The two party system is beginning to crumble. Millions of working people have come to the realization that a society dominated by a few multinational corporations is a society in which their needs and desires are either ridiculed or ignored. Elections have become a charade, with both the Democratic and Republican parties intimately tied to the same corporate interests.
The Nader candidacy is only one indication of the decline in popular support for the two party system. Ross Perot is preparing to repeat his campaign as a billionaire outsider. Pat Buchanan has toyed with the idea of running as an independent, hoping to direct popular discontent toward a set of convenient scapegoats. In spite of his remarkably lackluster effort, Nader could still represent the critical margin in the 1996 election. Although the media gurus have been reluctant to acknowledge Nader as a legitimate candidate, polling surveys from California, showing him with up to 10% of the vote, have compelled a certain recognition of his potential impact on the presidential campaign.
Ralph Nader is a famous celebrity. His campaign has attracted the attention of the Left, and garnered the support of much of the Green movement. Here at last is an independent candidate organizing around issues of progressive social change, one primed to receive millions of votes. Yet the Nader candidacy is fundamentally, even fatally, flawed.
For radicals of every persuasion, the deepening erosion of popular faith in the two party system can only be welcomed. There is a sweet irony in seeing ideas that have been shunted into obscurity for decades now being filtered through the lens of a reluctant mass media. With liberals, and their allies in the trade union bureaucracy, once again rallying behind an incumbent Democratic president as the lesser evil, it is refreshing to observe a public figure such as Nader continuing to maintain that working people are bound to lose, no matter which of the two mainstream candidates ultimately wins.
Nader has also made it clear that he is not bound by the Green platform, or, indeed, any other platform, and that he will avoid controversial issues such as abortion and gay liberation. Greens are setting a precedent that will be difficult to overcome in the future.
Still, Nader's commitment to independent political action is highly suspect. When he first decided to enter the California Green primary in late November 1995, he insisted on retaining the option to withdraw prior to the general election a year later. Furthermore, the California Greens who publicly invited Nader to announce his candidacy were explicit in viewing the campaign as a strategic ploy, one intended to pressure Clinton into adopting a more progressive program. Nader has since announced that he is prepared to stay the course, although influential Democratic party operatives have approached him with exploratory offers intended to induce his departure from the race. Given his previous waffling, Nader's public declarations on this critical issue should be treated with considerable skepticism.
As a presidential candidate, Nader has acted like a reluctant bystander. He has been selective in choosing the states in which he hopes to gain ballot status. He has stated that he will not be making campaign speeches, but will limit his activities to producing videos and making a few appearances on radio and television talk shows. Indeed, as he travels around the country to lecture on corporate responsibility, Nader avoids mentioning his candidacy unless specifically asked. He has spurned fundraising, choosing to rely on name recognition instead. Finally, Nader has presented the scantiest rudiments of a platform. In his initial campaign statement, he pledged to focus his efforts on keeping "special interest money out of politics," as well as "ending the corporate welfare and other privileges that it buys." This hardly provides the basis for a cogent critique of capitalist society. Nader has created the shell of a campaign, with little of the substance.
Nader has also made it clear that he is not bound by the Green platform, or, indeed, any other platform, and that he will avoid controversial issues such as abortion and gay liberation. By supporting his campaign, Greens are setting a precedent that will be difficult to overcome in the future. Democratic decision can only be meaningful when candidates are bound by a platform decided by the membership. This is always hard to enforce during the course of an electoral campaign, but it becomes impossible when the candidate is a celebrity who has decided to campaign as an individual, and not as the representative of a party/movement.
As this society continues to unravel, and an increasing number of working people become disaffected from the system, the Left remains isolated and fragmented. The Nader campaign would seem to provide a quick and easy solution to a series of difficult questions. Yet beneath the glitz the essential problems remain. We need a vibrant party of the Left, a party totally independent of the two establishment parties, with a principled commitment to a program of fundamental change. Instead, Nader has fashioned a campaign based on his celebrity status, indifferent to the imperative of forging a grass-roots movement in which an activist rank and file would determine the platform of its candidates.
Last fall, weeks before Nader decided to enter the California primary, the Socialist Party nominated a ticket of Mary Cal Hollis for president and myself for vice-president. Six months later our ticket is seeking ballot status in more than twenty states. In New Mexico, the Hollis/Chester ticket will directly challenge Nader for the Green nomination. Unlike Nader, we have always been committed to remaining on the ballot through the general election. Unlike Nader, we are campaigning on a platform articulating consistently radical positions on the key issues of the day, a platform that was developed through a democratic debate. We stand for reproductive rights, gay liberation, affirmative action, a radical redistribution of income and wealth, a drastic cut in the military budget, and the immediate closing of all nuclear power plants. Furthermore, as socialists, we refused to be stymied by the narrowing possibilities for basic reforms within a capitalist society. We remain committed to building a social movement that can transcend the existing system, while projecting a new society founded on cooperation, not competition.
The Socialist Party realizes that our project will require the active participation of those in a wide spectrum of organizations. Thus our current campaign has sought to widen its base of support. In addition to gaining the backing of some elements within the Greens, we have gained the nomination of the Liberty Union Party in Vermont, and we are seeking to be the candidates of the Peace and Freedom Party in California.
The Hollis/Chester campaign provides the Left with a meaningful alternative to the two party system, and to the empty facade of the Nader candidacy. Yet it is only one step in a continuing process. Join us in 1996, and in the coming years, as we work toward the formation of a unified and dynamic party of radical activists.