Election Day 2004

The Bush administration is poised to steal this election as it did the one in 2000. Thousands of voters, mostly African Americans, are in danger of being illegally disenfranchised by Republican party manipulations.


In the year 2000, tens of thousands of African Americans were improperly purged from the voting rolls. Given that African Americans — when they did vote — overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Gore, and given that the margin in Florida was only 537 votes, it is clear that the last presidential election was stolen.


Or was it? Imagine this defense of Republican scheming: “Gore didn’t lose because of any Republican machinations in Florida. If Gore had been able to win his home state of Tennessee, he would have won the election regardless of what happened in Florida. If he had been able to inspire a marginally greater Democratic Party turn out in New Hampshire, he would have won. If he had been able to appeal to Arab American voters in Florida, he would have won. And so on.”


Our response to this should be obvious: the disenfranchisement by Republicans of Florida’s Black voters was not a sufficient cause for Bush to win the election, but it was a necessary cause. Without the disenfranchisement, Gore would be president, and, therefore, it is accurate to say that Bush stole the election. If I muff an easy lay-up at the end of a basketball game and my team loses by one point, it doesn’t mean that I was THE cause of the loss; my team may have blown dozens of easy points earlier in the game. Nevertheless, given all the previous missed opportunities, it is still the case that that last shot meant the difference between winning and losing. Missing the shot was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for losing the game.


The hypothetical defense of Republican behavior in Florida is the actual defense used by Nader supporters to absolve themselves of responsibility for the outcome of the 2000 election. Of course, there is a world of difference between stealing votes and legally contesting an election, but the logic in the two situations is the same. When it is pointed out that a handful of Nader voters in Florida could have shifted the outcome of the election had they voted for Gore, they reply with a list of other things that also could have led to a Gore victory. Their list is accurate, and lots of people share responsibility for Gore’s loss. And they are right that complaining Democrats would do well to examine their own contributions to the defeat. Nevertheless, it is still the case that these Nader voters — on their own, without changed behavior on the part of anyone else — could have prevented Bush from becoming president. All those who missed earlier easy shots share the responsibility for my basketball team’s loss, but that doesn’t alter the fact that if I didn’t miss the final lay-up, my team would have won.


Why am I reflogging the dead horse of 2000? Not because I believe that Naderites were the main reason for Bush’s victory four years ago. They weren’t. Gore’s incompetence and spinelessness and Bush’s theft were the main reasons. But Nader was a necessary, though not sufficient, cause. I raise this here because I am part of the Left and I fear that some of my comrades are going to make the same mistake this time around.


I believe in building third parties. I voted for Nader in 2000 (in the safe state of New Jersey) and hope to vote for Green Party candidate David Cobb this time, as long as the polls confirm that New Jersey remains safe (which is still not clear). I plan to vote for the Green Party candidate for Congress. I think that an alternative to the two parties that stand for corporate domination and empire needs to be built. At some point, when we are strong enough, we will have to put Democrats at risk if we hope to win elections. But we are not near that point today. I don’t think a few extra votes for Cobb (or Nader) in 2004 will make much difference to our long-term prospects for fundamental change, while a few less votes for Kerry in swing states might very well make a rather big difference — not because the difference between Kerry and Bush is large, but because small differences in the candidates can lead to large differences in our lives, and especially in the lives of those most victimized by the U.S. government.


Of course, some will argue that the difference goes in the other direction, that Kerry is actually worse than Bush. Kerry’s campaign rhetoric on foreign policy has been truly awful. But notice that when people like William Safire, the New York Times‘ rightwing columnist, announce that Kerry has been out-hawking Bush, they don’t really believe it — or else why is Safire not endorsing Kerry (since he’s closer to Kerry on issues like separation of church and state and civil liberties)? Kerry is terrible on Iraq, but it seems clear that the anti-war movement would be able to bring more pressure to bear on a president whose party has serious qualms about the war and whose personal history includes serious qualms about imperial wars. A Bush victory sends the message to the world that his pursuit of an illegal and immoral war has been endorsed by the American people, while a Bush defeat, even though Kerry’s current position on Iraq is little different, signals a repudiation of the war. In any event, Kerry’s opposition to such things as national missile defense and building a new generation of bunker-buster nuclear weapons is a difference with Bush that is real, with potentially life-and-death consequences.


Others make the claim that Kerry is more dangerous than Bush because he will try to sugarcoat the U.S. empire and thereby extend its life, whereas Bush is driving the empire into collapse. Such a claim assumes that the collapsing empire will not cause immense human suffering. Of course, if one is serious about this view, then one ought to oppose raising the minimum wage too (to make sure that the poor are angrier) and favor all sorts of repressive laws (to alienate the middle class) and so on. Indeed, if one really takes this view, then why waste your vote on Nader when you can vote directly for Bush (thereby hastening the hoped-for collapse)? It seems to me that the Left needs to convince people that its program is best, not hope that we can artificially limit the options to us or utter disaster so that people will choose us.


Nader has argued that in fact he’s going to take as many votes from Bush as from Kerry. What’s remarkable is that he maintains this claim despite the fact that no one else believes it. The Democrats don’t believe it (which is why they’re been trying so hard to keep Nader off the ballot). The Republicans don’t believe it (which is why they’ve been giving all sorts of assistance to get Nader on the ballot). And this Republican assistance does not mean that he’s going to get Republican votes. They’re helping him — as some have openly acknowledged — precisely so he’ll take votes from Kerry. I’m not saying Nader needs to go through all his donations and return those that come from Bush supporters. But it ought to give pause to those who accept Nader’s argument when they see funders of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and other committed Bush supporters making contributions to Nader’s campaign. Instead of saying, as the Nader camp did, that these contributions show Nader’s broad appeal, they ought to ask themselves whether the Nader campaign is inadvertently helping the candidacy of someone Nader agrees represents the greatest danger. (Polls, by the way, belie Nader’s claim that he’ll draw more from Bush than Kerry.)


Pat LaMarche, the Green Party vice-presidential candidate, elicited strong criticism when she said (later retracted) that she might consider voting for Kerry if the race in her state were tight. Could one imagine Bush or Kerry saying something like this, pundits asked? No, one can’t imagine it, because one of these two is going to win the election. A vote for LaMarche, on the other hand, is only symbolic, and as such the value of a vote cast for her can be weighed against other goals, such as the value of defeating Bush. In European political systems where there is a run-off election leftwing parties often advise their members to vote for someone else on the second round. And in the U.S. candidates often ask their supporters to support someone else (as did, for example, Kucinich) when they see they can’t win. There is nothing unprincipled about figuring out how your supporters’ votes can do the most good, given that you can’t win.


Sure, it’s infuriating to vote for a candidate who has horrible positions on so many issues, who keeps appealing to rightwing sentiments among the five or ten percent of undecided voters rather than the progressive sentiments that could have enabled him to cinch the election, who trumpets his participation in the immoral war in Vietnam rather than his principled break with that war. But we’re not voting to feel good. We’re not voting to maintain our moral purity (if we were, would we vote for Nader, who has failed to build a grassroots alternative party and who has formed unsavory alliances?). We’re voting to do the best we can to improve people’s lives, both in the short run and the long run.


Consider two possible outcomes: Four more years of Bush with Nader having gotten 1 percent of the vote or a Kerry presidency with Nader having gotten 0.5 percent of the vote. It’s hard to see how the former would be better for anyone. For the Left, the former means having to operate in a far more repressive environment; having to organize against Bush policies that this time would have the endorsement of the U.S. population; having to fight to prevent the enactment of rightwing policies instead of working for progressive change. For African Americans, a Bush victory means continued assault on affirmative action. For women, it means reproductive rights will be in great peril. For workers, it means more attacks on unions, on the minimum wage, on overtime. For the elderly, it means privatizing social security. For gays and lesbians, it means the anti-same-sex marriage amendment. And for people around the world, it means fewer checks on U.S. military interventionism. These are some of the losses we would suffer were Bush to be re-elected; they might happen under Kerry too (who will, after all, probably have a Republican Congress), but it is less likely. Avoiding these setbacks does not come close to creating the world we want or need, but they are not nothing.  And avoiding them will put us in a better position to fight for what we want and need after November 2.



Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University and writes for Z, ZNet, and New Politics. He also wrote an earlier, longer analysis of these issues, posted on ZNet.

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