Building on Nader’s 2008 Challenge — New Party Needed

1964

On February 24, Ralph Nader declared he would again launch an independent, anti-corporate challenge to the two big business parties in the presidential elections. Four days later, Matt Gonzalez, a prominent Green leader and former head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, signed on as Nader’s vice-presidential running mate. Socialist Alternative welcomes Nader’s decision to stand and we are calling for a Nader vote in 2008.

On the same day that Nader announced Gonzalez as his running mate, he also made clear he would not be seeking the Green Party’s nomination. Nader’s decision to run an independent campaign reflects the deepening divisions in the Green Party and the undemocratic maneuvers of right-wing forces within the Green leadership to block Nader from receiving their nomination. Unfortunately, it also raises the potential of a divided left challenge in the presidential elections next fall if the Greens nominate Cynthia McKinney as their candidate.

Nader was the Green Party’s candidate in 2000 and received nearly three million votes, making history as the most significant left challenge for the White House in over 50 years. Many apologists for the Democrats tried to place blame on Nader for Gore’s loss to Bush in 2000, saying Nader “spoiled” the election. The Democrats have used Nader as a scapegoat to cover up for their failure to challenge the massive, well-documented voter fraud Bush engineered in Florida and elsewhere to successfully steal the 2000 election. Their ferocious attacks on Nader were also meant to discourage other independent, left-wing, anti-corporate challenges to the two party duopoly.

Under pressure from the Democratic Party, in 2004 the Green Party leadership argued against Nader running again, seeking to avoid a clash with “progressive” Democrats. Bending under the “lesser-evil” pressures in 2004, the right wing of the Greens argued that progressives should help the pro-war, pro-corporate John Kerry defeat Bush. The Greens were divided down the middle over this strategy, and many on the left rallied behind Nader, who refused to go along with the Green leadership’s de facto electoral alliance with the Democrats.

At their 2004 convention, the right-wing grouping in the Green Party maneuvered against the pro-Nader left wing to block a Green endorsement of Nader. Instead, the Greens ran a no-name candidate, David Cobb, who by design represented no threat to Democrats. Many Greens nevertheless backed Nader against their party’s official nominee. Whereas in 2000 the Greens grew out of their campaign for Nader, in 2004 the Greens shrank dramatically. Many became demoralized and dropped away because of the lesser-evil politics and undemocratic approach of the right-wing Greens who took control of the national party.

The political divisions that erupted in the Green Party in 2004 represented fundamentally different visions of what kind of party is needed to confront the organized power of big business in this country. The right-wing “Demo-Greens,” as they have been labeled, want to work alongside “progressive Democrats” to gradually shift U.S. politics to the left, and to align with Democrats in joint efforts to defeat the Republicans. In reality, throughout U.S. history this strategy has repeatedly failed to transform the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, but instead has led to the co-optation and demoralization of the various social movements and political opposition currents who have adopted this approach.

Cynthia McKinney
Cynthia McKinney, the former congresswoman from Atlanta who was pushed out by the Democratic Party’s right-wing leaders, is now the front-runner for the Green nomination in 2008. This poses a serious danger of a divided left vote in 2008. There are no substantial political differences between Nader and McKinney that could justify competing campaigns, especially given the uphill battle each campaign will face to overcome undemocratic ballot access obstacles in all 50 states.

Socialist Alternative welcomed McKinney’s break from the Democrats and her decision to run an insurgent, left-wing campaign against the two parties of big business. In order to avoid the problem of two divided left campaigns, we had called for a united campaign with Nader as the Presidential candidate and McKinney as the Vice Presidential candidate. A joint ticket could have brought together much of the Green Party behind their campaign and attracted support from beyond the Green Party as well.

Especially given the understandable excitement at the prospect of Obama becoming the first black president, adding McKinney to the Nader ticket could have helped win the ear of many African Americans who are rightly suspicious of Obama’s ties to big business and the Democratic Party establishment, which has done nothing to confront the continued, deep structural racism in U.S. society.

