grass-roots base, whose only electoral strategy was to study the polls and bend with the wind, to "triangulate" (in the loathsome phrase of the loathsome Dick Morris) a middle road between liberals and conservatives.

Could the McGovern radicals ever have triumphed on a national scale the way the Goldwater radicals did? I don't know, but that's not the point. The Republican shift to the right was motivated by the personal convictions of millions of party activists; the Democratic shift to the center was motivated not by principle but by Morris-style strategic thinking. Some people, like President Clinton and Gore, may have believed wholeheartedly in this new direction. But its only real purpose was to gain power. From that moment forward the Democratic Party became a reactionary force whose core values were never certain. In short, it sold its soul.

Of course, the Democrats could afford to do that because they still had large groups of loyal voters they could take almost entirely for granted, even if they no longer had any activist base outside a few Washington think tanks. African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, environmentalists and the progressive wing of the labor movement had no place else to go, in terms of electoral politics. Many were understandably terrified of the newly energized GOP, which seemed to want to lock women in the kitchen, sell Yellowstone to the highest bidder and get the poor off welfare and into prison.

The Republicans, in fact, provided the cudgel the Democratic leadership used to batter renegade movements like Jackson's Rainbow Coalition -- which strove to reconnect the party with a multiracial, working-class base -- back into line. If you think we're bad, went the Democratic theme song, wait till you see the other guys. It worked, for a while. During the Clinton years, the party did the minimum necessary to hang on to poor, dark-skinned and liberal voters, while doing the maximum possible to pry affluent suburbanites loose from the Republicans.

But the triangulation strategy can only continue to work if no one presents a genuine, grass-roots challenge for those abandoned and dispirited left-leaning voters. Even a marginal (and marginally successful) effort to do so, like that of Nader and the Greens, must be savaged and, if possible, discredited. This horror of being attacked at the Democratic Party's most vulnerable point accounts, I believe, for the near-hysterical pitch of much of the Nader-bashing, which simply repeats the same old tune: We may suck but the Republicans suck worse.

This is what I mean by the politics of fear. Democratic loyalists, from Congress to the academy to the editorial page of the New York Times, are trying to terrorize Green voters into repentance with horror stories: We have delivered the country into the hands of Trent Lott and Tom DeLay; we're ensuring that right-wing wacko judges get appointed to the Supreme Court; we're a bunch of effete white intellectuals who won't suffer the likely consequences of our actions. But the real fear at issue here is the fear of the Democratic apparatchiks themselves, at the prospect of their soulless, sclerotic party being undermined by the forces of genuine democracy.

In the interests of civil discourse, I'm going to skip over the ad hominem, and thoroughly irrelevant, attacks on Nader's personality and manner that form a distinct subset of Nader-bashing. Suffice it to say that Nader is an imperfect candidate on many levels, but he's also a man of real integrity and accomplishment who has worked for the good of American citizens his entire life and never panders to his audience. Besides, anyone who voted for Gore, for any reason, has permanently lost the right to complain about boring, irritating and pedantic politicians.

In fact, the relentless negativity and fear-mongering of the Green-baiters only makes it clear that they don't have anything good to say about their own candidate or their own party. This spectacle of intelligent and well-meaning people struggling to defend a crippled institution they don't really like is more than a little sad. Many of them, I am convinced, realize that the difference between Democratic and Republican fiscal policy these days, as Michael M. Thomas of the New York Observer has put it, is mainly the question of which of Alan Greenspan's butt cheeks to lick first.

These Democratic loyalists are too smart not to realize that their candidate this year was a smug oligarch only slightly less noxious than the one he opposed. (The streets of hell will be closed for a snow day before either Gore or Bush shuts off the soft-money spigot that has thoroughly corrupted national politics.) Or that Gore's vaunted intelligence consists mostly of half-digested fragments cribbed from New Age management-guru bestsellers. Or that his running mate was an intolerant, sanctimonious prick who would absolutely, positively be a Republican if he didn't adhere to a minority religion.

