pollit and Nader

Nathan Newman nathan at newman.org
Tue Oct 3 11:09:34 PDT 2000

----- Original Message ----- From: "Doug Henwood" <dhenwood at panix.com> To: <lbo-talk at lists.panix.com>

>Nathan, I'm curious about your use of the word "elitist" to describe
>people who are critical of the leaders (and policies) of a ruling
>class party and the leaders (and policies) of unions and other
>organizations (NOW, NAACP) that are deeply tied to that party. This
>sounds like a variation on the old neocon/libertarian ploy of
>denouncing anyone critical of market values as an elitist.

My quote was "And the Nader promoters have to take the elitist position that those voters are fools and dupes for supporting the Dems. It is that kind of elitism and Nader leadership worship that makes me dismiss most third party politics."

I said "voters" in the context of noting that I respect Dems not for the quality of their leadership but for the quality of their supporters, namely voters. And the same sentiment applies to many groups like NOW, the NAACP and so on. Not that those leaders don't warrant and deserve criticism, but I find it ironic that the Nader campaign is admirable precisely for its leadership, since it has a quite unadmirable profile of supporters from any class or racial demographics that most progressives would look for.

And I find the sniping at NOW and the NAACP deeply suspicious politically coming from a movement like the Greens with such a demographic profile and a white male priviledged titular leader. When Katha Pollit speaks of Nader as the candidate of the white male left, I would agree with it less because those are the only supporters than because the Nader campaign seems to empower such whtie male activists to assume such a holier-than-thou attitude towards the "identity politics" (or "gonadal politics" in the phrase of one Ralph Nader) that so deeply irritates them.

I support challenges to leadership, but they are far more credible when they come from within an organization by its constituent members, than when that criticism comes from outsiders who may not face the pressures of day-to-day struggle that leads to the compromises involved, however problematic.

John hates personal biography, I know, but the idea that I am an uncritcal supporter of leadership would be laughable to anyone who I have ever done politics with, especially the various organizational leaders I have continually challenged and locked horns with over my life as an activist. My first political experience was the joy of being purged by the executive director of the Naderite MassPIRG, largely because I was seeking to create grievance procedures for staff to challenge his arbitrary authority and over seeking to broaden the organization's political mission. I got in trouble as a union organizer because I publicly challenged the visiting then-candidate for Senate Richard Bryan to have the Dems withdraw support for death squads in El Salvador. And I promoted the rank-and-file New Directions criticism of the UAW when I was a member of the UAW grad union at Berkeley, and criticized publicly the UAW strategy and leadership of our two-month strike. And organized rallies of thousands of people to condemn Clinton and the Congress for passing welfare reform. And so on, and so on.

So the issue is not whether I support criticism of leadership. It's a question of how to build a broad progressive coalition for social justice and part of that is a respect for the choices of the rank-and-file of various organizations which one sees as allies. I may cheer on the challenges to leadership of such allied organizations when I don't like their direction, but I don't think it is either productive or respectful to spend a lot of time calling such leaders sell-outs. That is a far better role for actual members of those organizations who can hopefully back their challenge up with alternative internal policies and slates for leadership.

But to return to your original question, there is an elitism in intellectuals criticizing everyone else's political leadership. If every political leadership is delegitimized, that creates a vacuum, which privileged intellectuals who have access to the media can step into. Both Nader and Buchana are where they are because they are ultimately skilled manipulators of the media, both for causes they believe in and for self-promotion. Until he ran for the Greens nomination, Nader had never faced a real election for control of an organization he runs, since his power is as a media star and fundraiser was his real base of power. Members of his organizations can refuse to send a renewal check, but they really can't change Nader or his favored leadership at his groups.

NOW and the NAACP on the other hand are democratic organizations with often cantankerous grassroots that can and do matter for elections of leadership. You can't play a game of insulting the character of their leadership without implicitly condemning the membership as well. The same is true of most unions. Now, it may be reasonable to so condemn the millions of folks who elect those various leaders, but it is a form of elitism to do so. Hey, not all elitist evaluations are inaccurate or morally wrong, but it is elitism none the less.

-- Nathan Newman

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