US Elections: The Nader Challenge

Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party’s ticket, is challenging big business’s Bush-Gore, Republi-Crat duopoly. Under the impulse of the anti-WTO radicalization, Nader is waging a serious campaign. His attacks on the big corporations resonate powerfully with the awakening mood of students and young workers. Above all, Nader’s decisive rejection of the Democratic Party, once the liberal face of US capitalism, is preparing the ground for a new mass party on the left. LYNN WALSH reports.

This time Nader, the veteran champion of consumer rights, is fighting a serious campaign. Last time, in 1996, he staged a purely token campaign, only getting on the ballot in 27 states and Washington DC, and winning only about 700,000 votes (under 0.75%). Within days of declaring in February, however, opinion polls gave Nader between 5-7% of the presidential vote, and a higher share on the West Coast. Nader already has enough signatures to qualify in 34 states (August 10), and is confident he will get on the ballot in 45 states. This time Nader aims to raise over $5 million in campaign funds.

The mood is completely different from 1996. A layer of students, young workers, labor activists, environmentalists and other campaigners have actively joined his campaign, or strongly support his decision to take on the two big-business candidates. In Texas, to take one state, supporters collected the 74,000 signatures needed to put Nader on the ballot in only 75 days.

Nader’s decision to launch a serious challenge to Bush-Gore and the changed character of his campaign reflect the radicalization which has developed in recent months among relatively small but very significant strata, especially students and young people. This emerging mood was manifested in the massive and dramatic demonstrations at the WTO meeting in Seattle last November. It was further expressed in the anti-IMF/World Bank protest in Washington DC, in April, and in the demonstrations outside the Republican Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. In both cases, demonstrators were brutally attacked by the police. There is also likely to be a big demonstration in Boston early in October, at the first Gore-Bush debate – from which Nader (and Buchanan) have been excluded. Nader has mounted a large challenge to this exclusion.

The mood of opposition to the WTO and IMF/World Bank involves many political strands. But the protests crystallized a general opposition to the effects of free trade and neo-liberal policies, to the exploitative role of the big corporations, to the polarization of wealth and income both within the US and internationally, and to the intensified exploitation of the poorest sections of the working people even at the height of the US’s current boom. Nader’s message reflects this mood and gets a strong echo from layers who are becoming more politically conscious and beginning to move into opposition to the system.

Support for Nader also reflects a conscious rejection by a growing section of young people and workers of the Democratic Party as a liberal, progressive force in US politics. The pro-big business policies of the Clinton administration have so eroded the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans that the ‘lesser evil’ argument for voting Democrat has been dramatically eroded.

But why Nader? Why the Green Party platform? Nader has stepped in as the radical critic of the two virtually identical big-business candidates because the AFL-CIO, the US’s major trade union federation, and the big majority of unions, with one or two honorable exceptions, are still tied to the Democratic Party. Despite Clinton’s anti-labor record over two terms, the AFL-CIO leaders still cling to the ‘lesser evil’ argument. Labor is contributing $11.3 million so far this year to Democratic Party committees, compared with $9.3 million in 1996.

“Labor is doing more than it ever has to support the Democratic ticket, according to John Sweeney, president of the largest union federation the AFL-CIO. ‘Contributions to Democratic committees, while significant, are but a small fraction of the financial and organizing efforts that unions are planning for this autumn’, Mr. Sweeney said”. (International Herald Tribune, August 14)

Despite adopting an electoral policy, the Labor Party, which is sponsored by a number of AFL-CIO unions, is still tied to the AFL-CIO policy of slavishly supporting the Democrats. Its failure to mount a challenge to the presidency has marginalized the party during the election campaign. The opposition vacuum is being filled, for the time being, by Nader, who is a radical populist, not a socialist, and the Green Party, a small middle-class organization which would have little impact without Nader. Nader is not a Green Party member, but is merely standing on their platform for the presidential election.

For the anti-WTO protesters, the Clinton administration’s drive for the worldwide implementation of neo-liberal policies, following the establishment of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Area), confirmed the complete subservience of the Democratic Party to the big corporations, the multinationals and the big banks. Despite unwavering support from the labor leaders, the Clinton-Gore administration conceded nothing to organized labor, apart from a minimal raise in the minimum wage (from $4.25 to $5.15).

