In July, the Green Party held its national convention. While putting off endorsing a 2004 presidential candidate until next summer, the Greens made public the “mood” of convention delegates in favor of running someone. Ralph Nader sent a letter to the Green convention indicating that he may again run for president in 2004 and request their endorsement.
These events, as well as the intensifying pace of the Democratic Party primary race, have revived the stormy debate over Ralph Nader’s insurgent bid for the presidency in 2000. Many Democrats blame Nader for taking votes from Gore, thereby handing Bush the White House. With millions of Americans understandably horrified by the specter of four more years under Bush, such arguments are now being raised to pressure would-be Nader supporters to vote Democrat in 2004.
Socialist Alternative supported Nader in 2000, and played a key role in building the campaign in a number of areas. Despite the serious political limitations of Nader’s program and campaign, we felt it represented an historic step forward. It gave political expression, outside the two-party system, to a growing movement from below against corporate domination of politics and society, a movement which first announced its presence in the U.S. at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests in 1999.
This movement was as much against Clinton, Gore, and the Democrats as the Republicans. Both parties are controlled by big business, and the new movement rightly blamed both for global and domestic injustices.
Throughout Clinton and Gore’s eight years in power, they consistently defended big business and attacked workers. They rammed through NAFTA and the WTO trade agreements, doubled the prison population, and broke promises on universal healthcare, striker replacement laws, abortion, and gays in the military, to name a few (for a more detailed record of the Clinton/Gore years, click here).
No wonder Gore failed to rally much enthusiasm, even among the quarter of eligible voters who did back him. In reality, Gore and Clinton are to blame for Bush’s victory in 2000, not Nader. These politicians ruthlessly attacked the living conditions and rights of the groups they claim to represent – workers, people of color, women, environmentalists, and LGBT people. In disgust, half the voters refused to even vote.
Movements, Not Politicians, Change Society
Not since the Civil War has progressive social change been the work of either major party. Instead, change has come from mass social movements arising independently and exerting pressure on the ruling class and their two-party system.
For example, under Republican President Nixon we won abortion rights, an end to war in Vietnam, the Environmental Protection Agency, welfare, workplace safety standards, and much more. Nixon was no more concerned for peace, women’s rights, or social justice than Clinton or Gore, but his administration faced a massive social upheaval, threatening the entire establishment. The Black revolt, the Vietnam anti-war movement, wildcat strike waves, and the women’s liberation movement forced Nixon to pass some reforms to avoid a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system itself.
However, when mass organizations align themselves with the Democrats, they have tended to die as vibrant, grassroots movements. In practice, this support means raising millions of dollars and mobilizing members to back politicians who turn around and implement savage assaults on our living conditions and rights. Rather than fighting for our needs, the logic of “lesser-evilism” forces movements to limit their demands and tactics to the confines of what is acceptable to the Democratic Party, i.e. big business – the ruling elite whose interests inevitably conflict with the rest of the population.
Support for the Democratic Party has pushed the labor, civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements away from the methods of mass struggle (which won real gains) and towards “legitimate” lobbying campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts – with a corresponding decline of these movements’ power. In this way, the Democrats play an important role for big business, by pacifying progressive social movements and neutralizing their power.
Worse still, when “less evil” politicians attack us, many grassroots organizations’ leaders refrain from mobilizing campaigns of resistance or mass protests, which risk embarrassing Democrats in power. For example, under Clinton only one mass national protest for abortion rights was organized – a regular event for the movement during Reagan and Bush Sr.’s reign.
This goes a long way to explain why Clinton and Gore actually out-performed Reagan and Bush Sr. in slashing social services, deregulating big business, dismantling protections for consumers, workers, and the environment, and generally expanding the gap between rich and poor.
Rather than a potential vehicle for mass mobilization and democratic political debate, the Democratic Party is a corporate election machine. There are absolutely no democratic structures for regular people or activists to decide the Party’s policies. The party conventions are completely stage-managed publicity stunts, with all key decisions made in advance by a small circle of rich donors and top politicians. Liberal groups often promise that a mass movement can transform the Democrats, but history has shown that it’s the mass movements themselves which are transformed.
