2004 is turning out to be an important political year in many ways. For those on the political Left, the independent, non-Green, Ralph Nader Presidential campaign is bringing to the fore a number of important strategic and tactical issues, among them: an assessment of the danger-or not-of a second Bush administration; what our attitude should be toward progressives in the Democratic Party; the political and organizational nature of the kind of “third party” needed; and with whom in the process of party-building we should be willing to make alliances.
Democrats as Greater Evil?
I have been surprised over the past couple of days to read and hear committed leftists arguing that a Kerry administration would be “the greater evil,” as one person put it in an email, compared to Bush. Two days ago in New York City Peter Camejo said, quoting directly, “Kerry will be able to do what Bush wants to do better.”
I find this point of view puzzling and troubling. I appreciate where it is coming from. I have certainly felt and thought from time to time that, as the saying goes, it is better to have the wolf out in the open (the Republicans) than in sheep’s clothing (the Democrats), with the apparent sheep doing the dirty work cloaked by a veneer of progressivism. But an objective comparison of what the Bushites have done compared to what was done by the Republican-lite Clinton administration can only lead to one
conclusion: a second
administration, emboldened by a successful reelection campaign victory, will be worse, in many cases much worse, on the vast majority of issues.
Indeed, Ralph Nader, the candidate of many of those on the Left who say there is virtually no distinction between the two corporate-dominated parties, has said over and over again that his primary reason for running is to “retire Bush,” to “open a second front” of the anti-Bush campaign. Although his tactics in doing so are extremely problematic (see below), the fact that he has been so consistent on this point has apparently not influenced many of his supporters on the Left who see virtually no difference between the Dems and Reps. It is a strange thing to observe.
Democrats Far From Monolithic
I think we need to open up a national discussion about the nature of the Democratic Party and, indeed, what is happening within it as far as an upsurge among progressive Democrats angry at its leadership’s collaboration with Republicans. One example is what happened in October of 2002 when, because of the massive grassroots pressure of the peace movement, 156 members of Congress voted against giving Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq. One was an independent, 6 were Republicans and 149 were Democrats.
Another example is the fact that, of the 55 or so members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (some of whom are solidly progressive, others not so much) not a single one is a Republican.
And of course there is the phenomenon of the Howard Dean movement and the reality that the political tone of the Democratic Party debates in the last half of 2003 and early
2004 was much more progressive than we saw in 1999-2000.
A progressive political party that does not take these realities into account in determining strategy, or worse, which acts and speaks as if these facts are not facts, will be a political party that is marginal and of little effect.
My 29 years of involvement in organizations committed to the building of an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans has convinced me that there are three mutually reinforcing, overall tasks which we must be about if we are to ever get to the point of having a progressive party which can actually challenge for power:
1) We must run candidates on “third party” lines and
build independent organizations engaged in grassroots organizing around the issues affecting working people. We need candidates willing to stand up and be crystal clear about their allegiance to the interests of the people and our seriously endangered ecosystem and not the corporate-dominated parties, able to demonstrate that there is a base of voting support for independent candidacies. As much as possible there should be connections between the electoral and the non-electoral activity.
2) We must be about the process of changing the
electoral rules-of-the-game. We must move from winner-take-all to the use of instant runoff voting and, longer-term, proportional representation. We need public financing of elections. These are the two electoral reforms that can do the most to open up the political system to those who have been historically disenfranchised.
3) At the same time, we must pay careful attention to
the struggle within the Democratic Party between its progressive and Democratic Leadership Council wings. We need to maintain our connections with those with whom we share generally similar positions on the issues (as in the Kucinich and Sharpton campaigns). Over time, if we do our first two tasks well, there will be an increasing number of Democrats who become former Democrats as they come over to our side. At some point we can expect a major rupture between the progressive and DLC wings and the possibility of a massive, new independent force emerging if we keep building political pressure from the outside, demanding that the Democrats take progressive positions, which in many cases they will either not do or do to a minimal extent.
The United States of America is not western Europe, Latin America, South Africa, New Zealand or any of the many countries in the world which use some form of proportional representation. We have an anachronistic, 19th-century, winner-take-all electoral system which makes our electoral tasks much, much more difficult. That reality must be taken into account as we work to change it. Ideological or tactical rigidity ensures, absolutely guarantees, that we will never get out of this electoral straitjacket.
Political and Organizational Principles
There are certain principles, however, that must undergird our efforts. Politically, our independent political movement and its organizational expressions must be against racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism. We must oppose corporate globalization and imperialism which widens the gulf between the super-rich tiny minority and the vast world majority. We must oppose militarism and wars of occupation for national or corporate domination. We must support various efforts to democratize our political and economic system, including the strengthening of the right of workers to organize. We must call for a crash program to move immediately from the use of fossil fuels to clean energy sources. We must build our movement and its organizations in a fully democratic way.
One would think that these would not be controversial points among progressives. Most are not. But the sad fact is that, based upon the platform put forward on his website (www.votenader.com), Ralph Nader’s campaign is seriously deficient when it comes to issues of racism and sexism.
As of Monday, March 29th, over a month after Nader announced his plans to run as an independent, his “Ralph Nader Stands with the People” website section takes no positions on a number of basic issues of importance to communities of color and women. Among them:
Police brutality. Affirmative action. Reparations.
Immigration and immigrant rights. Reproductive rights.
Violence against women. Racial profiling of African Americans and Latinos. Land loss by Black farmers. Native American treaty rights and issues.