At the end of July, the Democratic Party Platform Committee approved its election manifesto, a ‘centrist, progressive document’ which accepted neo-liberalism as the basis of the party’s economic and social policy. Only four members of the 130-strong committee opposed ‘fast-track’ authority for the president to approve new trade agreements. Only three supported raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 and to reduce tax breaks for companies employing large numbers of temporary workers or paying ‘below living wages’. There were no proposals to abolish reactionary labor laws.

Denouncing Corporate Control

Nader’s campaigning themes contrast sharply with the pro-big business line of the Democrats, and the virtual silence of the labor leaders. ‘The single phenomenon that is blocking justice’, he states, ‘is the concentration of power and wealth in too few hands’.

‘We live now in an apartheid economy. It’s an economy of such staggering inequalities that mere words and statistics can hardly do it justice’. He denounces ‘the enormous tax dollars that go to corporate subsidies, giveaways, handouts, bail-outs, that go for the military machine driven by corporate profits of Lockheed-Martin and General Dynamics and others’. He denounces banks, slum landlords, and loan sharks.

‘A majority of workers’, says Nader, ‘are making less today in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did 25 years ago, and they are working 160 hours more a year on average. Twenty percent child poverty, the highest percentage of poverty by far in the Western world. People having trouble making ends meet, even with two incomes because they’re not having a livable wage, like in Wal-Mart. And so they have to go deeper into debt. Debt has now soared, to over $6.2 trillion indebtedness’.

Nader calls for the mobilization of ‘civic power’ to redirect tax dollars to raising the well-being of the oppressed and the impoverished. He calls for a one-third ($100 billion) reduction in annual military spending. He calls for universal health insurance. He denounces the corporate prison industry.

Nader demands a livable minimum wage of $10 an hour, pointing out that 47 million US workers currently get less than this (the official Federal minimum wage is $5.15). He calls for the enforcement of civil rights and repeal of oppressive labor laws, including the notorious 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

Remorselessly, Nader denounces the corporate domination of the political system, the corruption of the two big-business parties. “Aren’t you taking votes right away from Al Gore”, Nader was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press (May 7). Nader replied: “I think he’s been taking votes from me… you can’t really spoil a spoiled system, and the two parties are really converging more and more into a huge vested interest money pot and turning their back on very important needs of the people”.

It is Nader’s political assault on the big corporations and big-business government, his denunciation of social injustice, which resonates with a growing layer of people. Nader’s critical, oppositionist stance is the key to his support. The fact that a candidate is raising crucial economic and social issues is seen as a massive step forward compared to the slick marketing campaigns to sell the personalities of Bush and Gore.

What is Nader’s Alternative?

Many of those becoming involved in Nader’s campaign, however, and many who will be voting for him in November, will be asking: What is Nader’s alternative? The reality is that Nader does not have a worked-out alternative. His role is that of a left populist, mobilizing opposition to the system but without a program for fundamental social change and without a viable perspective for building a movement capable of achieving change.

Nader is widely admired (even amongst many Democratic and Republican voters) for his long crusade in support of consumers’ and citizens’ rights. Beginning with his battle against Ford over automobile safety in the late 1960s, he is seen as the ‘little guy’ who stood up for ordinary Americans against the rapacious corporations. He is also seen as incorruptible (he has never held public office). Attempts during this campaign to discredit him through revelations that his personal wealth amounts to $3.8 million have had little effect.

Underlying his consumer campaigns was the idea that through the education and mobilization of consumers, consumers could be put on an equal footing with the producers, the big corporations. This is clearly utopian as the capitalists control the productive forces of society, the ultimate source of all wealth and power. But while denouncing ‘corporate socialism’, meaning private profit – socialized losses, Nader has never advocated a socialist solution. His support is for radical democratization to ‘tame the giant corporations’ rather than a radical change in the structure of society.

Thus he speaks of mobilizing ‘civic power’ to redirect tax dollars to social needs. He advocates using state control of public lands (a third of US land) for the public interest, and taking control of $5 trillion of workers’ pension funds to use in the interests of working people.

Nader advocates building more institutions “that allow us to band together vis-à-vis banks, insurance companies, HMOs [health maintenance organizations], cable companies, landlords, all of these can be done”.

He envisages social change through “building new political power, new economic power, new media power, new civic power for all Americans; only by doing that are we going to turn around the headlong rush into systemic and institutionalized injustice shortchanging the lives of future generations and damaging the lives of present generations. This is why I am running”. (Speech to the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Baltimore, July 11)

This is a radical, populist message; it envisages social progress through the radical democratization of capitalism. Such a prospect, however, is contradicted by the entire logic of capitalism as it enters the 21st century: increased power of the big corporations through monopolization, total backing by the state and the capitalist parties for the aims and methods of big business, the subordination of the whole world to the needs of the multinationals through the enforcement of neo-liberal policies. This cannot be reversed through the reinvention of democracy, but only through the democratic takeover of the big corporations so they can be run according to a democratic, socialist plan of production to meet the social needs of working people.

