In Defense of Ralph Nader
- Toby Shepherd
In 1848 Zachary Taylor, running on the ticket of the Whig party, had an interesting campaign strategy: avoidance. Instead of adopting a stance on the hot topic of the day - whether or not slavery ought to be permitted in the recently acquired territories - he focused his campaign on his military heroism and the 40 impressive years of killing Indians and Mexicans he had under his belt. Sure, "Old Rough and Ready" owned 200 slaves of his own, but he had something his opponents lacked: charisma.
Taylor ran against two opponents; the first was Democratic candidate Lewis Cass. Cass had adopted an ambiguous position on slavery, toting a lukewarm proposal of allowing each state to decide for itself whether or not to institutionalize the practice. The third opponent was aging politician Martin Van Buren who ran on the ticket of the anti-slavery, "free soil" party. Angry northerners, disappointed with Cass's hand-wringing and Taylor's calculated silence, voted for Van Buren, giving him a respectable if not overwhelming 10%. In the end, Taylor narrowly won the election over Cass, which in turn sent the Democrats reeling. How could Van Buren be so belligerent, no, so egotistical as to run for President? Didn't he know he'd siphon potential votes away from Cass, who was quite obviously the lesser of two evils? What the hell was Van Buren's problem?
Things have changed in the last hundred and fifty years, but not everything. Instead of slavery, we have "outsourcing." Instead of the Alamo, we have Fallujah. (Wait, what was the Alamo?) Free Soilers have been replaced with fair traders. And instead of disappointing politicians - well, I guess we still have those.
Skull & Bones brothers Bush and Kerry are this year's disappointers. While Bush's presidency has, inarguably, been one of the worst in recent memory (quagmire in Iraq, plummeted economy, record deficits, soaring crime, swelling unemployment, set backs in civil liberties), Kerry's doesn't offer much in the way of reversing Bush's mistakes. (Sorry, not mistakes. We don't use that word, I must have meant 'errors of judgment'.)
No, Kerry's spent most of his campaign 'me too'ing' Bush on everything from his support for the occupation to the Every Child Left Behind Act. The PATRIOT Act, NAFTA, WTO * Kerry's gives the thumbs up. Instead of lambasting Bush for attempting to write homophobic bigotry into our nation's constitution, Kerry silently acquiesced by asserting that he too believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Instead of impeaching Bush for his campaign of lies surrounding the justification for invading Iraq, Kerry artfully dances around calling Bush a liar. ("Well, I wouldn't use that word*")
Not surprisingly, polls have shown tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum at being more or less consistently 50% each. Could it just be that it's impossible to discern between the two parties these days??
Not according to the democrats, no, they know who's to blame. It's Ralph Nader and his maniacal jihad for Presidency. And they've got the facts to back it up.
Or do they? You'd think with all the rabid frothing the Democrats have done over Nader's campaign being bankrolled by Republican operatives, they'd at least have their facts straight. But no.
Here's a good one. An ad produced by the Nader haters at TheNaderFactor.com charge Nader with all but conspiring with the RNC to steal the election from Kerry. You should know that TheNaderFactor.com is a project of the National Progress Fund, a rag-tag team of major Democratic players, which, according to the IRS, received its single largest donation from corporate executive Bobby Savoie. (Savoie's company, Apogen Technologies, is a major contractor with several departments of the federal government, including the department of Homeland Security.) Savoie donated a generous $25,000 gift to the National Progress Fund one month after donating the same amount to the Republican National Committee. A month before that, he gave the RNC another $2,000. (His wife Lori gave equal amounts on the same days.)
Here's the clincher. According to the New York Times, TheNaderFactor.com's television ad cost them $5,000 to produce and another $20,000 to run in New Mexico and Wisconsin, totaling $25,000 dollars, the exact same amount that corporate Republican Bobby Savoie donated. Could the Democrats really be so hypocritical as to charge Ralph Nader with financing his campaign with Republican money - with Republican money?
