On Choosing The Lesser Evil

Ralph Nader

Some Reflections On The Coming Election

*A Reprint from 2000

Let me make this clear from the outset: I agree with Ralph Nader on just about everything.  Everything but his decision to stay in the presidential race in states where his presence on the ballot could result in a victory for George Bush!  I disagree with Nader’s strategy because I believe that the central task for progressives in the 2000 election is to defeat the Republicans.

For whoever wins the Oval Office will probably appoint as many as three justices to the Supreme Court of the United States, and these judges will surely tip the balance to the right or left on issues that are critical to black Americans, other non-whites, women of all colors, labor, environmentalist, criminal suspects, et al.

At present it looks like the Republicans will retain control of the Senate, and thus will rubber stamp any nomination offered up by a Bush/Cheney White House.  And George “Dubya” has clearly stated that his ideal of a Supreme Court justice is Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas!

Hence it should be obvious that African Americans and others seeking legal redress for past and present injustices face eminent disaster if George W. Bush wins the presidency.  All we need consider is the fact that affirmative action – battered and tattered as it is – will be a dead issue.  It does not require great imagination or exceptional intelligence to understand the devastating effect that the repudiation of affirmative action as a public policy goal would have on the economic advancement of black America.

Especially since the persistent exclusion of African Americans from a broad range of economic opportunity is becoming harder and harder to establish as racial discrimination under the law. The nearly twenty years of Republican control of the Oval Office from Nixon to George Bush senior–interrupted by the four years of the Carter administration– has resulted in a federal judiciary stacked with right-wing judges whose decisions have set a standard for proving job discrimination which is virtually impossible to meet.

Prior to the infestation of the federal bench by these Republican zealots there were many successful class action suits, because the burden of proof the plaintiffs had to meet only required them to prove that a pattern of discrimination existed against a particular group. But rulings from the federal courts in a series of landmark job discrimination cases have changed all that; now the plaintiff must prove intent!

One need only examine the experience of the black professional employees who brought a discrimination suit against Texaco in order to appreciate the obstacles confronting anyone who decides to bring a racial discrimination case against an employer. Although the injured parties eventually won a $357 million settlement, no one associated with the case believes the plaintiffs would have won if a disgruntled white male executive had not come forth with a tape recording of a meeting where top management was heard discussing their plans to discriminate against black employees in blatantly racist language.

The worst thing about the burden of proving intent in racial discrimination cases is that because of the difficulty involved lawyers are increasingly reluctant to take them on unless the plaintiff has cash in hand to pay their fees up front.  And most victims of job discrimination cases are financially strapped; especially if they have lost their jobs–as is often the case.  I discovered this fact when I approached attorneys about filing a suit against a major media corporation.

Recourse to the EEOC –Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–is no panacea either.  Successive Republican Presidents and Republican control of Congress has resulted in the gutting of the EEOC.  For instance, while conducting an investigation into the rampant racial discrimination in the construction industry in New York City, I discovered that the regional EEOC office was responsible for processing discrimination claims in the entire state, the five New England states and Puerto Rico.

Furthermore, they were charged with enforcing compliance with four other statutes besides title VII, and they had only thirteen attorneys to handle all these cases!  That’s why final adjudication of discrimination cases often takes years; in the meantime a plaintiff can starve to death or expire from old age.  Employers are increasingly aware of this and are emboldened by the belief that they can discriminate with impunity. That’s why we desperately need a Supreme Court who will reverse this situation, and we won’t get it from a Bush administration.

I have dwelled on the question of employment discrimination because–as Dr. Dubois noted in the first scientific social studies of African Americans done at the end of the 19th century–so many of the problems that plague the African American community stems from the denial of economic opportunity.  For instance, most of the black prison population is incarcerated for economic crimes i.e. robbery, burglary, drug dealing, and so on, crimes directly related to enforced poverty.

Hence questions of prisoners rights, racial profiling, and other police related matters also arise.  And high crime rates lead many Americans, black and white, to tolerate police practices that have no place in a modern democratic society.  The Republicans are especially dangerous in this regard because they refuse to recognize any connection between poverty, economic discrimination and crime.

They are also weak on issues of gender discrimination and hate crimes, especially George “Dubya,” the Texas hangman who has steadfastly refused to support a hate crimes bill in the state where he is the chief executive.  Can we really afford to take a chance with this man as chief executive of the nation?

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As bad as Bush is on these issues, that’s not the worst of it.  His gut feelings about the environment –the guy doesn’t believe global warming is real and wants to drill oil wells in wildlife preserves–and his insane ideas about nuclear weapons, are far more dangerous because they threaten all life on this planet.  Yet this rather obvious fact seems to escape many of the third party zealots who are passionately supporting the candidacy of Ralph Nader for president.

To these feckless fanatics–who sadly include some people I admire, such as the moral philosopher Cornel West and Trans Africa’s Randall Robinson–it makes no difference if the democrats or the Republicans take the White House.  Hence as the polls continue to show Bush and Gore running neck and neck down the stretch, the Nader Campaign is becoming a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

At first I was hesitant to agree with the New York Times’ charge that Nader is a megalomaniac whose ego driven presidential campaign could result in political disaster…but no more.  The thing that won me over to the Time’s point of view is the fact that Nader now argues he never agreed not to run in states where the election is hotly contested, yet a devoted worker in his campaign showed me an e-mail from Nader’s headquarters in which Nader clearly states that he would not run in states where the outcome was in doubt.  Now what’s up with that?

The campaign worker in question, an African American entrepreneur from Brooklyn, now says that had he known Nader’s candidacy would endanger a Democratic victory over the Republicans, he would never have gotten involved in what he thought was simply an effort to garner 5% of the vote for the green Party.  He tells me he is beginning to feel betrayed by “those know-it-all white folks” who refuse to listen to the reasoned arguments of battle tested black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Major Owens.

Even more revealing in regard to Nader’s self-righteous egotism is the fact that he has failed to hear the pleas and refused to heed the warnings of the Sierra Club, America’s premier environmental watchdogs, who argue that he is in danger of causing the “greatest environmental president ever to lose the White House,” while assisting in the election of the “worst environmental president in history.” Nader’s decision to turn a deaf ear to these eminently reasonable arguments exhibits all the symptoms of a deluded egomaniac.

Nothing I have heard in the din of election chatter is more frightening than some of the statements of the sycophants who turn out in droves to cheer Nader on in his folly.  ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast on Halloween night aired some sound bites from Nader supporters at a rally where their guru was holding forth.  They said things like “He is pure,” and  “He is the Mother Teresa of politics.”  The thoughtful observer is forced to wonder if these people are looking for an effective politician or a saint.

The proper arena for moral absolutist is the church, temple, mosque, or synagogue.  Politics is first and foremost the art of the possible.  It is the process by which power relationships are created and shaped, and compromise is essential to that process in a participatory democracy.  Therefore if a project is not possible it is not politic!  Prudence dictates that we who are struggling to build a better society heed Kwame Nkrumah’s dictum “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will be added thereunto.”

Hence I am by choice a political animal; one who understands by instinct and experience that in democratic polities political choices more often than not means choosing the lesser evil!  Thus I am not looking for a saint to lead us.  And I am very suspicious of moral absolutists who take a utopian approach to politics. History teaches us that all utopian movements committed to creating the ideal society, no matter how pious their rhetoric or noble their aims, always result in tragedy and disaster.  Especially when led by self-righteous absolutists who are too proud to beg and too rigid to bend.

Take your choice: the Crusades, Manifest Destiny, The Communist Manifesto, The White Man’s Burden, the Spanish Inquisition, The Mission of Civilization, The Thousand Year Reich, etc.  And it is abundantly clear that a blind devotion to Ralph Nader’s vision of the ideal American society threatens a disaster in the coming election.

