Nader, Greens and Socialists

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Howie Hawkins

BLAMING RALPH NADER for Bush is like blaming the abolitionists for slavery. The Greens ran Nader to end corporate oligarchy, not to support one wing of the oligarchy as a lesser evil against the other wing. Nevertheless, the Democrats, their liberal satellite organizations, and the corporate media are playing the blame game for all it is worth.

Never mind that the Democrats let the Florida Republicans steal the election by reducing the Democratic vote through suppression of the Black vote and then discouraged popular protest and Justice Department intervention under the Voting Rights Act against these violations of civil rights. Never mind that they could not even get their own Democrats in Dade County to do the hand recount.

Nader and the Greens must be blamed in order to be destroyed. The Greens threaten to upset the Democrats’ ability to take the progressive vote for granted when they swing right to win more conservative votes. And the Greens threaten to upset corporate rule itself by challenging the two-party system that keeps the left voiceless and the corporate establishment insulated from direct attack.

Greens can expect the liberals’ attacks to continue. Greens will need to be very clear that they are politically independent because their program is plainly different from the Democrats as well as Republicans. Independent political action — on a program of peace, justice, and ecological balance, all of which presuppose a radical democratization of society — is as fundamentally opposed to the Democrats’ ameliorative reforms within the system of corporate rule as it is to the Republicans’ more repressive strategy for maintaining the system.

With the Democrats running their most conservative candidates and platform since the 1920s, the Nader campaign had hoped to win over large numbers of progressive Democratic voters, as well as clean government voters who had previously voted for Perot, Bradley, or McCain. This scenario was not out of the question. An April poll found that nearly 20% — about 20 million people — would “potentially” vote for Nader.

It was not to be. The Bush/Gore race was close. What little corporate media coverage Nader did get framed him editorially as a marginal candidate who was only worth attention because he might “spoil” Gore’s election. Institutionalized liberalism in the labor, civil rights, women’s, gay, environmental, and peace organizations spent over $6 million on an anti-Nader ad blitz in the final few weeks.

Hence the majority of voters with progressive values who had considered Nader went back to Gore as the lesser evil. Nader’s vote fell short of the highly publicized goal of five percent, which would have given public funding to the Green Party for its 2004 presidential convention and campaign.

Nevertheless, the Nader/LaDuke campaign was a striking success in raising the public profile of the Green Party and its platform, expanding the number of people who have now committed time and money to the Green Party movement, and contributing to building the Green Party as an independent progressive alternative to corporate politics.

In all 2.9 million people voted for Nader/LaDuke; 463,000 people signed petitions to put Nader on the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia; 150,000 people volunteered for the campaign and their contact information was referred to state and local Green Party organizations.

75,000 individual contributors raised nearly $8 million for the campaign. Over 100 campaign staff were hired. Operating out of two DC offices and nineteen other field offices, they helped 500 new local Green groups and 900 campus Green groups organize. About 75% of the American people live in the twenty-one states and DC where the Greens now have a ballot-qualified party, up from ten ballot-qualified state Green parties before the campaign.

Another encouraging fact is that Ralph Nader, the left-wing populist, received well over six times more votes than the right-wing populist, Patrick Buchanan. A potential base of somewhere between 3% and 20% of the electorate to work with looks pretty good to an independent left in the United States that has been isolated and marginal for generations. But liberal leaders and the corporate media are going to considerable efforts to pronounce Nader’s showing as “dismal.”

The first post-election task for the Greens must be to organize the 150,000 Nader volunteers into local Green Party organizations. Beyond that volunteer core, the Greens should reach out to the three million Nader voters and then the 20 million who thought about a Nader vote.

The convenient assumption of the media and the liberals is that the Greens and the liberal Democrats disagree only on strategy, not on program. Nader himself unfortunately contributed to this perception. While always making clear his wide policy differences with Gore, he tried to reassure liberal Democrats that his presidential race would strengthen their wing of the Democratic Party, with the “positive side-effect” of a spillover of Nader voters down the ticket to help the Democrats regain control of Congress.

He also frequently suggested that the Democratic Party would “shrink down if it did not shape up” and return to its “historical roots as a party of working families,” as if the Democrats’ domination by the corporate rich was only a recent development.

