Nader and Progressive Leadership

As this is written, it’s about three months since the November elections, two months since the 5 Supremes selected their boy to be President and just about one year since Ralph Nader publicly announced his independent Presidential candidacy on Feb. 21st of 2000.

Amid various post-mortems on the Nader/LaDuke campaign and articles about what Nader is and will be doing, it seems timely to ask the question, “What should we be looking for from our nationally-known, prominent, progressive leaders now and in the future?” What can be learned from the strengths and weaknesses of Nader’s heroic, independent Presidential campaign? What steps can be taken now so that the same weaknesses are not present in an independent Presidential campaign in 2004?

Some have criticized Nader for being “a full-blown progressive, taking strong positions on the death penalty, the military budget, health care, gay rights, labor organizing, racial profiling, reparations for slavery, hemp, Palestinian rights-you name it,” in the words of writer Micah Sifry. Sifry feels that this was a negative, that, in the future, “it may make more sense to build a third-party campaign as an independent-populist play rooted in the ‘radical middle’ that came out for Ross Perot in 1992 and Jesse Ventura in 1998.”

This is extremely problematic. It is even more problematic that Sifry’s views are not isolated ones.

There is a large constituency for Nader’s full-blown progressivism.
Exit polls indicated that 10 million or so voters seriously considered voting for Nader. Many did not, most likely, because of our winner-take-all political system. If we had instant runoff voting, instead of 2.75% of the vote, Nader might have received more like 9-10%.
And that 10 million includes very few of the 50% of the population who don’t vote, who are generally working-class, low-income, young and/or alienated from the whole political process. Many of these people would respond positively to a pro-justice agenda and a movement which showed it had the political strength so that their individual votes could make a difference.

Another example is from the ’80s, when Jesse Jackson received close to
7 million votes in the Democratic primaries and polls in 1988 indicated that, if he had run as an independent, he might have gotten 15% of the vote. And Jackson was without question a “full-blown progressive,” with a platform that spoke to a wide range of issues.

However, distinctly different from the Nader campaign, Jackson emerged out of and was a leader of a very different base. First and foremost was the Rainbow Coalition’s base in the African American community. Also actively involved were some sectors of the labor movement, as well as farmers, gays and lesbians, etc. Nader’s campaign, overwhelmingly white and with little labor support, was constituency-challenged from the start. Its strength was on predominantly white college campuses, as well as among significant swatches of progressives.

Nader, by all accounts I have read and heard, was also very much “the man” internally within the campaign. In Sifry’s words, “his legendary aptitude for micromanaging” would have made it difficult to build a campaign that involved a representative cross-section of the progressive movement in leadership of the campaign. For all of the National Rainbow Coalition’s ties to the Democratic Party, there was a serious effort during the high point of its influence and power, from early 1986 to early 1989, to build a collective national leadership, a national board, that was multi-racial, multi-constituency, democratic and which played a role in determining direction and activity.

Those of us who are not nationally-prominent progressives-and those of us who are–need to speak up wherever appropriate about the need for our national leadership to combine the best of the Nader/LaDuke and Rainbow campaigns, and keep building upon that combination in not just a quantitative but a qualitative way. We need:

-leadership that is politically independent of the Democratic Party;
-leadership which speaks out on a range of issues, doing so, of course, in a way which respectfully educates, informs and positively challenges people who do not see themselves as on the Left;
-leadership which is committed to genuinely multi-racial, multi-constituency, cooperative processes of decision-making and movement-building; and, last but not least,
-leadership which helps to build democratically-organized and actively-involving forms of organization at all levels.

We can’t settle for less!