Hence all the self-righteous puffery around Nader’s purity of purpose is dangerous folly.  What we need in these perilous times is not a “Mother Teresa,” but a coldly analytical politician who can recognize the realpolitik of the moment, properly assess the relationship of forces for and against his objectives, and act accordingly.

Hence while Mr. Nader’s ideas certainly deserve a hearing, and hopefully will become conventional wisdom in America at some point in the future–sooner rather than later if I had my druthers; only a charlatan or a fool would argue that his time is now.  Hence if Ralph Nader conducts his campaign in such a reckless manner as to assist in a Bush victory, his cure will prove worse than the disease.  And should the Republicans win, no amount of smart mouth prattle, a form of self indulgent verbal exhibitionism of which brother Ralph seems especially infatuated, will adequately explain away his role in boosting a mediocre but very dangerous George Dubya to the most powerful office in the world.

Not only will the Naderites have helped to place Dubya’s grubby little hands on the levers of power, they will also share responsibility for placing his shaky fingers on the nuclear trigger, thereby endangering all life on this planet.  But after carefully listening to Nader’s rhetoric he sounds to me like a man without a clue about the effect a Bush election could have on the delicate balance of nuclear terror embodied in the MAD–Mutually Assured Destruction–doctrine.

Yet this doctrine alone has kept the world from blundering into the abyss of nuclear destruction during the tensions of the cold war.  For instance, when Nader was asked about the dangers of a George Bush presidency by a well informed member of the Nightline audience, he glibly replied, “You all talk like this guy is Genghis Kahn or something…he’s not very smart and he is afraid of confrontations.”

Unable to contain myself in the face of such supercilious sophistry, I leapt from my chair and shouted at the TV ” Yo Ralph!  This guy is fixin to build the Doom’s Day Machine!!”   True.  While the democrats have been forced by a misguided public opinion to flirt with the idea of constructing the shield, I believe that Gore, like Bill Clinton, would leave office after eight years without spending a single dollar on this suicidal project.  But George W. bush has committed himself to building the Doom’s day machine.

Not only has Bush made it clear that he will proceed immediately to construct the anti-missile shield, in clear violation of the ABM treaty, but he has sent out his big intellectual guns, the folks who we are told will instruct him about the critical realities of the contemporary world, to defend that decision.

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The most frightening and nauseating example of Bush’s pro-star wars propaganda was Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s speech at the Republican Convention.  Dr. Rice is especially disappointing because like Dr. Alan Keyes, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, she is in many respects the kind of person the African American community has struggled for a century to develop.  A black woman who grew up in Birmingham Alabama,  the heart of segregationist south, and overcame all the obstacles cast in her way due to her race and sex,  Condoleezza is not only an elite academic in the foreign policy establishment and the first woman Provost at Stanford University, but also a classical pianist and figure skater to boot.

On the face of it “Condi,” as she is affectionately called by the reactionary white Republicans who fawn over her, looks like the embodiment of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ “Talented Tenth,” except that she has abandoned the essential role that the great scholar/activist envisioned for this class: to serve the higher interest of Afro-Americans, the Pan-African world, and humanity in general.  Instead what we have in Dr. Rice is a charming opportunist on the make, a person so desperate to bask in the aura of power that she is willing to become a nuclear snake oil salesman hyping the advantages of the Doomsday machine.

Yet if anyone in America understands that scrapping the anti-ballistic missile treaty is an invitation to other nuclear powers – especially Russia and China – to disregard all nuclear agreements now in force, it is Condoleezza Rice. No big deal though, because any reasonably intelligent junior high school student can see that this would be a giant step backwards in the fight to rid the world of the threat of nuclear holocaust.

                        The Head Bush Woman: Dr. Condoleezza Rice

 president-bush-kissing-condoleezza-rice

                 Is this what 100 years of struggle has wrought: A Suck Up to Power?

