Presidential Election 2004: Ralph Nader’s Anti-War Challenge

“Politics is broken in this country. They put a “For Sale” sign on many offices in Congress and government departments. And as a result, the necessities of the people are not being met. We have 47 million workers that work full-time [and] don’t make a living wage; they work at Wal-Mart wages. We have 45 million … who don’t have health insurance. The environment is still being devastated. And giant corporations just have turned Washington into corporate-occupied territory.” (Ralph Nader, Meet the Press, 7/4/04)

Ralph Nader’s hard-hitting critique of corporate power and the two-party system is striking a chord with millions of workers and young people. Despite the anti-Bush rally around Kerry, support for Nader’s independent anti-war, pro-worker campaign reveals that an important minority is looking for an alternative to the two parties of big business and war.

Since launching his campaign, Nader’s support has steadily grown to 5-8% in various polls. Despite the prevailing wisdom among media pundits and the liberal left that the strong “Anybody But Bush” mood would render support for Nader completely insignificant or at least below the 2.7% he received in 2000, Nader is actually polling higher than at the same stage in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Nader, a left-wing populist, is running an insurgent campaign that challenges big business and the two-party system. Nader’s platform speaks to ordinary people, advancing a host of radical demands: opposing the Iraq war and occupation; repealing the Patriot Act; creating millions of jobs through public works programs; $10/hour minimum wage; universal single-payer healthcare; expansion of workers’ rights and repealing the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act; same-sex marriage rights; abolition of the death penalty; and lowering the voting age to 16.

These demands stand in sharp contrast to the big-business line of the Democrats and the political hollowness of labor leaders and Anybody But Bush liberals. Nader remorselessly denounces the corporate domination of the political system, stating “we don’t have free elections in this country. We have one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup going through an auction system, selling our elections and our government to the highest bidders.”

The key factors driving Nader’s growing support are the occupation of Iraq and the conservative character of Kerry’s campaign. Deeply compromised by his corporate policies and his support for the Iraq war, Kerry has been unable to seriously gain from the collapse in public support for the war and Bush. Meanwhile, Nader has increasingly brought to the fore his anti-war stance and calls for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops and corporations from Iraq.

“As the news from Iraq gets even worse, Nader…could become the candidate of choice for the most hard-core antiwar voters, who may see little difference between John Kerry’s stay-the-course approach and Bush’s. ‘Unlike 2000, Nader now has a single issue that can fuel him,’ says a worried Democratic official.” (Time Magazine, 5/24/04)

Discontent with Kerry is rife among large sections of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich supporters, with growing numbers defecting to Nader. An editorial in the Seattle Times commented, “The one thing Democrats haven’t done, and won’t do, is speak clearly enough on Iraq (and in favor of a rapid exit) to steal Nader’s thunder. That’s why Nader’s stronger-than-expected showing in the polls may be carried right through to the election … Looking at the trajectory of the polls, Nader’s candidacy has gained momentum in proportion to Kerry’s waltz back toward the center.” (Collin Levey, 6/24/04)

To counter this, Dean has been drafted to lead the Democrats’ attack on Nader and urge his supporters to stay within the Democratic fold. To avoid a wholesale defection of his left-wing base to Nader, Kucinich has been compelled, absurdly, to continue his anti-war, pro-labor campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, this sideshow will end at the Democratic Party national convention, where Kucinich will endorse Kerry, which could lead to another chunk of Kucinich’s base moving to Nader.

Significant layers of left-wing activists, particularly from the anti-war movement, have gathered around the Nader campaign. But it is among “fresh layers,” who are often young and not yet politically active, that Nader is getting his best response. These layers are more working-class, deeply alienated from the two mainstream parties, often registered as independents, and normally do not vote. They are far more willing to judge the candidates by their programs and less susceptible to the Anybody But Bush hysteria among the middle-class, liberal left.

While several million people are supporting Nader, so far this has been mainly passive support, with only a small but growing activist base for the campaign.

