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 nonestablishment 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 Iowa 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 Iowa, that was enough for the Iowa 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 “superrallies,” which during the campaign attracted tens of thousands of people willing to pay to hear Nader offer his anticorporate/anti-two-parties critique.
Is it possible that Nader’s long-term mission of fostering an anticorporate 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 antilabor 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.