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March 29, 2002
Greens or Green (Egalitarian) Democrats? continued

Well, that’s the way it could have been. Why, then, did Nader try to build a new third party of the left in the face of overwhelming structural odds and terrible historical precedents? He provides his various answers at different places, using a variety of examples, in his book on the 2000 campaign, Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

Nader’s main claim is that the two parties are increasingly the same, and thus there is a need for a third party. This claim has two dimensions to it. First, the Democrats are far worse than their liberal supporters imagine. They have been collapsing on major issues since the 1970s, forsaking their “progressive” past, and matters only got worse in the Clinton-Gore years. Nader delivers a detailed indictment of these Democratic failures, including all the rejections of his own efforts by Gore and even the Progressive Caucus in the House.

Second, and even more importantly in terms of justifying a third party, Nader argues that the Republicans are not as dangerous as the liberal Democrats claim. Bush is not exactly “Genghis Khan,” he notes at one point, and then lists the various ways Bush moved to the center in his first year in office. Nader also reminds critics that “the liberals’ arch-reactionary,” Richard M. Nixon, signed the laws creating the EPA and OSHA in 1970 “with glowing words,” thanks to the strong social movements on the left at the time. He counters the fear of Republican appointments to the Supreme Court by doubting that any court would risk overturning Roe v. Wade, and by naming the several Republican appointees of the past 32 years who have turned out to be fair-minded justices on the right to choose.

This lack of deep concern when contemplating a Republican presidency can be appreciated more fully when it is contrasted with right-wing views of the Democrats. Right-wingers generally avoid third parties at all costs because they genuinely fear the Democrats, due to their abhorrence of “big government,” labor unions and liberal social values. A Clinton or a Gore looks tame to left-wing third-party advocates, but not to right-wingers, who believe that the Democratic coalition, with Clinton and Gore representing its moderate wing, spells trouble for their worldview. Gore is Genghis Khan to conservatives, but Bush is not Genghis Khan to most left activists, including Nader, and therein lies an important part of the political equation in America. The energy of zealous right-wing activists is used on behalf of the Republicans, thereby uniting all those who are right of center when they step into the political arena, but the great energies and moral fervor of the egalitarians on the left are often used in attacking Democrats as sell-outs, leaving those who are left of center divided among themselves and often demoralized.

But it is not only that the two parties are about the same, according to Nader. He also makes a case that it is useful for the Democrats to lose if activist groups are to be energized enough to realize their goals through direct action and lobbying pressure. Democrats take activist groups for granted once the activists endorse them, and the activists tend to sit back when Democrats are in office. The result, says Nader, is disastrous. The Democrats put activists to sleep; they “anesthetize” activists. Thus, activist groups often do better when the Democrats are not in power. At the least, Nader further argues, it may be good for the Democrats to lose once in a while so that they don’t take the citizen groups for granted. He says that “The only message politicians understand is losing an election.” This comes fairly close to saying that it was time to sink Gore, especially when read in the context of everything else he has to say about Gore.

Nader also claims there are virtues to third parties. They introduce new issues and they bring out new voters, some of whom vote for Democrats in races where the third party does not have candidates. He claims there were a million new voters in 2000 thanks to his campaign, and takes credit for the victory of Democratic senatorial candidate Maria Cantwell in the state of Washington, where she won by 2,300 votes over the incumbent Republican. He also draws on the relative successes of the Anderson campaign in 1980 and the Perot campaigns in 1992 and 1996 to support his brief for third parties.

Although Nader’s specific arguments about the Democrats and Republicans have their merits, they do not address the structural problem that Nader understands, but discusses as a mere “obstacle” to be overcome in the slow process of building a movement and a third party: While the third party is being built, the everyday, short-run interests of the supporters of the Democratic Party, such as low-income workers, women who work outside the home, disadvantaged minorities and religious liberals, are likely to be ignored as more and more Republicans assume office. Nader reduces the argument over third parties to questions about being a “spoiler” in relation to the Democratic candidate, when the real issue is that there is no way to build a third party without damaging the short-run interests of the everyday people who vote for the Democratic Party as a way of trying to make small gains or just stay even while living their normal lives. Nader earned his deserved reputation fighting for small victories that make people’s lives better, but he opts for sacrifice when he turns to the electoral arena:

Someday enough Americans will prove wrong the conventional platitudes, the a priori abdications. These citizens will rise to the challenge of that exhortation: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” They will overcome the biggest obstacles to help level the political playing field. They will reject barriers that deny challengers a fair chance to have a chance.

