Ralph Nader, America's indomitable public citizen, is the one great man in this presidential election. He has inspired more, done more and stood for more over the past decades than the other candidates put together. And his searing indictment of our corporate-dominated, money-drenched politics is surely a message people need to hear. But the Nader presidential campaign rests on strategic assumptions that are wrongheaded. And liberals and progressives should think twice before casting a vote for Nader in any state that is contested this fall.
A Nader vote assumes that there is no significant difference between the two major parties. Nader says he's not a spoiler because "you can't spoil a system that's spoiled to the core." With Gore against Bush, two sons of privilege, the stiff and the smirk, the presidential race can easily be painted as a choice, in Jim Hightower's words, between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. But what appear to be insignificant choices can have dramatic consequences. In fact, as conservative columnist Paul Gigot has argued, this may be the most determining ideological contest since Reagan's election in 1980. With the House up for grabs in a handful of closely contested seats, routine presidential coattails make this virtually a winner-take-all election. If Bush wins the presidency, Republicans are also likely to control both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for a generation. If Gore wins, Democrats are odds-on favorites to take back control of the House, if not the Senate, and gain a moderate majority on the Court.
Beneath the happy talk, Bush seeks a mandate for the radical reforms left on the conservative agenda: partial privatization of Social Security, which would cut guaranteed benefits to younger workers; turning Medicare into a voucher program, which also masks a cut in guarantees; using public school funds for vouchers to private schools. He stumps for a large tax cut, primarily for the wealthy, crippling the opportunity to deal with cities, poverty, the environment. These would shred much of what is left of the social contract, while proclaiming the magic of markets. Other than the tax cuts, these proposals are far more radical than anything Reagan dared to propose.
If elected, Bush will have a mandate and a majority to enact the reforms. Worse, he'll get bipartisan cover from the New Democrats, the money wing of the Democratic Party. He's also for negating the minimum wage, leaving it to the states; dismantling environmental regulation; repealing affirmative action; limiting a woman's right to choose; and generally fronting for the corporate leveraged buyout of government. Think of the Gingrich Congress without Clinton's veto. That's why corporations are flooding the Republican Party with record contributions. They know who is the better buy.
Gore is hardly a tribune of the working man, and Joe Lieberman has endorsed much of the Bush agenda. But they will campaign against it, and for greater investment in education, health care, children. Assuming the Democrats retake the House, liberal committee chairs in the House will challenge Gore's timidity -- and fight to stiffen his backbone. Progressive movements for the working poor, the environment and economic justice will have receptive allies who can hold hearings, move legislation and force votes -- even in a Congress that still has an operating conservative majority. And on globalization, there is a difference between a Congress led by Hastert and DeLay and one led by Gephardt and Bonior. The lesser evil is less.
Nader accepts that there is a difference between a "party that doesn't do anything against injustice and a party that tries to generate more injustice." So he fudges, arguing that Democrats will benefit from the millions of voters his candidacy brings to the polling booth. Really? This assumes that there are millions of voters political enough to tune in to Ralph Nader, alienated enough to cast only a protest vote, but strategic enough to vote for the Congressional candidate of a party Nader lambastes as "hopelessly corrupt." Don't bet the store on it. In fact, Green Congressional candidates attract support in precisely the college-town and liberal suburban districts where they are most likely to help a Republican beat a moderate or liberal Democrat. Moreover, while Nader is pragmatic enough to talk about "thinking tactically" in casting a protest vote, he is naturally spending much of his time in contested states like Michigan wooing angry industrial workers.
The second major predicate of the Nader campaign is that establishing the Green Party will help build the progressive movement in America. Say what? We witness the first stirrings of promising citizen movements around living-wage campaigns, new poverty organizing and, most dramatically, the challenge to the corporate globalization agenda -- bringing Teamsters and turtles, students and steelworkers together -- a movement that Nader has helped to build. But the Nader candidacy splits progressives. African-Americans and Latinos aren't going green. Despite their anger at Gore, progressive unions aren't there. Steelworkers president George Becker, central to the battle in Seattle, says workers can't afford Gore's defeat. Fear will drive feminists and environmentalists to Gore. Nader's campaign will display us as weaker than we are, not as strong as we are.
Worse, it is a direct threat to progressive labor. The strategic political priority of a Bush White House will be to hunt labor in every way possible. Unions will face a frontal attack on their ability to organize, to do politics, to govern themselves. They will be thrown on the defensive -- fending off national right-to-work and paycheck-deception laws. And again, the New Dems won't leap to defend their primary adversary for control of the party. Clinton and Gore weren't exactly champions of labor. But labor had the space to revive itself, to start organizing again and to regain political strength. Snuffing that out will be corporate America's first order to Bush, and devastating to any progressive possibility.
Independent citizen movements like the Seattle Coalition are vital to disrupting the suffocating corporate consensus. But in electoral politics, progressives would be better off fighting within the Democratic Party to make it the party of the people that it claims to be. On key economic issues, Democratic voters are more progressive than Gore and the New Dems. So are the vast majority of party activists. Even a good portion of the party's money is union or liberal money. Organizing as the Christian right did within the Republican Party, progressives could take control at the state level and exercise growing influence nationally. The Christian right has more influence inside the Republican Party than Pat Buchanan has as leader of the Reform Party.
Columnist Molly Ivins says she votes with her heart in the primaries but with her head in general elections because lesser evils really are lesser, particularly for the poor and the weak. Jim Hightower now supports Nader, but he had it right when he said, "Some say we need a third party. I wish we had a second party." Nader is democracy's champion, but his campaign offers a diversion, not a direction.
Robert L. Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future (www.ourfuture.org). This commentary first appeared in The Nation (www.thenation.com).