Nader takes the lead?

Sep 7th, 2004 | By | Category: USA Today

The online edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail conducted a somewhat surprising opinion poll among its cyberspace readers on Friday, September 3, 2004, in the immediate wake of the Republican Convention in New York. The question was: Who would you most like to see win the U.S. presidential election in November?

Canadians still do not actually get to vote in US elections. As often enough noted, however, political opinion in the Canadian Provinces bears some vague resemblance to opinion in what remains of the adjacent more liberal northern States of the Union. In the end the results of the September 3 poll are not exactly scientific for any politically operative chunk of North American geography. But they were surprising, even for a Canadian poll that doesn’t count: George W. Bush 10%, John Kerry 31%, Ralph Nader 59%.

Is Kerry’s political base starting to implode?

In pondering these results, it is worth bearing in mind that, judging from their responses to previous daily opinion polls, Globe and Mail online readers tend to be somewhat more liberal again than the statistically average Canadian (to say nothing of the average US voter).

It may also be that part of Nader’s ultimately irrelevant victory here reflects some hasty ad hoc cyberspace conspiracy by a well-organized Canadian environmental movement – perhaps even aided and abetted by Naderite forces themselves, on both sides of the northern US border.

Earlier on in the day of September 3, as some Globe online readers seem to remember, Nader was running neck and neck with Bush, but had not overtaken Kerry. For whatever reasons, Nader’s strong initial showing snowballed as the day progressed. And many more readers than usual finally participated in the poll. Total votes were 36,817 – compared with an average of 14,039 for the previous six daily Globe online polls.

It is no doubt true enough as well that the online readers of Canada’s national newspaper include many serious-minded people with responsible jobs, who would not actually vote for Ralph Nader if they did have a real opportunity to turn out for the US election.

In Canada’s own 2004 federal election in June only a comparative few of these same people dared to vote for the third (or fourth) party in their own backyard. It is always easier to make bold decisions when you know your decision won’t count.

Yet this is also part of what makes the poll a little more surprising than usual. One would have thought that most of the Globe‘s serious-minded online readers would think voting for Ralph Nader just too irresponsible, even in a Canadian poll about the 2004 US election. That they suddenly do not may somehow confirm the depths of the trouble John Kerry has suddenly found himself in with his own real-world political base.

Shouldn’t it be the Democrats’ election to lose?

It is not easy to judge the extent to which Canadian popular opinion may or may not be any kind of reliable proxy for more northern (and perhaps even bi-coastal urban) opinion in the USA.

Politically at least, Canada remains a somewhat different country, with a federal electorate that is still about one-quarter French-speaking. (And French Canada, concentrated demographically in Quebec, has some wider national influence, especially among the neighboring English-speaking majority in Ontario that reads the Toronto Globe and Mail.)

But on a Labour Day weekend when Bush pulled ahead of Kerry by double digits in two major US polls, it is not so hard to grasp why as many as 59% of the Globe’s online Canadian readers might now chose Ralph Nader as the candidate they would most like to see win the U.S. presidential election in November.

For many if by no means all Canadians, coast to coast to coast, Republicans like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and so forth have already made a near-impregnable case against their own re-election for four more years. If the Democrats’ candidate for president can’t just pick this case up and leisurely hit it out of the park, there must be something very wrong. Perhaps the time for more serious surgery has come at last.

In the USA itself even the arch-conservative Pat Buchanan (who likes to make a little fun of the too-liberal Soviet Canuckistan up north), now believes that Bush, Cheney, and so forth have led the American superpower into an ill-advised and increasingly destabilizing war in Iraq, and are turning blind eyes to important signs of trouble ahead for the North American economy.

On Saturday, September 4, 2004 – the day after its surprising opinion poll – the Globe and Mail itself ran a column on the US election by its dean of the Canadian press gallery in Ottawa, Jeffrey Simpson (who, as it happens, was born in New York City). It began by noting that: The election will be fought against the backdrop of Iraq, with its halting political progress, new civilian government and localized, terrible violence that continues to claim U.S. lives.

