The Nader Factor

In the closest Presidential race in US history, Ralph Nader received 2.7 million votes. This historic vote represents a solid core of voters who have consciously broken from the two-party system. Not since Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs received a million votes from his jail cell in 1920 has a social movement mounted such an electoral challenge to the two-party system.

It became clear well before Election Day that Nader’s campaign was shaking up the political establishment. The estimated 150,000 pro-Nader activists and the 5-6% who consistently polled in favor of Nader brought the tensions and contradictions in the two-party system to the surface, exposing its fundamental fragility.

Particularly ominous, from the point of view of big business, was that Nader’s support came from the same movement that demonstrated against the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, and the Democratic and Republican conventions. With Nader’s presidential bid, this movement’s anti-corporate message reached tens of millions of people, and brought together activists from all areas in a common front against the two parties of big business.

The Democratic Party Strikes Back

The damage inflicted by Nader’s campaign was clearly indicated by the frenzied and hysterical response of the Democratic Party, its corporate backers, and its liberal allies.

On October 23rd, two weeks before Election Day, Bill Daley, Al Gore’s campaign manager, announced a tactical about-face for their campaign. They went from a conspiracy of silence to an all-out $30+ million assault on the Nader campaign. As soon as the Democrats snapped their fingers, the corporate media, led by the New York Times, began running front page stories and editorials against Nader, distorting his message and bashing his character.

In regions and demographics where the “Nader factor” was strong, the Democrats shifted their strategy from attacks on Bush to attacks on Nader. A New York Times/CBS News poll just two days before the election showed some of the traditional bedrock of Democratic Party support had shifted toward Nader. 11% of people making less than $15,000 a year supported Nader. 10% of registered Democrats supported Nader (11% supported Bush). After the election, exit polls showed young voters, LGBT voters, pro-abortion voters, and union voters disproportionately voting for Nader.

Nader’s votes came from a layer of US society already disillusioned by the corporate controlled political establishment. Any direct attack on Nader from Al Gore, George Bush, other establishment figures, or the corporate media, only solidified Nader’s support and broadened his appeal as enemy-number-one of big business politics. Faced with this crisis of legitimacy, the Democratic Party was forced to mobilize the leadership of the unions, the environmental groups, the women’s, civil rights, and LGBT organizations, to provide a left cover for Al Gore’s and big business’ attacks against the Nader campaign.

Goons for Gore

The Democratic Party spent millions on anti-Nader radio, TV, and newspaper ads and high-profile tours of liberal celebrities like Gloria Steinem and Melissa Etheridge to cut across Nader’s support on the West Coast and other key areas. In just two weeks, the Democrats’ attack campaign spent almost four times the amount raised by the entire Nader operation.

NARAL, NOW, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO, all spent their members’ millions to repeat the mantra: “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.” In the same breath, under the servile logic of lesser evilism, the liberal leaders acted to anesthetize their own movements by desperately painting Al Gore as the friend of working people, the environment, and social justice.

At the August Democratic National Convention, Al Gore began a cynical shift towards populist rhetoric designed to slash Nader’s growing support. In the final two weeks of the campaign, Gore was compelled to burst this can of worms wide open. The Gore campaign organized mass rallies of 30 and 50 thousand in Minneapolis and Chicago in an unveiled attempt to diminish Nader’s appeal. Gore made far-reaching promises as a “fighter for working people.”

However, as the Sept. 18th Business Week reported, “[Al Gore’s] policy agenda would have little effect on the businesses he has bad-mouthed. Most industry reps in Washington dismiss his overheated rhetoric as ‘phony-populism,’ according to one prominent drug company lobbyist.”

Behind the public face of the anti-Nader campaign, seedy, malicious and anti-democratic methods were used to beat back the Nader threat.

Soon after the October 23rd announcement by Daley, Gore organizers (known as “Gore’s Goons”) began a campaign of vandalism and lies. At campaign events in California, cars with Nader stickers had their tires slashed. In Northeast Ohio, Nader yard signs were stolen in late night raids. The Boston Nader headquarters had rocks thrown through its windows. In Washington, DC and several other cities, posters for Nader super-rallies and other events were systematically torn down.

Pro-Nader email lists were flooded with character assassinations and distortions. Messages slamming Nader were sent out, often by Gore campaigners posing as Nader supporters. A widely circulated message from a former “Nader’s Raider” (later exposed as a former Monsanto executive and long-time corporate ally of the Clinton/Gore Administration) demanded Nader “step aside” and endorsed Gore.

Attacks Show Their Weakness and Our Strength

That the Democratic Party and the corporate media were compelled to answer the Nader challenge is an indication of the strength and potential of the new movement. The character of their response shows the fragility of the political big business monopoly, the instability of the bipartisan system, and the growing inability of the Democratic Party to contain the seething popular frustration expressed by Nader.

Gore’s main tactic against Nader was to whip up a fear-mongering campaign about “anti-Christ Bush,” while distorting and glossing over Al Gore’s horrific record. While these heavily funded attacks were able to peel away the looser half of Nader’s support by Election Day, they did our movement two tremendous favors.

First, these unprincipled attacks exposed the complete lack of political confidence of the liberal hangers-on to the Democratic Party. They demonstrated the real role of the liberal leaders of the mass organizations: the left leg of the continued dominance of big business and its two-party system. The new movement has been inoculated against the logic of lesser evilism and will continue to find political expression outside the “social movement graveyard” that is the Democratic Party.

