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March 29, 2002
Greens or Green (Egalitarian) Democrats?
A Commentary on the Nader 2000 Campaign.

View reader responses to this article.

Ralph Nader’s decision to challenge Albert Gore Jr. in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2000 will go down in history as a major turning point for Americans who seek greater equality and fairness for everyone in all areas of life. from the personal to the economic to the political. Already it has had several positive consequences in energizing egalitarian activists inside and outside the electoral arena. Not that it was an easy decision for Nader; he needed a lot of convincing, and almost went along with those who urged that he run as a third-party candidate because of the “impurity,” “corruption” and timidity of present-day Democrats.

In the end, however, Nader was persuaded by comparative political studies of many dozens of countries. They show it is rare for a third party to develop in a “single-member district plurality” electoral system, which is what the United States happens to have through historical accident and political compromise. In the few countries with such a system where there is a third party, it is usually one that represents a specific region or ethnic group. These third parties can have an impact when they choose which major party to join with to form a parliamentary majority, but such post-electoral coalitions are not to be in the United States because it has a presidential, not a parliamentary, system. Single-member plurality districts and a strong presidency, itself rooted in one giant single-member district called the United States, dictate that coalitions must be formed before the election by people who want to avoid being governed by their least-favored candidate. Hence the two pre-electoral coalitions called the Democratic and Republican parties, which have been dominated by rival factions of the ownership class since the 1790s.

Nader not only grasped this structural logic, but he learned from the disastrous history of previous third parties, especially the Progressive Party of 1948. The formation of that party led to bitter battles between “liberals,” who stayed with the Democrats, and “progressives” (mostly Communists, socialists and pacifists), who backed former Vice President Henry Wallace as the third-party candidate. The campaign received only a little more than 1 million votes, about half of them from New York alone. Worse, it set in motion the events that completely destroyed the strong left-liberal coalition built slowly during the New Deal and war years. Nader also knew that the Peace and Freedom Party of 1968 and the Citizen’s Party of 1980 had zero positive impact.

Nader further understood that the two major political parties are now in part an extension of the government, first of all because the government “registers” citizens as “members” of one or another party, which means the party cannot control its own membership by refusing admittance or initiating expulsions. Then the government conducts “primaries” in which any member of the party can run on any platform he or she so desires, thereby contending with fat cats and hired guns for control of the party. From a governmental perspective, the “Democratic Party” is the name for one of the two structured pathways into government. It is a shell. That’s a far cry from the days when court house gangs controlled nominations in the South and city bosses decided on candidates in most big cities in the North.

Nor was it lost on Nader that insurgencies in party primaries have done much better than third-party candidates over the past 70 years. The most famous example is socialist Upton Sinclair’s switch to the Democrats in 1934 so he could run for governor in the California party’s primary, where he won 51 percent of the vote in a field of seven candidates, and went on to take 37 percent of the vote in the regular election against the incumbent Republican. The success of the New Right in transforming the Republican Party was not overlooked by Nader either. So the combination of structure and history came down in favor of a Democratic insurgency. Third-party advocates were displeased, but not the great majority of Nader admirers and those leftists who suffered through the lean times of the last 30-plus years.

Not that there was a groundswell of voters for Nader at first, or even later. It looked for months like he was going nowhere; established political operatives and the media focused on Gore and Bradley. But when Bradley dropped out and Nader refused to quit, things began to get interesting. Suddenly there was more media attention because it was a David and Goliath story at a time when there was not much other news. Moreover, Nader’s principled decision to avoid personal attacks on Gore, along with his laser focus on the tremendous failures of big corporations, and his equal focus on the possibilities of using government to tame them, gained him increasing respect. Nader’s slogan was also ideal for showing that there are more egalitarian Democrats than the centrists like to think: “Send Gore a Message about social equality and the importance of the environment.”

