Looking For Lefty

Progressives Could Choose the Next President—For Better or Worse

Though the left has been a nursery for liberation movements, no matter how arcane they might seem at first glance, there have always been radicals who were appalled by the identity glut. Class-centered progressives object to what the neo-Marxist critic Terry Eagleton calls "culturalism"—the belief that "identity is the continuation of politics by other means." They have noticed quite rightly that these liberation movements tend to ignore the question of poverty. It's free to be you and me and chablis! But there's a big difference between Eagleton's attack on subcultures that replicate the norm and Michael Tomasky's contention that flirting with feminism is why progressive politics has been "left for dead."

Nader has shattered the myth that liberalism can only survive by co-opting the right. And he's shown the Democrats that the left can bite.

Now comes Nader, resurrecting that prefeminist icon, the working-class hero. True, he makes room for the she-ro, and he tempers his class analysis with props for the environment. But under the Green veneer lurks the same old white man's populism. Ellen Willis, whose new book, Don't Think, Smile!, is a critique of social conservatism on the left, calls this blue-collar fixation "an identity politics of class. It is its own cultural nationalism, and it's a substitute for real class politics, because if you're really interested in doing away with the class system, then you have to realize that it's cultural as well as economic."

Sooner or later, the contradictions in Nader's strategy are bound to show. Some shop steward will notice that he wants to abandon the combustion engine and raise the wages of auto workers. Some Green will wonder about marching behind a leader who wants to clean up the culture. And someone will draw the obvious conclusion from the profile of Nader's supporters in the latest Gallup Poll. They're the most highly educated Americans, not the hard hats. Then there's the Nader gender gap. Men are twice as likely as women to back him—a margin that pretty much matches Bush's.

This is not to say that Nader has no support among feminists. Ehrenreich throws a large wrench into the argument that only voting for Gore will preserve abortion rights by pointing out that this freedom has been slipping away despite the Supreme Court's support because so many doctors are terrified to perform the procedure. Only a militant movement can preserve choice, Ehrenreich maintains, and that might actually be more likely to happen if women faced a more hostile judiciary (which is why she thinks the Republicans don't really want to overturn Roe v. Wade). Nader echoes this sentiment when he says that a "provocateur" like Bush would rally the left more than an "anesthetist" like Gore.

On the far side of this reasoning lies the most fundamental error of the left: the belief that crisis inevitably produces progressive change. It's what the Communists of Weimar Germany thought when they shouted, "After Hitler, us!" and what the protesters of 1968 imagined when they rioted in the streets of Chicago, shouting "Smash the state." What they did was destroy Hubert Humphrey, a very compromised liberal, and what they got was Richard Nixon.

Eugene V. Debs, the great American Socialist, liked to say "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it." But that doesn't help much when the choice involves which nostril to hold while you vote.

"I don't like Nader," says Ellen Willis. "I think he's fundamentally a social conservative with no sympathy for the cultural issues." Indeed, Nader has thrown down the gauntlet of family values complete with a critique of American culture that could have come from Joseph Lieberman. Yet Willis may end up voting Green just to help the party reach that magic 5 percent. "I can't vote for Gore. I've done too much teeth-gritting in my life. My teeth are worn down to stumps. Always my rationale for voting for Democrats is that at least with them we won't have the religious right on our backs. But with Gore we're going to have the religious right on our backs."

It's unlikely that Gore would do what Bush did in Texas: permit religious organizations to push conversion in their social-service agencies and even set up a Christian prison in one state facility. But it's not easy to vote for a Democratic ticket that embraces "charitable choice" with only slightly less fervor than the Republicans, not to mention a candidate raring to declare a pogrom on Hollywood for the sins of a violent culture. And for cultural radicals like Willis, Lieberman (who sits on boards with William Bennett and Gary Bauer) is the last straw. "He's a surrogate Christian," Willis says. "A liberal Jew would never have gotten on the ticket."

Nader's comments support the charge that he wouldn't be a candidate for Prozac if Bush takes the White House.

All summer, such grenades have been flung along the front lines of the left. The barrage would be exhilarating if it weren't so consequential. It says something about the crucial nature of this election that both Gore and Nader supporters speak in almost existential terms about the Choice.

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