On November 27, Ralph Nader entered the Green Party of California's presidential primary as part of a "people's campaign" to reclaim our political process from the control and corruption of corporate interests. The Green Party of Maine recently placed him on their ballot as well, and other states are organizing to do the same. Nader's agreement was the culmination of months of discussion and diplomacy by greens and other activists around the country, and represents the Greens' first opportunity to mobilize significant numbers of people at a national scale. It also raises some important questions.
Why run for president? At first glance, this appears the opposite of "grassroots, bottom-up" organizing, and in a traditional money-and-media-driven campaign, it would be. However, as Nader's statement suggests, this is a bottom-up campaign: the focus here is entirely on the issues and the people. It is up to us build this into a groundswell for reform, for democracy, for a new social agenda based on justice and human needs, not entrenched power and profit.
Why Ralph Nader? He is an icon of personal integrity, honesty, humility, and public service; polls rate his trustworthiness higher than that of any other public figure. As the antithesis of a corrupt politician, Nader lends tremendous credibility to calls for electoral reform. As a lifelong adversary of corporate America, he represents the power of ordinary people to defeat wealthy interests and change the "system". Nader is the ideal catalyst for growing a movement around political reform and democratic renewal-and he is already committed to running.
Why now? With some notable exceptions, US Greens have not yet demonstrated the leadership or organizing ability to pull off anything this big; isn't it premature? Many of us feel that the time is ripe for such an effort, that a crucial window of opportunity exists which we should not let pass. Public resentment of politicians and the media, frustration with the electoral process, and a general mistrust of government is extremely widespread, perhaps more so than at any time in the past 50 years. Electoral reform and "good government" are the most unifying themes on the political landscape, one which could potentially unite 70 -80% of the US public. It bridges almost all wedge issues, from race and affirmative action to reproductive rights and foreign policy. Everybody wants to "throw the bums out and clean up the system."
This growing reaction is defining a new political model, replacing the obsolete Liberal/Conservative spectrum with a contest between populism (creative, inclusive, decentralized power, community-based policy making) and bureaucratic centralism (exclusive, centralized, hierarchical, distant, inefficient, inflexible). This is also the one issue which neither Democrats nor Republicans can truly address; despite their relentless (and increasingly desperate) posturing as outsiders/rebels/reformers/populists, they are, in fact, the problem. Politicians of both parties are widely perceived as power holders in a corrupt, money-dominated system gone bad; the opportunity to focus and express this widespread resentment could give rise to a powerful and broad-based popular movement.
It is this hunger for a genuine, populist alternative which resulted in one out of five voters choosing Perot in '92, and which accounts in part for Buchanan's dramatic showing in early primaries. If the empty rhetoric of populist revolt can attract such support, what will the real thing bring? Do we dare leave the field entirely to billionaires and right-wing demagogues?
In 1992 over 80% of the electorate voted against Clinton, or Bush, or both—or didn't vote at all...There are more people who would like to vote for Nader than for Clinton or Dole.
Why are we running? What are our goals? First, of course, to elect Nader president. Clearly a long shot, but achievable under the right circumstances. The numbers are there: in 1992 over 80% of the electorate voted against Clinton, or Bush, or both—or didn't vote at all. That is our constituency. There are more people who would like to vote for Nader than for Clinton or Dole; we will have to reach enough of those people with the message, and surmount the enormous barriers to becoming a credible contender.
Second, we can shift the center of gravity, gain leverage with Clinton on key issues. This may seem the most pragmatic goal, but it's only a short-term, "band-aid" strategy; lasting change rarely results from this kind of leverage, which disappears as soon as the election is over. It also defines us in relation to the Democrats, and if not part of a larger strategy, leads to co-optation, opportunism, and loss of grass-roots legitimacy. (Consider Jesse Jackson's decision to remain a "player" in the Democratic party rather than work to support an independent Rainbow Coalition.)
We need to avoid framing this campaign as an attempt to influence the Democrats. Doing so sends the message to the public that we are not serious, that we have no chance of winning, that Clinton is our only hope, and that our only measure of success is a Democratic reaction. This keeps us "petitioning the power holders, rather than empowering the people," and discourages those who want to build an alternative. This also sends the message to Clinton/Democrats that we are not a credible threat, that we will not go the distance or risk costing them the election, that when pushed we will obediently fall into line behind their machine; in other words, that they can (and will) continue to ignore us. The only way we will impact the Clinton administration or the Democratic Party is by focusing on our own agenda and running all-out to win, to challenge the system, and especially to get people actively demanding reform and new political choices.