Well, Bush is no Genghis Khan, but he and his fellow Republicans will resist matters like union rights, better health care programs and increases in the minimum wage far more vigorously than Democrats would during the many years it would take, by Nader’s own account, to build this new third party. Perhaps the Republicans would soon over-reach in their reactionary efforts, leading to the citizen outcry that Nader believes will restrain them. But it is unlikely that any Republican-induced economic downturns or scandals would lead to anything useful because there would not be enough moderates and liberals in Congress to accomplish significant reforms. Even now, liberals and moderates may not be able to muster the energy to try for reforms, because Bush is sitting there with a veto, and with the ability to appeal to patriotism and white pride if he feels threatened in 2004. The progressive “backlash” that Nader hopes for won’t happen without more Democrats of any stripe in office, but his third-party strategy works against Democrats winning elections.

In addition, it is not accurate to assert that the two parties are becoming more and more similar. They actually have become increasingly different over the past 35 years. Nader romanticizes the “progressive” past of the Democrats by ignoring the fact that the party was controlled until the 1970s by white Southern conservatives and their counterparts in many large Northern cities. He does not emphasize that the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 actually changed the two-party system dramatically by making it possible for Southern black voters to push Southern white conservatives into the Republican Party. Thanks to that act, the Democratic Party is no longer the instrument of the Southern white rich, with the primary function of keeping African-Americans powerless in the South. At its base, it is now the party of those who believe in fairness and equality whatever their social background, or who have been marginalized or treated badly in some way.

Nor does Nader provide any real analysis of why the movements of the ’60s lost their force. He says that “somehow that spirit, little by little, slipped away, and big business stepped in again to seize more influence on our government.” But the spirit didn’t just slip away. There were real tensions within the ’60s movements that led to their fragmentation, especially between white male trade unionists on the one side and blacks, feminists and environmentalists on the other. Furthermore, the abandonment of strategic nonviolence by the Black Power and anti-war movements contributed to a backlash by those whom Nixon courted as “middle Americans.” Even without those problems, however, the migration of resentful and racist white Southerners into the Republican Party broke up the New Deal coalition and made it possible for the conservatives and their corporate allies to reassert themselves politically.

Nader refers to the support received by John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 as evidence for the possibilities of third parties, but their candidacies are irrelevant because they came from the center, not the left or right, and therefore were not greeted by Democrats and Republicans with the same anxiety and anger as a party like Nader’s. Nader tries to counter this kind of argument by saying that he also drew votes from centrists and Republicans, but that argument is not at all convincing or reassuring to the liberal Democrats when they look at the politics of the activists, academics and celebrities who supported Nader. It is as certain as such things can be that a left third party take more votes from Democrats than Republicans, and therefore helps Republicans.

Nader claims third parties are the way new ideas come into the political arena, but most of his examples are from the 19th century, before reformers gradually created primaries, which in fact have been the main source of new programs since World War I. His main 20th century example is the claim by Ted Koppel on Nightline that Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas introduced the idea of Social Security during the 1928 campaign. That inaccurate claim only shows that Koppel knows nothing about the origins of the Social Security Act, which was fashioned in the early 1930s by moderate conservatives from companies like Standard Oil of New Jersey, General Electric and Eastman Kodak, with the help of hired experts paid by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his foundations.

The claim that Greens provided the margin of victory for Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington is based on the assumption that 103,000 of her votes were “spillovers” from the Green Party. But many Nader voters were probably Democrats who voted for Cantwell and other Democrats. Nader’s claim also overlooks the fact that a party of the right, the Libertarian Party, took 49,345 votes from the Republican incumbent, which is the reason why he lost by a mere 2,300 votes. Here a third party of the right actually makes the case against Nader’s party-building arguments.

Nader sees non-voters as a prime target for a new third party, but solid studies of non-voters suggest that they are not much different in their views from voters, even though they tend to have somewhat lower incomes or less education. They are not any sort of natural leftists or progressives due to their social standing, and are probably as likely to vote their skin color, their ethnicity, or their religion as any other voters. Contrary to Nader, the trick is to start with the most involved egalitarians, the left activists and liberal Democrats, but that can’t be done through a third party.