In June, Nader announced Peter Camejo as his Vice Presidential running mate. Camejo is the best-known Green Party representative in the U.S. after getting 5% as their candidate for California Governor in 2002 and almost 3% in the 2003 California Governor recall race. In the 1960s and 1970s, Camejo was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Since then, he has moved to the right, becoming a leading exponent of “socially responsible” investment as a tool to democratize capitalism.

Camejo, however, stands to the left of Nader on a number of important issues. He calls for an immediate withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq (Nader says it should take place over six months), and has a strong anti-war profile based on his leading role in the anti-Vietnam War movement. His profile will further strengthen Nader’s appeal to the growing anti-war movement. Camejo has a far more intransigent attitude towards the Democratic Party than Nader, explicitly opposing the idea of trying to reform the Democrats, whereas Nader regularly makes comments that suggest he is trying to pressure the Democrats to move to the left.

Camejo will strengthen the appeal of the Nader campaign among Latinos, immigrants, and people of color. A fluent Spanish speaker of Venezuelan descent, Camejo has a base in the Latino community and a record of fighting racism and supporting immigrant rights. He is the first major Latino candidate in a presidential race in U.S. history. When Camejo ran for California Governor, he had twice as much support among Latino and Black voters as among whites.

Who Supports Nader

Contrary to the media portrayal of Nader’s supporters as mainly middle-class white students, Nader is gaining the support of important sections of workers, the poor, people of color, and women.

Nader has the support of 10% of blacks and 8% of Hispanics, as opposed to 6% of whites (Gallup poll, July 6). 26% of Muslim-Americans say they will vote for Nader (Council on American-Islamic Relations poll, June 29).

Nader’s strongest support is among lower income groups. Nine percent of those with a high school education or less say they will vote for Nader, as opposed to 6% with some college and 4% who have graduated from college. 8% of women are supporting Nader; 5% of men. By region, Nader has his highest vote in the “East” with 10%, which also saw the lowest support for Bush (only 30%) and the highest support for Kerry (58%). In the “Midwest,” Nader stood at 9%, 4% in the “South,” and 5% in the “West” (Washington Post, June 22).

Nader’s strongest appeal is to young people, where he stands at 12% in polls.

Buying the President

The Bush and Kerry campaigns have already outstripped all previous fundraising records and are on track to spend over $1 billion in total. This staggering sum exposes the complete stranglehold of the capitalist aristocracy over U.S. politics.

Refusing to take any corporate money, Nader has raised over $1 million through May 31, an impressive sum for a left-wing candidate and more than he raised at the same point in 2000. Eighty-nine percent of donations to Nader have been small donations of $100 or less.

Despite the financial advantage of Bush and Kerry, Nader’s pro-worker, anti-war message means his limited resources go a lot further. For every dollar Nader has spent to earn a vote, Bush has spent $15.43 and Kerry $11.29. What would the campaign look like if it were on an even playing field?

The War Against Nader

The strength of the potential Nader vote is all the more remarkable given the avalanche of attacks from the Democratic Party, the extremely hostile capitalist media, and the Anybody But Bush syndrome on the liberal left. Leaders of labor, civil rights, women’s, and environmental organizations linked to the Democratic Party have unleashed character assassinations and vitriolic denunciations of Nader’s presidential bid. The aggressive attacks by the political establishment reveal a fear of the potential mass appeal of Nader’s message should it get a footing in the mainstream political dialogue.

Nader also faces a mass of anti-democratic obstacles created by the two parties to maintain their political domination, which restrict his ability to present his program to the roughly 200 million potential U.S. voters. Simply getting his name on the ballot in all 50 states is an enormous undertaking.