However, it’s clear that in discussions McKinney rejected the role of becoming Nader’s vice-presidential running mate. Unfortunately, Nader failed to make any public appeals for McKinney to join him, which would have at least demonstrated an attempt to avoid a divided left vote in 2008. When asked why he wasn’t running on the Green ticket, Nader replied: “Cynthia McKinney is running, and I think it would be wonderful for the Green Party to have an African American woman. She was elected numerous times to the House of Representatives, and I think we need several progressive initiatives in this country… the Greens have their way of doing things, and we have our way of doing things.”

On the one hand, such statements reflect a diplomatic desire to avoid a collision with McKinney and her supporters, most of whom are moving to the left in opposition to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it is important for Nader to clearly warn of the dangers of dividing the left vote in 2008, which will weaken the challenge to corporate political domination.

“Demo-Greens”
Unlike Cobb in 2004, McKinney has not put forward the failed lesser-evil strategy of helping the Democrats defeat the Republicans by not competing in swing states. Nonetheless, many of Cobb’s former supporters on the right wing of the Green Party are now backing McKinney. This is because McKinney has far lower name recognition and, unlike Nader, her campaign has failed to break through the corporate media blackout of left voices.

Unfortunately, McKinney’s break with the Democrats and her left-wing challenge for the White House remains unknown to most workers and youth. On the other hand, a recent Zogby poll has Nader polling five or six percent in a race between McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Among voters under 30 and among independents, Nader polls between 12 and 15 percent (www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1467).

Of course, as in 2000 and 2004 Nader’s actual vote in November is likely to be pushed down. It’s not ruled out that under the impact of a close race, with workers fearing a deep economic recession under Republican rule combined with illusions in Obama and well-funded Democratic Party attacks on Nader’s ballot access efforts, Nader’s vote could even be squeezed below his 2004 level.

However, given the thoroughly undemocratic character of the U.S. electoral system, the final size of a Nader vote should not be our main concern. We are far more interested in the debate and discussion his campaign is able to stir up in U.S. society about the need to break from the big business Democratic Party, which has already been significant. Nader’s campaign allows us to gather together those who have clearly broken from corporate politics and prepare for the inevitable disappointments of wider layers if the Democrats are elected.

The “Demo-Greens” correctly understand that a McKinney campaign would reach far fewer people and therefore represent far less of a threat to the Democrats in 2008 than a Nader campaign, and so they have cynically used her campaign to block Nader from getting the Green endorsement.

While we will continue to appeal for the Greens to give their endorsement to Nader to ensure the strongest possible united campaign, it unfortunately appears that the Greens are most likely going to go ahead and run a competing presidential campaign. If the Green Party’s July convention regrettably takes such a step and if there are states where Nader is not on the ballot but McKinney is, we will call for a McKinney vote as the best way to demonstrate opposition to the two big business parties.

Greens for Nader
As in 2004, there is a substantial left wing of the Green Party that has aligned behind Nader and has tried to win Green Party support for his campaign. In December, several prominent Greens launched a “Draft Nader” campaign, which received over 4200 signatures on their online petition. Nader received majority support where the left Greens managed to get his name on Green primary ballots (Nader won 17,000 votes or 61 percent in California, which alone accounts for a majority of Green primary voters nationally). Many Greens have correctly argued that, rather than making the serious mistake of dividing the left vote, the Green Party should unite behind the Nader campaign and put him on their 21 ballot lines.

However, the right-wing Greens who control the national party and many state parties fought successfully to keep Nader’s name off most primary ballots. Worse still, they succeeded in maintaining an undemocratic delegate apportionment system to their national nominating convention to be held in Chicago in July, giving disproportionate influence to very small, more conservative state Green parties. As a result of these and many other undemocratic maneuvers (see draftnader.org), many leading left Greens have concluded that, despite majority support for Nader in the membership, little chance remained for Nader to get the endorsement at the Green nominating convention.