Given the magnitude of his defeat, it is surprising that Nader does not reflect more in his book on his initial certainties about the virtues of building a third party, or take a serious look at the much greater impact of insurgent campaigns at all levels within Democratic primaries. In this regard, Nader overlooks the fact that part of Jesse Jackson’s access to the Clinton-Gore presidency came from his very strong presidential campaigns within the party in 1984 and 1988, along with the threat that he might run again in 1996. Further reflection might therefore lead to the calculation that on balance it would be far more productive to take over and transform the Democratic Party through challenges in party primaries. There is no better place in the electoral arena to do the ideological spadework that has to be part of an egalitarian movement of any consequence.

Instead of reconsidering his basic analysis, Nader spends most of his book criticizing liberals who did not support him, scolding the media for their sins of omission and commission, and excoriating the Presidential Debates Commission for excluding him. (He also presents a detailed account of his day-by-day campaign, thanks the key volunteers at every stop, and lists the celebrities and scholars who supported him, but those aspects of the book are not germane to this analysis.)

Nader often chastises those friends and colleagues who would not follow him out of the Democratic Party. For example, he names several people who had told him in the past they would support him for president, but now wouldn’t be his campaign manager. Then he remarks: “When I reminded them of that previous assurance, they said what they meant was if I ever ran as a Democrat.” He does not stop to consider that he might be off-base if such close co-workers of such long standing disagree with him about trying to start a third party.

Nader blames the media for many of the campaign’s failures. The inept reporters kept asking if he’s worried about throwing the election to Bush and the Republicans. He thinks that’s an irrelevant question—only the issues and programs matter, for the reasons summarized in the previous section of this critique. The person with the best platform should win, with no thought of the underlying electoral coalitions that support the Democratic and Republican parties. But the reporters’ question actually reflects the central power issue in the campaign. When the reporters do a good job, and Nader does mention a number of such exceptions to the rule, then he complains that the editors didn’t give their stories enough space.

Nader even blames the media for violence by demonstrators. Newspapers and TV don’t give fair coverage, and therefore impulsive people resort to violence to get some attention. At the same time, Nader is devastating in his assessment of the demonstrations where violence does erupt. He says that “the power structures know these ‘we-protest-and-demand’ rallies are harmless vetting of steam,” and that the demonstrators’ message is “lost” within the “mock wars” between protestors and police. If the message is “lost,” perhaps the violence is pointless.

Nader’s emphasis on the media is misplaced. As in many progressive analyses, the media end up as a convenient excuse that ignores the basic problems insurgents face. First, the media are not that important if a campaign makes sense to people through its message. As Nader himself says, word of mouth is a powerful medium. Second, the media will respond if a candidacy shows any signs of life, as demonstrated by the media coverage of Nader’s highly successful mass rallies toward the end of the campaign. But the real problem is the one he doesn’t adequately analyze: Third parties don’t make sense to voters given the electoral rules.

Nader’s entire case against the Commission on Presidential Debates is based on his belief that the media exposure from appearing in the debates would have improved his vote total. In this he is sadly mistaken. Everything he says about the commission and its complicity with corporations and the media is true, as is his point that the candidates of the two major parties really call the shots. But it is trivial, and maybe even totally irrelevant, when it comes to Nader’s major focus, building a strong anti-corporate, egalitarian social movement in the United States with the help of the electoral system.

The morality-based energy of activists is a key ingredient for social change, as shown by its catalytic role in the social movements for women’s suffrage, industrial unions, civil rights, and gender equality. But that energy is too often wasted or counterproductive, as seen in much of what has gone on in the past 30-35 years.

How do committed activists end up shooting themselves in the foot time after time? Their moral zeal blinds them to the critical distinction between activists and politicians. Activists, to be effective, are uncompromising moralists who stand up for their principles, going to jail or suffering injury or death if necessary. They are exemplars who break unjust laws when need be, and here of course the premier American example is Martin Luther King Jr. Although Nader says he prefers “to be a plaintiff rather than a defendant” when it comes to matters of law, he is a moral exemplar as well. He has sacrificed his everyday life to civic causes, using the money he makes from books and speeches to build new organizations that have had a measurable impact on the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans.

