In 2000, George W. Bush won 48 percent of the national vote, against a combined total of 52 percent for Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Can Democrats and Greens figure out how to play the politics of addition, rather than subtraction, in 2004?

Right now, the prospects for any kind of modus vivendi are grim. All over the country, Democrats have been trying, with little success, to drive the Greens out of existence. In Maine, the Democrat-controlled legislature drew new district lines to deprive State Representative John Eder, who was elected as a Green in 2002, of his seat. They’ve done the same thing to Green city councilors in Minneapolis. In several locales, they’ve rebuffed efforts to enact instant-runoff voting, which would take away the Greens’ ability to “spoil” races, and instead tried to make it harder for Greens to retain their ballot status without running candidates for offices like President or governor. In San Francisco, where the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez is the popular president of the city’s board of supervisors and made it into this fall’s mayoral runoff, the Democratic county central committee actually issued an edict forbidding party clubs from endorsing non-Democrats in local races, even though activists from both parties often cooperate harmoniously.

Democratic pundits and activists have been equally antidemocratic. Take three examples from recent months. When the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) held its conference for progressives in Washington this past June, not a single Green was invited to speak. Writing in Salon, Paul Berman argued, “In order to defeat Bush, the Greens really have to be crushed politically.” (Ironically, Berman is a contributor to a new book called The Fight Is for Democracy.) Writing in the American Prospect Online, my friend Michael Tomasky called on liberalish Democrats to attack Nader with “lupine ferocity” in order to make themselves look tough, suggesting for one that Nader should be blasted for wanting to halt aid to Israel and thus cause it to cease to exist. (When I asked Michael for his source for this particular slander, he referred me to the Green platform of 2000, which he claimed “advocated an end to US aid for Israel.” Informed that the platform did no such thing, and only called for “peace in the Middle East based on respect for civil liberties and human rights,” he did not reply.)

At bottom, these attacks on the Greens demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives the upstart party’s activists. Democrats like Berman and Tomasky believe that the Greens should fold themselves into the larger party and exercise influence from within, the way the Christian right has done with the Republican Party. What they miss is that many Green activists have tried that route–working on presidential campaigns like Jesse Jackson’s in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown’s in 1992–and feel they got nowhere. Green voters won’t come back to the Democratic fold unless they feel their concerns are being addressed. The process is called “co-optation,” and it’s how every minor-party threat in American history (save one, the Republicans) has been defused. Indeed, as the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich campaigns have engaged Green issues, grassroots Greens have responded by signing up.

Some Democrats justify taking a hard line by arguing that even a weak Green presidential campaign could end up hurting them, just as Pat Buchanan’s measly turnout as the Reform Party’s 2000 candidate arguably cost Bush the states of Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oregon. Even Democrats who express respect for the Greens’ political commitment say they understand the hard-liners’ desire to snuff out the Greens. “Having announced that their goal is to supplant a corrupted Democratic Party, Greens can hardly complain when Dems use their clout to tilt the field even more against third parties,” says Bob Borosage, co-director of the CAF.

Needless to say, the current Democrat-Green death struggle flows in the other direction too. It may not be possible for some Greens to make themselves look dumber than they did in 2002, when many supported the Minnesota party’s decision to run a candidate against Senator Paul Wellstone, but they sure do try. “I think the Democrats should drop out of the presidential election,” New Mexico healthcare activist Carol Miller shouted at a Washington press conference this July, getting cheers from her audience of Greens. Nader himself enjoys taunting Democrats with barbed comments about their weaknesses, reinforcing the sense that his main target is the party immediately to his right rather than both major parties at once.

Leaders and activists on both sides of the divide have their backs up like a pair of estranged relatives who can’t bear the sight of each other, when in fact they have a common interest in 2004 and ought to be able to find ways to coexist. At the CAF conference last June, Jesse Jackson did make an eloquent plea for Democrats to let go of their anger at Nader and to welcome the Greens in anti-Bush organizing. But both Nader and the national Green co-chairs I spoke to say there have been no contacts or feelers from leading Democrats. In more reflective moments, even Greens who want their party to mount a strong presidential bid admit the obsessive sniping back and forth is a problem. “It is an unhealthy dynamic,” says Green Party co-chair Ben Manski. “But it’s all to the Democrats’ shame,” he quickly adds, attacking them for not making it possible for America to have a multiparty democracy. Meanwhile, an observer like Karl Rove can only chuckle with pleasure.