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Ralph’s Revolt: A Discussion with Greg Bates

Josh Frank
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    Greg Bates co-founded Common Courage Press in 1990, and is the current publisher. He is also the author of the new book, Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion. Bates recently spoke with Joshua Frank about his upcoming book, the elections, and the future of progressive politics in America. He currently resides in Monroe, Maine.

Josh Frank: What was your reaction to the Green Party deciding to nominate longtime party activist David Cobb on June 26, rather than endorsing the Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo independent ticket? Cobb as you know was democratically nominated by the largest progressive party in the US, where Nader is running on his own. Doesn’t that hurt Nader’s chances, not only of making an impact on this election, but in building any viable third party movement over the long haul?

Greg Bates: First, I look at this from the progressive voters’ perspective. The fact that the Greens are running ANY candidate as opposed to no candidate gives voters more choice in the 22 states where Greens are on the ballot. More voter choice—even if you feel passionately about what choice they should make—is a move toward democracy. So it’s a step forward.

Second, again from the perspective of voter choice, I wish the Greens would run Cobb in all 50 states. Voters in those states where he isn’t running have less choice.

I would have preferred that Nader/Camejo was endorsed because they stand for letting voters decide. It is the role of those who want to be president to run as candidates, the role of voters to make the choices, strategic and otherwise. Refusing to run in swing states says that you know better than the voters do. That’s antithetical to democracy.

Had Cobb said he was really running for president across the country, I would still have preferred Nader for the simple reason that Nader has the best track record and the longest. Let’s hope Cobb—and many others—duplicate this over the years.

Does Nader’s lack of endorsement hurt his chances of an impact? Minimally to the extent that he may have trouble getting ballot access in some of the 22 states the Greens have. But those who vote Cobb instead of Nader are endorsing the Nader strategy—be a counterweight to the Democrats’ drift right. Since neither candidate will win, it doesn’t matter which one you vote for; it still has an impact on Kerry.

Nader’s run highlights the need for a party, and I hope inspires others to get involved, whether with the Greens or some other group. The lack of endorsement could cut two ways. On one side, he doesn’t have party backing from them (but he does from the Reform Party). On the other, he might feel freer to found a new party. A new party that was committed to holding a convention in time for serious efforts at ballot access (say in October of the previous year rather than the Green’s impossibly late timing at the end of June), could free up the Greens to abandon presidential runs, about which they are ambivalent.

Plus, if a new party gave the Greens a little competition for the progressives abandoned by the Democrats, it might make them better. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. Some group is bound to move into the space in a fairly professionally organized way, especially the larger the political space becomes as the Democrats move right. Maybe it will be the Greens, maybe another group. But I predict—largely as a result of the Democrats abandoning their constituents—that third party politics will become a much larger force in the coming years.

As I point out in the book and as many have argued, building a party takes years, as does acquiring the experience of presidential runs in order to one day win. Airbags took Nader and so many others 20-plus years. For the presidency we might need to think in terms of 13 elections or more over the next 50 years. That is the proper time frame, regardless of who the party is, I believe. That has certain implications, among them you have to run flat out each time to get the experience and develop the networks and resources in all 50 states.

JF: In 2000, many progressives maintained there was “no difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Many of those same voters feel much differently today, including many former Naderites. What about you? Do you not see any substantive differences between John Kerry and Bush? Many progressives argue that if Kerry is elected, even if he is just ‘Bush-lite,’ he will at least give us a little ‘wiggle room’ to push for genuine change, whereas with another four years of Bush we have no chance of that. In your book you don’t seem to buy this argument. What are your reasons?

GB: The differences are hard to understand, not because there aren’t any but because there are so many variables involved. And because we fervently WANT to believe there are solid differences. Progressives and liberals don’t want 4 more years of Bush; they want to believe they will get something better in Kerry. But it’s best to drop how we want to see the situation in order to perceive it as accurately as possible.

One thing that makes Bush different is 9-11. Would Gore have prosecuted the “war on terror,” had he been given the chance, the way Bush has? Undoubtedly there would have been differences. More important, what about Kerry? He advocated going into Iraq over WMDs in 1998. On that front, he beat Bush by several years and, crucially, was arguing the case BEFORE the pretext of the war on terror. Today he says, “I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror. I believe he’s done too little.” That tells me I can’t hope Kerry will better on this critical issue.