From his stance as a movement activist, Nader constantly criticizes mere “politicians.” They lack courage and don’t take enough principled stands. Nader does not seem to appreciate the role of elected officials as go-betweens, as tension reducers, as masters of timing and symbolism, and as people who want everyday life to go on once a particular election or argument is over. Of course they want to stay elected, and they deserve that bit of egoism, because they have shaken many thousands of hands and listened to an earful to get where they are. Winning an elected office is not the kind of close-in emotional labor that very many people can tolerate unless they enjoy small talk and endless arguments with people they hardly know, or don’t know at all. Nader thinks they should just stand up for what they believe in and take the consequences.
But politicians are the compromisers in a democratic system. Sure, they can have principles, but they have to know when to do battle and when not to, and when it is time to cut a deal. Their goal is to win the best they think possible for their side at any given moment, and to be back for the next round. The liberals among politicians can only prosper when the egalitarian moral activists and their movements have made better deals possible, either by causing the election of more liberals or by forcing the moderates and conservatives to accept a deal they don’t like in order to avoid losing the next election. This crucial interaction between the movement and electoral realms does not seem to hold much importance for Nader

By ignoring the need for both activists and politicians, Nader and his supporters stray from their egalitarian starting point, and end up with an elitist electoral stance contrary to their values. In a word, they think they know better than the great mass of people who voted their short-run interests through the Democratic Party, which is ironic, of course, because of Nader’s notable successes as an activist working for small gains that benefited a great many people. In fact, in reaction to his campaign critics, he mentions most of these victories at one point or another, usually using them as evidence that the feminists, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, and labor leaders who attacked him vehemently should have supported him because he has a better record on their issues than Gore. But when it comes to elections, most people do not believe they should sacrifice their everyday lives for a cause that they don’t think has a chance to succeed. Most Americans intuitively understand the structural argument against third parties of the left or right, and that is why they won’t have anything to do with them, even though most of these people respect and appreciate what Nader has done as an activist over the years.

Contrary to Nader’s positive assessment of his campaign, it is more likely that it will go down in history as the biggest electoral setback for leftists, radicals, socialists, progressives, strong environmentalists and other egalitarian insurgents since the Wallace defeat of 1948. It expended an enormous amount of activist time and energy to put Nader on the ballot in 43 states, only to end up with 2.7 percent of the popular vote, far less than he anticipated. It also created a legacy of bitter liberal elected officials who will do everything they can to isolate him and the Greens even further.

If Nader and his energetic forces had been Green or egalitarian Democrats in 2000, running openly on their “ten key values,” they would have gained some of the legitimacy needed to take advantage of the economic disasters visited upon millions of people by the collapse of the dot.com bubble, September 11 and Enron. They would have been in a good position to make advances in 2002. They could have helped forge a nationwide left-liberal-environmental-labor-feminist coalition within the Democratic Party. They could be activists and demonstrators most of the time, and insurgent Democrats for a few months in election years.

Instead, Nader and his supporters ignored the structural realities of the electoral system and opted for a strategy that was bound to hurt and anger liberal Democrats, taking the chance that such a strategy might re-energize grassroots groups and force Democratic candidates to take egalitarian issues more seriously. Contrary to their hopes, the strategy has left activists divided and angry, still arguing bitterly over whether he should have or shouldn’t have. Meanwhile, Nader and his most prominent supporters are insisting that the whole campaign disaster was no big deal.

If 1948 and 1968 and 1980 are any indication, the painful memories will slowly disappear, and then another set of neophyte activists will be recruited to do the leg work for another go-around. That will trigger the usual surge of optimism, then the usual impassioned talk about voting one’s “conscience,” and then the inevitable failure. Or perhaps some egalitarian with credentials like Nader’s eventually will do what Nader could have done in 2000.

G. William Domhoff is a Research Professor in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Four of his books are among the top 50 best sellers in sociology for the years 1950 to 1995: Who Rules America? (Prentice-Hall, 1967); The Higher Circles (Random House, 1970); The Powers That Be (Random House, 1979); and Who Rules America Now? (Simon and Schuster, 1983).

More recently he is the author of State Autonomy or Class Dominance? (Aldine de Gruyter, 1996); and Who Rules America: Power And Politics, 4th Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2002).

This commentary on the Nader campaign and third parties is one part of his current book project on how to win greater equality and fairness in American society. The book will provide a more in-depth analysis of third parties, and will address related concerns that are not covered here. The book is tentatively titled Toward an Egalitarian America: Practical Pathways to a Better Future and will be published by Rowman and Littlefield.

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