The Nader challenge and what it means today

October 1, 2015

Todd Chretien tells the story of Ralph Nader's independent campaigns for president.

VERMONT SEN. Bernie Sanders' campaign for the presidency and his platform in favor of raising the minimum wage, defending Social Security, reducing student debt and establishing a single-payer health care system have energized millions of people who want an alternative to the status quo political system.

His campaign is often compared to left-winger Jeremy Corbyn's stunning victory in the election to lead Britain's Labor Party and the challenges to neoliberal policies by parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Another comparison, closer to home but a few years in the past, is Ralph Nader, the famous consumer advocate-turned-independent presidential candidate, who won 2.9 million votes in the 2000 election.

The two men's left-wing messages have many similarities. But there is, of course, one decisive difference: Sanders is running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and promises he won't be or support a third-party candidate, whereas Nader defied a vicious campaign against him and his supporters to run as an independent candidate, outside the two corporate-controlled parties.

Ralph Nader campaigning for president in 2000
Ralph Nader campaigning for president in 2000

Sanders' campaign is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dismal 2016 campaign, but it also raises a host of important questions that many of his supporters on the left aren't facing: the undemocratic nature of the Democratic Party itself; the hopelessness of reforming the Democratic Party; and the need to build a third party to represent working-class people to the left of the Democrats.

To understand the importance of confronting these issues, it's helpful to know the history of the Nader challenge and the alternative it represented to the political status quo as the 21st century began.

BY 1999, the long Clinton presidency was coming to a close. Winning the Cold War turned out to mean bowing to every neoliberal nostrum in the book. Wages in the U.S. stagnated or fell, the number of people without health insurance had climbed to 40 million, and the prison population skyrocketed.

Abroad, corporations enforced sweatshop wages, and Big Oil's priorities in the Middle East translated into a U.S.-led campaign of sanctions against Iraq that ultimately killed over 1 million Iraqis, including a half million children. But Clinton's then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said of this mass murder: "We think the price is worth it."

That about summed up the Clinton years. But below the surface, something was brewing. After years of passivity, labor unions stirred, first with the 1997 national strike at UPS and then a number of walkouts in auto and transportation. Anti-sweatshop campaigns and environmental actions organized by students picked up--the latter targeting Vice President Al Gore's personal holdings in Occidental Oil. And anger at mass incarceration and police brutality found expression in the campaign to free former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row.

Then, in November 1999, all hell broke loose in Seattle. Tens of thousands of union members joined in direct actions led predominantly by young protesters to partially shut down a meeting of one of the most important international financial institutions, the World Trade Organization, amid a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas. The global justice movement was underway in earnest.

Into this maelstrom stepped Ralph Nader, now as the Green Party presidential candidate, with indigenous activist Winona LaDuke as his running mate. His campaign took off like a rocket. Sections of the left, including the International Socialist Organization (ISO), decided to endorse and participate in the campaign.

Until mid-summer of 2000, the presidential campaign Al Gore--who expected to be anointed the president after eight years serving in Clinton's shadow--treated Nader as a contemptible sideshow. But in August, tens of thousands of people converged on Los Angeles to protest the Democratic National Convention, organizing a week of marches and direct actions.

This showed the depth of disaffection with the Democrats among important parts of the party's base. Thousands of people who might otherwise be counted on to work for Gore were instead looking for an alternative--and finding the incorruptible Nader, with his message that an alternative to the two-party duopoly was badly needed.

In LA, the Nader campaign was right in the middle of the action. By the last night of the convention, as Democratic Party bosses watched police attack protesters from the safety of the Staples Center, a whiff of panic--mixed with LAPD pepper spray--wafted into the Gore camp.

FROM THEN on, the Gore campaign mantra became "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." But try as they might, the Nader challenge couldn't be contained.

Over the next two months, 100,000 people packed into Nader "Super Rallies" held in large sports areas, where the candidate spoke alongside the likes of Cornel West, Phil Donahue and Michael Moore, with Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith providing the music. An estimated 150,000 people helped out the campaign in one way or the other, the campaign raised almost $8 million in small donations, and the California Nurses Association and the United Electrical workers endorsed Nader.

On Election Day, Nader received 2,882,995 votes, or just over 2.7 percent of the vote--the best result for a left-wing third-party campaign in half a century. Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review, dug down to examine where the votes came from:

Nader found his most concentrated support among college students and young, first-time voters. Poll data suggest that these voters, who had no fixed party loyalty, were most likely to stick with Nader on Election Day. This obviously is a crucial part of the audience for socialists as the current radicalization develops.

The Green Party that nominated Nader was never the perfect vehicle to lead an incipient break with the Democrats. But the left wing of the party included activists dedicated to building bridges to labor, immigrant rights groups and antiwar forces. Above all, this wing was committed to political independence. The ISR explained in an editorial how the campaign had opened a door to the future:

A broader and revitalized left, outside the limits of the two-party system, can make the transformation of society a concrete goal for the first time in generations. The Nader campaign does not have to end on November 8.

AS IT turned out, the Republicans stole the election by preventing a recount of all the votes that, according to later investigations, would have put Gore on top and given him a narrow victory in the Electoral College.

But the Democratic establishment, Gore included, didn't blame the Republican thieves for stealing the White House--they blamed Nader for "taking" votes that, according to the twisted logic of the two-party system, belonged to the Democrats, despite the party doing nothing to earn them.

