Smash the Nader Backlash!

The liberals and lefties bashing Nader for (apparently) costing Gore the election are just wrong, not to mention counterproductive. Nader led the Greens to some important gains — but capitalizing on those victories will be a major challenge.

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After eight years of countenancing welfare repeal, stagnant social spending, commercial logging in national forests, a forced mass march into managed health care, 10 million more without health insurance, and a doubling of the number of Americans behind bars, Democratic liberals finally found something to get outraged over: Ralph Nader.

A week after this bizarre election, I am blue in the face from arguing that Al Gore’s predicament is exclusively his own fault. I find it curious that Democrats have dispatched Jesse Jackson and an army of Democratic National Committee lawyers to Florida to crusade for the sanctity of each individual ballot while, at the same time, continuing to demonize Nader supporters for voting their consciences. My only personal regret is that I had but one ballot to cast for Ralph.

Meanwhile, the roasting of Nader continues unabated. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney went as far as to call Nader’s campaign “reprehensible.” So regardless of who eventually triumphs in the Florida micro-count, it seems inevitable that the ugly breach opened this season between Naderites and Democratic “progressives” is bound to be a factor in the next phase of domestic oppositional politics.

This, then, is a good moment to try and sum up what was won by the Green campaign, where it goes from here, and what is to be done about the Big Split.

First the good news: The Nader campaign was able to present a reform, anti-corporate agenda to a couple of hundred thousand Americans. Yes, the Greens fell two points short of the 5 percent total they needed for federal matching funds, but a full 2.5 million voters did respond to Nader’s radical call. And Nader must be credited for engaging unknown numbers of otherwise cynical young activists and newly minted voters.

Before the vote, Green parties had ballot access in 24 states. After the vote, that number may go as high as 40. Further, there are now dozens, perhaps scores, of congressional and legislative districts coast to coast in which the newly emerged Green margin will loom as the swing vote — forcing Democrats to accommodate and negotiate. This is only positive. The hysterical moanings that the Greens will now run against and spoil the chances for such stalwart liberal Democrats as Minnesota’s Sen. Paul Wellstone or Wisconsin’s Sen. Russell Feingold can be discounted. Green strategists know that campaigns in those districts would be nothing short of suicide.

The challenge for Nader now is how to most effectively use the network he has assembled into the sort of “watchdog party” that he promised in the final days of the campaign. He’s got a funding base of 75,000 campaign donors and a database of thousands of volunteers and organizers. He’s got several hundred new campus-based groups that supported him. And with either Gore or Bush in the White House, Nader will have a juicy menu of issues before him, ranging from campaign finance reform to media reform to fair trade.

The bad news is that the obstacles in Nader’s path are formidable. The biggest problem is probably the Green Party itself — which is actually multiple decentralized parties scattered throughout the states. Some of its newer incarnations, such as in Texas, show promising signs of broad outreach. But too many of the Green enclaves are insular, marginal echo chambers for a progressive-to-radical fringe.

I have spent a lot of time reporting among the Greens and I always come away with equal amounts of admiration and horror: admiration for the serious and thoughtful activists among their ranks, and stone cold horror for the collection of wingnuts and goofballs all around them. The menu of litmus tests for becoming a Green — ranging from a marked counterculturalism to a sympathy for vegan cuisine — is currently too demanding and too narrow to be viable and effective.

What America needs is not a small party to the left of the Democrats, but a big party that goes around and over both the Democrats and the Republicans. A party whose emphasis is on what we have in common in the fight against a corporate-dominated system rather than on what divides us. I am not arguing for the suppression of radical or identity-based politics. But in a winner-take-all political system it makes absolutely no sense to invest in a third party unless you want to build it into a majoritarian party. Leftists, so often obsessed with their personal political purity, are going to have to learn that the art of politics is in combining forces and building coalitions, not purging the infidels.

