Book Review: Nada for Nader? By William Bowles

4 July 2004

Book Review: Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion by Greg Bates

“[The] Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, published a 19-page manifesto for the “New Democrats”, who include all the principal Democratic Party candidates, and especially John Kerry. This called for “the bold exercise of American power” at the heart of “a new Democratic strategy, grounded in the party’s tradition of muscular internationalism”. Such a strategy would “keep Americans safer than the Republicans’ go-it-alone policy, which has alienated our natural allies and overstretched our resources. We aim to rebuild the moral foundation of US global leadership…””
Bush Or Kerry? Look Closely And The Danger Is The Same
by John Pilger, the New Statesman, 03/04/07

For less than one hundred years, most of us who live in the so-called democracies have had the universal franchise – the vote. Every four or five years we cast our ballot (those who bother that is). Being able to vote is seen as the bedrock of democracy. Indeed, the vote has been peddled very effectively as the measure of what democracy really means.

In the UK the propaganda around the right to vote has been so effective that if one believed it, the English have had the vote for nigh on a thousand years, ever since Magna Carta (‘the mother of democracies’ and so on and so forth). Yet a universal franchise (that is for men and women) wasn’t achieved until after WWI in most developed countries.

And so too, in the US, according to the Constitution, many believe that since 1776 (or thereabouts) Americans have had a universal franchise. The reality of course, is very different. In fact, in the US, following a brief period after the Civil War and after the period of Reconstruction, saw Black (males) systematically have the right to vote taken away from them. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that saw the right to vote enshrined in law for all Americans (unless of course, you’re Black and live in Florida).

So what’s so important about the vote when it’s almost impossible to distinguish the two dominant political parties one from the other in the US (and for that matter, the UK)? And perhaps just as importantly, with each election, fewer and fewer people actually bother to vote.

The issue around the power of the vote has taken centre stage, especially for ‘progressives’ and the Left in the forthcoming US presidential election this November and has split the anti-Bush, anti-war movement right down the middle. For us here in the UK it also has great significance firstly because of vassal Blair’s slavish adherence to the Bush imperium and secondly, because come a parliamentary election in 2005 or 6, progressives and the Left will be faced with a comparable dilemma.

Setting aside the issues of the iniquities inherent in both electoral systems (in the US the role of the Electoral College, where the real outcome is decided and in the UK, the ‘first past the post’ system that distorts how parties get represented in Parliament), in a two-party system, the argument for progressives about who to vote for comes down to one thing, the ‘lesser of two evils’ and effectively, this is the way it’s been for generations. This and whether a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, is the core of the argument in Greg Bates’ book Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion.

Those who contend that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, base their argument on the actions of the Bush presidency, contending that it is the worst on record, worst that is for its attacks on working people, democratic rights, the environment and the rest of the planet. Therefore, defeating Bush is the primary objective. Those who are opposed to voting for Nader, contend that with Kerry in power, progressives will be in a better position to exert influence over a Kerry administration.

Is the ‘swing’ the thing?
The first part of Bates’ book is given over to an analysis of the voting patterns in the ‘swing’ states and whether or not voting for Nader in one and Kerry in another, is an effective strategy that would, on the one hand, keep Bush out and on the other, allow people to cast a positive vote for Nader, thus demonstrating the real size of the progressive or ‘liberal’ constituency.

Bates however, challenges this assumption through an analysis of past voting patterns and the number of votes each of the ‘swing states’ have in the Electoral College.

However, the real meat of the book is given over to Kerry’s record and that of the Democratic Party, and it’s here that the book has real value. Those who advocate the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach contend that no matter how awful Kerry is, he is not part of the so-called neo-con ‘cabal’ that runs Bush the younger and is thus open to persuasion (although I’ve yet to see any coherent argument that reveals how this will be done).

Central to the issue is Kerry’s claim to be a ‘liberal’, a claim that I think Bates demolishes totally. Moreover, Bates shows that the ‘drift’ to the right is part of an historical process. In the chapter entitled ‘Our Moving Train’ he itemises how each successive Democratic president has moved further and further to right in order to capture the Republican vote and in doing so, has left the ‘liberal’, progressive vote behind, shedding support in the process. So for example, quoting Robert Pollin’s Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Austerity, under Clinton,

“[The] distribution of wealth in the U.S. became more skewed than it had been at any time in the past forty years-with, for example, the ratio of wages for the average worker to the pay of the average CEO rising astronomically from 113 to 1 in 1991 under Bush 1 to 449 to 1 when Clinton left office in 2001.”

