Nader at the University of Michigan: independent candidate courts the Democratic Party

By David Rodriguez
25 September 2004

As a part of a nationwide campaign leading up to the November 2 election, presidential candidate Ralph Nader gave a speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on September 13.

Nader’s appearance drew a crowd of about 500, reflecting anger toward and alienation from the Democratic and Republican parties, particularly among students. However, Nader’s speech underscored the fact that his campaign is oriented toward pressuring the Democrats.

Tapping in to the widespread feelings of disenfranchisement from the political establishment, Nader began his speech by stressing his independent status, declaring, “We are all prisoners of a 200-year-old, winner-take-all, electoral college, two-party-dominated system.”

He sought to differentiate himself from the Democrats on the issue of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nader criticized the support of both parties for the war, saying Bush “plunged us into a war in Iraq [with authority] that was unconstitutionally delegated to him by a weak-kneed Congress, including John Edwards and John Kerry.”

Criticizing the “supine relationship” of the antiwar movement to the Kerry campaign, he said, “The antiwar movement filling the streets and squares all over the country in 2002 and early 2003. Where are they now?... They are ‘anybody but Bush, let Kerry alone, make no demands.’ And what’s Kerry doing? He’s supporting the war. He is saying the Pentagon’s bloated wasteful budget is not big enough.”

Nader attributes the differences he holds with the Democrats on the occupation of Iraq and other issues, including corporate crime, minimum wage laws, healthcare, and campaign finance, to the massive corporate funding that the Democrats receive. However, he argues that Kerry and the Democrats can be shifted leftward through the pressure exerted by his own campaign.

This orientation was illustrated in an interview with theMichigan Daily, the university’s student paper, the Friday prior to the speech, in which Nader said, “... if you don’t pull Kerry in the direction of people issues, corporations are going to pull him more and more in the direction of their issues and Republican ones. Therefore, he loses. And if you don’t make Kerry better on these issues, the vote-getting issues, Kerry will be made worse by his financiers, his corporate consultants who surround him, et cetera.”

In his speech, Nader declared, “If the labor movement was proud and believed that a living family wage for 47 million full-time workers in this country [was needed]... if the unions thought that was a proud banner to put in front of Kerry and demand it from him... it would pull Kerry in the direction of the workers.” He repeated this same idea in relation to the antiwar movement.

The independent candidate is clearly aware of the crisis facing the Kerry campaign and is sensitive to the eroding support for Kerry within sections of what is generally considered the Democratic Party “base,” many of whom may be looking to Nader as a possible alternative. Nader’s counsel to Kerry is that he needs to adopt a “left” face to appeal to broad sections of the population frustrated by the Democratic candidate’s hitherto right-wing and pro-war positions.

This orientation is devoid of any genuine independence from the Democrats. Nader’s campaign does not serve to free what he calls the “prisoners” of the “two-party-dominated” system. Rather, it acts as a prop for this system from the outside, much as the campaigns of Kucinich and Sharpton did from within the Democratic Party.

The fundamentally pro-capitalist character of the Nader campaign is reflected in the actual positions he has advanced, particularly on the issue of the war. Despite Nader’s criticisms of Kerry’s pro-war stance, his own position differs little from that of Kucinich and others in the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party. In his speech at the University of Michigan, Nader called for the withdrawal of US troops in six months and their replacement by “peace-keeping forces, for a limited duration, from Islamic countries nearby and neutral countries like Scandinavia, who are used to that sort of international task.” During the Democratic primary elections, Kucinich—who obediently shelved his antiwar rhetoric and lined up behind Kerry at the Democratic convention—called for the removal of US troops in 90 days and their replacement with UN troops.

These positions distort the real issues in Iraq. The insurgency in Iraq is not simply aimed against the US, but against all forms of foreign occupation. The imperialist domination of Iraq cannot be ended, and the strivings of Iraqis for freedom and independence cannot be satisfied, by the subcontracting of military occupation and plunder of the country’s oil wealth to the UN or Islamic and Scandinavian countries that themselves are subordinate to the US and other imperialist powers.

Nader’s attitude toward the Democratic Party stands in sharp contrast to the ruthless manner in which the Democrats have treated his own campaign. As part of the Democrats’ reactionary attempts to keep him off the ballot, Democratic officials have challenged Nader’s nominating petitions and used their political muscle to seek to deny him ballot access in Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Virginia, Florida, and many other states.

Nader has been targeted as part of a systematic campaign to keep third parties off of the ballot. The Democrats have targeted other parties, including the Socialist Equality Party, on similarly bogus pretexts. The drive to bar third-party candidates is part of a systematic attempt to silence any opposition to the two-party system and disenfranchise broad sections of the population opposed to the war in Iraq.

While Nader denounced the anti-democratic actions of the Democratic Party in his speech at the university, he did not attempt any serious analysis of why these attacks were taking place. Nor did he draw any conclusions regarding his own orientation toward the Democrats.

Political independence from the two-party system means more than organizational independence—the formation of a third party or the running of a nominally independent presidential campaign. Political independence requires an independent political perspective for workers, students, and youth in opposition to the social system upon which the two-party system rests. His campaign speech at the University of Michigan demonstrated once again that this is something Nader is neither able nor willing to advance.