Published on Monday, April 16, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Challenging the Big Buck
Nader Was Right to Make a Stand Against the Corporate Domination of
Politics, Even if It Did Let Bush Win
by Gary Younge
As George Bush plays chicken with the Chinese and fast and loose
with the environment, it is time for the left to play truth or
consequence with Ralph Nader. The Green party presidential
candidate stood against the two main parties, arguing that there
was no difference between them and that America needed an
alternative. America ended up with what looks like being the most
rightwing president since before the war.
Bush didn't win the election, he won a court case. But, with the
slenderest of endorsements, he promises to inflict severe damage.
In Congress, many Republicans are beginning to think he is beyond
the pale. Even Uncle Sam's faithful poodle, the British
government, is yapping at his heels. Some in the cabinet are
calling on Tony Blair to put the special relationship "into deep
freeze". John Prescott flies to New York today to try to persuade
Bush to change his mind about scrapping the Kyoto agreement on
controlling greenhouse gases.
So first, some truth. There is a difference between Bush and his
Democratic challenger, Al Gore. For Nader to have claimed
otherwise during his campaign was disingenuous and opportunistic.
We do not know what Gore would have done by this stage had he
won, but we can be quite sure it would not have been this. His
first decision as president would not have been to deny aid to
non-governmental organisations that support abortion overseas
through surgery, counselling or lobbying. Nor would Gore have put
forward a budget planning to eliminate 9m in grants to help
public housing authorities get rid of drug dealers or a programme
to preserve wetlands so that he could give trillions to the
wealthy. And least of all would he have turned his back on the
Now, for a consequence. If Nader had not stood, then Gore would
be president. This is as close to a political fact as a statistic
dares to be. True, polls showed that one-third of those who voted
for Nader would otherwise not have voted at all. But it is also
true that more than half of Nader's supporters would have voted
for Gore, delivering him majorities in both Florida and New
Hampshire and winning him the electoral college.
For the left not to acknowledge this is spineless. If it wants to
be taken seriously it must first take itself seriously. Nader
stood to make a difference and he succeeded. In politics, as in
life, a sign of maturity is accepting responsibility for your
actions. Moreover, only once those points have been conceded is
it possible to mount a credible defence of Nader's candidacy.
Because Nader not only had a right to stand but was right to
stand. The problem with George Bush is not that he is a vicious
rightwing ideologue - the man can barely tie his shoelaces - it
is that he is the paid representative of corporate America.
It is no good challenging Bush without challenging the system
that produced him - a system in which big money, not ideas,
selects the candidates and then backs both sides to make sure it
picks the winner. Since Gore and the Democrats were not only
complicit in that system but abused it to their own ends while in
office, they were incapable of taking on that task even if they
had wanted to. It took an outsider. Nader alone provided a
meaningful choice in what is rapidly becoming a
multimillion-dollar, corporate-sponsored charade, masquerading as
Nader was right not because there was no difference between the
two main parties but because there was insufficient difference.
The Democrats' pitch to potential Nader supporters was: "At least
we're not Republicans." The 2.7m people who voted for Nader felt
they wanted more from democracy than that.
Democrats love to blame Nader for Bush. Their logic is sloppy.
Democrats deny a myriad of other far more compelling or equally
tenuous factors that put Bush in the White House. They ignore the
fact that, after two terms in office, they could not win
Clinton's or Gore's home states. They deny that the situation was
so close in Florida that any candidate who stood, including the
Natural Law Party, could reasonably claim to have made the
One could as well blame Theresa LePore, the election supervisor
who botched the ballot papers, or Katherine Harris, the
Republican secretary of state in Florida who obstructed the
recounts. In such a tight race, Nader was a factor not the
factor. Under such circumstances, to fixate on him as the
principal reason for Gore's defeat is perverse.
The charge also reveals astonishing political arrogance. It
suggests that the Democrats have a right to the left vote
regardless of what they say and do. Clinton can withdraw welfare
benefits from the poor, promote a free-trade agreement (Nafta)
that sells jobs to the lowest wages and weakest unions in the
continent, broker global trade deals that hammer the poor or
starve Iraqi children and still expect liberals to turn out for
Democrats scream betrayal without realising that before there is
betrayal there must first be friendship and trust. They demand
loyalty, but show none in return. Having spent a decade
distancing themselves from the left, they express shock that the
left might choose to respect that distance and go it alone.
None the less, the question of whether a principled stand against
big money is best served by the practical outcome of a Bush
presidency remains pertinent. The answer may change as his term
progresses. For the time being, on balance, it was. For evidence
look no further than Kyoto. Bush's decision to renege on the
treaty is a vicious attack on the environment. But Clinton's
record was not much better. He signed up to Kyoto, but he did not
honour it. The US, by far the world's largest polluter, promised
to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by 2012.
Instead, emissions rose by more than 10% on 1990 levels by 2000.
It was thanks to Clinton's administration that last year's
climate talks in the Hague collapsed. The problem was not only
that he could not get the legislation through a Republican
Congress, it was that he dared not take on the might of the oil
and gas companies. They gave Republican candidates m last
year; but they gave Democrats, including Gore, m. Bush may be
in hock to them, but Clinton was in awe of them.
But much also depends on what Nader does now. The corporate
domination of American politics cannot be undermined once every
four years at election time or on television-panel discussions
and the lecture circuit. The truth is that it will take not just
a party but a movement, joining together the disparate voices of
labour unions, tree huggers and pressure groups that made
themselves heard at Seattle, to make complete sense of his
candidacy. Having made a difference at the polls, he must now
make a difference in civil society. Only then will it be clear
that the consequence of Nader's candidacy was not to derail the
Democrats, but to restore democracy.