These comments were situational, responding to constant media questions about whether “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.” The main thrust of Nader’s message, and certainly the logic of his campaign (against both corporate parties, refusing corporate money, the pro-democracy platform), was to build the Green Party as an independent alternative to both corporate parties.

Yet while Nader’s reassuring comments to liberal Democrats were really secondary to this central message, they obscured that message — that the anti-corporate, pro-democracy program requires an independent political movement.

Nader also blurred the distinctions between corporate liberalism and independent radicalism by trying to portray the Democrats and Republicans as virtually identical conservative parties. This message was not effective because it did not square with the realities that people perceive.

It is true that the major parties are very close on most questions of class and corporate power. But they do differ clearly on a number of important issues, such as abortion, school vouchers and gay rights. In fact, the ideological distinctions between Democrats and Republicans have become sharper over the last 40 years, during which the Dixiecrats in the south have converted to the Republican Party (while liberal Republicans in the north have switched to the Democrats).(1)

In presenting the choice as between the liberal-left Greens and the conservative DemRep clones, the Nader campaign did not effectively address progressive voters’ very real concerns about Republican reaction. The real choice is among three options: the corporate conservatism of the Republicans, the corporate liberalism of the Democrats, and the Green independent populism.

The case Greens have to make is that progressives cannot rely on the Soft Right Democrats to fight the Hard Right Republicans, and that Green populism is more effective than Democratic liberalism in advancing progressive policies. As liberals call for a united front inside the Democratic Party against the Republican right in 2002 and 2004 as the only realistic alternative to Republican reaction, the Greens must figure out how to win the progressives over to independent politics as the best way to advance their progressive values.

To accomplish this, the Greens first need more clarity among themselves. While few Greens still see the Democrats as reliable allies against the right, there are Green “realists” who (even less realistically than their “realo” counterparts in the German Greens) believe the future of the Greens is not as a radical party on the left but as a “radical middle” reform party that cuts across the old ideological divides under the slogan of “neither left nor right but in front.”

Based among disillusioned liberal Democrats who have come into the Greens, particularly former Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown supporters, these self-styled “realists” want to remold the Green Party as a “serious” party for reform by shedding its more radical and controversial demands, those that attack class privilege rooted in concentrated private ownership of productive social assets.

But of course, this realist approach does not transcend left and right because it is biased toward the privileged, i.e. the right. The “radical middle” turns out to be a mainstream middle-class constituency that sometimes gets peeved and swings right or left to vote against incumbents.

Yet the potential growth of the Greens lies with social groups who are chronically exploited, oppressed, and marginalized by corporate rule, not with a fickle “radical middle” that is more likely to vote for good-government challengers like Perot, Ventura, McCain or Bradley than an anti-corporate populist like Nader.

Nader did try to appeal across the political spectrum, making many statements aimed at good government centrists and at cultural conservatives upset with the moral corruption of rampant commercialism. But it didn’t win him many votes: Nader got most of his votes for his progressive policy positions.

Unlike 1996 when Nader focused narrowly on corporate power, in 2000 Nader took progressive positions on the whole range of social issues, with a strong emphasis on redressing class and race inequalities. Exit polling by the Voter News Service (VNS) showed Nader’s populist-and-class appeal did win him more votes in the lower income brackets (5% for under $15,000, 3% for $15,000-$50,000, 2% for $50,000-$100,000, 3% for $100,000+. This despite the fact that Nader’s name recognition is certainly lower among less affluent groups.)(2)

Had Nader remained silent on the progressive policy positions, he would have lost his Green base without winning many “radical middle” voters. Fear of George Bush, not Nader’s crusade against class privilege and corporate power or his support for hemp legalization and gay marriage, is what moved most progressive voters back to Gore as the lesser evil in a tight election.

No Shortcuts

The sober lesson Greens should draw from the Nader 2000 campaign is that there is no shortcut to a sizeable, let alone majoritarian, independent party on the left. The base for independent politics will have to be built person by person, locality by locality. The most important short-term legacy of the Nader campaign is that it identified people who can be organized. Whether there will be a long-term legacy depends largely on whether this organizing is done.

