Is Ralph ready to run?

Photo: Nader 2000.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Activists have plenty of good reasons to challenge the Democratic Party operatives who focus on election strategy while routinely betraying progressive ideals. Unfortunately, the national Green Party now shows appreciable signs of the reverse problem — focusing on admirable ideals without plausible strategy. If Ralph Nader runs for president next year, as now appears quite likely, this recurring exercise would amount to a Green Party crutch that, ironically, could do more to hobble the party than help it.

It’s impossible to know whether the vote margin between Bush and his Democratic challenger will be narrow or wide in November 2004. I’ve never heard a credible argument that a Nader campaign might help to defeat Bush next year. A Nader campaign might have no significant effect on Bush’s chances — or it could help Bush win. With so much at stake, do we really want to roll the dice this way?

We’re told that another Nader campaign will help build the Green Party. But Nader’s prospects of coming near his nationwide 2000 vote total of almost 2.9 million are slim. Much more probable (given the widespread eagerness to prevent a second term for Bush) is that a 2004 campaign would win far fewer votes — hardly the sign of a thriving party.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It appears to me that the entire project of running a Green presidential candidate in 2004 is counterproductive. Some faithful will be energized, with a number of predictably uplifting “super rallies” along the way, but many past and potential Green voters are likely to consciously turn away. Such a campaign will generate much alienation and bitterness from natural constituencies.

Green organizers often insist that another presidential run is necessary so that the party can energize itself and stay on the ballot in various states. But it would be much better to find other ways to retain ballot access while running stronger Green campaigns in selected local races. I don’t believe that a Green Party presidential campaign in 2004 will help build a viable political alternative from below.

Coalition Forces

Some activists contend that the Greens will maintain leverage over the Democratic Party by conveying a firm intention to run a presidential candidate. I think that’s basically an illusion. The prospect of a Green presidential campaign is having very little effect on the Democratic nomination contest, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. The Democrats are almost certain to nominate a “moderate” corporate flack (in which category Howard Dean should be included).

A few years ago, Nader and some others articulated the theory that throwing a scare into the Democrats would move them in a more progressive direction. That theory was disproved after November 2000. As a whole, congressional Democrats have not become more progressive since then.

There has been a disturbing tendency among some Greens to conflate the Democratic and Republican parties. Yes, the agendas of the two major parties overlap. But they also diverge. And in some important respects, any of the Democratic presidential contenders (with the exception of Joe Lieberman, whose nomination appears to be quite unlikely) would clearly be better than Bush. For the left to be “above the fray” would be a big mistake. It should be a matter of great concern — not indifference or mild interest — as to whether the Bush gang returns to power for four more years.

Are Democrats really no different from Cheney and Rumsfeld?

Photo: White House.

One of the great under-reported stories of the Bush administration has been its numerous assaults on environmental protection. Of course, during the previous eight years, the White House often deserved condemnation and outspoken opposition for betraying the environment. But if we compare the ecological records of the Clinton and Bush regimes, do we really want to pretend that there is no significant difference between the two?

I’m not suggesting that progressives should mute their voices about issues. The imperative remains to keep speaking out and organizing. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1967: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.” We should continue to denounce all destructive policies and proposals, whether they are promoted by Republicans or Democrats.

At the same time, we should not gloss over the reality that the Bush team has neared some elements of fascism in its day-to-day operations — and forces inside the Bush administration would be well-positioned to move it even farther to the right after a victory in 2004. We don’t want to find out how fascistic a second term of Bush’s presidency could become. The current dire circumstances should bring us up short and cause us to reevaluate approaches to ’04. Progressives have a responsibility to contribute toward a broad coalition to defeat Bush next year.

Unsafe and Unsound

There are some Green Party proposals for a “safe states” strategy, with the party’s presidential nominee concentrating on states that seem sure to go either to Bush or to the Democrat. But it’s not always clear whether a state is “safe.” (For instance, how about California, long viewed as a lock for the Democrats? In the Oct. 7 recall election, the two top Republican candidates gained 61 percent of the statewide vote.) The very act of a Green campaign focusing on some “safe states” might render a few of those states more susceptible to a Bush upset win.

