Nader, the Greens and 2008

Todd Chretien, the Green Party candidate for senator from California in 2006, looks at the difficult prospects for a left-wing presidential challenge in 2008.

LESS THAN eight years ago, Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign was electrifying U.S. politics.

Nader won almost 3 million votes, the best showing in at least 50 years for a left-wing presidential candidate running against the Republican-Democrat duopoly. Running on the Green Party ticket, Nader had support from significant sections of progressives and social activists--an important break from the long history of the U.S. left falling behind the "lesser evil" of the Democratic Party at election time.

Today, the picture is very different. Nader will probably run for president again, but neither he nor any other independent candidate to the left of the Democrats can expect to win more than a token number of votes. His support among people on the left has crumbled. And the Green Party that nominated Nader in 2000 is in a state of crisis, weakened significantly in terms of both voter registration and active membership.

So what happened?

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A reaction against eight years of Clinton

THE YEARS before 2000 saw some important struggles begin to develop on a number of fronts.

In August 1997, 185,000 Teamsters struck for two weeks and beat UPS, one of the most powerful corporations in the country. A few weeks after, transit workers and garbage workers struck and won in the Bay Area, and a strike by GM workers in a single brake plant shut down the auto giant's entire North American operation.

Meanwhile, the global justice movement was taking shape. In November 1999, 40,000 activists marched in Seattle and took direct action to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks.

Why was all this happening? Despite the hopes placed in him, Bill Clinton didn't bring fundamental change after a decade of Reagan-Bush trickle-down economics and conservative politics.

Instead, corporations continued to dominate a "one-sided class struggle." Clinton himself displayed a Republican-like zeal for privatization, which shredded what remained of the social safety net. The prison population doubled, and 1 million Iraqis were starved to death by sanctions.

Anger with the failure of the Democrats to do much of substance for the majority of people was expressed in these still modest but growing mobilizations, culminating in Los Angeles in August 2000, when 40,000 activists protested outside the Democratic National Convention.

These struggles didn't translate automatically into a break with the Democrats--in fact, most people who took part in them continued to look to the Democrats as the "lesser evil." Although the fact that Democratic Party delegates and officials looked on from the balcony of the Staples Center while the LAPD launched canisters of tear gas at the crowd certainly did help make the point that the party was still an evil.

In the months before the election, more than 100,000 people attended a dozen indoor "super-rallies" supporting Nader. Nader's stump speech called for the abolition of the WTO, tearing up NAFTA, slicing the military budget, investing dramatically in education, a national health care system, ending the death penalty and three-strikes laws, and defending abortion rights.

Nader slammed the Democrats as a corporate party, wholly owned by the richest of the rich. He ended every speech by invoking the struggles of the anti-slavery abolitionists, the suffragettes, the industrial unionists and the civil rights movement.

Socialists and radicals were welcomed into the campaign. On stage at the super-rallies, Michael Moore, Phil Donahue, Patti Smith, Medea Benjamin, Susan Sarandon and other well-known figures supported him. The California Nurses Association and the United Electrical Workers endorsed his candidacy and campaigned for him.

When it was all over, Nader won 2,883,105 votes, the best showing for a left-wing candidate since Eugene Debs ran for president from prison in 1920 for the Socialist Party and won 6 percent of the vote.

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The Florida fiasco and September 11

AFTER THE Republican theft of the 2000 election that installed Bush--the loser of the popular vote--in the White House, and then the September 11 attacks and the start of the "war on terror," many of Nader's former supporters turned on him.

Liberal writer Eric Alterman explicitly blamed Nader for Bush's crimes: "Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq war. Thank you, Ralph, for the tax cuts. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the environment. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution."

Most 2000 Nader supporters weren't nearly as snotty as Alterman, but the fact was that the momentum built up by the global justice movement and other struggles didn't survive the nationalist fury whipped up by politicians of both parties after September 11.

Only one Democrat in Congress, Barbara Lee, voted against the rush to war against Afghanistan. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001 was met by only very small protests.

When the Bush administration began its drive to war on Iraq, there was a massive outpouring in February 2003 to try to stop the invasion. But there was little organizational continuity with the global justice movement and the 2000 Nader campaign. Nader didn't involve himself in antiwar organizing, and the Green Party played almost no role.

After the invasion and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, it looked as if progressive politics would be beaten back for a long time.

There were some exceptions in terms of relatively successful political campaigns. Green Party member and socialist Peter Camejo ran in the California recall governor's race and got into the TV debates. The Green Party's Matt Gonzalez came within a whisker of winning the 2003 race for mayor of San Francisco. Both these campaigns generated enthusiastic responses reminiscent of the Nader's 2000 run, and it looked as if the Green Party might recover, at least in California.

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2004: Anybody But Bush

THE 2004 election exposed the Green Party's internal political damage. Although registration figures continued to increase after September 11 (for instance, in California, the Greens grew from about 100,000 in 1999 to 165,000 in early 2004), much of the leadership of the party was in full retreat from openly fighting against the two-party "duopoly," as Nader called it.

As the party's 2004 convention approached, a majority of the Green Party leadership and a part of its activist base turned openly against Nader and backed the little-known David Cobb. Cobb's strategy was to run a "safe state" campaign that wouldn't challenge the Democrats where it might cost them votes in the Electoral College.

