Why Progressives Should Vote Nader

by Ashley Sanders

With two months to go before elections, both Republicans and Democrats are busy driving home their favorite point: We are witnessing the election of the century. This year, our votes are more valuable than ever; they are the instruments of unparalleled hope and change. And this, the argument goes, is why it is so crucial to vote for the right candidate and even more crucial not to throw away votes—and America’s future—on a third party candidate like Ralph Nader.

The Republicans and Democrats are half right. This is a critical election year. This could be the year we gave 47 million Americans decent healthcare and a millions more a living wage. It could be the year that we respected the opinions of 68% of Americans and 79% of Iraqis and completely withdrew from Iraq. It could be the year that we cut the 3/4 trillion dollar defense budget, repealed the “pull down” North American Free Trade Agreement, revoked the Patriot Act, rescinded the revised FISA, restored union rights, weaned ourselves off oil, built a green energy infrastructure, disciplined runaway corporations and reigned in the manic speculation sponsoring the current food, housing, and energy crises. More importantly, it could be the year that we made the connection between these problems and the jingoistic militarism, corporatism and American exceptionalism that underwrite them.

That, at least, is Ralph Nader’s plan.

But no. Instead, we allow the Republicans to exploit our fear and the Democrats to extort hope from our weariness. Happily hoodwinked, we don’t dare admit the truth: that Obama and McCain have failed to offer substantive solutions to our most pressing problems and refused to connect the dots between our failed policies and the realpolitik corporate regime that props them up.

College students stand to lose the most from this election. We are the ones who will be around for the next sixty years, and this election will at least partially determine what those years look like. And yet, as an engaged, idealistic voting bloc that is deeply dissatisfied with politics as usual, we also have everything to gain—if we demand it.

We could start by scrutinizing false change promises. While most college students could talk fluently about the betrayals of the Bush administration, most are much less familiar with the Democrat’s myriad treacheries. Charmed by Obama’s message of hope and ostensibly populist rhetoric, they are flocking in droves to a candidate they believe will exorcize the Bush demon and bring America back to a state of “original sinlessness.”

There are three major problems with this fantasy.

1. In 1992, Clinton ran an uncannily ‘Obamaesque’ campaign, branding himself as a change candidate and peddling a vague but comforting populism. Convinced, progressives rallied behind him. Clinton won, but progressives lost. Wage disparities between CEOs and workers ballooned 449 to 1. Clinton pushed NAFTA, costing 525,000 US jobs and devastating Mexican farmers. And, as a flourish on the way out, Clinton repealed the Glass Steagall Act, allowing the mergers of banks and investment companies that are at the heart of our current financial crisis. In short, progressives got eight years of soft imperialism and a corporate dream economy that Clinton admitted “helped the bond market and hurt the people who voted us in.” But that’s not all. Progressives fell for the same stuff in 2000 and then again in 2004, when anti-war Democrats voted in droves for a candidate who had no intention to end the war—who believed Bush was doing “too little” in the war on terror—and lost both the election and the muscle of the peace movement.
2. As any cursory study of history will demonstrate, pretty words rarely make for a pretty president. What really matters are the candidates’ advisers and funders. As Naomi Klein insists, advisers send a “signal” to Wall Street donors that business will proceed as usual after election day. Advisers and financiers are the best indicators of the tone and direction of a future presidency, and Obama’s are sending clear signals that things will be business as usual after election day. Bewilderingly, Obama plans to solve the nation’s problems by recycling the architects of its moral and economic decline: Madeleine Albright, advocate of unilateral aggression against Iraq, who said that US sanctions which killed 500,000 Iraqi children were ¬“worth it”; Warren Christopher, who refused to use the word genocide during the Rwanda crisis because the US had no “strategic interests” there; Lee Hamilton, who stopped the Iran Contra investigation before it could lead to the impeachment of Reagan; Robert Gates, Saddam Hussein’s chief weapons supplier and author of violent intervention schemes in Libya and Nicaragua; and Jason Furman, who favors decreasing corporate taxes, partial privatization of Social Security and the so-called Wal-Mart model of ‘prosperity.’ (Unlike average Americans, corporations don’t have to hope for change. They can buy it. They only hope that the public will be duped enough by false promises that they won’t demand the real stuff.)
3. As much as we hate to hear it, Bush is not the problem. America has never been sinless; it has followed a policy of convenient militarism under Republicans and Democrats before Bush and, barring reform, will continue to do so after him. Bush is not just the most evil president; he is also the most powerful, power abdicated to him by the so-called opposition party and sponsored by a bipartisan commitment to courting corporate cash. Bush’s presidency—the war, the cronyism, and the inequality—is the logical conclusion of a political philosophy based on dominance, inequality, and unquestioned exceptionalism. Unless Obama and McCain question the Bush’s economic and militaristic assumptions, the demon will still possess us—because, to extend a phrase, “it’s the military-industrial complex, stupid.”