Nader’s Historic Campaign
Nader’s 2000 campaign tapped into the widespread disgust with the Democratic Party, radicalizing and politicizing tens of thousands, and attracting important sections of the labor movement and young people.
The limits of American “democracy” were exposed before millions of outraged Americans demanding that Nader be allowed into major presidential debates and given fair play in the corporate media. Whereas Nader refused donations from big corporate sponsors, Bush and Gore raised hundreds of millions of dollars from their wealthy backers. Despite these obstacles, by September Nader was polling nearly 6-8%.
Weeks before the election, the Gore campaign, with the help of liberal Democrats and the leaders of the AFL-CIO, NAACP, and NOW, spent millions carrying out a vicious campaign attacking Nader – rather than Bush. With polls showing a razor-thin margin between Bush and Gore, Nader’s vote fell to 3% (2.7 million votes).
Nonetheless, the Nader campaign demonstrated the possibility of organizing a coordinated national struggle against corporate rule. The campaign organized massive “super-rallies” of 10-15,000 people in cities across the country, and helped the new movement against corporate globalization connect with millions of ordinary workers. Most importantly, it showed the potential for the future construction of a mass independent party for working people.
This potential was further demonstrated by campaign polls showing that most Americans favored Nader’s program over Bush’s or Gore’s. Nader supported single-payer national healthcare, full funding for education, childcare, and welfare, cracking down on corporate crime, repealing “free trade” disasters like NAFTA and the WTO, a repeal of anti-union laws, a $10/hour minimum wage, robust environmental and consumer protections, abortion rights, and marriage rights for gays.
New Workers’ Party Needed
On all these issues and more, the two parties represent the interests of big business. Workers, women, and people of color make up the vast majority of the population and bear the brunt of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ policies, yet we have no party that speaks for us. We urgently need to build a party that stands for the interests of the millions, not the millionaires – a workers’ party. Nader’s campaign represented a bold beginning that could prepare the conditions for such a party.
The creation of a workers’ party would transform U.S. politics and be an event of world significance. It would give workers the feeling of being part of a class – the working class. Millions would see how they have interests separate from big business on every major issue facing America. The lack of a strong class consciousness has enormously weakened U.S. workers and allowed big business to divide it into “interest groups.”
Big business has systematically used racism and sexism to divide workers and drive down living standards. The formation of a workers’ party would unite working people across racial and gender divides by demonstrating that our various problems can be solved through solidarity against big business.
A workers’ party would not be a new, or third, version of the existing two “parties.” It would be a genuine political party, providing a forum for democratic political debate, discussion, and education, and a vehicle for mobilizing people into struggle.
Rather than being divided and isolated, local community, workplace, and social struggles would be strengthened by having a common national political organization to build solidarity and share experiences. We saw a glimpse of this potential in the Nader campaign, which united young people from the movement against corporate globalization, environmentalists, and union activists into a common political campaign against Corporate America’s two parties.
The formation of a workers’ party would massively shift the balance of class forces in favor of the working class. Desperate to cut across growing support for a new workers’ party, the ruling class would be forced to grant major reforms, putting in the pale past attempts to pressure the Democrats for reforms.
This is how workers in other countries forced through important reforms, such as shorter workweeks and environmental regulations, sometimes without their parties ever coming to power. In Canada, for example, the single-payer healthcare system was implemented by the Conservatives after a new workers’ party was launched around the issue.
Considering that the 2000 elections were Nader’s first serious presidential campaign, and how close the polls were split between Bush and Gore, the 3% of the vote he received was an historic achievement. Nader presented the most credible, left-wing, independent presidential alternative in decades. However, after the election Nader failed to build on this tremendous success. Instead he virtually disappeared, leaving his supporters wondering what to do next.
Following the elections, a massive political crisis erupted in Florida. Despite winning the popular vote, Gore and the Democrats refused to call any mass demonstrations against the blatant corruption, racial disenfranchisement, and undemocratic Electoral College system that allowed Bush to steal the election, out of fear of discrediting the ruling class’s political system.
Had Nader energetically spoken out and organized rallies against the Electoral College and the Bush Brothers’ racist coup d’etat in Florida, he could have played an important part in stopping Bush’s attempt to steal the elections. This could have also broken millions of enraged workers and people of color away from the Democratic Party. The Democrats’ attempt to hold back mass protests against the election theft could have been exposed for all to see.
