Although, as this is being written, there’s still a chunk of time before the November 7 elections, there are some lessons that can be drawn and directions for the immediate future after the elections that we need to begin to think and talk about.
My major starting point for this consideration is the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke campaign. This is far and away the most significant, positive, national electoral development of the year.
There is another national political development, however, that needs to be noted: the apparent demise of the national Reform Party and, in particular, of the dominant Pat Buchanan wing of it. Barring a political miracle, and despite the $12 million or so Buchanan has obtained in federal matching funds because of Ross Perot’s 8% of the vote in 1996, Buchanan’s Reformistas will not make the 5% threshold needed to obtain such funds in 2004. This weakening of the overt right wing is undoubtedly a positive development.
It is also a warning to the Greens, a Green party, it should be noted, that has made important progress during this election year in bringing itself together. Earlier this month, a unanimous agreement was reached between representatives of the two national Green organizations to move quickly towards one, unified, national Green Party. This, also, is a very positive development.
Nader and the Greens have a decent shot at obtaining 5% of the vote on November 7th. Nader is right around that figure in the national polls, polls which, by their very nature, are likely to underestimate Nader’s vote total because they do not include young, first-time voters. These voters are Nader’s strength; there are local Nader organizations or active volunteers on about 900 college and university campuses. The 10,000-15,000 person rallies rolling across the country have happened because of the large numbers of young people working as Nader campaign volunteers and turning out their peers for the rallies. If there is a significant turnout of these young, mainly white voters, as well as other independents who are turned off to two-party-politics-as-usual, the Nader campaign may provide a much-needed political jolt on election day.
And yet, as the Buchanan/Reform Party debacle of the past year has shown us, obtaining federal matching funds alone is no guarantee of future success. Unless the Green Party and other independent political formations work consciously in the next few years to address our collective weaknesses, 2004, whether with federal matching funds or without them, will not yield the harvest which it clearly can.
One glaring weakness of the Nader/Greens campaign is the lack of racial diversity. This is true despite the fact that Nader has been much better on the range of progressive issues, including issues specific to people of color, than he was in 1996. There’s a deeper problem here: an inability to prioritize, to put at the top of the agenda, conscious work to build genuinely healthy and productive relationships between activists of color and those of European ancestry. Such work involves study, listening and active support to organizing being led by people of color on issues they see as important. It means the development of meaningful friendships with those from other cultures. It means a willingness to let others lead, to share power. Unless steps such as these are taken by Nader, the Greens and other white activists, there is a very real danger that the positive political momentum generated by the Nader campaign could be dissipated.
We need to place support of instant runoff voting and proportional representation towards the top of our agenda. Our country’s winner-take-all political system makes the building of an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans extremely difficult. If Nader/LaDuke do not end up making the 5% threshold, this will be the primary reason: the defection to Gore of liberal and progressive voters concerned about Supreme Court nominations and other actions by a more-conservative Bush administration.
Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their preferences; if no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the second, third, etc. choices are counted to eventually come up with a winner. This is a relatively easy-to-understand reform which eliminates the lesser evil conundrum. It is also useful, in the short term, to the less popular locally of the two dominant parties, which helps to make it a winnable reform at local and state levels if we put it on the progressive movement’s agenda to make it so.
We need to become more serious about the process of recruiting, training and supporting people from the labor, people of color, women’s and other progressive movements to become independent candidates for local political office. Green Party members and other independent political activists need to consciously reach out to the labor movement, support their struggles and help to strengthen the independent political sentiment that exists among the rank and file and some levels of leadership. Labor needs to move away from the Democrats; those, like the Labor Party, who are leading this uphill battle, need support.
If we can do these things after November 7th, no matter what the results, there is no question but that over the next several years, a significant, grassroots-based, genuinely multi-racial and labor-based alliance of the Greens and others can emerge. And come 2004, we can be about the waging of a potentially winning, if long-shot, independent Presidential campaign. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize!