Fundamental, systemic change becomes possible only when large numbers of people, millions, tens of millions, collectively demonstrate that they will not tolerate the old system and are prepared to support something new. The forms of action that this broad mass of people take will vary, but in ways as small as speaking up publicly to neighbors and friends, to more bold actions like civil disobedience or militant direct action, a lesson of history is that the only way substantive, revolutionary change takes place is through the emergence of such a popular movement.
We need such a movement in the United States. And as the first year of the new century gets off the ground, there are abundant signs that such a movement may well be in its beginning stages. “The battle in Seattle”
is the most significant manifestation of this new reality. It is also seen by the 50,000 people, primarly African Americans, who came together in literally a few weeks to demonstrate in Charleston, South Carolina on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend against the flying of the confederate flag on top of the capitol building. And it is seen by a number of indications, Seattle being one of them, that students are on the move, from the growth and local victories of United Students Against Sweatshops to the emergence over the past year of SURGE and STARC, two other national student networks, to the thousands of young people who marched to shut down the School of the Americas in Georgia in mid-November.
It is within this political context that, as this article is written, a Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Green Party campaign is beginning to emerge onto the national political scene.
This is another hopeful development, one that is badly needed. Without it, we face a year of political rhetoric from the Democrats and Republicans, as well as a likely Patrick Buchanan Reform Party candidacy, that is, at its best, centrist and another dose of false promises, and more often downright reactionary and hostile to pro-justice, environment, human rights, peace and labor positions. If there was no Nader/LaDuke candidacy, there would be NO progressive voice on the national political scene answering their lies and propaganda and, make no mistake about it, that would affect us all.
When there is no public expression of our set of politics during one of these every-four-years political games we are subjected to, pro-justice activists feel weaker and more discouraged. They/we tend to soften our positions because we have no standard-bearer who can keep us buoyed up and to whom we can point as an alternative to two-party, corporate-business-as-usual. The “settling phenomenon,” settling for lesser-of-two-evils Democrats even as we know they’re untrustworthy and not a part of our movement, takes hold of far too many of us. Our organizing is more difficult. And positive, independent political movement, such as what we now see emerging, is set back.
We need a strong, forthright and broadly-based Nader/LaDuke campaign! And it looks as if one could be developing. There are indications that sectors of the labor movement, particularly the Labor Party to whom Ralph Nader has spoken at 1996 and 1998 conventions, are interested in this campaign. Jim Hightower, one of the most well-known and respected progressive Democrats around, and someone who has also been close to the national leadership of both the Labor Party and the New Party, has spoken positively about a Nader campaign and will be speaking at the Greens nominating convention in Colorado in June. The Progressive Populist, a national bi-weekly newspaper out of Texas which carries a number of regular columns by progressive independents and progressive Democrats, called upon Nader to run in a recent editorial. And the Greens generally, despite persistent divisions, seem to be significantly in agreement and are already hard at work in support of a Nader/LaDuke campaign. All of these developments, taken together, are concrete signs that we can expect to see a very different campaign this year than what we saw in 1996.
Can Nader get 5% of the vote so that, come 2004, the Greens and their allies would have millions of dollars, potentially as much as $10 million, for a 2004 convention and presidential campaign. (Imagine such a thing, and what could be done with it!) In 1996, spending less than $5,000 and running pretty much of a non-campaign, Nader got a little less than 2% of the vote in the 23 states where he was on the ballot. If he gets on the ballot in 45 or so states this time, a realistic objective; if he and LaDuke campaign seriously, as all indications are they will; if the campaign is not just Greens but one taken up by many activists from the broader progressive movement, including Labor Party and some New Party activists; and, finally, if the Nader/LaDuke message, while centered on the anti-corporate, pro-labor, consumer rights and environmental issues Nader is most familiar and comfortable with, also addresses the broader range of progressive issues so as to bring in and hold the allegiance of activists of color, feminists, lesbian/gay activists, peace activists and others–well, then we’re really cooking, and 5% of the vote is by no means out of the question.
