Life After Crucifixion
by David Corn
The Nation magazine, December 4, 2000
After the election came the crucifixion. Before the Gore-Bush
mess was settled-but as soon as it was apparent that Ralph Nader's
vote in Florida was greater than the gap between Al Gore and George
Bush-pundits, editorial boards, political partisans and liberals
pounced. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called Nader's campaign
"reprehensible." Environmental Working Group president
Ken Cook declared, "The public-interest community is going
to spend tens of millions of dollars a year for the next four
years playing defense. I don't think [Nader's] going to build
a Green Party any more than O.J.'s out there looking for a murderer."
Larry Marx, co-executive director of Wisconsin Citizen Action,
complained that Nader "got tunnel vision and lost sight of
progressive goals." "I will not speak his name,"
hissed Democratic spin man James Carville. "I'm going to
shun him. And any good Democrat, any good progressive, ought to
do the same thing."
In addition to the demonization of a progressive icon-Nader
himself-Nader's campaign resulted in a sharpening of the sometimes
blurry line between inside-the-duopoly progressives who try to
nudge the Democratic Party to the left and non-establishment progressives
who eschew the party as part of the problem, not the potential
solution. His candidacy hardened positions along this divide.
It also diminished whatever opportunity he had to work with left-leaning
Democrats in Washington. "He's totally toast among Democrats,"
says a senior Democratic Congressional aide. "There is deep
animosity toward him among high-ranking Democrats in Congress.
For now, the relationship is completely ruptured." And with
2.7 million votes-3 percent of the vote-Nader fell far short of
the magic mark of 5 percent, which would have qualified the Green
Party for federal funding in the next presidential election.
So was it worth it? "Of course," says an utterly
undaunted Nader, who obviously relished the campaign experience.
"Look what came out of this-the third-largest party. Tens
of thousands of people were energized. It was a great burst. We
can continue on and recruit more candidates in 2002. There will
be a Green Party presence here [in Washington], which will speak
with authority- electoral authority-when it goes to Capitol Hill,
not just say, 'Please, please, do what we want." He expresses
no regrets; he is unfazed by the harsh criticism; he is unrepentant.
With the Florida recount under way, Nader showed no sign of caring
much about who will win. Instead, he was more excited about a
letter he received on November 8 from Holly Hart of the lowa Green
Party. She reported that his campaign appearances there prompted
Republican farmers to contact the party and that "the Green
Party and the message of your campaign have come out well ahead
of where they started." Though Nader only scored 2 percent
in lowa, that was enough for the lowa Green Party to qualify for
automatic ballot status. "Not only that," Hart wrote;
"we now have around five new Green student organizations
and many new county Green chapters enough so that we can now organize
a real statewide Green Party." This is evidence of the "benefits"
of his campaign, Nader notes; he has created a "ripple effect"
throughout the nation.
The 66-year-old Nader won't say whether he's interested in
another crusade for the White house ("one election at a time"),
but he insists that he remains committed to building the Green
Party. The details, though, are hardly set, and it's not even
clear what Nader is working with. On Election Day, the party was
split between two different entities-the Association of State
Green Parties and the more leftist and smaller Greens/Green Party
USA, though the two sides were close to a merger agreement. Nader
says he will be the de facto party "leader," but without
the title ("I don't like the word") or the day-to-day
responsibilities for the party itself. Instead, he sees himself
establishing several Green-related outfits-a nonprofit educational
group, a lobbying arm and a political action committee-that would
exist parallel to the party. As he envisions it, "I'm on
the outside expanding the Green Party, while those on the inside
intensify it." But can Nader control or shape a party from
the outside? Political parties are usually difficult to steer,
and the Greens have their share of bickerers. Moreover, remember
Ross Perot and the Reform Party? Earlier this year, failed Reform
Party contender John Hagelin took a stab at gaining control of
the Seattle Greens. "They"-the Greens- "will have
to be very clever" to avoid would-be highjackers and internal
wrangling, Nader remarks, not using the word "we." As
one Nader adviser says, "Ralph does have a track record of
building things that last. And he'll stick with this. But he will
find it much more complex than building citizens' groups."
