Letter from America
‘‘Vote strategically : For Nader’’
The vast majority of African Americans who vote in the November 2000 presidential election will undoubtedly support the democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman. The national black political establishment including more than ten thousand elected officials, the Congressional Black Caucus, key black leaders of the AFL-CIO, and paid operatives within the Democratic National Committee — have for months spoken with one voice, unanimously praising Al Gore.
The Black establishment’s behaviour and motivations are understandable. Big city mayors rely on federal dollars to address urban problems, and a Gore administration would certainly be preferable to the conservative policies of Bush. A strong black voter turnout for Gore could also contribute to Democratic majorities in Congress, which in turn would elevate a number of African Americans like Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel into powerful House chairmanships. Thousands of black professionals, managers and attorneys who are connected to the Clinton administration through networks of patronage and power, see Gore’s victory as being essential to their own career advancement. Any private misgivings they still feel about Gore’s embrace of the death penalty, or the anti-affirmative action positions of Joe Lieberman, are now effectively suppressed. Like loyal foot soldiers in a grand army on the battlefield, they are ready to hurl themselves against the ramparts of their political enemies.
Yet blind loyalty is rarely rewarded, whether on the battlefield or in politics. Those who declare their allegiances first rarely sit at the table when the spoils of victory are divided. Those who make up their minds last exercise the greatest power in politics, because they can leverage all parties into making valuable concessions. This is the strategic explanation why Gore and Bush are spending millions of dollars and the majority of their campaign efforts to appeal to so-called ‘‘swing voters’’, especially senior citizens and suburban middle class white women. Bush completely ignores the African-American electorate because he knows he’ll receive few black votes, probably under 10 percent. Gore can also safely ignore us, because he knows we have nowhere else to go. Many black elected officials are only working just hard enough to have a decent black voter turnout, but privately don’t want the overwhelming masses to go to the polls. If millions of poor, unemployed and working class African-Americans were actually mobilized to participate in the electoral process, the outcome would be entirely unpredictable. Thus all too many black elected politicians and Democratic Party officials have become silent partners in the suppression of black electoral political power.
Since Bush represents no alternatives, the real debate that ought to exist within the African-American community is whether we should vote for Gore or Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Black mainstream Democrats, most trade union organizers and many progressives are now resorting to a wide variety of explanations why black folk must remain doggedly loyal to Gore and the Democrats. Briefly, let’s examine three of their main arguments.
Argument One : ‘‘Gore’s a positive good, not a necessary evil.’’ This position strains credibility, even among members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Representatives Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, Jr. Gore has a long track record of hostility to black people’s interests, especially on issues related to criminal justice and poor women’s rights. It was Gore who pushed for the passage of the 1994 Crime Act, that broadly expanded the federal death penalty. It was Gore earlier this year who promised to cover America in ‘a blanket of blue’’ with the hiring of 50,000 more police nationwide. It was Gore, according to journalist Alexander Cockburn, who ‘‘has pushed for block grants for prison expansion in the states, with the proviso that such federal grants will be issued only if each state insures that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.’’ It was Gore as a Congressman who voted to ban federal funding of abortions for poor women, even in cases of rape. It was Gore who finally convinced Clinton to sign the destructive 1996 Welfare Act. It was Gore who almost single-handedly pushed Clinton’s administration to the right, by hiring Reagan stooge David Gergen and sleazy political consultant Dick Morris.
