Going in the wrong direction

September 12, 2008

Alan Maass argues that Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney are undercutting the project of building a left alternative with their "unity" appearance alongside Republican reactionary Ron Paul.

CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN Ron Paul held a press conference attended by independent Ralph Nader and the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney to promote third-party presidential candidates who represent diametrically opposed political agendas.

Participating in this event was a backward step for Nader and McKinney, the two presidential candidates to the left of the Democrats with any kind of support this year.

Paul gained an enthusiastic following--and raised a lot of money--during the Republican presidential primaries mostly because of his critique of the Bush administration's occupation of Iraq and its shredding of civil liberties. But on most issues, he's a standard-issue right-winger, as far removed from Nader's and McKinney's progressive backgrounds as can be imagined.

Despite his seeming grassroots support, Paul did poorly in the primaries, and he was basically ignored at the Republican convention. Rejecting a plea from the McCain campaign to endorse the GOP ticket, Paul held the press conference to announce that he would call on supporters to back one of four third-party candidates: Nader, McKinney, Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party and Chuck Baldwin of the crackpot Constitution Party.

Ron Paul, Cynthia McKinney, Chuck Baldwin and Ralph Nader at their September 2008 joint press conference
Ron Paul, Cynthia McKinney, Chuck Baldwin and Ralph Nader at their September 2008 joint press conference

In fact, Barr snubbed the gathering, arguing at his own press conference a few hours later that he wasn't "interested in third parties getting the most possible votes," but in building his own candidacy.

That's what Nader and McKinney should have done. In spite of surface similarities on a few issues, Ron Paul is no ally of the progressive agenda that these two candidates have stood for.

For one, Paul's complaints about the Bush administration stem as much from his opposition in principle to "big government" than the war in Iraq. When Paul talks about limiting the power of the federal government, he also means eliminating social programs that help the poor and getting rid of the Department of Education.

Paul is opposed to abortion, having called Roe v. Wade "the worst of all rulings"--apparently, his libertarian defense of individual freedom doesn't apply to women's right to control their bodies. As a lawmaker, he voted against the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt.

Paul was the only member of Congress to oppose the 40th anniversary commemoration of the 1964 Civil Rights Act--because, he explained in an article titled "The Trouble with Forced Integration," "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations and customer service practices of every business in the country."

He's also virulently anti-immigrant. So when it looked like he might do well in Iowa and other early Republican primaries, Paul started running television ads that featured not his opposition to the Iraq war, but his proposals for "defending" U.S. borders. The ads began with images of people swimming across the Rio Grande and finished with Paul's promises: "Physically secure the border. No amnesty. No welfare to illegal aliens. End birthright citizenship. No more student visas from terrorist nations."

Even Paul's opposition to war isn't on the basis of any solidarity with people around the world enduring violence and oppression, but an old-fashioned America First attitude typical of conservatives who want to concentrate on the profit system at home.

PAUL'S SUPPORT for the third-party presidential candidates this week didn't come without conditions.

All four agreed to a four-point program drafted by Paul that included foreign policy aims such as ending the occupation of Iraq, defending civil liberties like the right to privacy, balancing the federal government budget and investigating the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

The points were vague enough that McKinney and Nader had no problem presenting them in a liberal form (even as the Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin used the opportunity to lavish praise on his "dear friend and mentor" Jerry Falwell).

Still, it was disappointing that McKinney and Nader embraced the goal of a "balanced budget," a traditional code--used incessantly by the two mainstream parties, it should be pointed out--for cutting government spending on programs that benefit ordinary people.

Worse, neither Nader nor McKinney made any criticism of Paul's reactionary and racist positions. "I'm very proud," Nader said at the press conference, "that we today have put aside our disagreements on other issues, like health and safety regulations, and focused on these four fundamental subjects."

Instead, the two joined Paul in celebrating the idea that people with opposite political beliefs and principles should "set aside their differences" and work together. McKinney even compared the press conference to the 1848 Seneca Falls convention for women's rights, which, she said, "came together to declare their independence from the current political order of their day...I believe that what we have gathered here today represents a similar kind of declaration of independence."

"Independence" to what end? Paul and the third-party candidates share an interest in loosening the stranglehold of the Democrats and Republicans over the political system, starting with participation in this fall's presidential debates. But that's not a reason to proclaim unity on issues where none exists.

Trying to bridge Paul's isolationist and xenophobic attitudes on foreign policy with McKinney's and Nader's opposition to war and multinational corporate power can only lead to confusion at best, and abandoned principles at worst.

During the Republican primaries, a few voices on the left championed Paul as a more forthright opponent of the Iraq war than mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But in speaking up for Paul, they had to ignore--or, worse, excuse--his disgusting right-wing record on what some called "secondary issues."

By celebrating their "unity" with Paul on challenging the two parties--though it should be noted that Paul will run for re-election to Congress as a Republican, not an independent--Nader and McKinney are displaying the same narrow and short-sighted attitude.

If the point of running for president for Nader and McKinney is to make progressive voices stronger in U.S. politics, than why are they joining hands with someone like Ron Paul who would heap abuse and discrimination on the heads of many of those--immigrants, gays and lesbians, women who seek to exercise their right to choose, the poor--who would be drawn to that alternative?

Socialist Worker believes that there has to be a point to an independent election campaign beyond giving voters a choice--any choice at all--opposed to the Republicans and Democrats. The goal must be to make the left stronger, by building solidarity with others in their struggles and furthering the kind of politics that makes our side stronger.

Uniting with Ron Paul does the opposite--and allows Paul to use Nader and McKinney to give legitimacy to his own dangerous program.

THE SADDEST aspect of this is that Nader and McKinney were running campaigns that raised important issues for the left--and were getting, despite a media blackout, a larger-than-anticipated hearing among people disillusioned with Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Two weeks ago, we wrote in a Socialist Worker editorial:

On most every question--war, civil liberties, jobs, corporate power, health care, the environment--McKinney and Nader represent a stark alternative to the two mainstream parties...McKinney and Nader do offer voters the chance to cast a protest vote against war, racism and corporate greed, even if they will not be able to break through the media blackout on their candidacies. That vote won't count for much in this year's electoral arithmetic, but it can be a marker for the future.

By uniting with Paul, Nader and McKinney are setting back that future project of building a genuine left alternative.

They should reject Paul's endorsement and distance themselves from any other initiative that unites third-party presidential candidates, regardless of their politics. If they don't, they will have lost any claim on the votes of people who want to register their discontent with the two parties of the status quo as part of building a left that can pursue an alternative agenda.

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