With two months to go before elections, both Republicans and Democrats are busy driving home their favorite point: We are witnessing the election of the century. This year, our votes are more valuable than ever; they are the instruments of unparalleled hope and change. And this, the argument goes, is why it is so crucial to vote for the right candidate and even more crucial not to throw away votes – and America’s future – on a third party candidate like Ralph Nader.
The Republicans and Democrats are half right. This is a critical election year. This could be the year we gave 47 million Americans decent healthcare and a millions more a living wage. It could be the year that we respected the opinions of 68% of Americans and 79% of Iraqis and completely withdrew from Iraq. It could be the year that we cut the 3/4 trillion dollar defense budget, repealed the “pull down” North American Free Trade Agreement, revoked the Patriot Act, rescinded the revised FISA, restored union rights, weaned ourselves off oil, built a green energy infrastructure, disciplined runaway corporations and reigned in the manic speculation sponsoring the current food, housing, and energy crises. More importantly, it could be the year that we made the connection between these problems and the jingoistic militarism, corporatism and American exceptionalism that underwrite them. That, at least, is Ralph Nader’s plan.
But no. Instead, we allow the Republicans to exploit our fear and the Democrats to extort hope from our weariness. Happily hoodwinked, we don’t dare admit the truth: that Obama and McCain have failed to offer substantive solutions to our most pressing problems and refused to connect the dots between our failed policies and the realpolitik corporate regime that props them up.
College students stand to lose the most from this election. We are the ones who will be around for the next sixty years, and this election will at least partially determine what those years look like. And yet, as an engaged, idealistic voting bloc that is deeply dissatisfied with politics as usual, we also have everything to gain – if we demand it.
We could start by scrutinizing false change promises. While most college students could talk fluently about the betrayals of the Bush administration, most are much less familiar with the Democrat’s myriad treacheries. Charmed by Obama’s message of hope and ostensibly populist rhetoric, they are flocking in droves to a candidate they believe will exorcize the Bush demon and bring America back to a state of “original sinlessness.”
There are three major problems with this fantasy.
1. In 1992, Clinton ran an uncannily “Obamaesque‚” campaign, branding himself as a change candidate and peddling a vague but comforting populism. Convinced, progressives rallied behind him. Clinton won, but progressives lost. Wage disparities between CEOs and workers ballooned 449 to 1. Clinton pushed NAFTA, costing 525,000 US jobs and devastating Mexican farmers. And, as a flourish on the way out, Clinton repealed the Glass Steagall Act, allowing the mergers of banks and investment companies that are at the heart of our current financial crisis. In short, progressives got eight years of soft imperialism and a corporate dream economy that Clinton admitted‚ “helped the bond market and hurt the people who voted us in.” But that’s not all. Progressives fell for the same stuff in 2000 and then again in 2004, when anti-war Democrats voted in droves for a candidate who had no intention to end the war – who believed Bush was doing ‘too little” in the war on terror- and lost both the election and the muscle of the peace movement.
2. As any cursory study of history will demonstrate, pretty words rarely make for a pretty president. What really matters are the candidates’ advisers and funders. As Naomi Klein insists, advisers send a “signal” to Wall Street donors that business will proceed as usual after election day. Advisers and financiers are the best indicators of the tone and direction of a future presidency, and Obama’s are sending clear signals that things will be business as usual after election day. Bewilderingly, Obama plans to solve the nation’s problems by recycling the architects of its moral and economic decline: Madeleine Albright, advocate of unilateral aggression against Iraq, who said that US sanctions which killed 500,000 Iraqi children were “worth it”; Warren Christopher, who refused to use the word genocide during the Rwanda crisis because the US had no “strategic interests” there; Lee Hamilton, who stopped the Iran Contra investigation before it could lead to the impeachment of Reagan; Robert Gates, Saddam Hussein’s chief weapons supplier and author of violent intervention schemes in Libya and Nicaragua; and Jason Furman, who favors decreasing corporate taxes, partial privatization of Social Security and the so-called Wal-Mart model of “prosperity.” (Unlike average Americans, corporations don’t have to hope for change. They can buy it. They only hope that the public will be duped enough by false promises that they won’t demand the real stuff.)
3. As much as we hate to hear it, Bush is not the problem. America has never been sinless; it has followed a policy of convenient militarism under Republicans and Democrats before Bush and, barring reform, will continue to do so after him. Bush is not just the most evil president; he is also the most powerful, power abdicated to him by the so-called opposition party and sponsored by a bipartisan commitment to courting corporate cash. Bush’s presidency – the war, the cronyism, and the inequality – is the logical conclusion of a political philosophy based on dominance, inequality, and unquestioned exceptionalism. Unless Obama and McCain question the Bush’s economic and militaristic assumptions, the demon will still possess us – because, to extend a phrase, “it’s the military-industrial complex, stupid.”
In short, both parties are busy burdening a broken machine. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader is offering Americans what the polls say they want. While McCain sings about bombing Iran to the tune of Beach Boys songs and Obama talks strategically about the difference between”smart‚” and “dumb” wars, Nader condemns war in general, arguing for a strongly negotiated peace in Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. While Obama dismisses his earlier commitments to fair trade as “overheated,” Nader argues and renegotiating a “pull-up” NAFTA and the WTO and replacing them with uniform environmental and labor standards that benefit all peoples. And while McCain chants “drill, baby, drill,” and Obama prepares to replace Big Oil with Big Corn and Big Nukes, Nader urges efficient, renewable infrastructure that eliminates dependence on fossil fuels and a top-down energy cartel economy. Simply put, Nader acknowledges that the crises facing our country are manifestations of the same problem: runaway corporate control and unregulated financial speculation. He is able to offer substantial solutions to problems precisely because his forty years of public advocacy gets down to their roots.
But the mainstream parties will tell us that we cannot vote for Nader because there is too much at stake this year. The Republicans have to win to save us from the enemy without, and the Democrats have to win to save us from the enemy within.
If the Republicans are the Party of Ill Repute, the Democrats have become the Party of Perpetual Plan B, an evasion they protect by asking us to perpetually defer our disappointment. Progressive voters are consequently in a state of profound contradiction, with unions endorsing Wal-Mart board members, peace activists voting for more Iraq and an escalated war in Afghanistan, environmentalists resigning themselves to capping and trading, and the sub-prime homeless cashing $500 emergency checks and hoping for the best.
We could win the election. But instead, we refuse the easiest revolution – the ballot box – because we are afraid others won’t join us. Why resist today, we ask, what we could resist next time? Why fight least worsts politics if we aren’t sure we’ll win?
Answer: Because most of the benefits and freedoms you now enjoy came from a minority struggling against an unjust majority. Because that’s what you’ll end up doing forever with that low set of expectations.
Take a page from the minority playbook. Decide your breaking point. What will you refuse to give up? What year will you stop voting for the least worst? What year will you decide that the government is your representative and not your master?
I suggest you pick 2008. I suggest you pick Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez. Because if not, let’s be serious: you’ll get nothing but chump change from cashing in the movement to buy the machine.
Ashley Sanders graduated from BYU in Philosophy and English. She is currently getting her Masters in English at Middlebury College and working as the youth spokesperson for the Nader campaign. After the elections she plans to do peace work in Palestine.