I Am Third

Although the Times has continued to whip the third party candidate straight up to the balloting (by Guy Fawkes Day, Raines's already modest rhetorical skills had deserted him, and he had to fall back on platitudes about "throwing the election to Bush"), the paper is hardly alone in putting the pre-emptive blame on Ralph.

But the nation's sober Nader-baiters have the whole logic of this campaign precisely backward: The reason that it is winding down into a dead heat is that voters of all ideological persuasions find the margin of genuine difference here, well, marginal. Voters continue staying away from the quadrennial ritual of presidential consent in numbers that would alarm any other major studio production this side of Waterworld II: Book of Shadows; so the whole thing seems likely to turn on a handful of districts pivoting on a properly intoned wedge-issue appeal to a voting populace in near-terminal decline.

An attendant irony of this strategic miniaturization of the popular vote is that any race as close and as unpopular as this one is likely to be settled in the Electoral College — a remote, fusty and procedural club notoriously resistant to reflecting the actual breakdown of the popular vote. The fretting of Gore partisans over Nader's "spoiler" role in the race is a symptom of the failure of both candidates to develop a forbidding national base of support — not a sign of shifty leftist betrayal. The state of affairs that creates burgeoning third-party support, to put things another way, grows directly out of the failure of candidates to impress on anyone their vaunted "differences." At the 11th hour of this sodden spectacle, defenders of the Democratic Emperor in Waiting, the ever more manically unpersuasive Prince of Tennessee, are protesting that shifty defectors on the left have cunningly mislaid his clothes. Nader supporters are being groomed to take the fall for a good eight years of steady Democratic political miscalculation — and this in a contest where their tiny complement of votes is likely to count for even less than usual.

This is not to say, mind you, that Nader has won the highly-coveted Suck endorsement. (We are given pause, among other things, by running mate Winona LaDuke's ability to make her authentic Native American background seem like New Age flapdoodle, and by the dueling Green Party platforms — at least one of which champions the wonders of industrial hemp alongside an institutionalized flying wedge of "community assemblies" in every American neighborhood, which triggers nightmare visions in a few aging Sucksters of dreadlocked white retail assistants at Rainbow Grocery.) But the sheer din of invidious attacks on Nader's candidacy does prompt us to wonder why the towering sachems of liberal and left opinion aren't picking on someone their own size.

In fact, the liberal opinion-makers who are pleased to describe themselves as such ransack a storehouse of demonic historical analogies to smite down any serious estimation of Nader's candidacy. Jacob Weisberg titled his column on the Nader factor, "Ralph the Leninist" and, should that leave things a bit too ambiguous, thought it prudent to compare Nader's campaign strategy to that of the Hitler-appeasing German Communist Party of 1932. (In partial completion of the circle jerk, the Times noted this column with approval in its Know Your Enemy piece on the Undecided Voter.) Eric Alterman decries a "streak of leftist McCarthyism" in those who plead Nader's case a little too passionately with their liberal confreres (though, in adapting the already spurious Lewinsky-era coinage of "sexual McCarthyism," he supplies no evidence that Green Party inquisitions are jailing confessed Gore supporters and blacklisting them from working in Hollywood). The grandest stretch, though, belongs to the otherwise bland policy planespotters at The New Republic: They published a slur on Nader as a crypto-antiSemite for criticizing Israel and publishing a dissent from corporate internationalism in a 1960 edition of The American Mercury, which then published "obscenely anti-Semitic views." Evidently, our responsible liberal press wants the only vote on Nader to decide whether he would have merely appeased Hitler or supported him outright. (In much the same vein, though, it must be told that The New Republic in the 1930s published the work of many known Communist sympathizers! And a certain TNR eminence is a confirmed longtime mentor to Gore! Oh the perfidy that none dare call treason!)

There is, however, a more relevant body of historical precedent that this group of pundit-hysterics would do well to consult. Much of what they all agree is the ironclad, zero-sum electoral map of political reality in our age is, for instance, more-or-less the direct result of failed insurgent presidential candidacies. Though Barry Goldwater captured a major-party nomination, he ran as a defiantly principled advocate of "extremism," promising "a choice not an echo." Though he suffered a then-historic thwacking in the general election, his candidacy galvanized the motley forces of the postwar American right. Four elections later, the man who put his name in nomination before the 1964 GOP convention would himself set up shop in the Oval Office (though it's not at all clear that he always knew that's where he was). Meanwhile, George Wallace, the undisputed maestro of the 1960s backlash, proved in successive third-party presidential bids the fulcrum on which the Reagan-era conservatives, by mercilessly flogging the backlash war horses of crime, race-baiting, the trahison des clercs, and the ever-imperiled flag, could reap a tidal wave of support from resentful, law-and-order working-class Democrats. This, in other words, is the hallowed new consensus that no feckless third-party candidate should dare trifle with — where the competing tax cuts of Democrats and Republicans shoulder over each other to dramatize each party's distrust with Big Gummint and its Great Society follies — and it was unimaginable to the politics of our immediate forebears without the shocks and prods of unexpected extra- and intraparty challenges to mainstream orthodoxies.

Rather than sitting still for the prim civics lectures from commentators who, after all, make their living from political predictabilities, might not we ask why everyone is so eager to send a candidate packing for having the temerity to be in a race where he might have an effect? Many, many cranky and belligerent traits have been ascribed to more recent third-party hopefuls, but no one thought to tell Ross Perot, John Anderson, even the truly harebrained Pat Buchanan, that they should simply shut up and get out of Dodge. One has even greater difficulty imagining how this message would sit with such earlier third-party ne'er-do-wells as Eugene Debs, Bob LaFollette and William Jennings Bryan — to say nothing of former presidents Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, all of whom sported third-party colors on the hustings. Indeed, one of our present major parties began as a losing third-party outfit, before the rather unclouded outcome of a Civil War elevated it into a Grand Old Institution. (The other one, meanwhile, owes much of its modern career to the various agitations of such now-forgotten outcroppings of extraofficial dissent as the Workingman's, Anti-Masonic, People's, Temperance, and Farmer-Labor Parties.) Prior opinion makers seemed comfortable with the guiding assumption that America was, you know, a democracy, and it's been generally deemed prudent to let, you know, voters decide who their qualified leaders are.

The smug, hectoring realists of our current election may see the idea of letting you choose the third party of your choice as a direct threat to the republic, but history levies quieter and more crippling judgments on those who are driven time and again to sunder conscience from public life — and that verdict was rendered most eloquently by lifelong reformer John Jay Chapman in 1900. "How gradual has been the emancipation from intellectual bondage!" he wrote. "How inevitably people are limited by the terms in which they think! A generation of men has been consumed by the shibboleth 'reform within the party' — a generation of good and right-minded men, who accomplished in their day much good, and left the country better than they found it, but are floating to-day like hulks in the trough of the sea of politics, because all their mind and all their energy were exhausted in finding certain superficial evils and in fighting them. . . . They still treated Republicanism and Democracy — empty superstitions — as ideas, and they handled with reverence the bones of bogus saints, and the whole apparatus of clap-trap by which they had been governed."

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courtesy of Holly Martins

pictures Terry Colon

Holly Martins