I recently finished reading Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History of the United States." Granted, it took me a year of off and on reading to get through it, but as of a few days ago I am officially done! It was a fantastic book; from page one Zinn is relentless in his critique of the power dynamics that played themselves out from the moment that Columbus set foot on Caribbean soil, to the Clinton era. I was most impressed by the anarchist undercurrent of Zinn’s commentary and his celebration of such notable radicals as Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the Anarcho-syndicalist union The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Zinn draws out the underlying class loyalties of the American ruling class that according to my high school history books do not exist.
But, as I listened to a KPFK broadcast the other day, Zinn was a guest. He was asked to talk about the upcoming election. He was typical in his critique of McCain as a war-monger and of Obama as being a centrist and loyal to corporate money despite the rhetoric. And then, at the end of the interview, the host asked: “What role do third party candidates like Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney play in this year’s election?” To my horror, Zinn replied: “Voting for a third party candidate is futile” and continued,
“If there is even a marginal difference between Obama and McCain, and there is, that is there is a greater possibility of change with Obama than McCain, if that even small possibility exists, and small possibilities can mean a matter of life and death for people; then I think at the moment you are in the voting booth you have to put aside the idea of a third party candidate and at that point and vote for somebody who has a possibility of change. With Obama there’s that possibility, with McCain there isn’t. I don’t think that truth telling people like McKinney and Ralph Nader have their greatest power in the in the voting booth or the electoral process.
Host: But couldn’t they serve to push Obama to the Left?
Zinn: Up to the point of the election itself maybe, but the threat of a third party candidate is so small, that the idea of voting for a third party candidate is not going to push Obama to the Left…I think that what will push him in a good direction is a movement, a citizens movement in the country, which people like Nader and McKinney can lead. And I think that kind of movement is the kind that historically has moved presidents in a good direction, just as the great movements of the 30s moved Roosevelt in the direction of domestic economic reform.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe that this was the same guy who had written a Peoples History! If anyone could understand the value of a third party candidate it is Howard Zinn, or so I thought. If the best we can hope for is a movement that will push a moderate president in a “good” direction, then how do we ever hope to achieve the kinds of things the “left” is striving for? In every category Obama has refused to take progressive stances on the issues: the war in Iraq, healthcare, taxes, etc. If we give up the idea of a third party candidate at the voting booth, then of COURSE a third party is no threat to Obama or McCain. It is that we are willing to vote for the candidate that best represents our values that make political parties accountable to us in the first place. If we see Obama as just another least-worst, then the democrats will continue to be beholden to corporations and not to us. This is why I have never been a democrat; they do not represent my values. In addition, it is precisely the third party and independent candidates like Eugene Debs who had the power to push Roosevelt in a left direction. If Debs had not received over a million votes, I don’t think Roosevelt would have paid much attention. Zinn is correct that a broad movement with good leaders will take us far, but we also need leverage. What better way push Obama to the left than with the real threat of losing our votes?