Another factor that makes Bush different is that he is the first Republican president to serve since the 1950s when Republicans had control of all branches of government, the Judiciary, both houses of Congress and the Executive. I think this leads to some important insights—if we are going to lose the election to Bush (a very real possibility independent of Nader), regaining the House and Senate are vital secondary goals. And having Nader out there could draw more voters to the polls (both those in favor and those opposed to him) who would then vote for Democrats in the House and Senate.

Another factor in the mix is Kerry’s record. It has shifted so far right that it isn’t clear how much farther right he would shift as president—we have no clear idea what the differences are on most issues. I thought I had one pegged—abortion. I wrote the section in the book to acknowledge that, on this issue, pro-choice advocates are safe. But then I had to write a last minute insertion about his statement that he would appoint anti-abortion judges. He gives a caveat—as long as it won’t affect Roe v. Wade. But that’s meaningless. Had one of those judges been sitting on the recent San Francisco case that declared the law against partial birth abortion unconstitutional, the case could well have gone the other way and been a victory for the pro-life advocates who favor overturning Roe.

So what are the differences? Answer: I don’t really think they are knowable. Are they significant? Probably. How significant? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can tell us because Kerry is moving right quickly.

Will those differences give us more wiggle room? That’s essentially what Howard Zinn focuses on when he says “I don’t have faith in Kerry changing, but with Kerry there is a possibility that a powerful social movement might change him. With Bush, no chance.”

We would do well to ask, how powerful would that movement have to be to change him? On some issues like civil rights and other domestic ones, success might be relatively attainable. But on war? Consider what it took to protest the last Democratic president persecuting a war, Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam. Some activists burned themselves to death in an attempt to shake the foundations. Years of people protesting on the streets, etc. A crisis of democracy. And Johnson left rather than submit. We won, eventually, at least partially. (Although the US foreign policy establishment also won even though they had to pull out—by bombing the area back into the Stone Age they foreclosed any possibility that some palatable alternative to our economic system could survive.)

The point isn’t that the Democrats are equally unreceptive to social movements. Rather, the differences on some vital issues such as war are probably very tiny at best. How much wiggle room would we get? In some scenarios, such as a Kerry Presidency in which we have another 911, I predict it might be no extra room. Like his mentor Kennedy who needed to stand tough on Communism for fear of attack from the right, Kerry will need to stand tough on terrorism—and that probably means more war.

Many social movements don’t succeed because of “receptivity.” They can also succeed by building up such intense force that the costs of continuing whatever the policy is becomes greater than the cost of giving in. With war, we will have to raise the cost very high through a social movement—regardless of whether it is Bush or Kerry in office.

Perhaps because I suffer from looking through the same rose colored glasses, I too think there are differences between Bush and Kerry. I hope Kerry wins. But I want his leash as short as possible. We may have more wiggle room in a Kerry presidency if he can see we are building ever more serious electoral challenges with each cycle.

The problem with the strategy of elect him first and then pressure him is that he will view his electoral strategy of moving right as a success—how else could he view it? And so he’ll be set to move right again. In that scenario of a large Kerry victory, social movements will have a tougher time pressuring him than they will if he can also see a large group of his constituents defecting.

Here’s the short answer: Kerry has made it completely clear over many years on many issues that he has zero receptivity to international law. What makes you think he’ll be receptive to social movements?

JF: What do you make of the stories that are now coming out regarding major Republican donors to the Nader campaign in swing states like Oregon and Michigan? Isn’t this a bad thing for building a progressive third party movement? Doesn’t it hurt his credibility with those fighting for peace and justice?

GB: I find it appalling that we have a situation where Democrats—who represent the party of the people—are desperately trying to cut off choice for voters while Republicans are trying to widen it. Fighting for ballot access is the right thing to do; it matters little what people’s motivations are for doing it. So I support those Republicans, along with anyone else, who are working toward Nader’s access.

The whole premise of the argument that Nader should disavow those on the right fighting for his ballot access is this: if voters get access, we can’t trust them to make rational decisions. But the minute we decide what choices the voters should be allowed, we start working for the wrong side.

One person who heard this argument from me responded by saying, look, “the fascists are inside the gates; this is no time for philosophy.” Putting aside the issue of whether Bush = fascist, it’s aligned with George Bush’s position. Replace the word “fascist” with the “terrorist” and it’s his argument for curtailing democracy: We have to stop democracy because the terrorists are inside the gates. Progressives reject this argument when Bush makes it. I believe we should be consistent and reject it whenever anyone makes it.