Nader himself, however, recognizes that what can be achieved through the mobilization of citizens’ groups is now very limited. “The political system, under the corporate domination, is closing out the civil society. Citizens’ groups can’t get anything done any more” (Interview with Tim Russert, NBC Meet the Press, May 7).

So political action is necessary: “If you’re not turned onto politics, politics is going to turn on you”. Nader’s strength at this point in the development of US politics is that he has unequivocally turned on the Democratic Party. Destroying the credibility of the Democrats as a ‘left’, ‘progressive’, or even ‘liberal’ force is a precondition of progress for the working class and the left in US politics. While the labor leaders, including those who sponsor the Labor Party, are still tied to the Democratic Party, Nader’s campaign is an important instrument for beginning the task of clearing the ground for the emergence of a new mass party which will provide political representation for workers and all those who are moving into opposition to the system.

Preparing the Ground for a New Mass Party

If Nader gets over 5% in November, which is very likely – and he could get an even higher share – it will be a serious blow to the Democrats. No doubt, he will take some votes from Gore, but also from the Republicans and Buchanan, currently standing on the Reform Party ticket. Nader will also draw the votes of many who normally do not vote at all. A 5% plus vote will demonstrate the possibility of organizing an effective opposition campaign, and it would also have the practical effect of gaining the Green Party federal funding for future elections. (On the basis of Perot’s 8% vote in 1996, the Reform Party is currently receiving $12 million of federal funds – one of the reasons for recent battles within the party.)

Both Nader and leaders of the Green Party have raised the issue of an ongoing movement being built on the basis of this campaign. The Greens, however, with their loose, predominantly middle-class base, have neither the policies nor the political cohesion to organize an effective movement, though they may well gain momentum electorally on the basis of Nader’s result. Nader himself sees a developing movement in populist terms. “We’re intending to build a major political force”, he has said, “progressive in content, but appealing to conservatives, liberals, all the people who feel they are losing control in this country over everything that matters to them” (Russert interview, May 7).

Nader does not recognize the need to orientate towards the working class as a decisive social force, indispensable to building a ‘major political force’ which will consistently oppose big business and the two capitalist parties.

Nader has undoubtedly appealed to the labor unions. Significantly, his campaign has been endorsed by the Californian Nurses Association. And in July, Stephen Yokich, leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), complaining that Clinton and Gore had consistently sided with the multinational corporations against workers, called on the labor unions to actively explore alternatives, such as Ralph Nader. A layer of union activists are participating in his campaign, as are many of the (otherwise dwindling) layer of activists from the Labor Party’s local chapters. In fact, Tony Mazzocchi, the Labor Party leader, spoke for Nader at the Green Party Convention, though within the Labor Party he is not prepared to effectively challenge the major sponsoring unions’ veto on backing any alternative to the Democrats.

If, on the basis of a respectable vote in November, Nader were to appeal to the labor unions, the Labor Party, student activist groups, environmental campaigns, and other progressive/left groupings, he could act as a powerful catalyst in steps towards the formation of a new mass workers’ party. Such a formation is long overdue in the US, but given the inertial drag of the Democratic Party, together with the conservatism of the AFL-CIO leaders and the shameful timidity of the Labor Party leadership, a decisive political initiative is required to initiate active moves towards the creation of a new vehicle of anti-capitalist opposition.

Early this year Socialist Alternative, which works in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers International, recognized the significance of Nader’s campaign following the WTO protests, and issued a call for a break with the Democrats and a vote for Nader on November 7. Socialist Alternative is participating in the local broad coalitions which form the Nader for President campaign, working to mobilize support for Nader while raising issues from a socialist perspective. In particular, Socialist Alternative is calling for ‘Papers For All’, an unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants in the US; abolition of the death penalty; and an end to police brutality.

Socialist Alternative is also calling on Nader to broaden his campaign to embrace all workers, oppressed and young people. And for after the election, Socialist Alternative is urging Nader to convene a national conference of unions, political organizations of the left, young people and people of color, to lay the foundations of a new party of workers and the oppressed.

Socialism Today #50, September 2000