Weapons of Mass Democracy

Media Rants [from the November 2004 issue of The Valley Scene]

By Tony Palmeri

On October 26th, Ralph Nader visited UW Oshkosh. Perhaps no Independent or third party presidential candidate has ever been subject to as much abuse as Nader. While it was to be expected that establishment Democrats would resort to legal thuggery to keep Nader off ballots, who would have expected the so-called American "Left" to be so blinded by Bushism that they would abandon their professed pro-democracy principles to roll over and play dead for John Kerry? And why do so-called "Progressives" think anything will be different in 2008? If Kerry wins the 2004 election (I am writing this on October 26th), progressives in 2008 will be told to shut up so that Republicans do not regain the White House. If Bush wins, progressives will be told to shut up so as to avoid another four years of Republican rule.

Ralph Nader refuses to shut up. In my introduction of him, I called him a WMD: Weapon of Mass Democracy. Weapons of Mass Democracy speak truth to power, promote a spirit of resistance, and agitate for a politics of conscience. Weapons of Mass Democracy include Thomas Jefferson declaring independence from the tyrant, Robert LaFollette placing the people over concentrated wealth and power, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching passive resistance and love of enemy, and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones mobilizing for the rights of children and teaching activists to "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

Tony Palmeri and Ralph Nader "I'll never be a Ralph Nader, but I can be a Weapon of Mass Democracy. Can you?" --Tony Palmeri

You would never know it by looking at the horrid mainstream media coverage of presidential elections, but Nader's 2004 campaign was solidly in the tradition of alternative candidacies that kept vital ideas in circulation, gave voters an opportunity to reject corrupt government, and/or affirmed freedom of conscience. Some examples:

The Election of 1844: Democrat James Polk ran against Henry Clay, the Whig party's "Great Compromiser." Clay was a slightly lesser evil than Polk on the issue of slavery expansion, yet both candidates were themselves slave owners. Abolitionist James Birney of Michigan ran on the Liberty Party ticket, earning 2% of the vote and probably costing Clay the election. I think history looks kindly on Birney and those who voted for him for having the courage to say NO to the politics of lesser evilism.

The Election of 1892: The Republicans ran Benjamin Harrison against the Democrat nominee Grover Cleveland. James Weaver ran on the Populist Party ticket, standing for nationalizing the railroads, a graduated income tax, and reform of monetary policy to benefit farmers and workers. Many of Weaver's ideas were eventually promoted by the Democratic Party.

The Election of 1920: Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox spent the majority of the campaign talking about the League of Nations and prohibition. Socialist Eugene V. Debs, in a federal penitentiary for speaking against World War I in violation of the "Espionage" Act, received almost one million votes from his cell. His candidacy and vote total remain as powerful symbols of the spirit of resistance against a corrupt and brutal government that in blatant opposition to the Bill of Rights jailed war critics

The Election of 1924: The Republicans and Democrats nominated a pair of flaming mediocrities (sound familiar?), Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis. Wisconsin's Fightin' Bob LaFollette ran for President that year on the Progressive Party ticket. He stood for crushing private monopolies, public ownership of water resources and railroads, an excess-profits tax, elections of all federal judges, ending the scourge of child labor, an end to sex discrimination, and multinational agreements to outlaw war, abolish the draft, and disarm. Eighty years later, the federal government still hasn't caught up to LaFollette and in many ways has retreated from progressive reforms that were initiated due to his influence.

The Election of 1992: Okay, Ross Perot was somewhat of a wacky character. But his candidacy did provide a national audience with an expose' of the corrupt nature of the two-party system. With George Bush and Bill Clinton running center-right campaigns (Governor Clinton actually traveled to Arkansas in the middle of the campaign to sign the death warrant of the retarded Ricky Ray Rector to show that he was "tough on crime"), the Perot candidacy made the 1992 election worth paying attention to.

The Election of 2000: Ralph Nader's campaign was the most principled national run since LaFollette in 1924. While Democrats blame Nader's 97,000 votes for the loss of Florida, the fact of the matter is that 12% of Florida's Democrats (almost 300,000) voted for George W. Bush. Half of all registered Democrats did not even bother to vote. For the Democrats to blame Nader for their own failure to "rally the base" is despicable. When Americans finally decide to dismantle the corporate oligarchy that passes for "government" in Washington and most state capitols, the Nader 2000 campaign will gain its rightful place as a watershed in the history of movements for democracy and human rights.

I had a chance to speak privately with Nader during his visit to Oshkosh. He was so convinced of the righteousness of his 2004 campaign and so unwavering in his commitment to the cause of justice that I must admit I found myself a bit awe-inspired. I thought, "I'll never be a Ralph Nader, but I can be a Weapon of Mass Democracy." Can you?

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.