Instead, Democrats were allowed to turn Florida into a propaganda weapon against insurgent candidates, claiming that Nader was to blame for Bush’s victory because of the narrow vote margin. Unfortunately, Nader failed to speak out on these issues and systematically answer the Democrats’ campaign of blaming him for Bush becoming President, missing a crucial opportunity to strengthen the movement for independent politics.
Similarly, Nader failed to take a clear position or energetically connect with the anti-war movement, missing a major opportunity to convince millions of people within the huge anti-war movement of the need for a political alternative to the Democrats, a party of war and racism.
During the 2000 elections, Socialist Alternative called on Nader to convene a conference of his supporters following the elections, to form a new political party of workers, young people, women, people of color, environmentalists, Greens, and socialists that would fight big business in the streets and in elections.
Considering Nader’s enormous authority, such a party could have possibly attracted a few hundred thousand members and millions of supporters. In such a way, the elections could have been a springboard for continuing the struggle against corporate rule.
While the Greens were widely perceived to be the driving force behind the Nader campaign, in reality they were only the most prominent piece of a broader ad-hoc coalition that coalesced around Nader. Critically, Nader, unlike the predominantly middle-class Greens, was able to attract important sections of the powerful labor movement away from the Democrats.
Unfortunately, as Socialist Alternative warned at the time, Nader’s failure to launch a new party allowed the potential of his excellent election campaign to dissipate, and made it easier for the Democrats to demagogically exploit the growing anger at Bush, weakening the idea of independent politics. Nor is the Green Party attractive enough to involve the millions who supported Nader in 2000, due to its middle class character and narrow focus on elections rather than building real struggles.
Nader for President in 2004
While these mistakes have put both Nader and movements for social justice in a weaker position for the 2004 elections, a strong, independent challenge to the two corporate parties is just as necessary today as in 2000. That is why Socialist Alternative is urging Nader to run for president in 2004.
He should run a serious campaign, fully independent of the Democrats, on a radical anti-corporate, anti-war program that fights for working people. We also urge the two national unions, the United Electrical workers and California Nurses Association, local unions and other community organizations who backed Nader to pressure him to run again in 2004 and help build an independent political alternative. With the full resources and influence of the AFL-CIO trade union movement, a powerful workers’ party could be built. Unfortunately, the union leadership is still supporting the Democrats.
It is also crucial that activists from the Nader campaign learn the lessons from the mistakes in 2000. Unfortunately, while Bush and the Democrats have been campaigning for months, Nader is publicly wavering about whether he will run or not. Worse still, Nader indicated that he will wait to see how Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean (two left-leaning Democratic candidates) fare in the primaries before deciding whether to run.
Given the widespread feeling of the need to get rid of Bush, it is likely that a Nader campaign in 2004 would not receive as high of a vote as in 2000. Socialists recognize that many politically-conscious workers and young people will vote for a Democrat because they see an overwhelming need to defeat Bush and no “credible” alternative to the Democrats.
Nonetheless, activists need to patiently explain and warn workers about the true character of the Democrats, in order to prepare them in advance for future attacks that the Democrats will unleash. By planting these seeds we can prepare the way for the future, when the political situation will change and support for independent politics could grow quite rapidly.
It would be a profound mistake for activists to support a Democrat just because of the immediate mood. Activists will only discredit themselves in the long run by associating with the Democratic Party, a party of the ruling class and U.S. imperialism, responsible for war, racism, and poverty. We need to look beyond this one election and anticipate how moods will change as events unfold in the near future.
For instance, if a Democrat were elected, there could be a groundswell of anger among workers against the attacks that the deep economic crisis will compel the Democrats to carry out. In these circumstances, an independent challenge to Bush in the 2004 elections will be looked back on with very different eyes, while those who endorsed the Democrats will be viewed with mistrust.
A Nader campaign in 2004 would play an important role in keeping together and providing a lead for those forces that already understand the character of the Democrats. It could plant the seeds for millions more to draw those conclusions in the next period, as giant events convulse U.S. society and shake up workers’ consciousness. In this way, a Nader campaign in 2004 could help lay the groundwork and assemble the forces for a future mass workers’ party.
Justice #36, September-October 2003