Ellen Willis Responds

Ellen Willis Responds

I voted for Ralph Nader for several intertwined reasons. At a time when both major parties and the culture’s conventional wisdom uncritically embrace corporate power and free-market ideology, I felt it was important to support a nationally visible challenge to that consensus. I hoped that getting enough support to qualify for federal funds would help the Green Party to build on the momentum of the Seattle protest and become an influential force in national politics. I don’t see electoral politics as the only, or even the primary, arena for movement-building. But in the absence of forceful opposition to the repressively narrow boundaries of what passes for mainstream campaign “debate,” those boundaries are seen as defining politics itself: the idea that nothing is possible beyond the most trivial gestures toward dealing with our social problems becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone has to get up and loudly, publicly insist that declarations of the end of history are premature, and this time the one with the megaphone was Ralph Nader. Finally—or perhaps first of all—I am convinced that if the left is to revive, it must break from its masochistic, unrequited loyalty to the Democratic Party.

It’s this last point, especially, that drives Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz berserk: they devote a lot of space to arguing that the Democrats and the Republicans are not the same. They are banging on an open door, in my case. The two parties are not the same—one is a center-right party, the other a far-right party. And like Gitlin and Wilentz, I’d rather live under the center-right party. Nor do I believe “the worse the better,” whatever “a Nader voter in Portland” may think (Gitlin and Wilentz may be adept at seeing differences between Republicans and Democrats, but recognizing distinctions among Nader supporters is not their strong point). On the contrary, I usually vote for Democrats who are running against conservative Republicans—at the same time that I voted for Nader for president, I voted, albeit with little enthusiasm, for Hillary Clinton for senator. Furthermore, Nader was hardly my ideal candidate. Irritating as it is to hear the argument from Eric Alterman, who has made a career of dismissing cultural issues as “identity politics,” it’s true that despite numerous pleas by supporters, Nader would not stretch himself to connect with constituencies beyond his young-white-guy core. In truth, my vote was as much a matter of weighing tradeoffs and compromises—always the coin of electoral politics—as many Gore votes were. Why then was I willing to risk a Bush victory? Why, for instance, risk the appointment of Supreme Court justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade, among other things?

The best way to understand my position is to look at the Democrats’ modus operandi since the election. We have just been through a campaign in which George W. Bush pretended to be a moderate, lost the popular vote a...


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