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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

February 24, 2004
   Vol. 1, No. 45

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

When the truth becomes a lie

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"Ye shall know the truth," Aldous Huxley quipped, "and the truth shall make you mad." Right.

This week, while the political world waited with bated breath to hear whether or not Ralph Nader would seek the presidency again this year, professional politicians everywhere scrambled to block the possibility. Considering his very weak showing four years ago, the amount of agitation would appear, at first glance, to run disproportionately high. Clearly feelings go deep on the issue. But the truth of the matter is not quite as clear as the anxiety it causes.

If it hadn'tbeen for Ralph Nader, many people argue, George Bush would never have gotten to the White House in the first place. After all, the sum total of Nader voters in Florida and New Hampshire equaled more votes than the number by which Gore lost those two states in 2000.

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If you can't win, others wondered -- and Nader's 2.8% of the last presidential vote would surely augur that he will not win again -- why run?

"I'd love him to take a role with our party," Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Democratic Committee, said this week, "to energize people, to get out there and get the message out." The message was clear: role, yes; run, no.

So, what's right here? To run or not to run?

The problem is that choosing truth from falsehood is not terribly difficult. It's choosing truth from truth that's hard. And there is more than enough truth to go around on this one.

Truth #1: Nader himself points out that he didn't lose the election for the Democrats. In fact, they won it. They just got it taken away from them. Figure out how and why that happened, Nader argues, and the system will get better overnight.

Truth #2: The major concern about another Nader run for the presidency lies in the argument that third parties are fine but they split the votes of the party most like themselves and give votes to a common enemy in a period when the race is tight to begin with. It's the "Not-now-Ralph-later" argument. As if running when it doesn't count does a democratic process any good. When else, besides at a time of very close elections, would it even occur to us to face the questions that such a situation raises about the very nature of the democratic system?

Truth #3: The electoral college is arcane, an old attempt to keep elections in the hands of the landed gentry who would know best what this country needs rather than risk leaving the decision to the uneducated masses.

The Constitution protected the country from the political interests of women and blacks, of course. But it was the electoral college that shielded the nation from the will of the masses of registered male landowners in the country whose political bias was likely to be closer to popular interests than to the agendas of the wealthy, the privileged and the professional politicians.

All that was needed was a majority of popular votes in a state to give all that state's electoral votes to one candidate rather than the other. Whereas the popular vote registered the will of the people, the electoral vote registered the will of the minority.

Truth #4: The consequence of a situation like that, where you win all the marbles by winning half the marbles, became clearer as time went on: Third Party candidates and the alternative voices they raise, the alternate positions they espouse, are doomed to oblivion from the start.

Truth #5: Countries, organizations and institutions without new ideas stagnate quickly. Which means that the United States needs a Third Party badly.

So to determine whether or not Ralph Nader, or anyone else for that matter, should run as a Third Party candidate in hair-splitting elections, we must choose between clear but uncomfortable truths. The problem is that determining which truth is the whole truth for times such as these leads us to at least three new questions.

Question #1: Is it time for the United States to consider the possibility of proportional voting, as is common in so many other democracies like Ireland, Israel, Germany and England? If the Greens got 3% of the votes, and the Democrats 48% and the Republicans 49%, should each party get the same percentage of positions on the Cabinet, for instance, or the House or the Senate? Or at least the same proportion of votes in the electoral college as they got in the popular election, a system which, incidentally, already exists in Maine and Nebraska.

Question #2:We have had four years of living under a radical right White House in which the advisory capacity of the Senate is ignored for judicial appointments, the economy gets better but job creation gets worse, respect for the United States is at an all-time low across the world, and the $7.9 million dollars it would cost to enroll 1,100 children in the Head Start preschool programs is being spent instead on one "upgraded" Abrams Tank. After four years of this, does Ralph Nader -- do we -- still take the position he did in 2000, that "there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans?"

Question #3: This time, if Nader sees that he cannot possibly win the election, will he release his supporters the night before the election or will he do what he has criticized so many of doing elsewhere and simply stay in the race for the money, as he himself did in the presidential election of 2000?

From where I stand, running for political office requires a political instinct. I want a Don Quixote to campaign, yes. But for the sake of the country, I want politicians, those who are capable in the end of judging on behalf of the entire body politic what is truly best, to run. One without the other is bogus. Or as the Book of Proverbs puts it, "Half the truth is often a whole lie."

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