By John Nichols
Venting the mix of frustration and optimism that goes with the presidential nominee of a party consigned to the political minor leagues, Socialist David McReynolds scolded the Democratic and Republican parties. "Shame on the two parties, 'major' only in numbers, but in every moral and intellectual sense minor parties," McReynolds explained to a crowd that needed no convincing at the fifth National Independent Politics Summit.
A loose federation of more than 30 parties and political groups from across the country, for five years the Independent Progressive Political Network (IPPN) has gone about the difficult task of forging a left-wing alternative to the nation's duopoly politics. The group's June gathering at the University of Wisconsin drew together 135 organizers largely working at the local level.
That's where Ted Glick, IPPN's national coordinator, sees the most compelling evidence of a renewed progressive political force in America. Pointing to the recent linking of the District of Columbia Statehood Party and the D.C. Greens, the muscular red-green coalition behind the new Vermont Progressive Party, as well as partnerships between New Party and Green stalwarts in Madison and other cities, Glick says that the old image of a divided left is fading at the grassroots. "On a national level, it's still very hard to bring groups together," Glick says. "But at the local level, we're seeing a lot of the barriers come down. There's a convergence of a number of different groups who are starting to build an electoral component to the activism that came out of last fall's anti-WTO protests in Seattle."
Karen Kubby, a Socialist who served a decade on the city council in Iowa City, Iowa and presented a seminar on seeking local office to several dozen prospective third-party candidates, agrees. "There's more energy now," she says. "I think a lot more people are willing to think outside the major-party box - not just at the local level, but nationally."
Kubby's right. The 1992 and 1996 presidential elections both saw more than 10 percent of the electorate cast ballots for third party candidates - the first time that has happened in two consecutive elections since before the Civil War, when a new party that called itself "Republican" was taking shape. A recent Rasmussen Research poll found that, in a race where a third-party candidate would have a legitimate chance of winning, 26 percent of likely voters would be inclined to back that candidate - as opposed to 30 percent who would stick with a Democrat and 25 percent for the Republican. That figure represents a five-year high for third-party sympathy - up from the previous high of 17 percent in 1998. "I think there is a real change in the political climate," says Baldemar Velásquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and a leader in efforts to form an independent Labor Party. "Working people are getting disenchanted. They're looking for an alternative."
While IPPN member parties work to capitalize on that sentiment at the local level, the Association of State Green Parties is staging a national offensive. Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader is well on the way to winning a place on the ballots of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. He is campaigning full time and is qualifying for federal matching funds - an important step on the way to building an anticipated $5 million campaign budget. Already, polls show Nader taking as much as 6 percent of the vote nationally and close to 10 percent in California. The United Auto Workers and Teamsters are talking about Nader as a viable presidential alternative, and the Friends of the Earth are said to be seriously considering a Nader endorsement.
The Greens are holding their national convention in Denver in late June. Nader has tapped Native American activist and author Winona LaDuke as his running mate. Texas populist Jim Hightower will deliver the keynote address, and featured speakers will include anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson, Columbia University professor Manning Marable and Tony Mazzocchi, one of the chief organizers of the Labor Party.
Efforts by Nader and the Greens to build a big tent were paying off with many IPPN members, according to Glick. Nader talks about the Greens and other third-party groups at virtually every stop on his busy schedule, and his presence at the top of the Green ticket has inspired others - such as Global Exchange co-founder Medea Benjamin, who is running for the U.S. Senate in California - to mount campaigns.
Now, Velásquez says, it will be up to Nader to transform the media attention on the Green convention into a candidacy credible enough to inspire a true national campaign. "If Nader comes and works in the state of Ohio, where I live, I might be willing to help him," Velásquez says. "I think that's true for a lot of union activists around the country. Even though the unions have pretty much endorsed Gore, a lot of us aren't happy with that choice."
John Nichols is editorial page editor for The Capital Times newspaper in Madison and a fellow with The Nation Institute. It's the Media, Stupid! a book on making media a political issue by Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, will be published this summer by Seven Stories Press.
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