Now that the Republicans have emulated the Democrats and handed back their party's reins from the activist fringe to the corporate center, this year's presidential election will matter slightly less, in the world-historical scheme of things, than the battle between Coke and Pepsi. At least people actually like Coke and Pepsi; this has been more like Dr. Pepper vs. Mr. Pibb. I suppose if I really had to choose between being ruled by law firms and high-tech zillionaires (the Democrats) on one hand and oil and pharmaceutical tycoons (the Republicans) on the other, I'd pick the lawyers. But the Nader campaign, as modest and provisional as it was in the end, was an attempt to argue that the choice doesn't have to be that narrow.

All right, the Democratic hit squads say, that's very high-minded. Then they start flogging us with DeLay and Lott again. What about the poor women who'll bleed to death from botched coat-hanger abortions after Roe vs. Wade is overturned, and inner-city schoolchildren who'll go without books and lunches when their budget is vouchered out to suburban religious academies?

This is, of course, the politics of fear at its highest and most effective pitch. I don't doubt that the Bush administration (version 2.0) will be capable of doing some real harm, and I can't question the motives of anyone who felt they had to vote for Gore on that basis. But if it is Bush who takes office on Jan. 20, he will be one of the most weakened presidents in American history. He's unlikely to try and enact the agenda of the radical right, which feels lukewarm about him in any case. If he does, he's simply gift-wrapping both houses of Congress for the Democrats in 2002.

Of course, even a weak president with 51 senators on his side can install some egregious Neanderthal on the Supreme Court for life. Bush won't repeat the mistake his father made with closet liberal David Souter; it's safe to assume any W. appointments will be true-blue conservatives in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. This fear of a Bush court was clearly the Democrats' most potent weapon, and the reason why many potential Nader votes probably went to Gore at the last minute. Those of us who stuck with Ralph believed, however, that the best vote for civil rights and civil liberties was a vote for the long-term rejuvenation of democracy, not another vote for a party that doesn't stand for anything.

As for the not-so-subtle charges of elitism and racism against Nader and the Greens, it strikes me that those who have run out of legitimate arguments resort in the end to ugly innuendo. It's true that the Green movement, based in environmentalist and college-activist circles that tend to be mostly white, has done a piss-poor job of reaching people of color. Out of both tradition and pragmatism, minority voters, especially African-Americans, remain as a whole fiercely loyal to the Democrats. But whether the Green Party succeeds or not, how long will blacks and other minorities continue to tolerate the party that has eagerly collaborated in the war on drugs, the militarization of the inner city, the tremendous expansion of the prison-industrial complex, the racist application of the death penalty and the evisceration of the welfare system?

The 2000 presidential campaign will end someday, thank God, but the Nader-bashing is essentially the prelude to the next one, in which the Democrats will be desperate to fortify their voter base against further Green erosion. Beneath the Democratic fury at defectors is a clear subtext: If you're really sorry and come home and stay very quiet, this will all be forgiven in time. In Taylor's eloquent, enraged article, he argues that the Democratic Party remains the traditional home for liberals and progressives in American politics, and we should be fighting to reform and renew it, rather than abandoning it.

As Nader said repeatedly during the campaign, it wasn't the Greens who abandoned the Democrats but the other way around. The Greens face long and perhaps insuperable odds in trying to build a viable third party. But it feels good, finally, to have done something out of principle. It feels good to be free of the party that now seems unreformable and unrenewable. The party that rolled over for Newt Gingrich on welfare reform, that set back the cause of national healthcare by decades, that sold off the national forests in unprecedented quantities for nickels on the dollar, that waffled fatally on the rights of gays and lesbians, that presided over the most unequal economic boom in American history. Maybe we should be grateful for the presidential sex scandal that stopped the government dead for two years.

If anything, Nader voters should take heart from the bashing. It means that we made enough of a difference that they're scared of us and want to destroy us. It means we have a chance. It means we've reached the second, and nearly the third, stage in Gandhi's legendary formula for revolutionary change: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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