Argument Two : ‘‘Gore’s not great, but he’s all we’ve to defeat the Far Right.’’ This argument does make sense, but only because Bush and Company represent repressive politics and policies that are both ‘‘bad’’ and ‘‘ugly’’. Liberal journalist Tom Wicker has recently posed a critical question in the Nation that must be answered seriously, even by Nader’s supporters : ‘‘Whom do you want to nominate Justices for the Supreme Court in the next four years?’’ The next president will probably nominate three new justices to the Supreme Court. As Wicker suggests, ‘‘three more Scalia & Thomas-style votes
would transform what’s now a back-and-forth Court into a (conservative) bastion that could last for generations.’’ Row v. Wade would probably be reversed, and the remnants of affirmative action destroyed forever. Gun control and campaign finance reform would be possible. Wicker concludes that the best guarantee against any such outcomes is a big Democratic victory across the board in November. Wicker, the well-meaning white liberal, is wrong here. The best way to defeat the Right is to build powerful democratic movements within black and brown communities, within labour, gay and lesbian, women’s rights and environmental constituencies. Tactically, the black freedom movement and the progressive left should mobilize to defeat the Republican Right, especially in those local, state and national races where there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between the agendas of the candidates. One prominent example that immediately comes to mind is that of conservative Republican ‘‘Little Rickie’’ Lazio, the baby-faced reactionary masquerading as a moderate, who is challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate in New York.
Argument Three : ‘‘Nader’s no real alternative, and actually could be worse than Gore.’’ In recent weeks, Nader has become the object of considerable attack from various feminist, gay/lesbian and minority constituencies. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, denounced Nader as ‘‘ill-informed about abortion rights, and accusing him of ‘‘ignorance’’ and ‘‘indifference’’ on women’s issues. A San Francisco-based minority coalition of African Americans, Latinos and Asians described Nader as being ‘‘oblivious’’ to people of colour and women. David Smith, the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest lesbian, gay and transgender rights group has dismissed Nader as homophobic and heterosexist.
One can, and should seriously question Nader’s views about racially oppressed groups, lesbians, gays and women. We must set that same high standard in judging any candidate. Yet what is also true is that most of Nader’s liberal-left critics are privately in Gore’s back pocket. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, endorsed Gore and is campaigning vigorously on his behalf. How and when did Al Gore become a fighter for black liberation? By what ‘‘magic’’ did Gore transform himself as a defender of gay and lesbian rights? What I find particularly offensive is the cynical manipulation of racial and gendered attacks against the Nader campaign, while saying virtually nothing about the devastating political hit poor and working class women of colour have taken from the Clinton-Gore administration after the implemention of welfare reform.
In the 2000 election, our overall objective should not be to elect Democrats per se, but to mobilize working class and the poor, to enhance African-American and Latino political clout, and to defeat the Far Right. Voting for Nader in most states actually accomplishes these goals better than by supporting Gore-Lieberman. In the long run, we cannot rely on the Democratic Party to defend the people’s interests, against the right. Only an independent, progressive people’s movement challenging racism and corporate power can accomplish this.
The chief argument against voting for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader from black Democrats, organized labour, white liberals and even Marxists, is that he cannot possibly win, and that he could ‘‘give’’ the White House to Bush. For example, former United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser helped to block a UAW endorsement of Nader by declaring that ‘‘every vote Nader gets is a vote he takes away from Al Gore, not George Bush.’’
Jesse Jackson, Jr., possibly the most intelligent and consistently progressive Congressman, makes the same point. After flirting with public opposition to the selection of Lieberman as Gore’s vice presidential running mate at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles this summer, he pushed back from the political brink. White liberals, Jackson warned, may have the ‘‘luxury’’ of voting for Nader, a courageous and principled man who nevertheless cannot win, because they don’t have to live with the practical consequences of a Bush victory.
Until several weeks ago, Nader’s general approach was not to take this question seriously. In fact, he frequently has derided Gore as a ‘‘coward’’, and described the White House as ‘‘a corporate prison.’’ A more effective and persuasive position would have been to say that on many public policy positions, expecially on civil rights, women’s and reproductive rights, on the Supreme Court and most labour issues, Gore is clearly superior to Bush. But on a number of other crucial issues, such as the immoral embargo against Cuba, military spending, trade and globalization, civil liberties, ending the mass incarceration of over a million African Americans and the vast expansion of the prison industrial complex, Gore is at least as bad as Bush.