Looking beyond 2000
Guest Editorial #G16
The one principle that has guided and informed Ralph Nader's life-long battles against corporate abuse and government neglect has been his belief that the solution to America's problems lies first and foremost in the hands of its citizens. As he scans the landscape of American civil society, Ralph Nader senses a "feeling of powerlessness and the withdrawal of massive numbers of Americans from both the civic and political arenas." The only way out of this "deeply troubling" state of affairs, he warns, is through a "political movement arising from the citizenry's labors and resources and dreams about what America could become at long last."
But Nader is waving more than simply the usual rhetorical banner of social equity and economic opportunity for all. He views the Green Party's and his own role in this presidential campaign with a realistic eye that is careful to neither overestimate the potential nor underestimate the challenge that lie ahead. Ralph Nader draws his inspiration from the past and looks back to those "citizens who led and participated in this country's social justice movements [and who] faced steep concentrations of power and overcame them." His models are "the Revolution of 1776 against King George III's empire, the anti-slavery drives and women's suffrage movements of the 19th century, to the farmers' revolt against the large banks and railroads that began in 1887, and on to the trade union, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection initiatives of the 20th century, culminating in the demands for equity by Americans who are discriminated against due to their race, gender, tribal status, class, disability or sexual preference." The Green Party, in his own view, and his own presidential run are merely an extension of an ongoing struggle for a better America.
Viewed within a broader, long-term context, then, voting for Ralph Nader in this election is a deeply meaningful political act, if one takes seriously the proposition that radical, grass roots driven change can still be effected, even today, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But more than that, even for the short run, a vote cast for Ralph Nader can also move national politics and steer the political debate in a new direction. Historical precedents abound where third-party movements left an indelible mark - for better and for worse - on national politics: Eugene Debbs and Norman Thomas stirred the people to threaten entrenched power and motivated the New Deal; George Wallace significantly altered the character of Republican politics by mobilizing white working class resentment against civil rights initiatives (what is known as the "Southern strategy"); and Ross Perot compelled the main parties to put high on their agenda the goal of tackling the federal deficit. Those movements did not merely come and go: they are with us today as we debate social security and health care, as we confront each other on affirmative action and tackle racial problems, and as we argue about what to do with the budget surplus. Ralph Nader could place high on the list of national priorities the necessity of limiting the influence that corporate power has over government and the urgency of putting the interests of the common people first and before the interests of well financed corporate behemoths.
In more immediate terms, a high turnout in support for Ralph Nader could push the Green candidate's national numbers to beyond the 5% he enjoys now, up to 8% or even 10% by election night. Such a showing would guarantee the Green party millions in public funds by 2004, giving a huge boost to lower-level Green candidates, and raising the party in the American consciousness to the same level that Ross Perot's reform party enjoyed in 1992.
A vote for Ralph Nader, then, even if Ralph Nader may be thought not to have a chance of winning the elections, is not a wasted vote, but potentially a very important one that could help make these presidential elections a watershed moment in America's political and social history.