There are millions of voters who share progressive programmatic values with the Greens, but have a liberal orientation to social change. They do not see the Democrats and Republicans as representing the same corporate rulers, but rather still view the Democrats’ rhetorical support for the common people as sincere, and supporting these Democrats as practical and realistic, though far from perfect.

The Greens will have to patiently expand their base and climb the ladder of electoral support step by step by converting these soft supporters into hard core supporters who understand that independent politics is more effective than lesser-evil corporate politics in advancing progressive demands. The Greens will have to be willing to repeatedly “spoil” elections for Democrats in order to force the question of proportional representation on to the public agenda.

Greens are already participating in the Pro-Democracy Campaign launched by the Independent Progressive Politics Network for proportional representation, direct election of the president by instant runoff voting, public campaign financing, strengthened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and other reforms.

The time for mobilization is right. Grassroots progressives have been abandoned by institutionalized liberalism in social movements. Focused on lobbying and access to the Democratic administration, organized liberalism kept its base demobilized while Clinton and Gore carried the conservative-cultural and corporate-economic agendas further than Reagan and Bush had been able to do.

Only when it became clear that Nader was consistently polling 4-6% in the presidential race did the liberal elite mobilize its base — to attack the independent left. The Nader campaign and an independent Green Party threatened the institutional liberals’ rewards for playing the elite-brokerage role between the power structure and progressive movements.

Green participation and leadership in issue-based mobilizations to get these movements moving again independently of the Democratic Party and its liberal satellites can help bring grassroots progressives into the Green Party, particularly in African American and other communities of color where the Greens’ base has been particularly thin.

Joint work on issues can build relationships and trust as a basis for serious political discussion and education, which will need to expose the myth of Democratic progressivism by hammering on the real anti-egalitarian, repressive, and militarist Democratic record.

Organizing and political education is where socialists in the Greens need more socialists to join them inside the Green Party movement. Coming out of this Nader campaign is a broad stream of progressive activists oriented to the Green Party movement as the political alternative to reform Democratic politics. Socialists should be in the middle of this movement, not lecturing at it from the outside about its shortcomings.

Green Party Organization

How to participate in the Green Party movement has always been a question in the United States, where Greens have been fighting over their organizational form for years. The original organization, The Greens/Green Party USA (GPUSA), structured around party activists who are dues-paying members with voting rights, has about 2000 members organized into fifty local and nineteen state affiliates.

GPUSA has argued that a party based on party activists is more democratic because the activists, who are most directly affected by the decisions because they carry them out, have the vote on those decisions. GPUSA has also argued that a party of dues-paying members will be more principled because membership is limited to those who agree with its principles and support it with time and money, giving it internal self-financing that secures its political independence.

The Association of State Green Parties (ASGP), which formed out of Nader’s 1996 campaign, is structured around party voters. While the formal voting members of the ASGP are its 30 affiliated state Green parties, these state Green parties are expected to conform to state election laws that allow anyone, no matter what their politics or commitment to the Green party, who choose to vote in party primaries and caucuses to elect party committee members and to nominate Green candidates for public office.

Rather than membership parties based on party activists, ASGP leaders have argued in order to have ballot access state Green parties should conform to the structures dictated by state election laws. Some ASGP leaders have argued further that U.S. state election laws create more democratic structures because they are more inclusive than “self-selected” membership parties with “poll taxes” (i.e. dues).

GPUSA has countered that U.S. parties as state election laws structure them are inevitably oligarchic. Rank and file party voters have no local organization they can join to have ongoing participation and votes in party affairs. They can only vote in infrequent primaries or caucuses for party committee members and party nominees for public office.

In practice, most party voters have no idea who is representing them on the statutory party committees. The real power in U.S. political parties flows as money from the corporate oligarchy to a party oligarchy. The party oligarchy is mainly based in well-funded candidates’ committees that are actually independent of the party committees — although, in the last decade, the national committees have strengthened the major parties organizationally as never before, using soft money contributions that are then transferred to state and county committees so long as they toe the party line.

A proposal to reconcile the two Green organizations was agreed to by negotiating committees from each organization in Boston in early October, just before the first presidential debate there.

The “Boston Proposal” would support ballot access now and a Green membership organization by having two parallel organizations: a statutory Green Party and a federation of Green political clubs. ASPG would dissolve and a new national Green Party would be created by the state parties, which in turn would conform to state election laws in order to have ballot access.

GPUSA would drop “party” from its name and continue with another name, perhaps Greens USA. It would be an independent membership organization for Green Party activists structured as a national federation of Green political clubs. ASGP affirmed the proposal in December and GPUSA will consider it in the new year.

By affirming the proposal, GPUSA, now as Greens USA, would probably have a strong influence in the statutory Green Party. It already has the most well-organized membership and most stable funding of the national Green organizations. Its affiliated political clubs could run their members for the statutory Green Party committees and for nominations as Green Party candidates.

Were it to reject the proposal, GPUSA would probably isolate itself in the Green Party movement because the base overwhelmingly wants an early resolution to the organizational rivalry. They want to quickly put to rest the media and public perceptions of the Greens as a hopelessly fractious movement, as another Reform Party meltdown waiting to happen.

Green Program

While these structural issues have received the most attention in the disputes between ASGP and GPUSA, programmatic differences precipitated the original split by ASGP leaders for whom GPUSA’s program was too socialistic with its call for conversion of the largest banks and corporations to democratic social ownership.

The ASGP platform is vague on this question. It calls for a “mixed economy.” It does affirm cooperative and public enterprise as positive forms. But it does not call for restructuring of the corporate core of the economy.(3)

The debate and divisions are real. On one side are the progressive populists, whose vision is akin to “market socialists” in advocating democratic firms in a market economy. On the other side are the ecological socialists, who envision “economic democracy” with democratic planning as well as ownership.

Both sides agree on most immediate demands like fairer labor laws and trade agreements, universal health care, military spending cuts, and policies to promote ecologically sustainable energy, industry and agriculture. But the progressive populists generally emphasize the need to be “realistic” in order to win more votes and influence, while the more radical Left Greens believe the base of the Greens must be built by addressing the concerns of the nonvoters concentrated in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution to give them a reason to participate. The Left Greens also believe that the problems of economic injustice, ecological destruction, and militarism cannot be resolved within the framework of capitalism.

Nader’s Third Force in Green Politics

Remaining aloof from the organizational and ideological struggles within the Green Party movement, Nader and his organization constitute a third force in Green politics. Nader remains a registered independent, saying he wants to stay out of Green factional struggles and work with the Greens on issues to help them “focus out instead of in.”

He is keeping some of his core campaign staff on to develop several projects to support Green organizing. He wants help the Greens to recruit good candidates and to link with other citizens organizations in issue-based campaigns. He wants to develop a People’s Debate Commission to displace the bipartisan Presidential Debates Commission and open future presidential debates to third party candidates.

Most ambitiously, he wants to support congressional district organizers to monitor representatives and leverage the Green vote as an independent influence on Congress. Although he has refused to take sides, he has expressed his hope that the Boston Proposal is adopted by both groups. And Nader is keeping open the option of another run in 2004.

Nader avoids political labels, saying he prefers to look at issues “empirically.” He believes the Greens’ values are majoritarian values that can reach across the political spectrum. He will make alliances with conservatives on single issues, for example, with economic nationalists against pro-corporate trade pacts and with cultural conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly against Channel One’s commercial marketing to captive audiences of public school children.

When pressed, however, Nader affirms the labels “progressive” and “populist.” [The complexities of Nader’s relationship to the competing and overlapping traditions of populism, progressivism and socialism are discussed in Walt Sheasby’s three-part essay on “Ralph Nader and the Legacy of Revolt” in ATC 88-90 –ed.]

The radicalism in Nader’s politics is rooted in his commitment to popular organization in independent consumer unions, labor unions, citizen organizations, and now a political party. His stump speeches usually included a statement that he and the Greens did not have all the answers, that “democracy is the great problem solver,” and that the most important thing to do is to enable ordinary people to band together as consumers, workers, taxpayers and citizens to act on their own behalf.

Nader has attended several ASGP national meetings and never a GPUSA national meeting, but he defended GPUSA to a post-election meeting of ASGP leaders, saying, “Thank God for those hard-liners . . . There’s a solidity there . . . When it comes to issues of corporate power, they won’t budge.”

Nader seems to be genuinely in the middle of the Green political spectrum — not anti-capitalist like many in GPUSA, but also less compromising on issues and more clearly committed to political class independence than many of the ex-Democrats in the ASGP leadership. While some ASGP leaders proposed accepting funds from “good” corporations for the nominating convention (a proposal quickly shot down by ASGP’s state party affiliates), Nader was clear that accepting any corporate funding would compromise the Greens’ political independence.

Nader withstood not only the publicly visible pressure from institutionalized liberalism, but also behind-the-scenes pressure from highest levels of the Gore campaign and Democratic Party, who offered to support funding for Nader projects if he threw support to Gore and threatened to isolate Nader and destroy his funding base if he did not.

Nader did not bend to this pressure. Instead, he redoubled his calls for building the Green Party as a permanent independent alternative to corporate politics. Ralph Nader loves a good fight. Liberal leaders may live to regret choosing him as their enemy. A well-organized Green Party would be the permanent legacy of Nader’s presidential campaigns, and he seems committed to helping that happen.

From Populism to Socialism?

There are ongoing discussions in the Green movement in which socialist perspectives are highly relevant but in which too few socialists are making their views known.

Most U.S. Greens have come into the Green Party from environmental, economic justice, women’s, and peace movements as activists disgusted by the Democrats’ repeated failures to deliver on their concerns. Most do not bring with them a full-blown analysis of capitalism, a class analysis of U.S. politics and parties, or familiarity with the history of socialist movements. Some do, but others bring with them the red-baiting “realism” that pervades organized liberalism in U.S. politics.

Most are more comfortable with a populist framework that puts more emphasis on widespread private ownership rather than social ownership of productive assets, and on regulation to create fair markets rather than democratic planning of production and distribution. Some say they are socialists in the long run but see populist demands as transitional demands that can mobilize people to learn they have to go beyond reforming capitalism.

Green programmatic goals cannot be reconciled with a capitalist economy. The goal of an ecological steady-state between society and nature cannot be reconciled with capitalism’s insatiable structural compulsion to grow. The goal of distributive economic justice cannot be reconciled with the ever-growing polarization of income and wealth under capitalism.

The goal of peace cannot be reconciled with capitalism’s competitive struggle for markets, resources and cheap labor, especially with the dangerous proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the post Cold War world.

As long as Greens hold to their goals they will confront capitalism’s structural barriers to their realization. That self-styled realists in Green parties downplay or oppose anti-capitalist demands should not be surprising or cause for disillusionment. The Green movement’s anti-corporate class independence and programmatic goals make it implicitly receptive to socialist ideas.

Much depends on the strength of extra-electoral movements. When they are strong, they drive the party to the left. When the movements are weak, the politicians try to be electable by adapting their platforms to more conservative times. A lot also depends on the left-wing of the movement, to win the credibility that makes it worth listening to for the rank and file as a reliable ally in fights over immediate issues, and to present its ideas effectively in ways that are interesting and understandable to the typical activist.


  1. In this sense the old realignment strategy of Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin [liberal-democratic socialists who argued from the 1960s for left and labor involvement in the Democratic Party –ed.] has largely played itself out. But the Democrats have become more than ever the party of corporate liberalism, not the social democratic party fighting for workers and the poor that they had projected.
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  2. The impact of Nader’s anti-racist appeals is unclear. The VNS exit poll showed that Nader support was 3% support among Whites, Asians, and Hispanics, 4% among Others, but only 1% among Blacks. However, other data showed Nader’s support stronger among Blacks than Whites and highest of all among Latinos and Asians. In any case, Nader’s central anti-corporate, pro-democracy message is clearly on the left, not in some “radical middle” that supposedly transcends left and right.
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  3. The ASGP platform was adopted at the Green Party convention in Denver in June that formally nominated Nader and LaDuke, but this question was not debated. As one reporter covering the Denver convention put it, “Perhaps the [platform chair’s] most significant success, however, was organizing things in such a way that when the delegates came to Denver to debate the platform, there was little they could do to change what was presented to them.” However, judging from the enthusiastic response of the delegates to the more anti-capitalist statements of convention speakers like Manning Marable and Joel Kovel, it is likely that ASGP’s plank on the economy would not have been adopted in its present form had there been a real debate and opportunity for amendments.
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ATC 91, March-April 2001