In reality, the accusations are largely baseless. An independent organization known as the Center for Responsive Politics provided data that Republican donors who are funding George Bush's reelection campaign have given more money to the Democratic National Committee than to Ralph Nader's campaign. The study found that only 4% of Nader's funding, a total of $54,000, came from donors who had also given to Republicans. But those very same donors gave a total $66,000 to the Democrats!
Exit polls in 2000 showed that 25% of Ralph's votes came from registered Republicans * it shouldn't be surprising therefore that less than 5% of his campaign is being funded with "Republican money." Nader has repeatedly called on conservative Republicans upset with Bush over his rejection of the Republican Party's ideologies (irresponsible fiscal policies, expansion of intrusive government) to consider his campaign.
Unlike Kerry, Nader has refused to accept corporate donations on principle. Kerry, on the other hand, has been quick to accept money from companies that are funding Bush's campaign as well. Citigroup: $157,806 to Kerry, $557,250 to Bush. UBS Americas: $157,450 to Kerry, $431,850 to Bush. Goldman Sachs: $115,250 to Kerry, $350,875 to Bush. Microsoft: $104,663 to Kerry, $184,040 to Bush. Morgan Stanley: $101,954 to Kerry, $700,000 to Bush.
Why is it acceptable for Kerry to share the same corporate donors as Bush, but not for Nader to receive contributions from a few individual Republicans? Just one more instance of hypocrisy from the other party of corporate interests.
Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with a little negative campaigning, even if it is misleading and hypocritical. It keeps things fun! But the Democratic challenge hasn't just contained lies and slander, it's included an organized, sinister campaign of voter disenfranchisement aimed at kicking Nader off of state ballots.
Take Oregon. After Nader volunteers collected more than the required 15,306 signatures (a total of 18,186) needed to appear on the state's ballot, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury invented reasons to disqualify his constituents. If signatures appeared illegible, (despite printed names appearing directly below "illegible" signatures) Bradbury disqualified them. In one instance, a volunteer had begun to write a "7" to mark the day of the month, realized the error, crossed it out and wrote "8." Bradbury discarded the entire sheet. Bradbury even threw out 2,354 signatures, (which had already been verified by individual counties) because they were submitted without page numbers. All in all, Bradbury left Nader 218 signatures short of being on the state ballot. Three cheers for democracy.
In Pennsylvania, a law firm by the name of Reed Smith successfully barred Nader from appearing on the state's ballot. According to the Washington Post, the firm (whose PAC gives primarily to the RNC) counsels 29 of the top 30 U.S. Banks, 26 of the Fortune 50 companies, 9 of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies and 50 of the world's largest leading drug and medical device manufactures. The New York Times quoted one lawyer as saying "8 to 10 lawyers in [the] firm were working pro bono on the case, 80 hours each a week for two weeks."
In Arizona, large Democratic donors employed the services of three corporate law firms to file frivolous challenges to Nader's ample number of signatures. 1,349 signatures were thrown out because the volunteer who had collected them failed to provide the correct name of the county, despite filling out the rest of their address accurately.
In Ohio, law firm of Kirkland and Ellis, (of whom Kenneth Starr is a partner) whose former clients include Dow Corning (breast implant litigation), Brown and Williamson Tobacco, (anti-smoking cases brought by state attorney generals) and General Motors (product defect cases against victims of injuries) has provided two full-time lawyers to keep Nader-Camejo off the ballot.
Dorothy Melanson, chair of the Democratic Party of Maine, testified under oath that the national Democratic Party has funded efforts throughout the 2004 election to stop the Nader-Camejo ticket from appearing on ballots. Similar testimony has traced the trail of manipulation to the DNC and the Kerry campaign itself.
Hand it to the Democrats to keep some costs down, though. A contractor they hired in Michigan to make phone calls to check the validity of our tens of thousands of signatures outsourced the work to India.
In some cases, the campaign of disenfranchisement has even gone beyond slander and legal challenges into outright intimidation. A Nader supporter in Nevada received an 'anonymous' phone call urging him to admit he was tricked into signing a petition to place Nader on the ballot. A call to the number on the caller ID later was answered with "Hello, DNC." Other volunteers were threatened with arrests should they accidentally provide any incomplete or false information on ballot petitions.