This is the background to Nader’s decision to avoid seeking the Green nomination or endorsement. It is also the reason many left Greens, like in 2004, plan to break ranks with their party in 2008, leaving the internal struggle behind in order to focus on building the strongest possible campaign behind Nader. It seems clear that the more right-wing tendencies in the Green Party – those aiming to avoid a sustained confrontation with the corporate Democrats and their liberal apologists – have further consolidated their position in the national leadership. Many Greens are now openly questioning if the party can be democratized or built into a force capable of consistently challenging the two corporate parties’ domination of U.S. politics.

However, it is a political mistake for Nader and left-wing Greens to give up arguing for the Greens to endorse Nader for president in 2008. A left challenge for president will be weakened if it is split into two different campaigns. Instead, left-wing Greens should campaign for the Green Party to endorse Nader for president. Even if in the end the Greens refuse to endorse Nader, through a struggle for a Nader endorsement the real political role and character of the right-wing leadership of the Green Party will be clarified to the widest numbers of Green Party members and activists, which is crucial to overcoming this obstacle to serious independent anti-corporate political action.

New Party Needed
With Nader running as an independent in 2008, many supporters will be wondering what will come out of the campaign after November. In a recent interview, Nader explained his strategy: “[W]e’re calling our campaign an ’08/’09 campaign, and by that we mean that we’d like to bring together in each Congressional district about 1,000 publicly conscious citizens who will form a watchdog lobby on Congress and put before Congress about ten major redirections of the country, like single-payer health insurance… The more people we get in this campaign, the more we’ll say to them ‘Well, after November there’s going to be a real focused movement in each Congressional district.’” (thenation.com, 3/7/08)

While it is positive that Nader aims to use the campaign to build a more lasting movement, why limit this initiative to simply establishing “watchdog” lobbying groups to pressure Congress? These local committees would be far more effective in pressuring Congress if they were linked to the idea of launching a new antiwar, anti-corporate party of working people. One-off election campaigns, which are not linked to building a lasting organization, will be taken less seriously – both by the radical workers and youth who will vote for Nader and also by the big business establishment that we aim to dislodge.

Unlike single-issue pressure campaigns, a new party could provide social struggles a unified voice in elections and keep activists together in between elections, providing coordination for our community and workplace struggles.

The whole political situation poses the need to use the 2008 election campaign to popularize the idea of building a new kind of party. This is a time of heightened political attention. All the anger and resentment built up during the Bush years is pouring out in higher election turnouts, mass rallies for Obama, and the demand for “change.” While the Democrats will be able to channel most of this anger behind their empty promises of “change,” there will also be a radicalized minority of several million who would be extremely receptive to the idea of building toward a new anti-corporate, antiwar party of working people.

Socialist Alternative would welcome using the 2008 elections to open a serious discussion among Greens, left-wing union activists, socialists, and fresh layers of workers and youth around the idea of launching a new broad left-wing party. We would urge Nader and Gonzalez to use their campaign to popularize this idea. While there may be limited room for an electoral breakthrough in 2008, a Democratic victory in November will create favorable conditions for building a new left party in the coming years. The Obama campaign in particular is raising major expectations for change, but such hopes will be shattered as the experience of the corporate Democrats in power, under conditions of recession and the debacle in Iraq, sets in among millions of newly politicized workers and youth.

Already, following the Democrats’ sweeping victory in the 2006 Congressional elections, there is widespread disillusionment at their failure to carry through on promises to end the war and hold Bush accountable. In January 2007, as the new Democratic Congress began its work the demand for Congress to force a withdrawal from Iraq by cutting the funds became the rallying cry of a resurgent antiwar movement. But when the Democrats continued to vote through the war funding, widespread demoralization was combined with rage and further radicalization among a significant minority.

Out of this ferment, famed antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan launched her independent left-wing, antiwar campaign for congress against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Sheehan campaign is an important challenge that all progressives should support and follow closely. More importantly, it is an early pointer toward future developments as hopes in the Democrats are dashed after 2008.

Post-Election Conference?
As in 2000 and 2004, we would support the idea of Nader calling a major conference following the elections in order to discuss how a broad new political force could be built, genuinely independent of the two corporate parties and capable of mounting a serious challenge to the organized power of big business.