Building a broad-based alternative electoral front means checking your personal agenda at the front door and coming together on perhaps three or four basic issues that resonate from the left into the radical center. It is no accident that Nader — even as he speaks today of accepting the role of “leader” in the new movement he is trying to fashion — has not made any plans to actually join the Green Party.

That reticence is the clearest indication that Nader would favor a cleansing transformation of the Green infrastructure. And that is perhaps his most serious challenge. He will be bumping up against not only the loopier party regulars, but also against every leftist sect with its sights now set on “penetrating” the Greens. (With the collapse of the Reform Party, how long can it be before Lenora Fulani discovers her Green-ness?)

The other challenge before the Naderites is the very real rift that has opened up with progressive Democrats. There’s an emerging line inside the AFL-CIO that Nader is now persona non grata and that, thanks to him, the tenuous one-year-old Seattle Coalition is now over. There’s a history of low-level tension between Nader and some of the AFL brass. And the outcome of Campaign 2000 has given the most anti-Nader minority of the Federation a disproportionately loud voice in the postelection debate.

The word in DC, meanwhile, is that not only some unions but also some key environmental NGOs are rethinking their working alliance with Nader-founded groups like Public Citizen (whose Global Trade Watch subsidiary played perhaps the key strategic role in making Seattle happen). It’s a bum rap, because whatever one thinks of Nader’s presidential run, organizations like Public Citizen had nothing to do with it. Indeed, none of Public Citizen’s staff even took leave to work on Nader’s campaign.

Just how or if this breach gets healed will haunt the left in the months to come. For whatever remains of the blue-green coalition, it will face its next crucial test this coming spring, no matter who is inaugurated. Either administration is expected to come out of the box asking once again for “fast-track” authority to negotiate an expanded version of NAFTA. The battle will be joined.

There will be two major venues in which this battle will be waged: Capitol Hill and the streets. If there will ever be a moment when we need a united rather than a divided blue-green front it will be then. With only a one-vote Republican majority in the Senate, the focus of this next globalization skirmish will be for the first time in the upper house. In the street, plans are afoot to rock an April conference on the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec with simultaneous demonstrations reaching from Santiago to San Diego and beyond.

But if the Seattle coalition crumbles, both of these objectives could become long shots. Teamsters and Turtles, Labor Democrats and Naderite Greens must find some way to once again come together on this front.

Neither side of the blue-green alliance can go it alone. On the labor side, the recriminations and rhetoric must be tamped down and there must be a halt to the scapegoating of the only presidential candidate who unflinchingly championed the full union agenda. There’s plenty of blame to go around for Gore’s weakness; labor must assume its quota. If the AFL had not given its absurdly early endorsement to Gore way back in October 1999, it might have been able to eventually nudge the Democratic candidate far enough to the left to have made the Green option less attractive to voters.

Labor has been building up its own anti-globalization organizing infrastructure, and there are some in the Federation who believe they can move forward while severing their links with the Green component. They are wrong. The future of the movement — the young, tireless college radicals — are attracted into the fight not by labor but by the greenish NGOs. And when it comes to going to the Hill and slugging it out on the most crucial issues to labor — from NAFTA to the WTO — there are no more effective, reliable, and tenacious advocates and fighters than those like Lori Wallach, leader of Nader’s Global Trade Watch.

On the other side, the Greens also better catch their breath before plowing ahead. It’s great that Nader got two million-plus votes — but that is still only a tiny fraction of the electorate. It’s also true that in the closing days of the campaign we saw the emergence of a “Labor for Nader” group. While heartening, that is also a very small piece of organized labor.

From the anti-IMF demos last spring in Washington to this past summer’s Republican and Democratic convention protests, we saw a progressive weakening of the street movement coming out of Seattle. By the time it hit LA in mid-August it had become so unfocussed that it bordered on self-caricature. All three of those episodes had something in common: Labor had not been brought on board. Indeed, in Los Angeles, the bulk of labor sat inside the Staples Center with the DNC and the young people in the streets found themselves in opposition.

Once this mess gets settled in Florida, let’s get on with our real work.


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