In Toby Moffett's words (organizer of the National Progress Fund) these efforts are a calculated effort "to neutralize [Nader's] campaign by forcing him to spend money and resources defending these things." Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe reportedly told Nader over a telephone call that he "actively approved of these organized efforts." His advice for Ralph was to run in "safe states," or in affect, not to run at all. What the hell is a safe state, anyway? The very phrase is vindication of the way in which the two parties take their voters for granted. Nader was the only candidate (as he was in 2000) to campaign in all 50 states.
The arbitrary nature of ballot access laws are so complex that they can only be seen as intentional obstructions to the political process, tools to ensure that third party and independent candidates have to fight just to gain access to a fair playing field. But ballot access isn't the only instance, just look at the corrupt debate commission * a company founded by the former chairs of the two parties and sponsored by tobacco, gambling and alcohol money. Before the "debates," the candidates co-author a "memorandum of understanding" in which they agree on everything from not asking each other questions to the height of the podiums. The debates, once intended as a forum for voter education by the progressive League of Women Voters, are now nothing more than glorified news conferences, one more spectacle in the charade. Despite being on enough state ballots (no thanks to the Democrats) to win an electoral college majority, the CPD chooses to expel third party and independent candidates like Nader, who could raise the bar of discussion by adding fresh perspectives, and actually force the two parties to distinguish themselves from each other.
Such unprecedented attacks on Ralph Nader account for nothing less than an attack on the democratic process itself. The DNC has reason to be afraid. Delegates to their national convention were polled at being between 85% and 95% against the war in Iraq. An independent candidate promoting an immediate withdrawal from Iraq might "steal" the votes of pro-war/anti-war Kerry. (A telling anecdote: those delegates who brought signs to the convention reading "peace" found them confiscated and replaced with ones reading "Kerry.") They don't want voters to be able to consider a candidate advocating universal health care for all, an end to the corporatization of our schools, our democratic process, and our lives. Why, a candidate proposing raising the minimum wage to a living wage and a responsible withdrawal from Iraq might "steal" votes from Kerry. If Kerry's so desperate for Nader's votes, then why not just adopt more of a progressive platform? For all their talk about free markets, the two parties would rather manipulate the process by forcing anyone with slightly leftist sensibilities to vote for their candidate than debate Nader on the merits of his campaign.
No one in entitled to votes, and the way in which the leadership of Democratic Party has shown outright contempt for both a champion of so many issues to which they pay lip service, and the voters who see him as a viable opponent to Bush shows their indifference to their supporters. Votes need to be earned. While John Kerry was acquiring mansions, Ralph Nader brought America seat-belts, the Occupational Safety Hazard Agency and Public Citizen. While John Kerry helped Clinton pass his welfare "reform" act, Ralph Nader forced fire-stone to recall its defective tires and pushed legislation through congress banning smoking in public arenas.
When you look at the history of politics in our country, you'll see it's always been third party and independent candidates who've represented the progressive institutions and measures we come to take for granted. From the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage, from social security to trade unions: every time the two parties have only stood in the way of progress. And why shouldn't they? Aren't they making a killing lining their pockets and staffing the executive, legislative and judicial branches with their pro-business cronies? Activists have learned this lesson in the past, but they've allowed themselves to be controlled by fear. When did Michael Moore become the cheerleader of the Democratic Party? When did Chomsky, Zinn and the rest of the latte-liberals acquiesce to such a broken system? Don't they know the winners and losers have already been decided? The 'special interests' and the two parties they've bought are resting assured they'll be triumphant in November. Maybe then we'll come to see the Anybody But Bush defeatists as having stood against a unique opportunity to demand more from the lesser of two evils. All I know is that I'm proud to be voting for a candidate I don't need to apologize for.
Toby Shepherd is the author of the forthcoming book "Elephonkey. Republicrats, Corporations and Democracy in the twenty first century", and is in the process of escaping from New School University for another school.