Ralph Nader has embarked on another race for president with the Green Party. But despite his national reputation after more than 40 years as a citizen advocate, the announcement of Nader's candidacy in Washington, D.C., on February 21 got little media notice. The Associated Press sent out 400 words, but if it made your local paper at all it was likely boiled down to only a paragraph or two. It got 320 words and a photo in the New York Times -- which is pretty good for them -- a 140-word brief in the Los Angeles Times and Nader was ignored in the Washington Post and on Time Warner's CNN/All Politics web site.
The short shrift given Nader by the corporate media comes as no particular surprise, given his trenchant criticism of corporatized politics in America. The corporate media plainly have little interest in publicizing his cause. The two major parties already have agreed not to allow "minor candidates" at their debates this fall. Nader and his supporters will have to find other ways to carry on the conversation with the American people that started in Seattle November 30.
Nader is under no illusion that the campaign will be easy. In 1996, he stood for election as a Green, refused to spend more than $5,000 and frustrated attempts by Green activists to expand the campaign. Still, they got him on the ballot in 22 states and Nader drew 700,000 votes. That was less than 1 percent of the total, but he finished fourth nationally, behind Ross Perot. This year Nader hopes to raise $5 million, with virtually all of it to be spent on grassroots organizing. He plans to spend at least 100 days on the road. His goal is to get on the ballot in at least 45 states and draw at least 5 percent of the vote total. That would qualify the Greens for ballot status in succeeding elections and matching federal funds in the 2004 presidential election. More importantly, it will help build a progressive movement. And who knows? The election of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota has made all things possible.
Democrats are concerned that Nader might draw progressive voters away from their nominee, but the fact is that less than half of the eligible voters cast a ballot in 1996. Most of the people who stayed away were at the lower income levels and saw no major difference between the two major political parties. They didn't see Democrats working hard to protect working-class jobs, or to make sure working people got a living wage, or health coverage, or otherwise take care of their needs. There is no reason to believe that either Al Gore or Bill Bradley would draw many of those discouraged voters back to the polls this fall. Neither of them dare to buck Wall Street, particularly on "free trade" or economic democracy issues.
Nader might bring some of those discouraged voters back. His "blue-green agenda" raises the fundamental issues: restoring democracy, controlling corporate power, upholding health, environmental and labor standards and closing the wealth gap in this country. He provides a populist alternative for progressive voters who are unmoved by the corporate centrism of Gore and Bradley. But Nader also provides a progressive alternative to the right-wing populism of Pat Buchanan, who is on course toward the nomination of the Reform Party. Nader seeks to maintain the progressive labor/environmental/human rights/sustainable farm coalition that forced the World Trade Organization to a standstill last December in Seattle.
Nader's candidacy also could help the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives, where a switch of six seats would put Democrats in the majority. The AFL-CIO, which shares many of Nader's concerns, particularly on trade issues, has endorsed Gore and earmarked $40 million to spend on 71 priority House races. Most of organized labor's leaders will try to undercut Nader, but progressive populists who are drawn to the polls by Nader likely will vote Democratic for congressional and other downballot races.
Nader also could help the Democrats in their longshot hopes to win back the Senate, where the Republicans currently hold a 10-seat majority and a switch of five or six seats would make Tom Daschle the new majority leader and put Trent Lott and Jesse Helms on the back bench, where they belong. The R's are defending 19 seats while the D's defend 14, but four incumbent Democrats are retiring in Nebraska, Nevada, New York and New Jersey, and Chuck Robb expects a tough re-election fight in Virginia. Only one Republican, Connie Mack of Florida, is stepping down but at least nine incumbent Republican senators are seen as vulnerable, in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island.
This election also will be critical because state legislatures will draw new districts next year with new census data. It is estimated that 10 seats will migrate from the Midwest and Northeast to the South and West due to population shifts. Democrats will need every progressive vote they can get.
Nader will not be the unanimous choice of the Greens. He alienated some Greens in 1996 when, baited by New York Times columnist William Safire about gay rights, Nader declared he would not discuss "gonadal politics." This past summer Nader defended that position, saying he wanted to keep press coverage on his basic message. "I don't want focuses on structural abuses to be blurred by having an opinion on everything. You allow the press to destroy your message that way," he said. "... Anyone who knows my work for 40 years knows I don't turn my back on underdogs or the repressed."
Nader faces Joel Kovel, a psychiatrist, college professor and longtime Green activist (www.greens.org/ny/kovel), in the March 7 California "open primary" ballot. Both are also on the March 7 New York ballot, along with Stephen Gaskin (www.stephen2000.org), a self-described hippie from Summertown, Tenn., and Jello Biafra, former singer with the Dead Kennedys who appears to have been largely drafted by anarchists (www.greens.org/jellobiafra).
Kovel, a Marxist, recently wrote an essay, "Beyond Populism" (available at prorev.com/greenpages.htm), in which he calls for the Greens to reject populism in favor of "eco-socialism." He criticizes populism as a movement built on resentment and anger against abusive power and wrote that the effort to make corporations accountable to the people does not address the problems with the capitalistic system.
In his announcement speech (available at www.votenader.org), Nader said, "The new populism, which the Green Party represents, involves motivated, informed voters who comprehend that 'freedom is participation in power,' to quote the ancient Roman orator, Cicero. When citizen participation flourishes, as this campaign will encourage it to do, human values can tame runaway commercial imperatives. The myopia of the short-term bottom line so often debases our democratic processes and our public and private domains. Putting human values first helps to make business responsible and to put government on the right track.
So if Kovel represents the Marxist (or, as Progressive Review editor Sam Smith calls it, the Marxist-Lentilist) wing of the Green movement, and Nader represents the populist wing that believes capitalism can be controlled, Gaskin represents the hippie wing and Biafra, whose real name is Eric Boucher, appeals to the anarchist vote -- that is to say, a vote against the system. But if the party is to outgrow its image of flakes and tree-huggers who care more about plants and bugs than people (no matter how ill-founded that perception may be), Nader's nomination to run an aggressive campaign would be a good first step toward taking green principles to the people.
The Green Party has 73 elected officials in 19 states as of January. All are at the local level. The only legislator elected as a Green, Audie Bock of Alameda County, California, quit the party last year to run for re-election as an independent after she was criticized for accepting corporate donations. At least 39 Green candidates are running in 12 states this year. For more information see www.greens.org or www.gp.org or call the Greens resource center, 312-922-6210. -- JMC