And it was Clinton who:

“…[standing] on the shoulders of the previous administration’s crimes…[d]elighted with the powerful effect of super hardened depleted uranium munitions used by George Bush in the first Gulf War, Clinton had them fired at Serbian troops in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia.”

And it was Carter who:

“Projected higher military budgets for the 1980s than Reagan’s turned out to be;

  • “Ordered the CIA to provide training to the contras by using Argentine death squads;
  • “Aided the military in El Salvador following the killing of 1,000 people a month;
  • “Successfully helped the UN to recognise the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia;
  • “Made possible an attack on South Korean protestors by the South Korean military, killing at least 1,000;
  • “And sent arms to the Indonesian military after their massacre of East Timor;”
    ‘American Journal Starring Jimmy Carter in War and Peace,’ Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch, October 18, 2002.
  • Carter’s list of crimes and misdemeanours is at least as long as Bush 2.
  • “…Carter was asked at a press conference about whether we owed Vietnam anything…answer[ed]…that we owe Vietnam no debt because “the destruction was mutual.””

Bates concedes that, to quote Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer:

“We’re more likely to see privatisation of Social Security and Medicare under a second Bush administration, more likely to see the public schools further privatised…”

And so on, but as Bates points out, the key phrase is “more likely to”, in other words, “it’s up for grabs”. Who really knows which way Kerry will jump? And Kerry on terrorism out-Bushes Bush when he says:

“I can fight a more effective war on terror than Bush.”

And so it goes, with Kerry on all the major issues revealing that he will pursue the same totally misnamed neo-con agenda as the Bush Gang. From Carter to Clinton to Kerry, they have consistently pursued an imperialist agenda that favours the wealthy and specifically the wealthy of America.

Quoting from Larry Everest’s Oil, Power and Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, we read Clinton on empire:

“We have four percent of the world’s population and we want to keep 22 percent of the world’s wealth.”

Everest makes the critical case for a scenario in the Middle East with Kerry as prez that would be virtually identical to the one pursued by Bush and for the same reason. As Bates puts it:

“Any president committed to maintaining U.S. control over the flow of oil could well end up pursuing the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war if he failed to get other countries to play along.”

Here’s Kerry on Iraq in 1997:

“This is not just a minor confrontation,” said Kerry. “This is a very significant issue about the balance of power, about the future stability of the Middle East, about all of what we have thus far invested in the prior war [Gulf War II] and what may happen in the future.”
CNN Crossfire, November 12, 1997.

And although Bates concedes that Kerry may pursue a more ‘multi-lateral’ approach than that of Bush, we should not forget that Bush first tried to bring the US’ major competitors –sorry allies – onboard before going it alone. In other words, it’s more than likely that with Kerry as president, US global objectives might be better achieved than with Bush! This is no idle comment, for it has been successive Democratic administrations drift to the right that has created the space for the likes of Bush.

Kerry as Global Enforcer
In 1970, Kerry called himself an “internationalist” and in 1980 Kerry sponsored an amendment that limited US support for the contra war against Nicaragua. But by 1988 Kerry had shifted to supporting the contras through what he euphemistically termed “humanitarian aid” that funded murderers, torturers and rapists.

On December 16, 2003 in a speech at Drake University in Des Moines, Kerry outlined his version of multilateralism:

“…Leading the world’s most advanced democracies isn’t mushy multilateralism-it amplifies America’s voice and extends our reach. Working through global institutions doesn’t tie our hands-it invests US aims with greater legitimacy and dampens fear and resentment that our preponderant power sometimes inspires in others.”

In criticising Bush, he emphasised that Bush didn’t try hard enough to win the support of other countries or the UN. No mention of the flouting of international law. And just in case we don”t get the message, Bates quotes from the end of Kerry’s Des Moines speech where Kerry spells out the Democratic Party’s view:

“And if we as Democrats are to change America, we cannot seek to replace the Bush unilateralism with confusion and retreat. Let’s bring in our allies, take the target off our troops, and let’s finally win the peace in Iraq.”