For example, California requires an independent presidential candidate to collect 153,000 valid signatures. If that wasn’t enough, the Democrats have launched an all-out attack to keep Nader off the ballot, filing lawsuits on technicalities and physically disrupting Nader supporters’ efforts to get him on the ballot. The Arizona Democratic chairman stated, “Our first objective is to keep him off the ballot. This vote is about George Bush and John Kerry, and we think it distorts the entire electoral process to have his name on the ballot.” (Time Magazine, 5/24/04)

The Democrats and their liberal front groups are also spending millions of dollars running TV commercials attacking Nader (who lacks the funds to even run his own TV ads). On top of this, the two parties are working to exclude Nader from the official presidential TV debates.

Such action by the Democrats indicates a desperate party losing its grip on popular support. Unable to marshal arguments or ideas, they can only survive by denying people the democratic right to vote for the candidate of their choice.

This anti-Nader war also played itself out at the June convention of the Green Party, which ran Nader as its candidate in 2000 and 1996. Capitulating to the Democrats’ anti-Nader offensive, the Green Party leadership maneuvered to deny Nader the Green endorsement (despite the majority of Green Party members’ support for him), blocking Nader from using the Greens’ ballot line in 22 states. Instead, the Greens chose an unknown party activist, David Cobb, who will run only in “safe states” (avoiding challenging Kerry in close states where a strong Green vote could hurt Kerry and swing the election to Bush, as Nader is accused of doing in 2000).

Failure to get the Green endorsement was certainly a setback for the Nader campaign, and will mean further difficulties getting on the ballot. However, the Cobb campaign has little capacity to achieve any electoral significance, which, after all, is the entire point! Following the convention, the absurd logic of this strategy was revealed when Cobb’s running mate told a journalist that she might not even vote for herself if it would hurt Kerry’s chances of beating Bush!

The bitter debate and the maneuvering of the pro-Cobb leadership have opened up deep divisions within the Greens. Rallying around Peter Camejo, who Nader picked as a running mate just a few days before, a large minority of Green delegates organized themselves into “Greens for Nader” following the decision to nominate Cobb. This loose network unites the left wing of the Green Party, and the internal debate has served to educate and solidify this layer around the need for an intransigent independence from the Democrats.

Nader Should Reject Reform Party Ballot Lines

Responding to the ferocious attacks from the Democratic Party, Nader argues that his campaign will actually help the Democrats by drawing the majority of his support from conservatives and Bush voters. However, the evidence is clear that the bulk of Nader’s votes are left-wing and are hurting Kerry more than Bush.

While Nader is picking up some support among conservative workers, almost half of Nader’s support is coming from registered independents, 11% of whom favor Nader. Business Week points out that these are “left-leaning independents who are wary of Kerry’s support for the [Iraq] war.” (5/31/04) Nader is also drawing support from many left Democrats.

Nader’s strategy of appealing to conservatives was brought into sharp relief in May when he was endorsed by the Reform Party, giving Nader the option of using their ballot line in seven states.

However, the Reform Party has a right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant program and is widely associated with its 2000 presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan, a man best known for his virulent racism, homophobia, and far-right nationalist agenda. The Reform Party split in 2000 over the Buchanan endorsement, with the more “moderate” anti-Buchanan faction endorsing Nader in 2000. Since then, the Buchanan forces have largely left the party, and the anti-Buchanan wing has regained control.

Nader welcomed the Reform Party’s endorsement and has indicated that he will likely use their ballot line. This is a very serious mistake. While Nader may see this as a pragmatic way to get his name on the ballot in more states, it is politically unprincipled, and it will taint his campaign by association with right-wing politics.

Currently, the Nader campaign has strong support among people of color, immigrants, and women (see box). However, the Reform Party may reemerge as a bigger issue if Nader decides to take their ballot line. This could weaken Nader’s attraction to immigrants, people of color, and radical workers and young people. Moreover, it will provide ammunition to the pro-Democrat leaders of the labor, civil rights, and women’s organizations.

