THE BUSH PUTSCH: Bill Pelz, Socialist Party USA, on that “election”

Now Dubya is safely installed in the White House, we thought we’d ask Bill Pelz, international secretary of the Socialist Party USA, what went on. Like, does it matter whether Bore or Gush gets to play politics in the Oval Office?

Bill: Well, there isn’t any fundamental difference between them. On all the major issues – the death penalty, the domination of big corporations, health care, there really isn’t much to choose. Gore’s idea of gun control is that you should only be allowed to buy one gun a month, for example. And Bush can’t do so much damage as the Republicans barely control Congress. Bush is an anti-interventionist and so might have a slightly less terrifying foreign policy. It’s just that Al Gore won.

Spectre: Wouldn’t the environment have been safer in Gore’s hands?

Bill: Gore’s record is so much hot air. He has never done a thing to put his words into practice. A lot of people argued we should back him as the lesser of two evils, but the performance of the Clinton-Gore administration over 8 years has been generally worse than that of earlier, Republican administrations.

Spectre: So why didn’t the SPUSA endorse Ralph Nader?

Bill: Nader’s an honest progressive and he fought a useful, energising campaign. But he isn’t a socialist. He believes we can work for change within the capitalist system. That’s a fundamental difference. A lot of people who are socialists did vote for him, and we did back him in states where we couldn’t get on the ballot. But we felt that by running a candidate we would get more opportunities to talk to people about what socialism is, tell them that our party exists and why. We knew we wouldn’t get many votes. Also, we may have supported Nader if he had had a real chance of getting the 5% necessary to qualify for federal matching funds next time around. We knew he had no chance of doing that, so we didn’t feel we were taking any kind of risk. And we were right. A lot of people who might have voted for Nader and some who had publicly endorsed his candidacy lost their nerve at the last minute and voted for Gore. Nader’s solution, is that we need more progressive democrats in Congress, that we can improve things without challenging capitalism. We don’t agree. We think you have to look at the broader picture. We are a long way from socialism, and most citizens don’t know what it means and don’t see it as an option. So every time we get into the mainstream media it’s a victory, and one way to do that is to run for President. Seattle showed us how quickly things can change. What’s more, last year a Socialist Party candidate, Wendell Harris, scored 18% in the Milwaukee mayoral election. We had a little money – only around $4,000, but enough to run a modest but credible campaign. And Milwaukee has a strong socialist history. Wendell Harris is well known amongst trade unionists and in the black community, so we got some name recognition. The question of course is how to build on this. We’re hoping Wendell will run for state senator and that in a three-way race he might just have a chance of winning.

Spectre: Did Nader cost Gore the election?

Bill: Well, in the end Gore was cheated out of the election but yes, clearly the votes which went to Nader would have tipped it too far in Gore’s direction for that to have happened.

Spectre: If nothing else, the fiasco of the last few weeks has succeeded in making the US electoral system into a global laughing stock.

Bill: Yes, though that really isn’t the point. There were aspects of this that weren’t funny at all. In Florida, African-Americans were systematically excluded from the vote. You can be barred for life from voting for a single petty criminal conviction, some of which, apart from straightforward miscarriages of justice, are the result of plea bargaining – you get a lighter punishment for something you didn’t do by “admitting” you did it, then you’re disfranchised, and for life. Massive numbers of young black men go to prison for something as trivial as possession of marijuana – they get out and they can’t vote, for life. This is part of a broader picture of racial disfranchisement. Districts are gerrymandered to ensure white majorities, or that large numbers of black votes translate into small numbers of black representatives. We have no black Senators.

The full story of all of the devices used to ensure a Bush victory is still unfolding - there were clearly massive abuses and a subversion of the democratic process.

But yes, we could improve the system in various ways. There is no way to get rid of the electoral college – which handed victory to the man who, everyone agrees on this, it isn’t controversial – got far more votes nationally. But we’re stuck with that because small states believe the system works to their advantage – on paper, at least, it does – and it takes only 21 states to block a constitutional change. I would support a law requiring each state to send delegates based on percentage of support for each candidate within that state. For example, in Illinois where I live, instead of all the votes going to Gore because he won, 12 would have gone to Gore, 9 to Bush and 1 to Nader. This gives an element of proportionality and some leverage for small parties, as well as more fairly reflecting the popular vote. Of course, that’s just why the right fear it. It wouldn’t require any constitutional change at federal level and the system has been used by some states in the past. Illinois used it until 20 years ago when it was abolished, ostensibly to cut costs. There is some chance of modest electoral reforms making headway in states where the parties are evenly balanced. Where one is dominant, winner-takes-all is obviously appealing to the party in charge, which can also block reform. The current system has led to ossification.

We could also do something about campaign finance. Even some mainstream politicians are in favour of this – John McLean, for example, who challenged Bush for the Republican nomination, argued in favour of some effective control of donation and spending. We are in a situation where there are no effective rules at all. Of course, there’s a lot of money at stake – an estimated $4 billion was spent on this election – and without this money a lot of the crooks and idiots e see in public office would never be elected. In every poll taken since 1964 a majority of Americans has agreed with the statement “Whoever you vote for it doesn’t change anything.” That’s why the vote is low and falling. Nader didn’t win all of his votes from disgruntled Democrats – many people voted for him who hadn’t voted before and, if it hadn’t been for the Nader campaign, wouldn’t have done so this time around.

Spectre: We wouldn’t have voted for Gore either, but right through the comings and goings of courts, lawyers and judges, through the recounts and non-recounts, we couldn’t help hoping he won. Are we hopelessly confused?

Bill: No, because of course he did win, and the fact of that is important. Bush lost, and now he’s President. It isn’t a matter of preferring one man’s policies over the other, as I’ve already said. It’s simply what it says about our political system.

Bill Pelz is International Secretary of the Socialist Party USA. He was talking to Steve McGiffen and Marjorie Tonge during a recent visit to Europe.


Al Gore: 50,996,116

George W. Bush: 50,456,169

In the nationwide popular vote, Gore received 539,947 more votes than Bush.

Source: The Associated Press