Homage to Ralph Nader
On November 8, 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. I didn’t think he had a chance of winning, but I thought he could hit at least 10% of the popular vote, which would have guaranteed the Green Party a place on the ballot in all 50 states in the following election. I quite liked Nader (still do), but my vote was really for the creation of a third major party, which this country still desperately needs. At the time, too, my vote was against the Democratic Party as embodied by Bill Clinton’s administration. I’d voted for Clinton twice, but by the end of his second term, I couldn’t stand him, for reasons that had nothing to do with his sexual exploits. For under Clinton, the Democratic Party became the party of business, which hitherto had been the prerogative of the Republican Party.
The most unconscionable embodiment of this was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gutted all the protections of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 against media cross-ownership, the protections that prevented, say, a company that owned a TV station in one market from owning a newspaper there, or owning multiple stations there, and so on. The stated goal of the 1996 Act was to increase competition in media markets but the actual effect, of course, was the opposite, giving rise to a handful of monolithic and monopolistic corporate media empires while stifling dissenting local voices. Positing the opposite effect of the actual results of a piece of legislation: what could be more Republican than that? Combine this with an essential hawkishness that resulted in, among other things, Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia into nonexistence, and I couldn’t really see much difference between the two major parties.
Was I wrong about this? Possibly. At the time, Democratic Vice President Al Gore seemed merely an extension of the Clinton administration, though history has cast doubt on this, in terms of both his personal distance from Clinton and his own post-administration activities. And certainly George W. Bush wreaked infinitely greater damage on the world than anyone could have predicted prior to 9/11. Even given 9/11, it’s difficult to imagine Gore going so far in terms of eroding international relations and domestic freedoms. (And yet, while I happily voted for Barack Obama twice, I note he didn’t close Guantanamo or rein in the NSA, two of the second Bush administration’s signature evils.)
But if I feel confident Gore would have made a better president than Bush, I have never once regretted voting for Ralph Nader. It was a principled and rational decision, one of the few times I’ve been able to vote for a candidate I believed in. And contrary to the persistent myth, Nader didn’t cost Gore the election. The Progressive Review amply demonstrated this as far back as 2002.1 Gore lost the election quite handily on his own, yet the media continue to perpetuate the myth of Nader as spoiler, and thus responsible for Bush, because the media prefer simplistic narratives to actual nuanced thought. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has only enabled this tendency.
On November 8, 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. I was deeply unhappy to do so. In the primary I supported Bernie Sanders. While I still wish we could establish a viable third party in this country, I admired Sanders’ attempt to return the Democratic Party to its rightful position as the progressive party in the United States instead of its current position as the party of business. As is painfully clear from email hacks in the months since Sanders conceded the nomination to Clinton, the ostensibly neutral Democratic National Committee did everything it could prevent him from securing the party’s nomination; there’s too much money to be made as the party of business. Yet with comparatively little coverage by the corporate media, Sanders was holding rallies whose attendees numbered in the thousands. The fact that Sanders came out of nowhere to come so close to upsetting Clinton’s nomination in the face of both DNC sabotage and corporate media dismissal says much about his ability to capture the imagination and enthusiasm of the progressive rank and file of the party.
Instead, we had Hillary Clinton shoved down our throats. It was her turn, we were told. She’s the most experienced candidate ever to run for president, we were told. You were sexist if you didn’t support her, we were told. And yet, where people saw the potential first woman president, all I could see was the potential second Clinton administration. And the first one helped to ruin this country. Am I sexist for conflating her agenda with her husband’s? Please. If there were any indication that there’s any difference in their agendas beyond those imposed by the passage of time and political expediency, I would be, but there’s no difference. They are the power couple par excellence, and not even Bill’s flagrant serial infidelities affected this dynamic. Do I care about her email scandal? No. Do I care about Benghazi? No. Do I care that she’s a woman? No. I care about Yugoslavia and the 1996 Telecommunications Act. I care about her relationship to Wall Street. I care about her vested interest in keeping the Democratic Party the party of business and that fact that nearly all of her progressive positions were forced on her by the bruising primary battle with Sanders.
But I voted for her. I felt like I had no choice and I’m tired of that feeling when I vote. I voted for her because I didn’t want Donald Trump to be elected president of the United States. And yet, here we are; Trump’s been elected president and I feel like a sucker. I feel like the Democratic Party is entirely to blame for Trump’s election, for doing everything it could to snuff out a genuine populist groundswell behind Bernie Sanders. Picture if it had fanned those flames. I feel confident Sanders would have beaten Trump, because unlike Clinton, Sanders’ supporters had an enthusiasm and fervor comparable to the enthusiasm and fervor of Trump’s supporters.
Do I think a second Clinton administration would have been better than a Trump administration? Sure, or I wouldn’t have voted for her. And yet, while I’m terrified of the upcoming Trump administration, part of me takes a grim pleasure in not having to live under a second Clinton administration. The Clinton administration would have been business as usual; that much was apparent from her pick of Tim Kaine as her running mate, rather than attempting to form an alliance with the progressive wing of the party by picking Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. We were told this election would be the destruction of the Republican Party and now here they are with both houses of Congress and the presidency. Instead, the Democratic Party needs to do some genuine soul searching, because business as usual clearly won’t cut it. Trump won because he tapped into a reactionary populism and the only way to combat this is with a progressive populism. Sanders was right and Democratic Party needs to follow his lead or it won’t survive.
GARRETT CAPLES is the author of Power Ballads (Wave, 2016) and Retrievals (Wave, 2014), among other books. He's an editor at City Lights, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series, and is the co-editor of Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New & Selected Poems by Frank Lima (City Lights, 2016), Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015), and The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (California, 2013).