Nader’s acceptance of the Reform Party endorsement is in line with his populist character, rather than a clear working-class or socialist position. Populism is a highly contradictory phenomenon that often mixes together left-wing with right-wing populist appeals. By accepting the Reform Party’s endorsement, Nader has allowed an element of right-wing populism into his campaign.

On balance, however, Nader’s campaign remains predominantly left-populist, anti-corporate, and anti-war. Nader has explicitly rejected the Reform Party’s right-wing program and is still running as an independent. In fact, by highlighting his anti-war message, selecting Camejo, and by stepping up attacks on the Democratic Party, the left-wing character of Nader’s campaign has been reinforced over the past few months.

Socialist Alternative completely opposes Nader using the Reform Party ballot line. We emailed an open letter to Nader and campaign activists urging Nader to reject the Reform Party’s ballot line and to publicly explain his campaign’s opposition to the Reform Party’s right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant policies. We explained that while it is correct for the Nader campaign to reach out to disgruntled Republicans and Reform Party supporters, this must be done on a principled basis. Instead, Nader has made his appeal in an opportunist fashion by downplaying issues like abortion, racism, and same-sex marriage.

Underlying all of this is Nader’s lack of an alternative to capitalism. He envisages social progress through the radical democratization of capitalism into a humane system based on small businesses. However, the logic of capitalism in this epoch inevitably tends in the direction of monopolization of the market by a few giant multinational corporations and the curtailing of democratic rights. As a left populist, Nader mobilizes mass opposition to the big-business system, but he lacks a viable program for transforming society or a strategy for achieving fundamental change.

While energetically campaigning for a Nader vote, Socialist Alternative raises the need to go further – opposing not just corporate power, but the underlying system of capitalism. Moreover, it is not enough to appeal to “the people,” or citizens: a mass movement for fundamental change must be firmly based on the working class, the only social force capable of carrying through a fundamental transformation of society. While campaigning for Nader, we will be raising these ideas among the radical people looking for a real alternative to the big-business parties.

Prospects for November

Nader’s electoral support is strong – far more than was predicated by the “experts” only months ago – and is gaining momentum. Because of the Iraq war, it is possible that Nader will receive a higher vote and have a greater impact than his historic campaign in 2000. The anti-war mood encompasses a much wider layer of U.S. society than the anti-globalization movement in 2000.

If support for Bush collapses, and it appears more certain that Kerry will win, many left-wing voters who currently feel compelled to vote for Kerry to defeat Bush would bolt from Kerry and vote for Nader to punish the Democrats for their right-wing policies. Under this scenario, Nader could win a higher vote than in 2000 and achieve an historic breakthrough for the U.S. left. This could trigger a wave of other independent anti-war, left-wing, and labor candidates.

If the race remains close between Bush and Kerry, however, Nader’s vote could be squeezed. The Democrats, along with the leaders of labor, civil rights, and women’s organizations will unleash a massive offensive against Nader. At the same time, Kerry could be pressured to employ more populist rhetoric. This is the twin-track approach that the Democrats used in 2000, which succeeded in cutting Nader’s vote down to 2.7% from the 6% he was polling a few weeks before Election Day.

Given the undemocratic and unrepresentative big-business domination of the dysfunctional U.S. electoral system, the real significance and impact of the strong interest and support for Nader goes far beyond the actual vote tally on November 2. Nader’s support points to the growing radicalization of an important layer of workers and youth.

The support for Nader’s campaign reflects the growing crisis of the corrupt two-party system. The deep tensions in U.S. society are preparing the conditions for moves towards the creation of a new mass party that could provide political representation and a vehicle for struggle for workers, minorities, women, and all oppressed people fighting the system. Effective steps in this direction will require movements of significant sections of the working class – movements that will erupt in the next few years. In this context, Nader’s campaign reinforces consciousness of the need for all those who want progressive change to break from the Democratic Party. It is helping to prepare the ground for future independent anti-war, left-wing, and labor campaigns that will pave the way for the formation of a mass party of the left based on working-class forces.

Justice #39, July-August 2004