Mr. Simpson went on: Mr. Bush maintains he was right all along to conquer Iraq, even though his two imperatives for the invasion turned out to be false – the existence of weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. The bipartisan 9/11 commission thoroughly debunked both assertions.

No matter, says Mr. Bush. The Iraqi invasion/occupation was part of the fight to keep the U.S. safe.

For Mr. Kerry, Iraq has been a political nightmare. He voted for the war on the Senate floor, but against money to sustain it. He has an explanation of sorts for the two votes, but it isn’t an easy one to follow. Republicans accuse him of flip-flopping and indecisiveness, a potentially fatal handicap.

As the best politician of his generation, Bill Clinton has said: Americans might just prefer a president whom they think strong but wrong to one weak but right.!

Just what is going on in the USA today anyway?

There are probably some further reasons for Ralph Nader’s somewhat surprising irrelevant victory in the Toronto Globe’s September 3 poll in another article in the same paper, on the same day. It was headlined Ottawa compiles no-fly’ list of banned passengers, and written by Jane Taber, another luminary of the Ottawa press gallery.

Ms. Taber’s story told about how the government department Transport Canada is now finally getting around to negotiating with the air carriers to implement one of the tools in the new Public Safety Act. This tool requires airlines to provide the government with information about people on … a flight who the Transport Minister believes may pose an immediate threat.’

Canada no doubt has been somewhat tardy in implementing this particular aspect of the international war on terror.

It is probably not altogether an accident that the required negotiations with the airlines are getting under way at last in the wake of Paul Martin’s recent very slender victory of sorts in the June 2004 Canadian federal election. As even a brief news clip on US TV once noted, Martin’s own instincts are more overtly pro-American than those of his predecessor Jean Chretien.

In any event, the United States, Jane Taber reported on September 3, has already had such a no-fly list with thousands of names on it for some time now. And it is not without problems … Last month, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy told a Senate committee hearing that his name was placed on the no-fly list and he was barred several times from commercial flights.

Some of the people who voted for Ralph Nader in the Globe’s September 3 online poll likely enough also read Ms. Taber’s sentence about Senator Kennedy with a certain degree of astonishment and even alarm. No doubt the first instinct of many more serious-minded and responsible readers was to guess that some contextual detail, unrevealed by Jane Taber, would better explain what was really going on.

Others could probably not resist just jumping to more alarming conclusions. They could only think to themselves: You mean the Bush administration in Washington has actually gotten away with putting Ted Kennedy on an official list of agents of international terrorism in the USA?

By any standards of the rule of the law in a free and democratic society, if this is true, isn’t it utterly outrageous? Doesn’t democracy in America still have a solid mainstream that just will not tolerate such blatant abuse of the modern state’s monopoly of force? And just what sort of political movement would even try to do such a thing?

If any of this is remotely close to some version of the plain truth, why hasn’t John Kerry made an issue of it? Surely it puts one firm and dramatic finger on a future that is dangerous for us all, inside and outside the USA?

Why didn’t Senator Edward Kennedy himself tell us about getting blacklisted from commercial flights in his own country, as a suspected agent of international terrorism, at the Democratic Convention in Boston? (Or was that what he was trying to do, in what most TV commentators seemed to dismiss as his conventional barn-burning speech?) Just what really is going on in the USA today anyway?

Shades of the Great Free Republic that never dawned …

Reading David Brooks’s column on Bush’s Second Term, in the September 4, 2004 issue of The New York Times, might have put many of those who voted for Ralph Nader in the Toronto Globe’s September 3 opinion poll in a quite different frame of mind.

Reporting on the latest from the Republican Convention, Brooks foretold a much more government-friendly and mildly populist second Bush administration – dispensing something like the conservative Red Toryism that has intermittently been popular in Canadian history too.

Brooks quoted Bush guru Karen Hughes: This is not the grinchy old Let’s abolish the Department of Education or shut down the government’ conservatism of the past. The essence of the Republicans’ new governing philosophy, as the president himself has declared, is that Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives.

At the same time, David Brooks noted that many of his press corps peers are wondering why George W. Bush didn’t do more of this in his first term, if that’s what his party is really all about. Mr. Brooks himself felt obliged to confess that I do have a voice in my head that says this is all a mirage.

In the end, however, Ralph Nader’s surprising but irrelevant victory in the Toronto Globe‘s September 3 poll may most dramatically recall an intriguing exchange of correspondence between two North American journalists in the middle of the 19th century – during the prelude to what finally became the American Civil War.

In the middle of August 1855 Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune – and inventor of the immortal advice Go west, young man – responded to a letter on current political issues from his friend and sometime colleague William Lyon Mackenzie, in Toronto. (Earlier on Mackenzie had also been a leader of the failed Canadian Rebellions of 1837. As a result he spent the next decade in exile in New York State, where he did some work for Greeley. By 1855 bold new reforms in Canadian politics had enabled Mackenzie to return to Toronto.)

Horace Greeley had some provocative things to say to William Lyon Mackenzie in the summer of 1855: The time is coming when those states that persist in deifying slavery will secede from the Union and I am for letting them go peacefully … Then I would like to form a union with Canada and have a Great Free Republic, the strongest and truest in the world.

Does another big gamble lurk in the wings today?

As we now know very well, Horace Greeley never did get his wish. And 150 years later there is even less chance that the northern States of the Union will finally unite with the still more northern Provinces of Canada, while everything south of the old Mason-Dixon line secedes to form another quite different country altogether.

It may be as well that bi-coastal urban versus rural interior is a more apt characterization of the key political fault line in the USA today, than any more ancient image of North and South. And of course there is probably not going to be another American Civil War in any near future.

Yet Canada received a great wave of northbound US immigrants during the much more recent Vietnam War. Many Canadians would agree that this was good for their country. Jane Jacobs, author of the 1960s classic, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is only one of many talented Americans who still live and work in Canada today, as a result of the Vietnam War.

Maybe George W. Bush’s War in Iraq will finally have some similar benign impact. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, from the standpoint of the real forces of progress maybe democracy in America has now temporarily fallen to a point where the most sensible and even responsible thing to do is to vote for Ralph Nader in November. Maybe the old liberal, free-market, and American-as-apple-pie left in the USA will need just such a jolt, to come properly alive again at last.

Most actual Canadians, on the other hand, are more cautious. They are almost certainly still hoping that enough of the US electorate will suddenly appreciate how America’s greatest danger today is that it faces an increasingly twisted and complex set of circumstances, at home and abroad. Only a twisted and complex president, who is not afraid of cunningly flip flopping as much as he has to, can hope to manage this danger with real success.

Such circumstances and politicians are already very familiar in Canada, albeit on a much smaller and largely irrelevant scale. In an increasingly diverse, bilingual, multicultural, and (as Jean Chretien used to say) fragile young country, more and more home to both restless native peoples and immigrants from literally all around the world, so-called transformational politicians like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and so forth probably would finally cause something quite a lot like a civil war.

This may be the simplest and truest meaning of Ralph Nader’s surprising victory in the September 3 online edition of the Globe and Mail – even allowing for all possible cyberspace conspiracies of environmental and Naderite activists on both sides of the border. If it is, it is only available in Canada, and that still doesn’t count.

Yet what if all this northern/bi-coastal urban passion also does have some much larger adjacent variations, south but not too far south of the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, the 49th parallel, and Vancouver Island? (Or, as a humourous Canadian historian said long ago: Canadians always vote Democratic in American elections.)

If things get desperate enough for John Kerry, Pat Buchanan told Tim Russert on TV over the Labour Day weekend, the Democrats might finally do something like propose a firm deadline for the exit of all US forces from Iraq – say no more than a year. It would be a very big gamble, Mr. Buchanan suggested. But if it looked like Kerry was almost certainly going to lose anyway, it might be worth a try.

It also seems conceivable that, under the right circumstances, such an Iraq-exit-strategy proposal could prove almost as popular with the US federal electorate as it would be good for the world at large. And it would finally mark the arrival of an authentically transformational American democracy, that was at last strong and secure enough not to feel that it constantly has to push its strength for its own safety.

A new democratic USA of this sort just might be able to democratize Iraq – and go on to conquer the hearts and minds of the global village too, in a number of harmless senses at least.

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