Jesse Then, Ralph Now?

One of the most tragic decisions a United States progressive leader has made over the past 20 years was the decision Rev.
Jesse Jackson made in 1989 to essentially shut down the National Rainbow Coalition. Is Ralph Nader on the verge of making a similar, if different, kind of decision?

The National Rainbow Coalition in 1988 was on the move.
Jackson’s strong Presidential campaign within the Democratic Party was the inspiration for a series of state Rainbow conventions that began to happen in the spring and summer of that year. Thousands of activists, a multi-cultural mix, were getting themselves organized in states around the country to continue building a stronger, on-going Rainbow coalition and movement. It was an exciting time.

But then, soon after the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, in late summer, a directive went out from Rev. Jackson that there should be no more state conventions until further notice. This directive was capped off at a March, 1989 meeting of the Rainbow’s National Board where Jackson, running and dominating the meeting, rammed through a restructuring proposal brought in by nine of the 15 members of a restructuring commission he had appointed in December. A minority proposal from the other six members of the commission was unilaterally determined as unnecessary by Jackson and was not even presented for consideration. At the same time, the composition of the National Board was changed to exclude most of the independents and to include more Democrats.

This was the end of the National Rainbow as a vibrant, active movement organization, something that it was becoming in 1988 and which it could have become even more significantly. There is no doubt in my mind that if Jackson had not taken these steps, if he would have functioned as a democratic leader of the movement he had done so much to create, this would be a very different county, and a very different world. It was a wrong decision, a set of decisions, of historic proportions.

Ralph Nader is not the organizational leader of anything like the Rainbow, and the Greens are not like the Rainbow in a number of ways, but he is currently saying publicly that he might announce soon that he is going to run as an independent for President rather than as a Green. By all reports, he is upset with the criticism that some former strong Nader supporters in the Greens have made of him, and he believes that the Greens aren’t growing fast enough. He is reportedly saying that he does not want to announce as a possible Green Party candidate, raise lots of money and put in lots of energy and then, at the nominating convention in late June in Milwaukee, not be chosen as the candidate, or see the party decide upon a particular strategy for whomever is its Presidential candidate that he would have to abide by if chosen.

Some national Green Party leaders question if Nader’s going independent is a real possibility. They wonder if he is saying this as, in essence, a pressure tactic to get the Greens to get behind him, and soon.

It is hard for me to see how such a decision would work for Nader. Who does he expect to attract to an independent campaign other than Greens? I know of no moves to leave the Democratic Party on the part of any bloc of Blacks, Latinos, labor, women or any other progressive constituency. The Reform Party is virtually defunct. I assume Ralph is not going to try to attract large numbers of disaffected Republican conservatives as his petition gatherers and organization builders. Who else is there?

I don’t know how real Nader’s threat to go independent is, but I think a decision by him to do so could come become as destructive for the Green Party as Jackson’s decisions were in 1988 and 1989 for the National Rainbow, and it wouldn’t be good for Nader either.

Right now there are serious differences within the Greens over the question of what to do in 2004, both in terms of strategy and candidate, although most Greens are in agreement that there should be a Presidential campaign. A Nader decision to refuse to go through the Green Party’s democratic process of state primaries, caucuses, conventions, polls and debates over the next number of months leading up to Milwaukee would aggravate those divisions. Those who are strongly in support of Nader would try to get their particular state party to support Nader’s independent campaign. Most others would oppose that, and one of the arguments they would make is, “How can we support Nader, our candidate in 1996 and 2000, when he rejects an organizational democratic process that he has helped to evolve, indirectly, through the inspiration of those two campaigns? How can we support a man who says we need more democracy in this country but then is unwilling to participate in the democratic process of the only viable, national, progressive electoral party in the U.S.?”

There would be strong feelings on both sides. The Green Party could be seriously divided. One Green Party leader used the word “destructive” to describe what would be likely to take place.

Is this what Ralph Nader wants his legacy to be? The real possibility of serious damage to the party he has done so much to bring into being?

I don’t believe that Ralph Nader is the right candidate for the Green Party in 2004, primarily but not solely because of his rejection of a strategic, or safe, states strategy. But I would urge Ralph to do the right thing. If he decides he is going to run he should do it within the democratically-arrived at processes and timetable of the Green Party.