Ralph Nader, who created the genre of consumer advocate, once again will enter politics to run for president. No one has done more to enhance what capitalism is supposed to rely on and encouragethe informed consumer. His activism has been necessary because US capitalism is increasingly morphing into a system whereby the privileged use government and manipulate information to retain their own power. It is class war by the rich.
Nader has moved from consumer activist to presidential candidate because our political process itself reflects and enables our sclerotic and crony-dominated economy. Our major parties, like brand names, too often offer little more than differences in emphasis, style and logos. Mainstream Democrats attack Bush, but they have failed to stake out clear alternative grounds on hedge fund income, trade policy, the Iraq occupation or the rights of labor to organize collectively in response to growing corporate dominance and consolidation.
Yet having said these things, I plan to join my Democratic friends in voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in November. Both major parties are too heavily dependent on corporate support, but corporate elites do not constitute a monolith. At least some important business interests now understand that health care is a drag on US competitiveness, that the days of accessible oil and escalating balance of payments deficits cannot go on forever, and that war costs and no-bid contracts for crony friends are creating tangible barriers to their own expansion. Many of these outsiders may share with corporate insiders an antipathy to taxes and fear of unions, but they cannot abide the direction of the US economy.
Both Clinton and Obama are more likely to scale back US occupation of Iraq. Each is more likely at least to place the issues of poverty and the economic security of the middle class on the table. The coalitions Democrats must foster to win require attention to anti-occupation and social justice advocates.
Under our electoral system, minority candidates have no chance of winning nor even of producing the kind of gains proportional representation systems allow. Obama, Clinton or John McCain is going to be our next president and it does make a difference. I will not, however, join some of my Democratic friends in bashing Ralph Nader for running again. Naders candidacy may benefit Obama or Clinton.
I remain unconvinced that Nader cost Al Gore the presidency. Without Nader in 2000, voter participation and voter awareness of issues would have been substantially less. Nader consistently polled around 5% of the electorate in the run-up to the election, while receiving only about half that total on Election Day. In addition, tracking polls during the run-up to the election suggest that during those points in the campaign when Gore strove to pre-empt Naders populist themes, he achieved his highest support.
It appears likely that some voters became interested in politics because Nader spoke more directly and believably to their concerns than either major candidate. Nonetheless, on voting day many accepted the realities of our electoral system and voted for Gore. Many of these voters would have been at home and turned off by politics on Election Day but for Naders entry into the race.
Obama or Clinton is unlikely to win without mobilizing the Democratic base. Obama seems to have excited a core of youthful supporters, but McCain, despite his pro-war rhetoric and his right-wing economic agenda, carries the image of a maverick. Both McCain and the corporate media will endlessly bash Clinton or Obama as radicals who will destroy the economy. McCain also will strive mightily to energize the social right around abortion and gay rights. A move by the Democrat to the center will not address the growing insecurity experienced by so many today or the deep concerns about the war. And it will fail to excite the activist base of the party whose get-out-the-vote initiatives will be vital on Election Day.
Democrats are unlikely to win a general election on vacuous calls for change. They must speak to grievances in believable ways and suggest responses that resonate with our citizens. Contrary to the corporate media, Medicare for all, rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and even the right to organize to bargain collectively are not radical in terms of our history nor as measured by many polls. Nader can force either Clinton or Obama to articulate a clear and believable alternative to McCain.
Obamas initial response to Nader was healthy: The job of the Democratic Party is to be so compelling that a few percentage [points] of the vote going to another candidate is not going to make any difference. The eventual Democratic nominee should join Nader in demanding that TV debates include the consumer advocate. Along with commitments on health, trade and labor, this would show that the Democrat is a genuine democrat and would appeal to a sense of fairness most Americans hold.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2008
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