If Nader used his 2008 campaign to champion the idea of building a new political force, we would enthusiastically welcome this initiative. However, Nader’s past statements and record leave room for skepticism over whether he will use his campaign to energetically build a new party.

During the 2000 race, when Nader’s campaign became the political expression of the anti-globalization movement and drew “super-rallies” of 10-20,000 across the country, Socialist Alternative called on Nader to convene a conference after the election to discuss the idea of building a broad new party for working people, bringing together the still-small Greens with the significant support he gathered in the trade unions, among youth, and the wider left.

However, after 2000 Nader limited himself to speaking tours for the Greens, promoting their candidates and doing fundraisers but failing to take a bolder initiative that would bring in the broader forces beyond the Greens that had been mobilized around his campaign. In 2004 as well, despite the right-wing control of the Greens nationally and their endorsement of a competing campaign, Nader failed to use his campaign to promote the need for a new political party.

The circumstances of the 2008 elections are in some respects very different than in 2000 or even 2004, especially with the consolidation of the right-wing Greens’ control. The idea of a conference to discuss the way forward for independent progressive politics after the 2008 elections has been discussed among a small layer of left Greens and among Nader’s staff.

Unfortunately, the viability of such a conference may rest heavily on whether or not Nader himself will promote the idea. This underlines the problem of the lack of real democratic structures within the Nader campaign, which should strive toward establishing elected local and national bodies to provide political direction to the campaign and to decide where to take things following November. Similarly, without democratic accountability there is a risk Nader will, as in 2004, make the mistake of accepting ballot lines in a few states of small right-populist forces like the Reform Party, which will only undermine Nader’s appeal to progressive youth, workers, people of color, and women.

What Kind of Party?
In our view, a crucial test of any new political formation will be its ability to win active support in working-class communities. A vital task is to break the trade union movement, which still has tremendous potential social weight in U.S. society, from the Democratic Party. A section of left union activists and some leaders are already quite open to the idea of breaking with the Democrats, if a serious lead was given.

In 2000, for instance, the California Nurses Association, the longshore workers’ union (ILWU), the United Electrical workers (UE), and a number of union locals endorsed Nader, showing the potential. Under conditions of a deep recession, the political ferment in the unions will only increase. These left-wing unions that endorsed Nader in 2000 should step back up to the plate and make clear they are opposing the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and should instead endorse Nader. Further, we would urge Nader to actively campaign for their support.

Winning support for a new party in working-class communities would mean not limiting their campaigning activity to the electoral arena but also leading up struggles in our workplaces, communities, and schools. This has been one of the crucial weaknesses of the Green Party. While often raising demands in the interests of workers, against the war, or for the environment, the Green Party has rarely sought to build itself as a campaigning organization in the communities and streets, leaving the various social movements open to misleaders who channel support back into the Democratic Party.

After all, throughout U.S. history it has been massive social movements more than electoral politics that have forced the U.S. ruling class to grant reforms. In this era, particularly with U.S. capitalism moving into a deep economic crisis, big business and their two parties will put up fierce resistance to any demands that threaten their power and profits, like single-payer national healthcare or ending the occupation of Iraq.

Any new political party that hopes to achieve serious change will need to unite and mobilize the huge potential power of the U.S. working class around a radical, anti-capitalist program, including placing the top 500 major corporations, banks, and financial institutions under public ownership and democratic control.

While making very important contributions to the struggle against the Democrats’ lesser-evil politics, Nader and most left Greens have not embraced such an anti-capitalist or clearly working-class approach, instead limiting themselves to the politics of left-populism. Despite these limitations, we would nonetheless enthusiastically welcome any serious initiatives toward a broad new left party that can be a forum for common struggle and within which a healthy, democratic discussion on the way forward in the fight against big business could be organized on a scale not seen in this country for decades.

If the Democrats win the White House and maintain their majority in Congress, they will inherit the debacle in Iraq and a prolonged economic crisis, among other serious problems that will trigger major social upheavals in U.S. society. Under these conditions, there would be tremendous potential to build a powerful new party, based in working-class communities and championing a bold program of social and economic justice, peace, and environmental sustainability.

For more on the 2008 Nader campaign, see: