Ralph Nader: No Solution

Revolutionary Worker #1075, October 22, 2000, rwor.org

One of the few twists in this ultra-dull election season is the third party presidential campaign of Ralph Nader.

Nader, the candidate of the Green Party, has been systematically pushed to the margins by the official election machinery: He has been denied participation in the presidential debates, he is not eligible for federal election funds, and he is almost totally ignored in the major media election coverage. And still his campaign has developed significant support at the grass roots--getting on the ballot in 44 states.

His campaign has packed coliseums with enthusiastic crowds in a series of cities--in Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Illinois, and most recently filling New York's Madison Square Garden with 15,000. In addition to stump speeches by Nader himself, these rallies featured support statements from people like filmmaker Michael Moore, talk show host Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, and performances by Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

The October 10 Chicago rally packed 10,000 people into the University of Illinois stadium. More than half of the crowd was college-age students, plus a sizable group drawn from the area's various social movements and from social democratic political trends. The event was overwhelmingly white, middle class and enthusiastic.

They howled with laughter when author Studs Terkel compared Gore and Bush to "influenza and pneumonia" and when Michael Moore described the two major parties as "regular Republicans versus pro-choice Republicans." The crowds were on their feet repeatedly when speakers talked about universal health care, cutting the power of corporations, ending the commercialization of culture and daily life, opposing the World Trade Organization, abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing drug possession. These are issues that are coldly banned in official politics--so even hearing them raised in a public way, from a podium (by a political candidate no less) was exciting to the crowd.

Toward the end of the evening, Nader argued that a starting point for understanding electoral politics is to lay aside the rhetoric and look at what the various political forces actually do. The crowd had obviously done some of this with the mainstream candidates--they hated George W. Bush, and felt deeply alienated from Albert Gore. But it is useful to take this same approach to the Nader campaign itself. To take its rhetoric with a grain of salt, and look at what this campaign actually represents, in the real world.

People who are drawn to Nader want something different in politics and in society--and are checking out this Nader campaign, wondering if this will push things forward to some real change. But to answer that question, it is necessary to look at what it would mean to climb onto this bandwagon and take this road.


Ralph Nader's politics and his movement are rooted in a deep faith in the U.S. political system. And this is reflected in Nader's whole personal history:

Nader was not part of the antiwar movement of the '60s and '70s. He never actively supported Black people's struggle for equality--then or now. He still rarely (or barely) speaks out on issues like the right to abortion, police brutality, the defense of immigrants, or justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

He has been a lifelong lobbyist in Washington--focused on shaping laws in Congress. He has worked all his life to draw students into this process--as lobbyists, publicists and fundraisers for legislative reforms. His "Nader's Raiders" have always kept far away from radical movements for social change. Their focus was always on reforms like seatbelt laws, poultry inspection, and clean air standards.

Nader is, in short, a man deeply enmeshed in the system--even if he never directly hitched himself to the electoral campaigns of Democratic Party liberals.

In recent years, lobbyists for reform have gotten the cold shoulder in the halls of power--and Nader proposes to change that. His key idea is to use electoral activism to shift power in society away from corporations. And he intends to do that in two ways: First, by revitalizing the hope and faith of people in the electoral process--by drawing millions of young, disaffected people into that system--and second by pressing through campaign finance reform to cut back the wholesale corporate purchasing of candidates and legislation.


Nader does not intend any deep or fundamental changes in either the political or the economic system. He promotes Canadian health care and European social welfare as models for the U.S.--which shows he does not intend any radical change in society. The American flag spread across the front of Nader's stadium rallies is a symbol of that basic, patriotic loyalty to this system.

He claims it is possible to use the electoral system to take power in society away from corporate capitalists--and, at the same time, he makes a point of saying he does not intend to abolish corporations or private capitalist ownership.

He says the problem in the U.S. really started 20 years ago--when Reagan became president and the "New Democrats" decided to become Republicans. But this really means that Nader aims no higher than returning to the sixties and early seventies, when the U.S. ruling class was forced to adopt some reforms.

