Friday, October 22

Swing for Kerry, pt. 1

What follows is the first of two posts that explain the reason for my endorsing John Kerry over Ralph Nader in so-called swing states. In presenting this, I take for granted that my reader is largely familiar with Kerry's platform and does not need me to rehash it.
Many endorsements for Kerry emphasize the “disastrous tenure” (NYTimes) of George W. Bush and argue that, by comparison, President Kerry could only be an improvement. This is an easy way out, as it turns making the case for Kerry into a stroll along the beach. It would be more difficult and, I think, more compelling, to argue for favoring Kerry to Nader. As for me, making the case against the Nader vote in swing states was at first difficult because I agree with Nader on the issues and see that he has been treated brutally by many Democrats (including all the paid voices of Air America Radio).

The source of my support for the strategically placed Kerry vote can be found in Nader’s own arguments. Nader is right when he says that it is unfair to label him a spoiler when all candidates try to spoil other candidates’ chances for election. He is also justified in drawing attention to the unfair way in which he has been treated by scheming Democrats and an uneven system of ballot access, among other things. The system he has courageously confronted is nothing short of criminal, and his candidacy has highlighted the fact that, in the United States, democracy has been sold off to corporate interests and hacked to pieces by bought-and-sold politicians. But there are a few decisive blind spots in Nader's approach that, when taken into account, weaken the grounds for his drive to campaign hard in swing states. Consider, first, this exchange with David Brancaccio that took place on Now with Bill Moyers (October 8, 2004):

BRANCACCIO: You're doing very well. This could, your candidacy in particular, perhaps yours, swing the election. You said in February on television that if it was very close late in the game, maybe you might pull out. Maybe you might ask people in close states to vote for, perhaps Kerry. It's getting late here. You prepared to do that right now?

NADER: David, I didn't say that. I said to Tim Russert, if it's close in October...

BRANCACCIO: ...You'd come back to talk to us.

NADER: ...invite me back. He hasn't invited me back yet.

BRANCACCIO: A great time to do that.

NADER: Yeah, here's my answer. If people are worried about third parties tipping the balance between the two major corporate candidates, then their problem is with the Electoral College. Their problem is with the absence of instant run-off voting. Their problem is with a winner take all system that we're all prisoners of. And it's time to get out of jail.
Mr. Nader is right to deflect voters' worries and anger away from third parties, and even, by implication, from himself, but this argument could just as well be turned against Nader's campaign, since Nader's problem, as well as everyone else's who likes the notion of democracy, is primarily with the Electoral College and the winner-take-all system of voting. Of course, the two dominant parties are resistant to reform these distortions of democracy, but, contrary to Nader's assumption, it is not firmly established that running a progressive candidate hard in swing states is the best means of addressing these problems. Indeed, it is doubtful. And that is true even if it remains (as I think it does) disputable whether Nader's candidacy would draw more votes from Kerry than from Bush. The mere risk of tilting the balance to Bush should be grounds enough for not hitting as hard in a decisive state such as Florida.

Nader has an abundance of crucial ideas for the reforms he seeks, as can be seen in other comments from the same interview:

NADER: I think the American people want more voices and choices on the ballot line. We need to dramatically reduce the huge ballot access barriers that have produced a two-party duopoly that turns around and through redistricting, carves up the country and leaves voters with one dominant party in one district after another, Republican or Democrat. That's not an election. An election means selection. That's a coronation. Ninety-five percent of the House of Representatives seats are one-party dominated, Republican or Democrat. So we need more third parties, more independent candidates at the local, state and national level. Here's how you get them. You have public funding of public campaigns based on a well-promoted voluntary check-off on the 1040 tax return. Number two, you get rid of these ballot access barriers. In the 19th century, they were much lower. We had many more third parties. They broke ground on the abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, labor rights for trade unions. There was a much more fluid system. We need same day voter registration. We need run-off elections.
Very well put, Mr. Nader; however, none of this supports the claim that defying pragmatism is the best of all solutions to these many problems, particularly at this juncture in our nation's history. The threat of the Neocons is far more sinister than the long-observed structural deterioration of our democracy, which deterioration will not be reversed in the short term, no matter what the results of the upcoming election. Still, there are signs that some of the structural corruption of our system has begun to crumble, as exemplified most recently by the fact that the Republican-leaning State of Colorado is considering a proportionate distribution of its Electoral College votes, rather than a winner-take-all give-away, as is practiced elsewhere. Now, this proposed reform is not the consequence of any third party, and the glorification of past third-party gains is not a persuasive means of arguing that all such reforms must begin with a complete upheaval of the corrupt duopolistic power of the Democrats and Republicans. In my view, a progressive rotting away and displacement of this power by the efforts of citizens’ groups and popular organizations would be more likely, and ultimately more effective, than a nation-wide revolt presenting itself as an effort to topple the big players through the same narrow, media-controlled conduits.