A Nader 2000 TV ad.

Photo: Nader 2000.

Moreover, presidential campaigns are largely nationwide. In 2000, despite unfair exclusion from the debates and the vast majority of campaign news coverage, Nader did appear on national radio and TV to a significant extent. And of course, more than ever, the Internet is teeming with progressive websites, listservs, and email campaigns. It doesn’t seem very practical to run as a national candidate while effectively urging people in some states not to vote for you when they see your name on the ballot — even if the candidate is inclined toward such a strategy.

And that’s a big “if.” For all its talk of democratic accountability, the Green Party accepts the old-fashioned notion that a candidate, once nominated, decides how and where to campaign. It’s ironic that the party is likely to end up with a presidential candidate who will decide exactly how to conduct the campaign, with no built-in post-nomination accountability to any constituency or group decision-making. Kind of sounds like the major parties in that respect; choose the candidate and the candidate calls the shots from that point forward.

No doubt, too many Democratic Party officials have been arrogant toward Green Party supporters. “Democrats have to face reality and understand that if they move too far to the right, millions of voters will defect or vote for third-party candidates,” Tom Hayden has pointed out. “Democrats have to swallow hard and accept the right of the Green Party and Ralph Nader to exist and compete.” At the same time, Hayden added cogently, “Nader and the Greens need a reality check. The notion that the two major parties are somehow identical may be a rationale for building a third party, but it insults the intelligence of millions of blacks, Latinos, women, gays, environmentalists, and trade unionists who can’t afford the indulgence of Republican rule.”

The Bush presidency is not a garden-variety Republican administration. By unleashing its policies in this country and elsewhere in the world, the Bush crew has greatly raised the stakes of the next election. The incumbent regime’s blend of extreme militarism and repressive domestic policy should cause the left to take responsibility for helping to oust this far-right administration — rather than deferring to dubious scenarios for Green party-building.

In an August essay in Z Magazine, Michael Albert wrote: “One post-election result we want is Bush retired. However bad his replacement may turn out, replacing Bush will improve the subsequent mood of the world and its prospects of survival. Bush represents not the whole ruling class and political elite, but a pretty small sector of it. That sector, however, is trying to reorder events so that the world is run as a U.S. empire, and so that social programs and relations that have been won over the past century in the U.S. are rolled back as well. What these parallel international and domestic aims have in common is to further enrich and empower the already super-rich and super-powerful.”

Looking past the election, Albert is also on target: “We want to have whatever administration is in power after Election Day saddled by a fired-up movement of opposition that is not content with merely slowing Armageddon, but that instead seeks innovative and aggressive social gains. We want a post-election movement to have more awareness, more hope, more infrastructure, and better organization by virtue of the approach it takes to the election process.”

I’m skeptical that the Green Party’s leadership is open to rigorously pursuing a thoroughgoing safe-states approach along the lines that Albert has suggested in his essay. Few of the prominent Green organizers seem sufficiently flexible. For instance, one Green Party leader who advocates “a Strategic States Plan” for 2004 has gone only so far as to say that “most” of the party’s resources should be focused on states “where the Electoral College votes are not ‘in play.'” Generally the proposals coming from inside the Green Party seem equivocal, indicating that most party leaders are unwilling to really let go of traditional notions of running a national presidential campaign.

I’m a green. But these days, in the battle for the presidency, I’m not a Green. Here in the United States, the Green Party is dealing with an electoral structure that’s very different from the parliamentary systems that have provided fertile ground for Green parties in Europe. We’re up against the winner-take-all U.S. electoral system. Yes, there are efforts to implement “instant runoff voting,” but those efforts will not transform the electoral landscape in this decade. And we should focus on this decade precisely because it will lead the way to the next ones.

Nader has been a brilliant and inspirational progressive for several decades. I supported his presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. But if he runs again in 2004, I will not. This is not about repentance for the last presidential election, but strategic thinking for the next one.