It was the huge rallies at arena after arena across the country that really ignited the campaign, though. Thousands of people turned out in small cities up and down the Left Coast, along with nearly 10,000 in Chicago and Washington, and 15,000 at Madison Square Garden. Student audiences in Boston and other college towns went wild for Nader. It was just like what the old days of grassroots politics were imagined to be, and even the skeptical and disaffected began to enjoy the campaign. They also admired the dogged way in which Nader insisted on visiting every state and speaking in every venue, even ones unlikely to give him any votes. Clever ads in the spirit of Sen. Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura before him also added to the excitement and fun as Gore soldiered on in his usual stolid way.

Still, Nader never won more than 20 to 25 percent of the votes in any primary, even in California and Oregon. But he never got less than 5 to 10 percent either, whereas he would have been lucky to take 3 percent as a third party candidate in the regular elections. Overall, his vote totals were far more than the Gore campaign expected, forcing Gore to respect the egalitarian wing of the party, but less than Nader hoped for, a sobering reminder to insurgents that they have their work cut out for them if they expect to attract the many people they think of as their “natural” allies.

But Nader’s overall showing was enough to make it necessary for Gore to allow him to speak at the convention. The negotiations were intense, with Gore’s handlers trying to keep Nader’s appearance short and far from prime time, but 10 minutes in the early evening wasn’t bad, and the speech was a bell ringer that is available on video to rally new activists for years to come. Rehearsing once again the many failures and injustices of raw neoliberal/neoconservative capitalism, and explaining the remedies available by government planning through the market system, Nader then cemented his future role by praising Gore and calling for his election. Saying those positive words wasn’t easy for him, because he felt that Gore had treated him and other egalitarian activists shabbily over the previous eight years, but there was just enough politician in him to get the words out.

Gore, of course, did not return the favor, saying little or nothing about Nader during the regular campaign, and limiting his official role to a few fringe appearances. Not that Nader was a wilting lily; as a supporter of the party’s candidate, he took advantage of the campaign fervor to visit liberals and egalitarians on his own hook everywhere he could, working to convince the few remaining holdouts for futile third parties that they could have more influence inside the Democratic Party than outside it. He also used these visits to start Egalitarian Democratic Clubs in 43 states, laying the basis for the future takeover of the party in the same way liberals had taken over the California state party with their California Democratic Clubs in the 1950s and 1960s. He also used these occasions to make plans for the national post-election EDC convention that was held in March 2001, where club members were given the task of developing a more detailed set of programs for future elections, and urged to find candidates to carry the egalitarian message in state and congressional races.

Although Gore continued to ignore Nader after his narrow victory, which was decided late in the evening by the electoral votes in New Hampshire and Florida, he quietly paid off the left with several of his second- and third-level appointments. Former Naderites gained some influence at the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA, where they implemented several rulings and regulations that the Clinton-Gore team had been sitting on because they did not want to stir up the corporate pressure groups.

Nader’s decision to help send a moderate Democrat to the White House also made good sense in terms of the leverage it gave liberal Democrats in the Senate, such as the new senator from New Jersey, Jon Corzine. Chastised by purists for spending tens of his own millions to win the seat, the former Wall Street investment banker is nonetheless the most progressive Democratic Senator with real leadership potential and a grasp of the inner workings of capitalism to appear in two decades. Moreover, Nader earned credit for helping the Democrats come very close to a House majority, thanks to last-minute victories in districts in Michigan, New Jersey and New Mexico, where his visits helped to reduce the vote for Green Party candidates just enough for the Democrats to squeak by.

In the aftermath of his campaign, Nader’s longstanding connections with non-electoral egalitarian organizations means that the Egalitarian Democrat Clubs will be able to generate the pressure on elected officials that has to be exerted on every issue that comes up for a vote, either to be sure these officials don’t collapse to the center, or to give them cover for what they want to do anyhow. By being inside and outside of electoral politics, the wider egalitarian movement he is championing can have the best of both worlds. Most of the time its members can continue to work in specific environmental, social justice, or workplace organizations that have no electoral focus, but they also can involve themselves periodically in electoral politics through the EDCs.

No matter what the future may bring in the face of a formidable corporate power structure and a great many citizens satisfied with the status quo, Nader’s decision to take egalitarian activism into the Democratic Party was a brilliant expenditure of moral capital, providing egalitarians with new hope and a new direction.

Read part 2 of this essay >>>>>>>>>>>>>

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