Ralph Nader’s campaign for President on the Green Party ticket was one of the most significant political events in the US in decades. It opened the way for a real challenge to the two-party system. Though Nader’s campaign involved more elements than the Green Party, Greens played an important role.
In the aftermath of the elections, thousands of activists are discussing how to build on the momentum of the campaign. Is the Green Party up to the challenge?
The pressure of running a national campaign and the attacks on Nader from Democrats and the corporate media revealed fissures in the Green Party, mainly over the question of how to build the campaign. The party has been criticized for its inability to build the Nader campaign among working people and people of color. Sections of the Party turned their backs on their candidate and supported Al Gore instead. These tensions have their roots in the class basis of the Party and its political program.
Under capitalism, the two main social forces are the working class and big business. Real power is in the hands of owners of the corporations that dominate society and control the political process. The working class has the power to shut down the country, bring the government to its knees, and replace the system with a socialist alternative. Only by mobilizing that power can society be fundamentally changed.
The Green Party is not based on the working class. Some labor activists and young workers are becoming Greens, but older activists, middle class environmentalists, single issue reformers and former members of the reformist Left still comprise the core of the Party.
Thus the Greens remain a radical middle class party. The middle classes have never been able to sustain a challenge to the capitalist system, its parties, or its representatives. A middle class party will inevitably be drawn into the orbit of one of the two major social classes. If it does not mobilize workers from below, it will be co-opted from above.
The Greens are organizing progressive and liberal-minded people who oppose the most noxious social and political aspects of the system. This layer wants to reform the existing system while challenging it from without. Without a class analysis or a clear alternative, this confusion will turn into pragmatism. The Greens will increasingly compromise with capitalist parties and even legitimize their worst policies.
This political confusion pervades the solutions Greens propose to problems caused by capitalism. One well-known Green proposal is to raise gasoline taxes to cut down on pollution caused by cars and provide an incentive to use public transportation. This sometimes takes the form of a tax on parking garages, as proposed by a prominent Seattle Green.
These moralistically-explained taxes hit working people the hardest, alienating workers from the Green Party and the environmental movement. A socialist solution would create revenues to fund free, accessible public transportation by taxing the corporations that are major polluters.
Greens also want the United Nations to expand their role in solving international conflicts, ignoring the fact that the UN is dominated by the corporate interests of major imperialist countries. Instead of expanding international organizations of big business, we must build organizations based on international solidarity of workers.
The Green Party’s program does contain progressive demands that could unite working people in opposition to the current system, such as a living wage and universal health care.
Greens in Power
The true test of any party is how it applies its politics when in power. In Seattle, the Green Party majority on the City Council has not ruffled politics as usual. These City Council members are liberal Democrats recruited to run as Greens, who were only required to agree with the Greens’ 10 “Key Values” and meet with the Green Party executive committee four times annually.
During the Nader campaign, each Green councilor stated publicly that they would vote for Gore if it appeared Bush might win. Two of them, Richard Conlin and Judy Nicastro, publicly endorsed Al Gore, saying, “Never before have we had the opportunity to put into the White House someone who truly believes in being an environmentalist.” Nicastro later resigned from the Green Party to head the anti-Nader campaign in Seattle, proclaiming at a pro-Gore rally: “Voting for Nader is voting for Bush.”
Torn between their left-wing rhetoric and their desire to share power with local Democrats, the Green City Council’s biggest coup in nine months as a majority was a resolution banning live animal circuses in Seattle. While Nicastro had a high profile as a tenant activist, she repeatedly opposed demands like rent control. Seattle’s Green council members failed to take a leadership role opposing the WTO or protesting the massive abuse by the police during the WTO protests.
The Green Parties of Europe came out of the movement against nuclear war, weapons, and power in the 1970s and 80s. Since then, Greens have attained power in Germany. Brought in by a mass movement, the German Greens turned their backs on it. Joschka Fischer, Green minister of defense, was responsible for the first German military intervention (in Kosova) since the Nazis held power in the 1940s. Hundreds of riot police had to protect pro-war delegates from rank-and-file party members at the German Greens’ National Congress.
