Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

After Nader: Lessons for a New Politics

by David Finkel, Solidarity, editor, Against the Current

My organization, Solidarity, supported the 1996 Ralph Nader presidential campaign. To my knowledge, we were the only national grouping on the socialist left to take this position. The logic of our policy was simple enough: Nader's clear-cut stance of independence from the Democratic Party and his radical-populist attack on unbridled corporate power represented central elements of a program for working people and the social movements in the United States.

Looking Forward

Ralph Nader's willingness to assist the Greens in achieving political visibility and credibility was a highly positive development-it's up to the movement now to take maximum advantage of the opening. How can we begin to do this?

Left activists both inside and outside the Nader campaign identified a central weakness in the absence of any democratic process, whether in the nomination of the candidate or in running the campaign.

Left activists both inside and outside the Nader campaign identified a central weakness in the absence of any democratic process, whether in the nomination of the candidate or in running the campaign. A top-down organizing mode not only limited the campaign's mobilizing potential, but may well have contributed to the regrettable factional division inside the Greens. Yet if we're to do better in future electoral efforts, I would urgently suggest that the question of democracy can be seriously addressed only in combination with two other pressing problems.

The first lies in building a real base so that future campaigns are not socially weightless. The second is to understand that democracy in a movement coalition applies not only to how decisions are made but also to carrying them out; i.e. that there must be structured, mutual political accountability.

If we're to suggest that a Ralph Nader or some future candidate is to be "accountable" to the movement, this must go both ways: Organizations that participate in selecting the candidate and adopting the program must also agree to raise the money, carry out the ballot access campaigns, and build the rallies.

What kind of organizations are likely to accept such responsibilities? Most likely, those that have some kind of base, giving them the confidence that they can bring some forces to the struggle and deliver on their commitments. Organizations like-for example-the Labor Party and its sponsoring unions, or organizations with support inside the African American or Latino communities.

There are no shortcuts. The left will make its own credibility the old-fashioned way-by earning it. When you look at how little credibility we have now, the remarkable fact of the Nader campaign was not how little it accomplished, but how much.

Let's face it: Here was a "virtual campaign," with zero funding and a candidate who, to put it mildly, was reluctant to campaign vigorously. Yet Nader was the visible left option in this election-not only outpolling by an order of magnitude all the socialist campaigns combined, but enabling the Greens to expand their ballot access and, in Washington DC, even beating out the fake-populist billionaire Ross Perot.

It's quite true that the lack of fundraising was fatal to the campaign in a large state like California, which should have been a Nader stronghold. But the critical lesson to be drawn is an indictment not of Nader, but of capitalist politics in America.

It is no secret that Nader refused to engage in fundraising because of the government's eagerness to use any pretext to go after the network of tax-exempt consumer advocate and reform organizations which he has helped organize. This at a time when Newt Gingrich virtually bragged about siphoning tax-exempt contributions to finance the Republican takeover of Congress and the Clinton administration solicited money from super-wealthy friends of the Suharto dictatorship.

We in Solidarity believe the Nader campaign was able to make two exemplary contributions:

1. An example for the labor movement. A mass breakthrough for independent politics requires the backing of institutions with social power and resources-most fundamentally labor and the Black movement.

In the 1996 election, the AFL-CIO poured $35 million into the reelection of Clinton-who promised the labor leadership exactly what they asked him for, namely, nothing-and to defeating the 72 freshman House Republicans, fewer than 20 of whom actually lost.

The Nader campaign presents, albeit on a modest scale, a glimpse of an alternative that could offer a far better return on labor's political investment. It's an example that could also contribute to energizing the fledgling Labor Party, which presently is neither running nor endorsing candidates. (Tactically this abstention makes good sense given the LP's still-fragile organization, but it's important both inside and outside the party to make the argument that it must not become a hardened permanent policy.)

Not that the following scenario could have unfolded in 1996, but to indicate future possibilities, imagine just for a moment that the Nader campaign had the backing merely of those four International unions (OCAW, UE, ILWU, and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees) who presently sponsor the Labor Party.

