Changing the Powers That Be: How the Left Can Stop Losing and Win

Nader and the Powers that Be

Also published in shortened version in print edition of The Progressive Populist.

Feb. 21, 2004

With Ralph Nader expected to announce tomorrow whether he will run for President this time around, I (an unrepentant Nader 2000 supporter) read a book today that constitutes the strongest argument I have seen for why he should not. The book is “Changing the Powers That Be: How the Left Can Stop Losing and Win,” by G. William Domhoff.

Domhoff’s 108-page book is put together with the precision of poetry, and I hesitate to summarize it. It has convinced me of a number of things, including that I should call myself an egalitarian rather than a progressive and that we egalitarians should form Egalitarian Democratic Clubs within the Democratic Party. With regard to Nader, it has convinced me that his third-party campaign in 2000 was misguided and that he should not attempt one now.

It is only very reluctantly that I can be convinced to blame Al Gore’s loss on Nader. My reasons for arguing otherwise have long included that Gore did not lose but only came close enough to losing to have the election stolen, that Gore came close to losing because he was a terrible candidate who, among other things, ignored the need to appeal to Nader’s supporters, and that many of Nader’s supporters were new voters who might have voted for no one had he not been on the ballot.

But the facts remain that Nader won more votes than the difference between Gore and Bush in more than one state, that Nader’s predictions regarding Bush have proved disastrously wrong, and that Nader and his staffers made comments suggesting that defeating Gore was his intention (Domhoff cites a March 4, 2001, Philadelphia Inquirer article and http://www.hereinstead.com – see: http://www.hereinstead.com/sys-tmpl/bnaderwantedgoretolose/ ).

I have often been saddened to see egalitarians express more anger toward Nader than toward Bush. But the case Domhoff makes is one for building coalitions and preventing infighting. Domhoff suggests that had Nader run in the 2000 Democratic primaries and lost graciously, he could have significantly influenced Gore, helped Gore win, and begun the necessary task of reforming the Democratic Party. Domhoff offers arguments drawing on the history of political parties in many countries to make a compelling case that reforming the Democratic party is much more likely to succeed than creating a powerful third party in the United States.

Domhoff points out that most of Nader’s examples of cases in which third parties have influenced the US political agenda come from the nineteenth century, before the use of state primaries, which “have been the main source of new programs since World War I.”

Domhoff suggests that Nader might have won between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in every Democratic primary in 2000. That might be right. But I’m not sure he isn’t overestimating voters’ understanding of the system. Domhoff makes a strong case that public citizen number one, Ralph Nader, lacks a basic understanding of what is possible in our political system. Yet he assumes that Democratic primary voters understand the difference between a primary and a general election.

If that were the case, where would “momentum” come from? Why would voters be backing centrist candidates more as their votes become less necessary for victory? Why would people who support Dennis Kucinich’s platform (which is quite similar to Nader’s) and who believe Kucinich would be the strongest candidate against Bush choose to back Kerry in a primary based on his “electability”? It seems to me possible that Nader would have ended up with totals as a Democrat not too much higher than what he got running as a Green.

I could be underestimating, however, if the 2000 experience is – as seems possible – a major cause of 2004 primary voters’ passion for and confusion over “electability.” Jesse Jackson did not face the same nonsensical spoiler arguments in primaries that have been faced by Kucinich and Al Sharpton. If this misuse of a general election spoiler argument in a primary is a new phenomenon, the question of whether it will last seems critical.

Domhoff’s book is not entirely about Nader. He uses Nader’s campaign as a jumping off point for laying out a program for egalitarian politics. Domhoff proposes establishing egalitarian Democratic clubs (EDCs) to “lay the basis for the future takeover of the party in the same way liberals [took over] the California state party with their California democratic clubs in the 1950s.” It would have been helpful for him to elaborate on how exactly to start these clubs.

But Domhoff does offer powerful insights into American politics and a general guide to what sort of movement is needed going forward. He advocates reframing “progressive” or “working class” struggles as “egalitarian” in order to be more descriptive and inclusive.

Domhoff also argues for a politics based on a market economy rather than “central planning.” I think his notion that egalitarians lean toward promoting central planning is overstated if he means by it much more than the several cases in which he himself says non-market solutions work best. But Domhoff makes an excellent point that “research shows that markets need guidance from government to operate well, and that there is no inevitable trade-off between equality and efficiency, or between equality and freedom, within a market system. More equality might even mean more efficiency, not less, and it can certainly mean more freedom for more people.” Promoting understanding of this point could work wonders to reverse policies that benefit only the wealthy but which others support in hopes of trickle-down effects.

One point that I wonder about in Domhoff’s discussion of the economy is his support for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Later in the book he praises the Living Wage Movement for, among other things, working through the market, but here he seems to suggest that an ideal solution to poverty is for the government to make up the difference between the poverty wages companies pay and a living wage. This seems to place central planning ahead of market strategies unnecessarily, and in the process to risk discouraging work as well as disheartening workers.

When Domhoff addresses the Living Wage Movement, he uses as an example a campaign I worked on, the campaign by ACORN and the SEIU to raise the minimum wage in New Orleans. He says that these organizations and those in the Anti-sweatshop movement implicitly follow his three main rules of working within the Democratic Party, working on market strategies, and using strategic nonviolence. This is not quite right. ACORN has been known to create brand new third parties, including the Working Families Party, which is rapidly expanding. But the WFP is taking form only in states that allow fusion — meaning that the same candidate can appear on more than one party line, allowing voters to support a Democratic candidate but send a message as to what the voter’s priorities are. I think Domhoff would support this.

Domhoff offers terrific arguments and examples to make a case for placing more emphasis on promoting strict nonviolence in egalitarian movements. He does the same to argue for electable, and therefore accountable, leadership in egalitarian organizations, and against giving too much power to individual charismatic leaders even in grassroots groups. On this point he agrees perfectly with ACORN.

Domhoff nails me when he criticizes egalitarians for their opposition to religion. I do believe and openly say that I think the net effect of religion works against egalitarian politics. This has never stopped me from working with religious groups on a common cause, but it could have that effect, so the point is well taken.

On foreign affairs and media reform (he packs a lot into this book!) I am less persuaded by Domhoff. He wants to replace reflexive anti-imperialism and non-interference with selective intervention abroad. But this is framing the issue wrong. I and many egalitarians favor substantial intervention abroad, only of the nonviolent and proactive and crisis-preventing variety. Domhoff blurs over the violent-nonviolent distinction and lists reasons to justify intervention without discussing the type of intervention or whether it might have any down sides.

Domhoff thinks we blame the media too much for our own shortcomings. He is, I think, basically right about those shortcomings, but entirely wrong to let the media off the hook for its corporate-slanted reporting. Domhoff thinks the media was right to ignore Nader because he was on a third-party ticket. But the media ignored Kucinich when he ran as a Democrat with a similar anti-corporate platform.

Nader now believes that Kucinich’s apparent failure proves Nader’s point that the Democratic Party is hopelessly unwelcoming to such a platform. I think he’s wrong. The media is hopelessly unwelcoming to that platform. Domhoff might be right that the Democratic Party can be forced to accept it gradually – but media reform will have to be part of the effort. And if we don’t start making progress within the “next few decades” that Domhoff closes by referring to, we may not even recognize the nation we live in, and the rules may all be changed.

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