Ralph Nader has finally figured out how to unite Democrats and Greens. After Nader notified Green officials that he would not seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2004 and let it be known that he might stand as an independent, it can safely be said that a number of Green activists were every bit as upset with Nader as those Democrats who believe the votes he won in key states cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000.

In a sense, however, both the Democrats and the Greens are wrong to worry. A Nader candidacy in 2004, either as a Green or as an unaffiliated independent, was never likely to win as many votes as the 2.9 million the consumer activist secured in 2000. The determination to prevent George W. Bush from securing a second term is so strong on the left that it has caused a great many voters who backed Nader, and even some who consider themselves Greens, to grudgingly accept that they will be voting for a Democrat in 2004. If you scratch a Dennis Kucinich backer, you will usually find a Nader enthusiast. And if you attend a Howard Dean meet-up, you’ll see plenty of students with Green Party pins still attached to their knapsacks. I’ve talked to a lot of them; they haven’t necessarily given up on third-party politics, and many of them still revere Nader, but they are passionate about beating Bush this time around.

The best bet is that the field of likely voters for the Greens or an independent Nader candidacy has shrunk significantly. Unless the Democrats destroy themselves, either with a fratricidal fight for the nomination or by selecting a pro-war, pro-free trade candidate like Joe Lieberman, 2004 is not shaping up as a particularly good year for breaking the grip of the two major parties. Polls and anecdotal evidence tell the same story: With his pre-emptive wars abroad and pre-emption of civil liberties and civil society at home, Bush has made the choice so stark that voters are unlikely to feel very adventurous come November.

But that does not mean that Nader’s move outside the Green fold is insignificant. If Nader runs as an independent and splinters the already small number of potential voters for a progressive alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, he runs the risk of doing serious damage to both the Greens and himself. Does anyone seriously think that Democratic, Republican and media insiders who kept Nader out of the 2000 presidential debates will accept him in 2004, or that they would possibly let Nader and a Green who is little known nationally–such as Texas lawyer David Cobb or 2003 California gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo–take podiums opposite Bush and the Democratic nominee? It will not happen. And when the votes are counted, if both Nader and the Green candidate fall below 1 percent and lose a load of ballot lines, the political obituary writers will be sharpening their pens.

It’s no secret that Nader was never entirely comfortable in the Green camp. He refused to join the party even when he was its nominee, and as early as 2001 he was talking about whether he might have been a more effective contender in 2000 if he had run as an independent. Even as some Greens complained that Nader was not enough of a team player, Nader grumbled about what he saw as the Greens’ failure to develop a coherent strategy and a strong enough organization to compete seriously on the national level. Though Nader was the likely Green nominee in 2004, he was none too pleased with what he felt was the party’s greater emphasis on the process of nominating a candidate than putting a campaign in place. That said, the Greens retain enough ballot lines and enough of a grassroots organization to mount a nationwide presidential campaign. With less than a year to go before the next election, it’s difficult to imagine how an independent Nader candidacy could create a parallel infrastructure that is any more effective than what the Greens have in place.

So why go independent? Critics (and even former supporters) say this is just the latest evidence that Nader is on an extended ego trip. But that’s a simplistic calculation. Nader has an ego, but his presidential ambitions have always been guided by a firm, and hardly irrational, belief that both major parties are corrupted–the Republicans beyond repair and the Democrats not much better. Nader wants to upset the country’s politics just as he upset the corporate world with his unsafe-at-any-speed activism of the 1960s. There’s little point in questioning his sincerity. There is, however, good reason to question his strategy.

Faced with the likelihood that further fragmentation of the non-Democratic left will weaken not just the Greens but very possibly the long-term prospects for third-party and independent politics, this would seem to be a very good moment for everyone to step back and think about whether this is the time for old allies to fight among themselves. In that moment of reflection, both sides might even ask whether it makes sense to mount a presidential campaign–or worse yet, two presidential campaigns–in 2004. Indeed, after Green Matt Gonzalez’s near-win in the December 9 San Francisco mayoral race, Nader and the Greens ought at least to consider making 2004 a year for building capacity at the local level, rather than reducing capacity nationally.