Lessons from parliamentary politics.
Published on TomPaine.com.
With the presidential election on the line, Al Gore’s campaign has clamored for Ralph Nader to leave the race and to pledge his votes to the common cause of a non-Republican executive. Current polls show that lacking the support of progressives who are now opting for Ralph Nader, Gore may lose several crucial swing states to Bush. And according to the Democratic camp, stubborn Green Party voters would be wholly to blame for such a calamity.
The truth is, the Vice President has the power to respond much more constructively to the Nader challenge. If he wanted to get serious about winning the support of the Greens, he could go beyond merely suggesting that their candidate resign. Gore could offer real concessions to the progressive third party: He could forge an American version of coalition government.
Given our political system’s ingrained winner-take-all bias, it’s not surprising that the Democrats have shown little creativity in dealing with a minority-party threat. But Gore supporters might learn some tricks from abroad. In such parliamentary-run countries as Germany and Israel, rivaling groups must regularly build coalitions in order to win control of government. Large parties make majorities not by pouting about smaller interests stealing away votes. Rather, they gain the allegiance of these opponents by offering political gains, often a share of executive power.
What if Gore, in return for the Greens’ endorsement, promised to grant control of the Department of the Interior to the third party? From there, Secretary Nader and his staff could greatly impact the environmental policies central to their platform. And since Gore ostensibly prides himself so much on his conservationist values, this should not be too big a sacrifice for him to make. Sure, the Democrats would not enjoy giving up this juicy bit of the Presidential spoils. But would they prefer ceding the whole feast to a Bush Administration?
Other concessions might involve future elections. For example, the Democrats might commit to including Green candidates in the Presidential debates of 2004 and 2008. Or Gore might vow to make far-reaching changes in campaign finance law, reforms which could help third parties compete in expensive contests.
Of course, this whole scenario is exceeding unlikely. Nader’s attacks on Gore have been too unrelenting to allow for any comfortable reconciliation. More generally, the political culture has little predisposition for such foreign maneuvering. Nevertheless, the idea of coalition is interesting to consider for two reasons.
First it shifts discussion about Nader’s candidacy away from dull condemnations of those who would “vote their consciences” rather than support the “lesser of two evils.” Instead it questions what Gore is willing to sacrifice in the name of a unified anti-Bush front. And in doing so it illuminates the fact that Gore’s flirtations with the left have been fickle at best. While incorporating some populist rhetoric into his stump speeches, he has thus far offered precious little that might amount to actual change, whether by compromising on offensive policy positions or foreshadowing progressive appointments.
Second, this proposition challenges the Greens themselves to think beyond protest politics. Undoubtedly, many idealistic Nader supporters would feel betrayed if their champion pulled from the race to endorse an opponent he had bitterly denounced as the Republicrats’ Twidleedee hopeful. But the point of the third party bid was never to win the Presidency. The Greens would have to convince their constituency that by winning even a supporting role in a coalition government, they would set a monumental precedent. Not only would it give them a chance to affect policy in the short term. Such a bargain could permanently change the prospects for building a progressive third party in this country — the true goal of Nader’s campaign.
A Green-Donkey government would constitute a first in American politics, and it would dramatically alter the dynamics of the present campaign. It could lend genuine success to the Nader campaign while still preventing a Bush victory. And it could provide a last win-win option for a stubborn Gore campaign, which has thus far proved unwilling to compromise.