I don’t know about you the reader but I interpret this as Kerry outBushing Bush.

Bates’ illustrates quite clearly that on every major issue, the Draft, Israel’s annexation of the occupied territories, Afghanistan, Big Business, Kerry’s claim that he is left of Bush, is so much tepid air.

Perhaps most damning of all is the confusing message Kerry puts out as he vainly tries to retain the liberal, ‘left’ of the Democratic Party and its supporters but with his eyes firmly right.

“…a candidate who lacks the courage of his convictions cannot hope to convince the nation that he should be given its leadership…You cannot let the Bush league define you or the issues. You have to do that yourself. Take my advice and lay it all out, before it’s too late.”
Walter Cronkite on his CBS evening news programme.

The Left’s Failure
Ultimately however, the issue doesn’t come down to Kerry but to the Democratic Party itself and to the Left’s response to the political vacuum that exists within American politics (and in the UK as well). In the chapter headed ‘Blunder on the Left Progressives’ Responsibility for the Democrats’ Drift Right’, gets to the core of the issue and vapid ‘liberal’ (masquerading as Left) responses to imperial politics in our post-Soviet world.

Bates quotes Jonathan Schell from the April 28 2004 edition of the Nation, who tells us:

“On the one hand, it [the movement] needs Kerry to win, even though he refuses to repent his vote to authorize the war. On the other hand, neither the movement nor Kerry can afford to let the antiwar energies that were and remain a principal source of their hopes and his die down. The movement must persist, independent of Kerry and keeping him or making him honest, yet not opposing him. If truth must be in exile from the mainstream of politics, let it thrive on the margins.”

To which Bates quite correctly responds:

“This is liberal strategy in action: antiwar energies must persist without opposing Kerry…[this] sets a new standard for wishful thinking… Further, his vote was right in line with all his other votes supporting America’s role as empire. Those who view Kerry as some kind of trapped liberal are embracing an illusion.”

Pushing the line, ‘anybody but Bush’, has enabled Kerry and his gang in the Democratic Party to move as far to the right as they like knowing that the ‘left’ will still support him. ‘Anybody but Bush?’

A vote for Nader being a vote for Bush is a fallacy because:

“(1) only a very few voters could actually help Bush get elected by voting for Nader, and then only in a razor thin election with the oddest of electoral college line ups, and (2) the fault lies more with the Democrats run to the right than anything Nader is doing. In this context, the move to nix Nader doesn’t add up.”

In addition, Bates makes the point that voter choice is at stake here. Putting pressure on people to vote a particular way takes away their democratic right. Bates goes on to say:

“If Bush is the worst president in history, it’s because we let democracy atrophy to the point where he has the power to be that way. Rolling this back requires vigorous debate-and wider voter choice.”

Finally, the question of whether Nader is worth voting for is for the voter to decide and the entry of the Green Party doesn’t alter Bates’ argument (the book was written before the Greens decided to field their own candidate). All it can do is split Nader’s vote, not Kerry’s. But clearly deciding to contest an election at the last moment and without a political structure to back him is Nader’s biggest weakness. As Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer points out:

“Building a new party…is the task of lifetimes, not months or years, and it isn’t a process that can be short-circuited by celebrity presidential runs.”

But this is an argument that has nothing to do with the ‘anything but Bush’ approach but points to the failure of the Left to work consistently over time to build a progressive alternative. We saw what happened to the progressive candidates who chose to work within the Democratic Party machine – Kucinich, Moseley-Brown and Al Sharpton, marginalised and barely even mentioned in the media.

A serious external challenge from the Left might actually have an impact on Democratic Party policies – if they felt it was a threat, just as a Socialist alternative forced FDR to the left in the 1930s. Kerry’s meeting with Nader in a vain attempt to keep him off the ballot might just as well be interpreted as a threat from the Left as making the difference between a Bush or Kerry victory.

Ultimately however, if the voters perceive Kerry as man without principle then to quote Walter Cronkite’s words once more, “Take my advice and lay it all out, before it’s too late.” It won’t be Nader who loses Kerry the election but Kerry himself.

Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion by Greg Bates, 2004, Common Courage Press. $9.95.

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