The smear campaign was intense, and a certain number of prominent Nader supporters wilted under the accusation of having thrown the election to Bush. But all in all, the global justice movement took on the challenge of opposing another Bush in the White House. Green Party registration continued to grow in its main strongholds, and the biggest global justice mobilization yet was planned for late September 2001 as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank prepared to meet in Washington, D.C.

Tragically, though, the September 11 terrorist attacks broke the movement's momentum, ushering in a patriotic backlash.

In order to understand what happened next, the scale of the right-wing backlash following September 11 must be appreciated. With the exception of Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, congressional Democrats and Republicans--as well as independent Rep. Bernie Sanders--voted unanimously to give Bush the authority to go to war in Afghanistan.

Just as Gore accepted the stolen election in Florida, the post-9/11 war votes left little room for doubt about an essential fact of the U.S. political system: It's not simply that there happen to be two parties that share power between them in the U.S.--it's a two-party system. Ultimately, neither of the two parties fear losing this or that election as much as the threat of a challenge to the system that perpetuates their collective power.

This gentlemen's agreement provides the U.S. political machine with the stability and the flexibility it needs to both absorb dissent when it can--and then close ranks to dish out repression when it must.

BY THE time Bush was preparing to invade Iraq in the winter of 2003, sentiment was turning against the war. There were huge protests in the U.S. and around the world in mid-February. Despite this wave of opposition, a majority of Democratic senators and 40 percent of Democratic representatives in the House again voted in favor of authorizing Bush to go to war.

Bush tried to declare "Mission Accomplished" with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but by the summer of 2004, resistance was already developing across Iraq. John Kerry emerged as the Democratic challenger to Bush in 2004--not as an anti-war candidate, but as a bigger-war candidate. That was underlined in his ridiculous acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, when he said he was "reporting for duty" in order to send more troops to Iraq.

Once again, there was a potential breach between the Democrats and the social movements. Green Party registration grew to over 300,000 by the end of 2004, and with the popular socialist-Green Peter Camejo as Nader's running mate, there were hopes that the antiwar movement could be mobilized to vote for a genuine antiwar alternative in Nader in 2004. The ISO once again endorsed Nader's presidential campaign in the midst of a sharp debate on the left.

(For a closer look at that discussion, read Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate, with contributions from Nader, Camejo, Howie Hawkins and many others. Haymarket Books is offering a discount if you buy the book online--enter "INDEPENDENTS" as the discount code.)

But the Democrats' counterattack against the Nader challenge took a heavy toll. Many of the well-known political and cultural leaders who backed Nader in 2000 fell in line with the "Anybody But Bush" slogan used to justify voting for the pro-war candidate John Kerry in order to defeat a worse one in Bush. Radicals such as Grace Lee Boggs, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Jim Hightower, Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West and Howard Zinn--all Nader supporters in 2000--now signed a public letter urging voters to "support for Kerry/Edwards in all swing states" because "removing George W. Bush from office should be the top priority in the 2004 presidential election."

At the time, this was known as the "safe state" tactic--and sadly, it was adopted by the majority of the Green Party leadership in 2004, leading Nader to run as an independent and appeal for the endorsement of the Green rank and file at the party's summer convention. Former Green Party Senate candidate in California Medea Benjamin stated, "Had I known then what I know now, and had I lived in a swing state, I would have voted for Gore instead of Ralph Nader [in 2000]."

Instead of endorsing Nader, the Green Party nominated David Cobb for president--a signal that the Greens wouldn't cause any problems for Kerry. Cobb won less than 120,000 votes, just 0.1 percent. However, Cobb's campaign did accomplish the Green Party leadership's primary goal of denying Nader access to their ballot line in dozens of states. Nader's vote fell to less than half a million.

In the years after 2004, the Green Party's decline accelerated. For example, from a high of 15,000 registered voters in San Francisco in 2005--3 percent of total registration--the party has fallen to less than 7,000 today. Nader did run as an independent again in 2008, as did ex-Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, but these races fell flat, signaling the near-total victory by the Democratic Party in sealing off a challenge to its left.

There have been some exceptions--Matt Gonzalez's race for mayor of San Francisco in 2003, Howie Hawkins campaigns for governor in New York, and Gayle McLaughlin's election as mayor of Richmond, Calif. In 2012, Jill Stein ran a Green Party campaign for president that was wholly committed to left-wing political independence. This, along with the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the City Council in Seattle, has reopened the question of third-party challenges.

SEVERAL CONCLUSIONS emerge from this history.

First, the Nader 2000 race demonstrates that millions of people can be convinced to vote for left-wing, third-party candidates. Second, the Democrats' campaign around "A Vote for Nader is a Vote for Bush" stands ready to be modified to fit any election. And if this argument doesn't work, Democratic Party leaders and operatives will resort to lawsuits, intimidation and dirty tricks of all kinds--as they did openly, even proudly, in 2004 against Nader.

Third, any left-wing challenge to the Democrats had better be prepared for a difficult road. The deck is stacked against electoral challenges in the U.S. Unlike parts of Latin America or Europe, we have almost no instances of proportional representation and very little public campaign financing--even the presidential debates are run by private corporations!

The 2000 campaign showed that social movements can go to the polls, and strengthen themselves by doing so. They can escape the two-party gravitational pull and speak in their own name. But 2000 also demonstrates that any success on this front will precipitate a counterattack by the Democratic Party, making all the more clear the necessity of building lasting political, movement and union organization.

Those lessons have taken a beating since the early 2000s, but they must not be lost.

Further Reading

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