Everything about Nader's program is stamped with a deliberate moderation: He is for "cutting aid to Israel" (not for ending it), he is for a leaner more effective military (not for breaking the armed might of U.S. imperialism), he is for better treatment for the poor (not for the abolition of poverty or doing away with the exploitation of one human by another)--and so on.

His vision is of a reformed capitalism--where corporations are confined and tamed by laws and the democratic pressures of an aroused electorate. On a very deep level, this totally misunderstands how things work in this world.

For one thing, a series of campaign reforms will not pry the U.S. government out of the control of the capitalist class. And for another, it is impossible to imagine real social justice and liberation in the world without abolishing capitalist ownership and creating a revolutionary new form of society.

Haven't European and Canadian imperialism long had social democratic reform parties in their governments without any fundamental threat to the system or the oppression it breeds? Even if Nader's program was implemented--would it really change all that much?

Let's take the issue of political power:

Crude bribery and funding of politicians has always been one way that the capitalist class controls its state--but hardly the only way. Even if reform laws abolished private funding of candidates, the capitalists would continue to rule society, and continue to control politicians and state policy. In countries like France, for example, presidential candidates (of both major and minor parties) get free television time to present their views. But this hasn't changed the capitalist nature of those societies, or the class nature of those states, or the class nature of the political figures who hold the top posts.

The American political system is something that was created by wealthy property owners, merchants and slaveowners. It wasn't taken over by corporations 20 years ago, as Nader says. The electoral process always belonged to the rich and powerful and, more than anything else, it has always been a way of drawing ordinary people into legitimizing and supporting the policies and politicians that the ruling class support.

In fact the very way Nader has been handled this year shows how this works. Nader's plan was to build a grassroots network that would get him on the ballot, force his way into the debates, get onto the national radar screen, win 5 percent of the vote, and then, with federal matching funds, become a major contender in the 2004 presidential campaign.

But right now, the U.S. ruling class does not want a reformist wind within their political elections. So they have allowed him to travel the country urging people to enter the process, but they have crudely denied him entrance to the debates or coverage in the media. It's their elections and their media--and you don't get in into the Major Leagues unless they want you there.

Or let's look at the issues of capitalist globalization:

Modern capitalism has had a global character from its very beginning--riding roughshod over whole continents, building huge colonial empires, enriching itself off the slave trade, and seeking out impoverished workers to exploit. It has sprawled across the globe for two centuries, concentrating ownership in huge monopoly corporations, ripping the resources from distant lands, and now shifting wealth around the world with the flick of a computer key.

Can this system really be tamed and reformed by protectionist measures, regulations and laws? Or will it require armed revolutions to end the sweatshops, the death from hunger of tens of thousands of kids every day around the world, the rampant environmental destruction, and ruin of whole cultures and economies?

False Hopes

Nader preaches faith in this political system to alienated and disaffected forces, including those who awakened to political life in this year's struggles against the WTO and globalization. He wants to draw people into the electoral process--and get them to draw others into the process.

In an interview with the L.A. Weekly, Nader argued that he would bring people into the elections who hated both parties, and that, once there, they were likely to vote for Democratic congressional candidates and even swing some key votes. Nader said that he had met with Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt, and Gephardt "is not displeased with this candidacy." Even Republican Senator John McCain recently praised the Nader campaign for bringing "new forces into the process."

Nader says his plan is to pull the system in radical directions. But in fact, the main real-life impact of his campaign is to pull potentially radical forces into an electoral system designed to absorb and co-opt their resistance. And that is something the ruling class supports. They won't let him debate--but they will let him recruit people to put their hopes in the system.

It is a positive thing that large numbers of middle class people are disgusted with Al Gore and hate capitalist corporations. But Nader's bandwagon won't take them in the direction of real change. In the final analysis, his campaign is an illusion machine.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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