Third, we can open up the public debate-raise the real issues, ask questions, offer alternatives and solutions, challenge and de-legitimize the two-party monopoly and politics as usual; we can raise hopes, raise expectations, and raise hell. This is a classic green crack-in-the-wall approach—it depends especially on forcing media access (Nader in debates), and building our own alternative media/ information networks.
Fourth, we can continue building a multi-issue grassroots movement. This is (in my opinion) the foremost goal, around which our strategies should be built. Mass movements are the primary means of real social change, and our point of real strength. This means focusing on the conditions of ordinary people's lives, not candidates personalities and media buzz. It means working for lasting change in the structure of society, in the distribution of power and resources-not just changing who sits at the top. It means looking far beyond 1996, envisioning the society we want to leave to future generations, figuring out our next step toward that future, and working on it steadily.
Above all, we need to define success on our terms. If we increase democracy and access to power, if we mobilize new people, if we lay a foundation for future organizing, then we will have won regardless of who sits in the White house.
But won't Nader just be a spoiler, taking votes from Clinton and helping elect a Republican? As Nader said on Donahue: "I can't spoil it; it's already spoiled!" When Democrats run corrupt careerists, wage expensive and dirty media blitzes, ignore the issues, and try to look more like the Republicans every year, they do not endear themselves to most Americans. Democrats lose elections because they are unable to persuade enough people to vote for them, not because someone offered the voters a choice. Blaming third parties for Democratic defeats assumes that we cannot have real democracy or meaningful choice, that the system is broken beyond repair, and that we should settle for the "lesser of two evils". This is the politics of fear, and it is what keeps so many of us feeling powerless or fed up or just disinterested. The Democratic Party can keep sliding to the right because they assume that anyone left of center has nowhere else to go, and that they can take us for granted without ever addressing our needs or concerns.
Our message is that we should NOT settle, NOT go along with this charade, but rather demand and work for real choice and genuine democracy. Both big money parties have sold themselves to corporate interests; whether the winner is Democrat or Republican, the corporate class wins every time-and we all lose. Since he has failed to veto almost every bad piece of legislation put on his desk, a vote for Clinton is essentially a vote for more of the Gingrich agenda. Instead of voting from fear, we can vote our hope, our dreams, and our demands!
We are not attracting Clinton Democrats; we are attracting the disaffected from all across the spectrum…a majority (54%) do NOT believe "voting for a third party is throwing away your vote"...
We should also challenge the assumption that we are pulling votes from Clinton. A recent Field poll posed three-way races between Clinton, Dole, or Perot, and Clinton, Dole, or Nader. In both races Clinton lead Dole by the same margin: 8-9%. This indicates that many of the same voters who chose Perot also chose Nader, and that a so-called "liberal" third candidate has almost the same impact as a "conservative." We are not attracting Clinton Democrats; we are attracting the disaffected from all across the spectrum. The poll also revealed that a majority (54%) do NOT believe "voting for a third party is throwing away your vote," and an astonishing 76% believe voting third party "sends a message that the political system needs to change" (SF Chronicle 12/19/95). Unfortunately, pollsters did not ask how many believe voting for Republicans or Democrats is "throwing away your vote."
Will large numbers of people really work for these goals? I believe they will, if we can awaken their hope and passion for democracy. The public's anger is often reactive or confused; we know we're being used and abused, but we often don't understand exactly how, why, and by whom. Immersed in media misinformation, with no widely understood analysis or explanation of it's causes, our anger is often diverted into short-sighted reactive measures (term limits, budget cuts) or scape-goating (anti-immigrant Proposition 187, attacks on affirmative action) or used to turn us against our own best interests (voting down universal health care).
Reactive anger is also shallow: it is only good for one vote, one check, one letter; it cannot sustain a long-term multi-issue movement. As soon as it's initial effort fails to solve the underlying problem, it will shift to another target, or turn to frustration or despair. Wealthy corporate interests can afford to keep pushing "hot buttons" with media blitzes; we need to do the more painstaking work of building sustainable, long-term movements for change. To do so, we must reach beyond this anger, to people's hope for the future, their desire for a better, more just and democratic society.
Electoral work is always a means, a method of movement building. It is a way to challenge the system, educate people, and build pressure for democratic reforms. It is a step in reclaiming government as a check on corporate power, rather than a tool of it. The Nader campaign is our next step toward a more effective coalition of populist/ progressive forces, toward a more democratic electoral system, and ultimately, toward a greener world. Join us!