In short, both parties are busy burdening a broken machine. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader is offering Americans what the polls say they want. While McCain sings about bombing Iran to the tune of Beach Boys songs and Obama talks strategically about the difference between ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ wars, Nader condemns war in general, arguing for a strongly negotiated peace in Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. While Obama dismisses his earlier commitments to fair trade as “overheated,” Nader argues for renegotiating a “pull-up” NAFTA and the WTO and replacing them with uniform environmental and labor standards that benefit all peoples. And while McCain chants “drill, baby, drill” and Obama prepares to replace Big Oil with Big Corn and Big Nukes, Nader urges efficient, renewable infrastructure that eliminates dependence on fossil fuels and a top-down energy cartel economy. Simply put, Nader acknowledges that the crises facing our country are manifestations of the same problem: runaway corporate control and unregulated financial speculation. He is able to offer substantial solutions to problems precisely because his forty years of public advocacy gets down to their roots.

But the mainstream parties will tell us that we cannot vote for Nader because there is too much at stake this year. The Republicans have to win to save us from the enemy without, and the Democrats have to win to save us from the enemy within.

If the Republicans are the Party of Ill Repute, the Democrats have become the Party of Perpetual Plan B, an evasion they protect by asking us to perpetually defer our disappointment. Progressive voters are consequently in a state of profound contradiction, with unions endorsing Wal-Mart board members, peace activists voting for more Iraq and an escalated war in Afghanistan, environmentalists resigning themselves to capping and trading, and the sub-prime homeless cashing $500 emergency checks and hoping for the best.

We could win the election. But instead, we refuse the easiest revolution—the ballot box—because we are afraid others won’t join us. Why resist today, we ask, what we could resist next time? Why fight least worsts politics if we aren’t sure we’ll win?

Answer: Because most of the benefits and freedoms you now enjoy came from a minority struggling against an unjust majority. Because that’s what you’ll end up doing forever with that low set of expectations.

Take a page from the minority playbook. Decide your breaking point. What will you refuse to give up? What year will you stop voting for the least worst? What year will you decide that the government is your representative and not your master?

I suggest you pick 2008. I suggest you pick Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez. Because if not, let’s be serious: you’ll get nothing but chump change from cashing in the movement to buy the machine.
Why Radicals Should Vote Nader

The word radicalism, as we’ve heard before, means getting to the root of a problem. Why that would be considered undesirable in a culture—why it would be made to seem like the organon for some sinister rebellion—is a sign of the sickness of a society, not the sickness of those trying to heal it. Most of our political discourse occurs inside a philosophy that none of us would accept in our personal life: one that depends on greed, competition, and inequality. The purpose of a radical philosophy should be to unite the personal and the political until there is no difference between the two. If we as individuals do not base our lives on principles of greed, competition, and inequality—if we are not merely self-interested—then why do we accept a political philosophy based on the same? The purpose of big-P Politics is to create structures that limit expressions of selfishness that would, if left unchecked, impede others’ ability to be compassionate. The purpose of radical, small-p politics is to live our lives in a way that refuses to divide the process of living from the product of it.

If this is true, we need two revolutions. We need a Political revolution, where we vote for a candidate who will address the roots of big problems and the rotten assumptions that foster them—a person who will reinforce structures that prevent the powerful from making the consequences of their personal greed a public reality. But we also need a political revolution, where we recognize that in a very real sense, “there is no such thing as the State,” and that the ultimate political act is to “love one another or die,”—where we refuse to accept that there is a distinction between the personal and the political, where do not strategize but demand, emphatically, that we get what we are fighting for not when we are done fighting but in the fight itself.