Fundamental elements of the German Green program, like separation of public office and party positions, rotation of public representatives, and reduction of legislators’ salaries have been cast aside, along with policies which might pose an obstacle to being in government. As a result of these actions, many young voters now see the Greens as a left cover for the neoliberal policies of the Social Democrats. Similar situations exist in France, Finland, Italy and Sweden.
Electoralism and the Democrats
Greens see mass movements as a route to elected office, not a way to change society. They subordinate everything to getting politicians into office to fix social problems through legislation. At a recent Nader campaign meeting in San Francisco, called to discuss future activities, a leading Green said he couldn’t wait to get Greens into office “so we won’t have to do all this work anymore.” What this Green doesn’t realize is that policies benefiting the majority of people will only be achieved through a broad social movement.
The Greens brought this thinking to the Nader campaign. Throughout the campaign, their primary goal was getting 5% of the vote to qualify for federal matching funds. By constantly harping on the 5%, the Green Party diverted attention from mobilizing new activists and exposing the fraud of the two-party system, the major tasks of the Nader campaign.
This strategy carries a price. Without a power base in the community, Greens will be forced to collaborate with the Democratic Party. Many Greens’ demonstrated their unwillingness to break with the Democrats in the late stages of the campaign. With the angry cries of pro-Gore liberals raining down on them, Greens sent a message to the two major parties. They do not plan to pose a serious threat to them, but merely act as a “watchdog party,” keeping an eye on the Republicrats. They stressed that Nader’s turnout would help the Democrats win back Congress.
With these politics, the Greens channel the anger of activists back into the two-party system. At the same San Francisco meeting, Ross Mirkarimi, the Party’s California organizer, proposed to support “progressive” candidates in the upcoming runoffs for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Most of the candidates mentioned are Democrats, some running with corporate backing and little or no support in their communities. These politicians are the left wing of the political machine, compromising with big business and diverting working people from organizing themselves in their communities and workplaces.
Not every Green activist will simply go along for the ride. The Nader campaign and the growing radicalization among youth have brought new members into the Party who will oppose the old guard policies of compromise with the Democrats. A few Greens consider themselves socialists. Some chapters, like New Mexico, strongly favor building an independent profile for the party. These differences will become more pronounced in the coming period.
Sectarianism Hurts the Nader Campaign
The Green Party took a narrow approach to the Nader campaign, using it to promote their own party rather than to launch coalitions to build the widest possible support for Nader. This limited their ability to mobilize and reach out to working people, youth, and people of color who might be interested in Nader, but not the Green Party.
In San Francisco, the Green Party declined to work with Socialist Alternative and other groups to support Nader and local progressive candidates. The Green Party could not stomach the idea of running candidates against the local Democratic Party. Some individual Greens joined this coalition, which campaigned for Nader in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods, in unions, and on college campuses. In the end, the Green Party lamented their inability to reach out to these communities.
In Seattle, in May, Socialist Alternative proposed a coalition to campaign for Nader. This offer was rejected. We were shocked when the Green Party said they would not launch their campaign until August. We set up the Seattle Nader Coalition, organized weekly public meetings and campaign activities, a citywide caravan, and launched a vibrant campaign at the University of Washington. We also won the endorsement of Teamsters Local 174 for Nader.
The Green Party resorted to undemocratic measures to maintain a Greens-only campaign. This included discouraging other organizations from distributing literature, carrying banners at events or expressing their views at campaign meetings. In Ohio, members of Socialist Alternative were accused of being government agents by Green Party members, because they displayed a banner saying “Nader for President” and “Socialist Alternative.” These tactics divide the movement and alienate activists.
The Nader campaign has opened up great opportunities for building a movement against the Republicrats. Yet the more the Nader movement remains tied to the Green Party, the weaker it will be. Instead of building momentum, the Party’s politics held the Nader campaign back. Our task is to build a workers’ party, with a democratic structure, based on the mass movement of workers and youth, that can pose a real challenge to the two-party system.
Justice #22, December 2000-January 2001