Second, the Democratic Party offensive educated and hardened the solid core of Nader’s support. The Gore campaign peeled away nearly half of Nader’s votes. The resulting 2.7 million votes represent the hard core of Nader’s support, those able to withstand the pressure of the Democratic Party.

Ralph Nader should be commended for standing up to the huge pressures brought to bear on him. As the political figurehead for the new movement, he bore the brunt of the rage of the ruling class. He did not step out of the race, despite numerous calls to do so from his so-called “friends.” In fact, Nader, like his supporters, was radicalized as the attacks increased.

Building the Movement

The real victory of the campaign was accomplished before November 7th. Aside from the pre-existing Green Party groups, over 500 new Nader/Green groups were started across the country. Nader drew 15,000 people to Madison Square Garden in New York City, 14,000 to the Target Center in Minneapolis, 12,000 to the Fleet Center in Boston, 10,000 to the Pavilion in Chicago, 10,000 to the Coliseum in Portland, 10,000 to the MCI Center in Washington, DC, and spoke to dozens more rallies several thousand strong.

Nader mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, and reached tens of millions with a clear call for building a new movement against corporate rule. He raised numerous issues previously all but absent from public debate: 20% child poverty rate, the racist death penalty, universal healthcare, undemocratic debate commissions, the lack of a living wage, the WTO, IMF, World Bank, NAFTA, the destruction of our environment, the racist war on drugs, the crumbling of our public schools, the sanctions on Iraq, anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley, police brutality, genetically engineered food, and the commercialization of childhood.

Nader’s critique of the corrupt, undemocratic political system, its domination by big business and the complicity of the corporate media, has only been amplified by the crisis in Florida. Millions were forced to make the hard choice to vote for the lesser of two evils. They now clamor for electoral reform, for an end to the “winner-take-all” system, for preference voting and other reforms that will make working class and progressive challenges to the bipartisan system easier. Millions are clamoring to end corporate domination of the political system.

The same mass discontent among workers and young people that produced the WTO protests mobilized behind Nader. This is a fact of historic significance that places the tremendous responsibility of pointing a viable way forward in the Nader campaign’s hands.

Which Way Forward?

The Nader campaign has clearly posed the question of building a left political alternative. 2.7 million people consciously broke from the two party system, and millions more are searching for a viable alternative. We must move beyond this episodic mobilization around a single candidate and constitute the coalition around Nader as a permanent fighting organization that can link together the struggles of working people and youth.

Unfortunately, Nader is attempting to channel the broad momentum generated into the narrow confines of the Green Party. As a middle class organization with limited appeal or institutional backing, the Greens will prove incapable of further developing the movement (see article on page 16). Nader has even failed to point a way forward for the Greens. Toward the end of the campaign Nader increasingly emphasized the role of his own campaign in pressuring the Democratic Party, often calling the Greens a “watchdog party.”

In the final two weeks of the campaign, Nader concentrated more and more on getting matching funds for the Greens, weakening his political message and fostering illusions about the importance of elections. This focus opened Nader up to false accusations that his campaign amounted to an egotistical and self-righteous crusade.

Launching a Workers’ Party

Socialist Alternative is calling on Ralph Nader to help convene national, local and regional conferences of all organizations and forces that supported his campaign with the aim of creating a broad working class party. Such a party could become a permanent force in American politics, challenging the big business parties in elections at every level of government and building the movement in our workplaces, unions, high schools, universities, and in our communities. We are committed to building this kind of organization, and will campaign strongly for it in cities where we are active.

Nader received endorsements from both the California Nurses Association and the United Electrical Workers, small progressive unions with influence among labor activists. Several union locals, like the Teamsters 174 in Seattle, also endorsed Nader. Individual labor leaders across the country came out for Nader, linking together in “Labor for Nader” coalitions during the campaign. Most activists in the Labor Party supported Nader. Nader could mobilize all these forces for the conference we propose.

Nader has widespread support in the environmental movement. Important figures in the black community, like Cornel West and Manning Marable, broke from the Democrats to support Nader. The same phenomenon took place in women’s rights organizations and the LGBT movement, where key figures shifted their support to Nader.

The new student movement, the young people who organized the protests against the WTO and the IMF/World Bank overwhelmingly supported Nader. Students fighting sweatshops, the death penalty, police brutality or for affirmative action, came out for Nader. Nader campaigns were set up on over 900 campuses across the country, and this was the most vibrant and energetic layer of Nader activists. Thousands of student activists could be mobilized for the proposed conference.

Ralph Nader’s bid for the 2000 elections is only a beginning. It points to the abundant potential for expanding and deepening the movement against big business and the Republicrats. With no pre-existing electoral apparatus and raising only $8 million on the fly, with no roots in the working class or communities of color and virtually no institutional backing, Nader was still able to inflict serious wounds on the bipartisan system.

What if the AFL-CIO unions were to run their own candidates? What if they shifted their resources – $100-200 million and 150,000 union activists this year – away from the Democrats and toward their own candidates? The unions have roots in the US working class, in the African American and Latino communities. With their social weight they could organize broad layers of US society.

The construction of a mass workers’ party in the US is the only viable way forward. Only through the militant mobilization of the working class can a broad movement powerful enough to take power out of the hands of big business be built.

Justice #22, December 2000-January 2001