Nader's Greens: How Not To Build A Third Party

3 November 2000

By Stentor Danielson

For a man claiming only three or four percent of the vote in most polls, Ralph Nader has been getting a lot of press lately. The race between the Democrats and Republicans is the closest it's been in recent memory, and those three or four percent could mean the difference between the White House and the unemployment office. Nader's importance grows even more in the state-by-state electoral college battle, where his high support in "battleground states" that Vice President Al Gore needs to win are raising fears among strategically-minded liberals that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

Nader, of course, does not expect to win, and his backers agree. His goal is instead five percent of the popular vote and the federal funds for the Green Party's 2004 campaign that come with it. He says he wants to build up a new progressive party to challenge the two big parties, both of which he sees as beholden to special interests. But shaking up the 2000 presidential campaign is not the way to go about it.

I make no secret of my dislike for Nader's Green Party (of which he is not even a registered member). On the contrary, I admire the efforts of Democrats like Bill Clinton, Gore, and Vice-Presidential nominee Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to bring the party toward the center on issues such as free trade. At the same time, I am not bitter at Nader for "stealing" Gore's votes in swing states. As liberal pundits have been frantically pointing out, the country's prosperity and the public's sympathy for Gore's stands on issues made this election his to lose. It was Gore's uninspiring campaigning and willingness to let Bush's spinmasters push the "liberal media" to overcompensate by probing Gore's weaknesses more than Bush's that is driving liberals to take a gamble on Nader.

These dissatisfied voters, disenchanted with the Democrats' ties to special interests and appeal to the center, are hoping that the Green Party will be a clean alternative. Given the excesses of the big two, it isn't unreasonable to wish for a viable third party. But the Green Party's attempt to build a third force in politics is bound to disappoint.

The biggest mistake the Greens have made is their decision to grab for the top spot without making sure their feet are firmly planted. In doing so, they have compromised their own standards of "grassroots democracy" and the environmentalist mantra of "think globally, act locally."

Getting a third party running is like building anything -- you start from the bottom. There is little point in angling for the presidency when there are no Greens in Congress and a mere 73 in local governments nationwide to lend legitimacy to the ticket. On my Pennsylvania absentee ballot, there were Greens listed for presidential, Congressional, and state executive positions. But the men running for state senator and representative were running unopposed.

Before people are willing to break the hold of the big two on a national scale, the Greens need to show them what the party can do for them. And the way to accomplish this is through putting Greens in local and state governments. This will build confidence in the movement much better than a run on the White House.

As this year's collapse of the Reform Party after the departure of H. Ross Perot demonstrated, support for a charismatic and headline-grabbing demagogue does not translate into continued backing of his party. And they even had a governorship of Minnesota to their name. I suspect the Greens get more support out of Nader's appearance of honesty and integrity than out of principled consideration of a platform that calls for, among other things, the abolition of the Senate and a 100 percent tax on income above ten times the minimum wage.

Nader's five percent will not help build this base of support. They will only finance another run by Nader in 2004. This will reinforce the idea in the public's mind that the Greens are a one-man party, not a force for change that they can see improving their communities. With protest votes instead of basic agreement with the party's principles, the Greens will lack the kind of solid base they need to resist more appealing major-party candidates (think John McCain vs Lieberman in 2008).

The challenge for the Greens is to maintain interest between November 8 and the 2004 primaries. Concentrating their efforts on an attention-grabbing presidential run will not do much for them when this election is history. The meat of their philosophy, not just the undesirability of the alternative, needs to be foremost.

Another problem with building a Green Party challenge is their place on the political spectrum. They have sold themselves as being what hard-core liberals wish the Democratic Party was. The problem is, the Democrats have all of the signature liberal issues tied up. All the Greens can do is say "we're for that too, only more so." The Greens want a higehr minimum wage. So do the Democrats. The Greens want strict environmental laws. The Democrats are willing to compromise to get a little rather thain failing to get a lot. The Greens want universal health care. The Democrats, having failed at the beginning of Clinton's term, would get there by steps. The Greens oppose the death penalty. Gore will denounce it just as soon as opinion polls show a majority of Americans agree.

What the Green Party offers is not so much a third political philosophy that could find a three-way balance with the Republicans and Democrats, but a division of the Left into extreme liberals and moderate liberals. Nader's patently false assertions that the two major parties are actually one indistinguishable "Republicrat" political machine only obscures this reality. To find a real third alternative our best option is the Libertarian Party. But their candidate, Harry Browne, is getting less than a percent in those polls who even condescend to include him in their questions. And it's not so hard to see why, with center-alienating and unworkable proposals like abolishing the income tax so that parents can afford to send their children to private school. But at least the Libertarians are not an extreme version of one of the big parties.

I don't mean this as a condemnation of the Green movement. But the party needs to change its message. It needs to bill itself as a real third alternative, something that can appeal to the large center without "me-too"-ing the message of the Democrats. The realities of running a national political organisation mean that claiming to stay clean of monetary influence will not be enough.

Nader's candidacy is certainly getting attention in the media. But most of it comes in the form of an outsider crashing the party, be it protesting the 15 percent debate threshold or threatening to tip the Northwest to Bush. His time would be better spent using the recognition and respect he commands to work at a local level, building a solid foundation for his White House.

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