. . .a society committed to environmental values will massively create jobs, not destroy them.

That kind of Nader campaign would have achieved ballot status in most states, forged a powerful alliance of Green politics with a wing of the unions, and thrown the AFL-CIO and the Democrats into a panic. It would certainly have quadrupled the Nader vote and, more importantly, broken the unchallenged bipartisan hegemony of pro-corporate assumptions in US politics.

2. An orientation for the social movements. When social movements enter into the electoral-political arena, it has the healthy potential to force them to confront the real needs and fears of ordinary people, i.e., the working class majority. This was true of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and is true of the Green movement today. Perhaps more than other issues of our time, the terrifying realities of environmental degradation and the cause of environmental justice have the potential to stimulate mass grassroots activism and revolutionary consciousness. From the local to the global levels, the health and physical survival of working class people and their children are at stake. Yet so are the jobs they depend upon for economic survival.

It is no secret to readers of this journal that a society committed to environmental values will massively create jobs, not destroy them. But bringing this understanding to the mass audience that can make our dreams come true requires, among other things, effective mass politics.

Nader and Socialism

Last but -- for us in Solidarity -- not least, the Nader campaign opened possibilities for education around some important issues of socialist politics. It's not that the campaign was socialist-which in my own opinion is just as well, since Nader doesn't have or claim to have clear socialist politics (in other words, he doesn't embrace a vision of democratic working class political supremacy), and I'd rather see a sharply focused populist campaign than a confused socialist one.

The point, rather, is that socialists (I mean here actual left-wing socialists, not pro-Democratic Party social democrats) recognize that American politics will remain stuck in the mud until working class people and the African American community forge their own independent politics, not to reform the Democratic and Republican parties but to destroy them.

We're entirely aware of the limited role of socialist propaganda, but we think it has a certain important role along with our movement-building activism. Indeed, the two are most effective in combination, which is why Solidarity's approach has always been to make the argument, whenever possible, through real-life independent politics.

In 1992, we enthusiastically supported the presidential campaign of Ron Daniels from the Campaign for a New Tomorrow. (Unlike Nader, Daniels was more than prepared to campaign with great energy; regrettably he had even less money to run on.) Back in 1988, we argued that Jesse Jackson should run as an independent instead of channeling and thereby dissipating the energy and political promise of the Rainbow Coalition inside the Democratic Party.

We undertook our (necessarily modest) pro-Nader activities with knowledge of the campaign's political shortcomings. Like many others on the left, we felt that Nader badly missed the boat in dismissing issues of abortion rights, affirmative action, immigrant-bashing, and lesbian/gay rights as marginal (or even worse, "gonadal").

But Nader was wrong, because the issues of abortion rights, the attacks on immigrants, gay-bashing, and racism are points of fundamental principle.

Even here, however, it's necessary to understand exactly why Nader was wrong. Some of his left critics have maintained that Nader's narrow approach to social issues cost him votes and support (e.g. in the gay/lesbian communities). But let's be clear: These are not the issues that will be central to putting together a mass movement opposing corporate power.

Indeed, if that were the only criterion, Nader would be correct in setting them aside in order to focus on downsizing, the collapse of political democracy, the massive decline of security in working people's lives-the core issues which Nader rightly recognizes as crucial in winning people away from the fascist-tinged politics of Patrick Buchanan.

But Nader was wrong, because the issues of abortion rights, the attacks on immigrants, gay-bashing, and racism are points of fundamental principle. A progressive independent politics must take clear stands on them, completely independent of whether they are vote-gaining, vote-losing, or vote-neutral, because what we've learned about homophobia applies to all of them: Silence Equals Death.

That's why we cannot compromise on these questions in the face of our enemies. But it's also why these life-and-death social struggles can win only if they are part of a political and economic agenda that can win over the majority-the agenda that Nader's campaign in its limited way began to articulate. The next few years are crucial to developing this potential.

For further information contact Solidarity at 7012 Michigan Avenue, Detroit MI 48210, (313) 841-0160. Email solidarity

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