Keep in mind what the playing field is looking like: Al Gore, George W.Bush and Patrick Buchanan. And even if McCain or Bradley get their respective party’s nomination, well, so what? Despite some of the current election year rhetoric, neither is substantially different on most issues from Gore and Bush. However things shake out, there’s a huge political vacuum there. Al Gore is the likely “leftist” in that motley crew, and with Bush or McCain and Buchanan attacking him from the right, it is unlikely that this “profile in accommodation” will give more than a relative handful of rhetorical nods to progressive positions, as he is doing somewhat more of during the primaries against Bradley. There will be literally millions upon millions of discouraged voters who can be reached by a Nader/LaDuke campaign!
What stands in the way of such an historic development?
One is the internal divisions within the Greens. The Greens face a challenge: will they rise above, get beyond debilitating internal fights and find common ground and a common way of work over the course of this year? This is not to be pollyannish. There are differences within the Greens over strategy, tactics and program; there always are within just about any organization, particularly national organizations. Also, there are always personality conflicts and issues over who should be in leadership. But these inevitable differences and disagreements can be, and have to be, addressed differently than the way they are within the institutions of the dominant culture. Instead of competitiveness and jockeying for power, there need to be good faith efforts on both sides of a disagreement to look for the “common ground.” Or, if it is clear that the disagreements are too deep, decisions can be made as to how the disagreements can be put aside until later so that the necessary and essential work can proceed as productively as possible. I hope, and I’m cautiously optimistic, that the Greens have matured enough since 1996 so that the year 2000 Nader/LaDuke campaign will bear witness to an emerging, if still fragile, unity in action.
Many pro-justice activists are concerned about whether Nader will be up-front and forthright in support of issues such as a woman’s right to choose, affirmative action, opposition to police brutality, the rights of lesbians and gay people and the need to reduce the military budget. These are issues that the broad progressive movement is in agreement on, but in 1996 Nader either didn’t address them or, in the case of lesbian/gay rights, made at least one statement which indicated a fairly serious lack of appreciation for the oppression faced by those with non-heterosexual, emotional/sexual orientations.
There’s a much deeper issue here. Some progressive activists believe that we need to build a “class-based” movement which de-emphasizes the “social issues” and instead focuses on issues like living wage jobs, the environment, tax reform and health care, because these are issues that cut across lines of race, nationality, culture, gender, sexuality, etc. and therefore can bring together the broadest range of people. There is truth to this position, but the fact is that a movement that calls itself progressive, that is about the transformation of society in fundamental ways, has to “do the right thing” even if it risks temporarily losing support from those who are with us on the broader, class issues. We have to be consistent in our opposition to injustice, oppression and discrimination. If not, we are building a movement on sand, and it will eventually break apart as the storms of corporate opposition look for any weakness they can exploit to undercut and destroy our threat to their continued misrule.
There is a relatively recent example from our history of the political power of such an approach: the Rainbow movement of 1983-1988. That movement, under the leadership of Jesse Jackson, consciously brought together all of the different pieces of the progressive movement and explicitly articulated their issues, from gay rights to the rights of farmers to labor issues to those of people of color. It did this within an overall framework which emphasized our common oppression at the hands of corporate power. This approach generated almost 7 million votes for Jackson during the 1988 Democratic Party primaries, and polls at the time indicated that if Jackson had gone on to run as an independent in the fall, he would have gotten in the neighborhood of 15% of the vote.
This makes what may well happen as the Nader/LaDuke campaign gets off the ground even more sad, since there are indications that some of those Rainbow leaders may be working to undercut support for Nader.
This is the third, primary obstacle that I see to this campaign: the efforts of certain “progressive leaders” who are tied to the Democratic Party to keep it from happening. This is and will be the case for “progressive leaders” from labor, from the civil rights movement and from other groups that are still unwilling to break from the lesser-evil orthodoxy. Some of this may be relatively honest, a reflection of a political dynamic with deep, deep roots within our winner-take-all, big-money-dominated system. Some of it will be much more underhanded.
We can’t get discouraged by these inevitable attacks. In many ways they are a sign that we are finally becoming a force that cannot be ignored. We need to deal with them in the same way we would deal with tender young shoots of new plants emerging from a garden in the spring that are threatened by cold spells, animals or birds: remember what those shoots can become, develop plans for how to keep them growing and take appropriate action. This new movement of the 21st century that we are seeing develop in front of our eyes is too important to be sidetracked.
We are talking about history here. Let’s all do our best to give of the best within us so that the year 2000 is remembered as the turning point for the struggling, besieged, abused and downtrodden people of this country and this world, and its air, land, water, plant and animal life.
History is calling.