I believe we have to strengthen democracy—get dialogue going among voters, widen their choices on the ballot, empower them by treating them as equal to ourselves, and build social movements.

There’s another premise behind the argument that Republican support for Nader is bad: Everything Republicans do is a major help to their cause. That’s false—they make blunders like the rest of us. For example, some months ago they ran ads linking Bush to patriotism over 911. Not a bad ploy, one might think, but much to their surprise, the ads were met with universal disgust and backfired. Now they are helping Nader. Looks like a good ploy. But if it leads to shifting the debate onto a more progressive landscape, it will be a disaster for them, a help to liberals and progressives.

JF: Nader says his run is geared to pull the Democrats back to the left. But aren’t they already past the point of no return? Many progressives argue the Democrats were never left to begin with. Isn’t the idea that a party funded by the corporations will actually act in the interest of working class people and minorities a dangerous illusion?

GB: Some Democrats are past the point of no return. Others, especially on levels below president, are more open. Nader has already had an impact on Kerry, the intransigent end of the spectrum. They met, Nader said he wouldn’t pull out and asked Kerry to push for a living wage. Weeks later, voila!—Kerry announced he is our $7 dollar (an hour) man. He’s now arguing the minimum wage should rise to that level. Good for Kerry, thank you Nader.

But on issues of war, there is little chance Nader will influence Kerry. This gets back to “receptivity” to social movements. The point of those movements—and of what Nader is doing—is to raise the costs of continuing current policies above their benefits (in this case Kerry’s policy of being a Republican), so that those carrying them out cease because to persist becomes too costly, regardless of how they feel about it.

A party funded by corporate interests can act in the broader interest if it is forced to do so, not because we “persuade” it that our path is morally the better choice—they already know that, or are so committed to their positions that they will never know it.

Whether the Dems will act in the broader interest remains to be seen, and there is ample evidence that no matter how punishing third parties are, the Dems just won’t abandon nursing at the corporate teat. To the extent that is true, this is an even more powerful argument for pursuing third party politics—not to swing the Dems left but to replace them, which may take a long time.

Regarding what Nader needs to recognize now: keep in mind that my view is only about what I understand him to be saying as portrayed by the media, which may be distorted. While I agree with Nader that voters are unlikely to vote for him in large enough numbers to swing the vote to Bush (see conditions listed in last answer), progressives voting for Nader in swing states could be dangerous to Kerry’s bid under certain narrow conditions. I think we need to acknowledge that at the starting gate.

It’s not just a matter of honesty, but of clarity: that danger is precisely what makes Nader’s efforts so powerful, and should be proclaimed, not shied away from. Nader seems to be trying to deflect it when he could embrace it powerfully. That danger is why, if you have limited resources, you should campaign not in safe states but in swing states. It’s the swing state pressure that sends the message. Cobb and LaMarsh (who hails from my state of Maine and is a wonderful person who I admire for running), are wasting their time campaigning in safe states. Why bother? It does have some effect, registering dissent. I think campaigning everywhere is best. But if you had to choose, I’d favor doing the opposite of what Cobb and LaMarsh are doing.

That raises the obvious question: Isn’t 3rd party campaigning in swing states too dangerous? I believe candidates should run, and leave to the voters the decision of strategy. It’s my choice, as a swing state voter, whether I vote Nader, Cobb, stay home, or vote Kerry. It’s not up to Nader or any other candidate to choose for me. Those who suggest that Nader should throw all his support behind Kerry at the last minute, just don’t want to argue with the voters, and seek to avoid doing so by asking Nader to make the choice. It’s demeaning, as a swing state voter, to hear others imply by their advocacy for running in safe states only, that I shouldn’t have the choice.

I don’t take lightly the requests by Howard Zinn and others that I vote for Kerry, a man who has the blood of innocent Iraqi children on his hands from backing sanctions. Zinn has good reasons—Kerry does not equal Bush. But voting for Kerry isn’t some easy gesture; it’s a decision to be made carefully. But I’m far less likely to vote for Kerry if Democrats succeed in blocking my right to choose by keeping Nader off the ballot or convincing him that he should bar my choice by abandoning his run. In that event I’m likely to vote Cobb—or stay home.

Some pundits opposed to Nader’s run this time wrote columns that said they voted for Nader in 2000 but have learned their lesson. To those advocating no swing state campaigning, I ask, what makes you think I or any other voter is less capable of thinking through the implications of voting Nader this time than you are? Step one in any democracy is to treat all voters as thinking people who can be argued with, not cut off their choices.