The left wing of the Green Party did fight for Nader's nomination, but it wasn't helped by Nader's decision to stand aloof from the nomination procedure. Cobb won the nomination, and his campaign went on to serve its purpose, signaling to the Democrats that the Greens would not fight them. Cobb got just 100,000 votes (less than 0.1 percent) across the U.S.

Nader chose an independent campaign with Peter Camejo as his running mate and tried to duplicate his success in 2000. However, with grassroots movements in a shambles, the Green Party running away from the fight, and the strong desire among liberals to get rid of Bush, even if that meant voting for pro-war Democrat John Kerry, Nader's campaign was very weak.

This didn't prevent the national Democratic Party from spending millions of dollars to keep Nader off state ballots and tie up his campaign with dozens of spurious lawsuits. Nader's final vote total was just 500,000.

Nader's clear antiwar message stood out in sharp contrast to Kerry, and the campaign did demonstrate that there was still an audience for radical politics, but it also showed that there was virtually no organization to reach out to and orient that audience. The 2004 campaign was run by a small core group of radicals and longtime Nader supporters--there was nothing like the participation of thousands of people, especially young people, in 2000.

Worse, this difficult situation led Nader to make some desperate moves that partially undermined the clear left-wing message of the campaign--such as accepting the nomination of the rump of the right-wing Reform Party in exchange for ballot lines in a couple states.

In 2006, the left wing of the Green Party as well as antiwar and socialist activists tried to organize antiwar campaigns in several states. Despite much hard work, these campaigns all failed to win either a substantial protest vote or make a serious contribution to reorganizing the antiwar movement. For instance, my campaign for Senate against pro-war Democrat Dianne Feinstein got just 2 percent of the vote.

The lack of enthusiasm for these campaigns demonstrated that the majority of Green Party activists had retreated from the idea of building a genuine alternative to the Democrats--and that the antiwar movement was severely disoriented. In the end, the Democrats took back Congress. Though, as we predicted, they wouldn't do anything with their victory, the Democrats will benefit again this year from the popular hatred of Bush and the Republicans.

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Green Party in Decline

THE GREEN Party's decline is likely to continue this year. For instance, in California, Green voter registration is down to 132,000, and the party has lost 25 percent of its registrants in its stronghold of San Francisco.

Although the party continues to attract genuinely radical activists who want to build a fighting alternative, like presidential candidate Jared Bell from Washington, D.C., most of the Greens' energy is focused on non-partisan, local campaigns, aimed at showing that Greens can be honest local politicians.

Worse, many Greens have accepted the practice of commonly endorsing Democrats at all levels and don't draw much of a distinction between "good" Democrats and "good" Greens. Some of this is based on demoralization and the relentless attack of Democratic Party officials and their supporters. But there is also a misunderstanding at the heart of the Green Party program about how social change comes about.

Certainly, many Green Party members believe that social movements are important, but many more believe that winning elections and forming blocks in local government bodies with "good" Democrats takes precedent over building those movements.

This confusion constantly pulls the party into "playing by the rules of the game"--even as many of its members understand that the rules have to be broken if we are to ever win a just society.

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Prospects for left candidates in 2008

AS IN 2004, Nader will not fight for the Green Party nomination, but only ask for its endorsement because he wants to run an independent campaign. This will leave the way open for the Greens to nominate, most likely, former Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

On the face of it, this seems like a positive development. McKinney has proven that she's far to the left of the mainstream Democrats and has taken many courageous political stands, which has earned her the enmity of her former party. On most issues, McKinney is as radical as Nader. The desire by the Green Party to reach out to the Black and Brown community is also healthy.

However, it is still not clear what kind of campaign McKinney intends to run, and if her break with the Democratic Party is permanent.

There are some reasons to take a second look. For instance, unlike Barbara Lee, McKinney did vote in the days after September 11 to authorize Bush's war on Afghanistan, and in May 2005, she voted in favor of the Homeland Security budget. These votes stand out in contrast to the bulk of her record, but it is hard to see why she cast them.

Also, there is her long-running dispute with former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown, who was also seeking the Greens' presidential nomination until withdrawing late last year. Some supporters of McKinney recklessly accused Brown of being an FBI agent. Certainly, McKinney can't be automatically blamed for the mistakes of her supporters, but her refusal to clearly and forcefully distance herself from these outlandish claims is not positive.

In 2008, the majority of working-class people will be desperate to get rid of Bush and the Republicans. And unlike 2004, when few people expected anything good from Kerry aside from the fact that he wasn't Bush, millions of people with left-wing ideas are going to be genuinely enthusiastic that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will end the war, reform heath care and find a way to raise living standards.

This is, as left-wing writer Norman Solomon said of Bill Clinton back in 1992, a "false hope." But only the reality of the Democrats in power will begin to make this clear and lay the basis for rebuilding a new challenge to the two-party system and the corporations that stand behind it.

This will be a very tough year for independent, left-wing candidates. Whether they recognize this and use their campaigns to help build up the meager forces of a left committed to fighting oppression, war and exploitation or they succumb to the pressure to chase imaginary shortcuts will determine their value.