What might make the task even harder is that Nader hopes his
Green Party will be more than a political organization obsessed
with elections. In his grand scheme, the party would join with
citizens' movements across the nation to wage local battles untouched
by the Democratic and Republican parties. An example: In Florida
popular outrage has been sparked by the state's decision-prompted
by agribusiness-to cut down orange and grapefruit trees on the
property of private residences to battle a citrus canker that
affects only the appearance of the fruit. Neither major party
has gotten behind the citizens' uprising that ensued. Nader believes
that fights like this one provide openings for a Green Party concerned
with activism beyond elections. Nader also wants to establish
Green chapters on campuses and Green Party storefronts in poor
areas--"advice centers"-that would help people qualify
for Medicaid and other federal programs. At the same time, Nader
wants the party to develop an "or-else relationship"
with Democrats on Capitol Hill. This is how it might work: The
party would zero in on twenty or so lawmakers-including Democrats-who
it calculates might be vulnerable to electoral pressure from the
Greens, and, depending on whether or not these legislators adopt
Green-friendly positions, the Greens would decide whether or not
to challenge them in 2002. (Such a get-tough strategy will require
plenty of planning and commitment, for it will likely prompt further
assaults from progressives environmentalists, union officials,
abortion rights activists, civil rights leaders-still working
with the Democrats.) Through a People's Debate Commission, Nader
will continue his campaign against the corporate-funded Commission
on Presidential Debates, which froze out all third-party candidates
in this year's debates.
And the money for all this? The 75,000 contributors who helped
him raise $7 million in donations of $100 or less will be called
upon to finance these new Nader-Green groups. But that won't be
enough, he admits. He hopes to continue holding "super-rallies,"
which during the campaign attracted tens of thousands of people
willing to pay to hear Nader offer his anti-corporate / anti-two-parties
Is it possible that Nader's long-term mission of fostering
an anti-corporate and progressive party will be overwhelmed by
noise about Nader-the-Spoiler and undermined by the attacks from
prominent progressives? "No," he declares. He dismisses
his left-of-center critics as "low-expectation, frightened
liberals. Across the country, in airports and elsewhere, people
are saying, 'Great job, thank you.' The citizen-bureaucrats in
Washington have been here too long, and they've gotten too cushy
with the Democrats. Bush got twelve times the Democrats I did
in Florida. That s the problem." Asked about Sweeney, he
shows his irritation: "Here's the Democratic Party, which
can't win without organized labor, and it gives organized labor
none of the programs and principles organized labor needs to grow.
Instead, it gives them NAFTA, the China trade legislation and
no mention of revising the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Yet here's
a guy"-he's referring to himself- who fought for OSHA and
is way ahead on other policies for organized labor, and his campaign
is 'reprehensible'? This can only fill one with pity. They're
on their knees, begging Gore and the DLC for crumbs. It's pathos."
Nader does not seem worried about being perceived as a rogue
or enemy by leaders of progressive groups. "Now people are
saying we better not come to [public interest] coalition meetings,';
Nader says. "Well, they"-the Washington establishment-"shut
out progressive civil society a long time ago." And Nader
says he doesn't give a damn about breaking ties with once-sympathetic
Democratic legislators. "The ties haven't been there. They
said no to us on NAFTA, WTO, the telecom bill, the merger craze,
trade with China, auto safety, stronger food-standard inspections,
campaign finance reform, universal healthcare. After a while,
you get the idea."
Persuasion-lobbying is out for Nader; blunt electoral realpolitik
is what matters. "We still have a long ways to go. But the
first step in regaining power is to realize you've lost power."
Nader's Green Party run has confirmed his view that resurrection
awaits only those progressives who recognize this harsh reality,
give up on the Democrats and act accordingly.