With election day looming and opinion polls pointing to one of the closest presidential races in years, the debate has intensified among progressive Americans--Nader or Gore?

Those on either side of the debate who pretend this is an easy choice are deluding themselves. Sure, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman represent the neoconservative wing of the Democratic Party, but it is wrong to simplistically equate them with the Republican ticket. There are substantial differences between the candidates in many important areas--public education, Social Security, labor rights, the environment and abortion, to name just a few. A George W. Bush-Dick Cheney victory, regardless of what happens in the congressional elections, will reinvigorate the most rapacious elements of this country's large and growing conservative movement, and likely will mean new attacks on the most vulnerable sections of our population.

Ralph Nader is clearly the superior candidate when it comes to fighting against corporate control of government, invasions of individual privacy, neoliberal free trade policies and U.S. military intervention abroad, or when it comes to defending labor, consumers and the environment.

But Nader's weaknesses should not be minimized. He continues to pay little attention to issues that deeply affect racial and ethnic minorities--job discrimination, police brutality, the scandalous incarceration rate among blacks and Hispanics, the continuing controversy over affirmative action. His campaign style up to now, la Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988, seems more geared toward promoting himself than to building the Green Party as a future vehicle for independent politics.

Many honest and dedicated progressives will find themselves on different sides of the fence come November 7. But more important than what happens on Election Day is the ongoing need to nurture and expand the vibrant new people's movement that has grown since the WTO protests in Seattle.

That new movement combines several separate streams of popular resistance that have managed to build an embryonic alliance:

* A labor movement that has started to reclaim its place in American society as a force for social change. Increasingly, as new immigrant and Third World workers form a larger share of the work force, a profound revolution within the union movement is inevitable.

* A new pro-democracy movement that has targeted the mass media as a pillar of corporate social control and has started devising ever more ingenious ways to provide the population with independent sources of information.

* An idealistic, democratic, anti-consumer-culture youth movement, which is determined to save the earth from ecological devastation and end the growing worldwide gap between rich and poor.

* A growing movement within black and brown communities against rampant police brutality, wholesale incarceration, racial profiling and the death penalty.

More important than any candidate or election is strengthening the long-term alliance of these four movements, and finding the organizational forms with which that alliance can win the support of the American people. The Democratic Party is becoming more conservative with each passing day and can never be the vehicle to represent that alliance.

Most progressives recognize that this nation needs a new people's party. American voters repeatedly have showed their deep discontent with the two major parties, either by refusing to vote or by backing third-party candidates such as Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura. Each time, however, the major parties have been able to contain the challenge, to steer their dissidents back into the fold.

Nader and the Green Party represent the best opportunity in half a century to place a progressive agenda on the national scene. The Nader candidacy has already forced Al Gore to adopt populist anti-corporate rhetoric into his campaign. It has brought hundreds of thousands of white youth into electoral politics in much the same way that Jackson's Rainbow Coalition movement brought disaffected blacks to the voting booth in the '80s. Moreover, Nader has inspired young people to believe that global capitalism can be resisted even in the absence of any viable socialist alternative.

Unlike Jackson, who became increasingly co-opted by his access to corporate honchos and his role as a "spiritual adviser" to the Clinton White House, Nader could end up making the Green Party a genuine alternative force, should he garner more than 5 percent of the popular vote--and I believe he will do that handily if he reaches out to those who usually stay home on Election Day.

Those of us who came of age in the '60s grew up with Ralph Nader. We watched him tilt at windmills for decades, always speaking truth to power, always accomplishing more than others thought possible. His seat belt victory against the automobile companies alone may have saved more lives than did any general in American history.

Sure, four years of Bush-Cheney seems a horrible fate, but 20 or 30 more years of this periodic circus of two parties sponsored by the same corporate advertisers seems far worse.

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