US Elections: Nader the Twain Shall Meet

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Viewers of HBO's flagship talk-show, Real Time with Bill Maher, were in for a treat a few weeks ago. Sharing the desk with Maher were Michael Moore and Ralph Nader.

Moore, after supporting Nader in 2000, is a convert to the cause of John Kerry. At first confidently predicting a Kerry victory, Moore, his Anybody But Bush arguments faltering, was reduced to begging on his knees for Nader not to stand. Not an edifying spectacle, and all the stranger given Moore's confidence of an anti-war vote turning out for a pro-war candidate. Only last month the man Moore supports for president claimed that, 'even knowing what we know now', he would still have voted to back the invasion of Iraq, as he did in 2003. He is no better on other issues. According to the Washington Post, Kerry has already 'rejected sweeping policy changes such as... moving too quickly to provide health coverage to every American'.

Yet almost without exception every scarce anti-war voice in the US media has been raised for Kerry and insisted that Nader not even run. Their argument is simple: Bush has been so awful, and the presidential race so close, that even a few thousand votes here and there for Nader could catastrophically return Bush to the White House. No one on the left will deny Bush has been a catastrophe. But we have heard all this before. In January the Nation, probably the US's most widely-read centre-left magazine, printed an open letter to Nader, telling him, 'This is the wrong year for you to run: 2004 is not 2000. George W Bush has led us into an illegal pre-emptive war, and his defeat is critical.' Yet in 2000 Eric Alterman, a columnist for the Nation, blamed Democrat Al Gore's defeat on Nader's 'megalomania'. Presumably 2000 was also 'the wrong year' for Nader to stand. In fact, every time a remotely credible candidate from the left stands, they can be heard: we agree with everything you say, but today is not the day for all that. We must support the 'lesser of two evils'. As a result, we now have the ludicrous spectacle of prominent US opponents of the 'war on terror' calling for a vote for a man who has supported Bush every step of the way. The distance between pro-war, pro-business Bush and pro-business, pro-war Kerry is draft-card thin.

Behind the Anybody But Bush argument is the assumption that those who vote for Nader would otherwise automatically vote for the Democrat. The truth is quite different. Standing in 2000 on an anti-corporate ticket, Nader was able to mobilise a mass of those disenfranchised by the two-party system, winning over 2 million votes. Exit polls suggested that under half of Nader's support came from those who would otherwise have voted Democrat. Nearly a quarter was from Republican voters, and the remainder from those who, without Nader, would not have voted at all. Only 2 percent of registered Democrats nationwide supported Nader. In the crucial Florida ballot 200,000 registered Democrats - 12 percent of Floridian Democrats - voted for Bush. Gore, after a Supreme Court ruling, lost Florida by 543 votes, and hence the presidential election. If Gore had better propped up his own support, he would have won. Nader cannot be scapegoated for the inadequacies of the Democratic Party and the injustices of the US election system. Nader did not 'steal' Democratic votes - the Democrats failed to win them.

Nader ensures that the Democrats cannot take a 'left' vote for granted. As Nader put it, 'When you are taken for granted, you are taken': by disabling itself politically, and supporting the Democrats come what may, the US left's Lesser Evilism has allowed the Democrats to tail-end the Republicans' drive to the right, which removes any serious pressure on the Republicans from the left. It has created a vicious circle, in which the sort of radical politics that could appeal to millions of US workers - of taxing the rich to fund public services, or of defending the environment - are excluded. But the need to fight for progressive politics becomes more, not less, important when the space to do so becomes constrained. Nader has been a vociferous critic of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum system of Republicans or Democrats. 'We are trying to destroy the two-party corporate system,' he said in a recent interview. 'Both parties are pro-war, pro Patriot Act; both parties are pro-WTO.' Nader also supports a public works programme to create jobs; the creation of a universal healthcare system; and the adoption of a sustainable energy policy. He has spoken firmly and courageously in support of Palestinian rights, breaching a taboo subject in a way that no Republican or Democratic politician would dare.

Nader's campaign has assembled a constituency of the excluded. Recent polls found that 20 percent of Arab-Americans support Nader, 26 percent of US Muslims support Nader, and that George Bush won over half of US Muslim votes in 2000, but has seen their support for him collapse to just 2 percent. Gallup polls have placed support for Nader between 3 and 8 percent - this means 6 to 16 million Americans are considering supporting Nader. As the day of the election comes closer, and as a lacklustre Kerry campaign further fails to shift public opinion in its support, the demands for Nader to pull out will increase. Democrats in Arizona have successfully challenged Nader's appearance on the state's ballot, and they are likely to succeed with a challenge in Illinois. The left's task should be to break the vicious circle and create an alternative to the parties of war for the millions of Americans disgusted by the politics of big business.