That said, I disagree with those who remove themselves from the State and believe that it is possible for personally good actions to cover the host of wrongs perpetrated by the political structure. The immediate goal is not to remove ourselves from the State, but to perform two revolutions at once. The first revolution should be voting in the person who will begin to dismantle the structures causing widespread suffering, the whole time pushing the second revolution—resistance and insistence—alongside it. Cindy Sheehan put it like this: When someone told her he wouldn’t vote for her because revolutionaries don’t vote, she said, “Well vote for me and start the f—ing revolution.” This is not an argument for perpetual deferment. I am not telling you, as so many Democrats tell me, to accept the failings of a current candidate or system and be good, sit tight. Don’t sit tight. Ralph Nader does not go nearly far enough. So start the revolution, and start it immediately. But don’t be so cajoled by anti-statism—a belief I share, by the way—that you miss an opportunity to elect a person who would make your fight so much easier.

Whether you agree with my argument or not, I would argue that the fights for radicalism, anarchism and revolution have a lot in common with the third party fight against the two-party system. All of these movements try to manifest what people say that they want before they are seduced by the claims of big-P Politics—before they are told that their desire to apply their personal values to politics is naïve, that strategically dividing the personal and political is necessary, and that alternatives will never work because people aren’t ready for them.

The fight for change depends almost entirely on faith: the willingness to talk outside the logic of an unredeemable system and the willingness to believe that other people will, too. It is not as if Ralph Nader or the anarchists don’t have the numbers, after all. How many people don’t want to be equal, to like their job, to be treated well and to live a life where happiness is not divided from survival? But millions of these same people have convinced themselves to stay miserable because they do not believe that enough people will join them if they fight for their happiness.

The principle of anarchism, being anti-statist, depends on a swelling and ultimately unstoppable majority of people who have been transformed by the merits of good arguments rather than the external coercion of power. Until their numbers are unstoppable, they live inside an inequitable system where what they fight for is largely erased by the power of inequitable structures. But many people do not join the fight because they are afraid to lose the perks of the system they are fighting before they are sure they will triumph. It is the same with third parties. They have the numbers. People personally agree with them. But the very people who agree with them will not help them unless they are sure that they will win, which means of course that they will never win and that the power of the State will be reinforced by the people who most disagree with it but who are afraid to lose the perks of partial agreement. Any great reform depends on the altruism of initial reformers who refuse to force a gap between the process of being political and the product of being political, who will not perpetually defer the day of their success because they know that deferment, by its very nature, is failure. Any process-based philosophy depends entirely on the masses—more particularly, getting masses of people behind them—because every good process-based philosophy knows that the so-called protections we think ensure our safety and dignity only truly protect us if we make it impossible for them not to.

And so I am asking you to vote for Ralph Nader who, like a good radical, has stopped tinkering with a broken machine to ask, “Why this machine?” True, he does not junk the machine entirely—he believes in regulated capitalism, representative government, and the rule of law. But he refuses to base his political philosophy on principles that defy our personal sense of ethics; his political vision is expansive and transformative—it is not an exclusive plan for American dominance, but a persistent question as to why politics is based on exclusivity and dominance.

But just as importantly, I am asking you to vote for Ralph Nader because he does not make the mistake that so many politicians have made. Since he does not equate political freedom with economic freedom, he knows that it is possible to be politically ‘free’ and economically enslaved—that ultimately, economic enslavement translates into political enslavement. Knowing this, he can criticize war and torture and the economic crash not as accidents, but as the political manifestations of a system based on economic enslavement. The constant, sad story of world history is the confusion of political ‘freedom’—the right to elect a leader—with economic freedom—the right to basics and to dignity or, worse, the confusion of economic ‘freedom’—the freedom to shop and invest—with meaningful freedom—democracy. It is this confusion that many anarchists and radicals try to rectify with political philosophies firmly rooted in economic equality. If we can remember the relationship between the slow war of economic injustice and the hot wars of intervention, we can end not just ‘this war’ but all wars, not just ‘this violence’ but the violence of inequality, and not just excesses but the moral shortages that they compensate for.