Sprinkled throughout this platform are references to race/culture and gender issues in the context of the overall progressive populist character of the platform. Nader, to his credit, does specifically refer, in the context of his opposition to the Patriot Act, to “Americans of Arab descent and Muslim-Americans feeling the brunt of these dragnet, arbitrary practices.” He calls the death penalty “racially and class unfair.” He spells out the higher rates of unemployment for African Americans and Latinos. He uses the words “environmental racism” in the context of his environmental plank. He calls for “equal pay for women, childcare.” But that’s about it.
During Nader’s 2000 Presidential campaign he was much better on issues of specific concern to people of color and women.
One of the major reasons for this was that, during and after his 1996 effort, he was criticized both from within and outside the Greens for his refusal to address any issue other those which were about corporate power, by and large.
It appears that, regrettably, Ralph did not internalize those criticisms and that the much better politics of 2000 had more to do with the platform and input of the Green Party on whose line he was running.
Organizationally, the Nader Presidential campaign has been set up as a completely top-down operation controlled by one man, rather than emerging as a result of the Green Party’s internally democratic political process.
Nader says that the reason he had to go independent and not participate in the Green Party’s internal process was because the national convention is happening too late. But the fact is that Nader was consulted before that date was set; he was given three possible dates it could happen; and he chose the latest dates, the ones on which it is happening, the same last weekend in June as the 2000 Green Party convention in Denver, Co. where Nader was nominated!
I have come to the conclusion that, most likely, the major reasons for Nader’s decision not to run as a Green were political concerns about the Greens’ wholistically progressive set of positions and organizational concerns that he would have to “share power” with others he would not personally choose for his Presidential campaign organization.
Instead, Ralph has brought into his campaign people like Pat Choate, key Pat Buchanan backer in 2000, Russell Verney, key organizational operative for Ross Perot, and members of the completely opportunistic and divisive Fred Newman/Lenora Fulani/New Alliance Party/Committee for a Unified Independent Party group.
Strategically, he has prioritized outreach to alienated Republicans, conservative independents and the Reform Party constituency as his contribution to getting Bush out of office. Perhaps this helps to explain his serious weaknesses on issues of racism and sexism.
So far the evidence of every poll that I have seen is that Nader is wrong when he says that he will be attracting more Republican than Democratic votes. The latest one, as this is being written, is a Zogby poll from a week ago which shows Kerry ahead of Bush in a two-person race, 48-46, but tied when Nader is included, 46-46-3.
Even if Nader turns out to be right on this question, what is he building for the long haul, other than a personal following? The Green Party and independent progressives should not be aligning themselves within a political party-like campaign with people and political forces like Choate, Verney and Newman. Such an alliance, if it happened, would be a classic example of an unstable and seriously problematic tactical alliance that will go nowhere afterwards. On issues like electoral reform, fine, but these are not the political forces we should be aligning with as we work towards a strong and principled independent political party. Our focus should be on outreach to and the building of working relationships with activists in communities of color, the women’s movement, working-class based community organizations, groups like the Labor Party, lgbt people-in other words, with constituencies which are generally progressive.
So what do I think we should do in 2004?
I have been publicly writing and saying for a year and a half that the Green Party should run a Presidential candidate in 2004. I was open to Nader being such a candidate until I heard him speak in mid-December and began to realize that this was a different person than the one I actively supported in 2000. I did what I could to urge Cynthia McKinney to run, but she ultimately decided not to. So since the beginning of the year I have been supporting former Green Party national counsel David Cobb (www.votecobb.org).
I support David because he has put building the Green Party, the consistently progressive Green Party, as his top agenda item if he is chosen as the GP Presidential candidate. He has also prioritized running his campaign in a way which contributes to getting Bush out of office. He openly supports what he calls a “strategic states” campaign, a much preferable option to working with ex-Reform Party types and prioritizing outreach to Republicans and conservative independents.
Some call David a “no name” candidate. I suppose he is, compared to Nader’s name recognition, ability to get national press and ability to raise money. If those are the primary considerations, then David is not your candidate.
I know something about “no name” candidacies. I was one in
2002 when I ran as the Green Party of New Jersey’s candidate for U.S. Senate against corrupt Bob Torricelli and multi-millionaire Doug Forrester. I was virtually unknown by the New Jersey electorate, other than among some progressives. I had lived in New Jersey less than four years when I made the decision to run. And yet, by mid-September, I was at 3% in a Zogby poll, and an internal, low-budget poll we did had me at 7-8% We were excited and hopeful about the possibilities for a strong showing in November. My campaign manager thought 5-10% was a realistic possibility, and I agreed.
Then Torricelli dropped out in late September and the Democrats brought in relative “white knight” Frank Lautenberg, a popular, former three-term U.S. Senator, to replace him. My poll numbers went down to 1% and I ended up with 1.2%, 25,000 votes.
But then came 2003, and the defection because of my campaign, as he explained it, of Democratic State Assemblyman Matt Ahearn to the Green Party. Over the course of 2003, as the state coordinator, I worked with Matt and others in the GPNJ leadership organizing workshops and providing support to prospective candidates, and we ended up with 49 Green Party candidates. 39 were candidates for state assembly and senate, a huge increase over the last state election, and the average percentage of the vote was twice as high as the last comparable election. Many of our municipal candidates got double-digit percentages, some in the mid-thirties.
So my “no name” candidacy seems to have had a very positive impact in building the Green Party of New Jersey.
It’s time for the Green Party to move beyond its Ralph Nader phase. Ralph has done much over the past seven years to help us get to this point, but a positive has turned into a likely negative. There are over 200 Green Party members elected to local office throughout the country. Nader had little to do with the vast majority of those victories. He has made his decision that he is taking another road in 2004. Let’s forge our own, one true to our political principles and commitment to democracy.