Looking For Lefty

Progressives Could Choose the Next President—For Better or Worse

Ever since Karl Marx attacked the social democrats of Europe, the left has been riven by the contention that liberalism is fundamentally no different from conservatism in a bourgeois society. In America today, that translates into the idea that Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird. Greens call this creature the Republicrats; Nader speaks of a duopoly.

He says his campaign will make it possible for Democrats to take back the House. (The idea is that when all those new voters cast their ballots for Nader, their choice for Congress will be Democrats.) But his less judicious comments support the charge that he wouldn't be a candidate for Prozac if Bush takes the White House. Telling the crowd in Portland to vote Green even if it means a GOP victory, Nader crowed, "It'd probably be the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats because then they'd have to wake up and say, 'What are we here for?'. . . . The choice will be to shape up, liberate itself from the corporate power brokers, or [the Democratic Party is] going to shrink down."

It says something about the crucial nature of this election that both Gore and Nader supporters speak in almost existential terms about the Choice.

This is the nub of Nader's pitch: that the two parties think alike on the core issues of economic life. But there are real, if incremental, differences to be considered. Check out the top 20 contributors to each party and you'll see that the oil and gas industries as well as the National Rifle Association rank high for Republicans, while five of the top seven Democratic donors are unions. Then there's the bottom line of policy. Gore progs cite things like the Democrats' targeted-tax program, which favors working people over the wealthy, as opposed to the Republican package, which would give away the surplus to the rich and superrich. They talk about George Bush's failure to provide health care to poor Texans and his horrific record on the environment.

Of course, Naderites can cite their own figures about the expansion of logging under Clinton, the accelerating climate change, and the growing army of people—21 percent of blacks and 17 percent of all children—who faced hunger in 1999. The big blow job notwithstanding, Clinton's real shame is replacing the Great Society with a culture many leftists refer to as "imiseration and incarceration." Liberals hope Gore will do better—especially with a Democratic Congress behind him—but no one thinks he will lead a new war on poverty.

The warmest feeling Gore arouses on the left is realism, and that doesn't lend itself to passion. As radical critic Barbara Ehrenreich points out, "none of them are sporting Gore buttons or bumper stickers and I don't expect any of them to invite me to a Gore house party anytime soon." What does fire these folks up is the Naderites' catty contempt for their fears. "I suppose it's possible to use the threat of Christian fascism one more time to terrify the liberals," snarks Christopher Hitchens (never one to coddle nervous nellies), "but it's pretty obvious that Governor Bush is not a hostage to his party's Jurassic wing. Sinister little mediocrity he may be, but who's seriously frightened of him?"

The answer is: most folks who care deeply about affirmative action, abortion, and gay rights. These so-called social issues are the starkest contrast between the two parties, as even Nader agrees. Yet he's easy about who occupies the presidency, since "The White House is a corporate prison." This gives Barney Frank his sharpest salient: "If Nader really believes there are no important differences between Gore and Bush, then it must follow that these [social issues] are not important differences. And in fact, this is what Nader does believe."

Maybe not. But his campaign has clearly made a calculation that the way to grow the left is to build the so-called Blue/Green alliance between workers and environmentalists. This means tying women's rights to global wage equity and rarely mentioning police brutality or affirmative action except when the faces in the crowd are black. Though Nader has some strong support among blacks, he's also drawn fire for "relegating race to the peripheries," as a recent piece in ColorLines contends. One black activist who confronted Nader was appalled by his reply: "You ask what I've done to reach out to the black community . . . and I ask you, how many black people did you bring here today?"

As for Nader's embrace of gays, it's like the sort of hug men give each other when they want to show that they're sensitive but not queer. It's a quick in/out that reads as something less than love.

But why blame Nader for a dismissal of identity politics that's all but trendy on the left? With the perception that these issues have become liberal shibboleths, there's been a reaction among radicals, some of it justified, some of it suspect. "If anything, the homophobia is more smug on the left," says gay progressive Martin Duberman, whose new book is aptly called Left Out. "They don't want to know about our lives—and yet they claim that they do know." For Duberman, the subordination of sexism and homophobia to "universal" issues —read class—is a dialectical disappearing act. "When they call our issues particularistic, they're saying that they aren't sufficiently important to be featured—and that seems to apply to Nader himself."

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