The Politics of Fear

Look out, Nader activists, it’s crunch time in the national Presidential race, and liberal Democrats are not happy that you exist.

Forget diversity, pluralism, and all of that nice, liberal stuff. This is political war, and for too many progressives who should know better, they’ve let their fears overwhelm their hopes. They are angrily attacking those who support Nader as if these Naderites were really closet supporters of Newt Gingrich.

Perhaps this is too strong. But I keep experiencing and hearing about other Nader supporters who are running into this kind of reaction from people who, when it comes to the issues, are pretty much on the same page. It’s almost as if they’ve suspended their critical analytical skills; “fear” is the word that seems to best describe it.

Molly Ivins is an exception to this trend. In a common-sense, sober commentary about a month ago, she pointed out that, for those who like Nader but are hesitant to vote for him because of concern that it would help elect Bush, there is an answer. Since the national election is really the sum total of 50 state elections, with each state choosing representatives to go to the electoral college, people in states where either Gore or Bush have double-digit or near-it leads can vote for Nader with little fear that they’ll help elect Bush. This will most likely be the case in a good 75-80% or more of the states.

Or what about this? With Gore edging ahead in the polls as this is written, and Bush showing signs of battle fatigue or just plain political incompetence, it’s not at all out of the question that come November 8 we could have a “win-win” result–Gore elected and Nader with over 5% of the vote. This will mean that come 2004 the Greens and their allies–perhaps by then there’ll be a functioning alliance of all the progressive third party groups–will have over $12 million in federal matching funds to work with. And, for the next four years, the overall progressive cause will be strengthened because the Democrats know that a credible “exit strategy” exists they cannot brush aside.

Where does this irrational fear come from?

Clearly the anachronistic winner-take-all electoral system has a lot to do with it. Under this system candidates and parties with broad support can get lots of votes but, if it’s not a majority, zero representation.

But it goes deeper than this. The more I’ve tried to understand this lesser-evil phenomenon on the Left, the more I see its roots in the Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948 and the aftermath of that campaign. Together, they combined to cause deep-seated, often unconscious scars on the political psyches of many people that continue even up to today and have a much-too-strong influence on the Left as a whole.

Entering the fall campaign season, Wallace was in the neighborhood of 15% in the polls. Rallies drew tens of thousands of people. There was tremendous energy and hope on the part of Progressive Party activists. Yet, after Truman began appropriating the rhetoric and part of the program of Wallace, as a campaign of red-baiting unfolded, and because of winner-take-all, on election day only about 1 million people, 2.3% of the electorate, voted for Wallace.

This was seen as a profound and demoralizing defeat by the dominant forces on the Left, particularly the Communist Party. This demoralization had an impact as the Cold War “heated up” and widespread government repression was intensified. Within a year of the ’48 election, the Left had entered a severe downturn. And, consciously or unconsciously, I believe that, over time, a connection was made by many of those activists between support for a third party, political isolation and the intensification of government repression.

There’s a supreme irony to this, of course: it wasn’t the Republican, Thomas Dewey, who won and presided over the beginning and high point of the McCarthy era; it was the “lesser evil,” Harry Truman, the Democrat!

Political realities are very different today as compared to 1948. A large majority of the people of this country are disgusted with both parties and the dominance of big corporations over the political process. Ross Perot, Lowell Weicker, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Ventura–these and others have legitimized the third party idea in the minds of many. In Presidential elections half or less of the potential electorate votes; in Congressional off-year elections, it is not much more than a third. And most of these turned-off voters are low-income, people of color, youth and/or working class–the Left’s natural constituency.

Ultimately, of course, we need to change from winner take all to proportional representation, including instant runoff voting. And we shouldn’t put off this task until the far future! We should make 2001 the year that a grassroots movement for these essential electoral reforms begins to take shape.

Such a movement will have to involve both current Gore supporters and current Nader supporters, as well as those supporting Socialist Dave McReynolds and others. To increase the prospects for some effective working unity on this and other issues coming out of this fall election period, can’t we just agree to disagree on the Presidential candidate question and call a halt to the politics of fear?