Recently some reporters caught up with Dr. Rice at an airport, and one of them confronted her with the fact that fifty Nobel Prize winning physicists have gone on record arguing that the anti-missile shield cannot work.  She dismissed them with the comment that they were “liberal scientists.” When asked if she could name any conservative scientists of equal stature who support her position that the shield should be built, she fled, claiming that she was late for her flight.

Aside from the fact that “Condi” is prepared to defend a policy that she knows could set the world aflame, she is also quite willing to serve as the colored poster girl for the Republican party in their attempt to recruit African Americans to their standard. Party strategists are certain that if they can win a substantial number of black voters they can become the majority party in the US.

This explains her prominence, along with retired general Colin Powell, former All-American football player and Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, and some obscure Republican elected officials, at the Republican convention.  These black Republican apparatchiks headlined a modern minstrel show featuring a contingent of highly visible “minority” participants that Jesse Jackson properly called  “The inclusion illusion.”

I had assumed that the transparent duplicity of the Republican Party’s attempt to feign an interest in the black community would be obvious.  But to my surprise I’ve seen black folks tell TV reporters that they were leaning towards Bush because there were so many non-white minorities featured at the Republican convention.  That ranks right up there along with the working class white folks who say they will vote for Bush because he seems like a regular guy that they could spend the evening having a beer with!

What is all too clear in all this is that the early twentieth century Editor of “The Smart Set,” H.L. Mencken, was right when he dubbed the American public “Boobus Americanus, his name for the untutored mob that still comprise far too much of the US electorate.  It is enough to note the voluminous commentary on how a majority of those who watched the Presidential debates preferred George Bush because Al Gore came off as “too smart.”

All this makes me want to institute a standardized civics test for anyone seeking to exercise the ballot.   The fact is that American society has grown so complex it is impossible to make sense of events if one does not make a serious effort to become informed on the issues.  Thomas Jefferson understood this and even warned that an ignorant electorate stood the risk of electing incompetents or scoundrels to public office.  The rise of lightweight buffoons and oily charlatans like Ronald Reagan and the Bushes demonstrates that Jefferson’s fears were justified.

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 Unfortunately, working class Americans, white or black, will gain no clarity on how they should respond to the serious questions that face them from many of our leading intellectuals. Those on the right have sold out, and too many on the left are hopelessly confused. It is a good thing to engage in serious intellectual critiques but now the people need practical advice.  After all, we are about the business of deciding who will be President for the next four years and who will control congress.

This means that their life chances and those of their children are at stake. Yet when the ubiquitous Cornel West was asked by a working class black woman from Brooklyn if he believed poor black folks could afford to follow the example of middle class whites and cut off their nose to spite their face by voting for Ralph Nader and risking a Republican victory, West played past her concerns and pompously lectured her on the failings of the Democratic party.

But the question remains: Do Cornel West, Columbia University’s Manning Marable, Randall Robinson, and other black Naderite intellectuals really believe it is in the best interest of the black community to engage in a protest vote at the expense of a Republican victory?  They sure talk like it.

Instead of telling black voters that while the Democrats are far from perfect the Republicans will murder their dreams, they have gone on a fool’s errand and are counseling the black community to cast their votes on a pipe dream. I have no doubt that these pampered privileged intellectuals will do just fine under four or eight years of Republican mis-rule, just like their white upper middle class counterparts.  But it’s gonna be a hot time in the old town for the folks farthest down.

If these guys can’t see that working people in general, and African Americans in particular, will be better off with Al Gore in the white house and Charlie Rangel in control of the Ways And Means Committee, then the black community, those who are aware that these guys exist, should dismiss them as ivory tower egg heads who are hopelessly out of touch with the nitty gritty realities of working class black folks.

That’s what I’ve done. While I certainly don’t believe the Democrats offer the best possible vision for contemporary American society, I have no doubt that a Republican victory will arrest the progress of African Americans for most of this new century.  Hence I am prepared to accept the lesser evil.

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

*Originally published in The Black World Today

And read over WBAI Radio on Election Day in 2000.

 

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