If you cut away the swipes at Nader, his progressive critics actually have some legitimate demands:
1. They don't want Nader voters to swing the election to Bush.
2. Progressives want to be building a movement and therefore don't see the point of Nader running as an independent. And they also prefer a party working on a mix of local and national runs, not just a celebrity running for president.
3. The Democratic Party claims they just want Nader to follow the rules and get on the ballot fairly. Others, while seeing the Democratic Party's self-interest in the matter, just don't see the point of running a campaign that seems little more than a slog against arcane ballot access laws. Ballot access is an important issue, but the resources Nader and company are being forced to expend on it, even if that is the fault of the Democrats, detracts from getting out the progressive political message.
Frankly, I don't think these demands are unreasonable. What if they are met?
The dope on Nader is that this guy is so stubborn, so obstinate, that by god he's just forging ahead and never listens to his critics. This seeming truism ironically makes it safe to take potshots at him: you don't have to consider the consequences of his taking you seriously because you just know in your heart of hearts the guy's character flaws are so bad that he's not capable of listening like the rest of us.
Warning: He has, and
he might. Remember when he ran in 1996 and the criticism was that he just
didn't seem into running, that he lacked the stamina to get out there all
the time? Today, lack of stamina is so not the problem. Progressives, like
Michael Moore who got down on his knees on national TV and begged Nader to
quit, would gladly welcome a little less stamina. Nader has demonstrated a
kind of super charged ability to take it all on-the abandonment of friends
and allies, the insults, the ballot access challenges from the party that
claims to defend democracy (which, Nader claims, extend well beyond
verifying signatures to intimidating signature collectors)-and just keep
going with far more energy and verve than before. This shows he's quite
capable of listening to his critics, and might again. Let's consider the
impact of accepting these demands in turn.
First, whether Nader voters swing the election to Bush isn't up to Nader, it's up to the voters. But with that caveat, what happens if Nader is not a factor this election? What if Kerry loses without Nader's help? Where will the Democratic Party be then? The best source for a prediction is history. Sam Smith, writing in his Progressive Review points out the impact of the strategy of Democrats running as Republicans over time: we have "lost under Clinton nearly 50 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, 11 governorships, over 1200 state legislative seats, 9 state legislatures, and over 400 Democratic officeholders who had become Republicans."
That is a losing strategy.
Now consider Kerry losing the election without Nader to blame. He should be able to win handily against a president who didn't win last time, who is engaged in a never ending war that is creating more terrorists by the minute rather than reducing their number, and who has presided over the first two-year decline in American wages since 1953. Actually, according to the IRS, which reported that figure, in 1953 it was only a one-year decline But Kerry can't compete meaningfully because he accepts the premise of the war and has no real policies to confront Bush's economics.
If Kerry loses, he will have become a powerful warning against the strategy of running on Republican platforms. The Democratic Party, lacking Nader as a scapegoat, might slip to its lowest, weakest point in history.
What if, at that weak point, Nader and his allies say, okay, let's give our critics what they asked for and found a third party? You can hear the slogan now: Nader in 2008-because backing a Democrat is just too risky. It's an idea that could have teeth if it follows on the heels of the Democrats having lost two elections they should have won in 2000 and 2004. Why back a party with bad politics hell-bent on pursuing a losing strategy-again? Nader keeps asking, how many elections is it going to take before people realize it's time to cut loose? This election might answer that question.
But how likely is it that Nader would actually found a party? Critics deride the possibility he could be a party animal: having shown he can't work with the Greens and won't listen to his friends who asked him not to run, they are convinced he just doesn't play well with others. But his break with the Greens wasn't driven by his personality-he just wanted to work with a group that knew it was going to run a presidential candidate, and the Greens couldn't figure that out until late June. That would be too late to mount a credible effort to get on the ballot, he predicted. That prediction turned out to be correct; while Nader has gotten on ballots in over 35 states, the Greens have yet to get their candidate, David Cobb, on 30, even though they haven't had to face challenges from the Democrats over ballot access anywhere near as fierce as those directed at Nader.
Looking at Nader's record of working with people, he has founded 40 plus organizations, and is arguably responsible for more legislation over the past 40 years than George Bush and John Kerry combined. Neither of these feats could have been carried out by a loner. Nader has even founded the Populist Party. Many dismiss it as a device to get federal matching funds this time. Maybe. But he's already indicated that if people want to, they can take the party and run.
Critics may well answer that when he reaches the age of 74 in 2008, Nader will be too old to be much of a threat. But if Alan Greenspan can run the Federal Reserve at 78, age won't stop someone from making a bit to run the country at 74.
Whatever threat Nader mounted to the Democrats this year, he did it after declaring his run in late February, just 8 months before Election Day. If he spent the next 4 years preparing for another run, the resulting campaign could inflict damage on the Democratic Party in ways we might not be able to predict. Suppose the Populist Party takes to heart the idea that local contests, not just presidential runs, were important. Over the next 4 years it could give the discredited Democrats a serious run for their mountains of money. The Democratic Party, already detached from its base, might have real problems hanging on to its position as the country's number two party.
No candidate or party would want to go through what the Democrats have put Nader through in terms of battles for ballot access. But a few years of organizing could easily clinch a new party's place on the ballot in all 50 states. After all, the Libertarian Party has done it, or at least 49 states, anyway. Many states have small windows in which to collect signatures, making the task sometimes insurmountable. But with preplanning, gathering enough signatures to clinch a slot on all 50 ballots could be straightforward. Here's one mechanism to do that: Set up a website to let people sign on for email notifications of where and when petitioners will be available to collect signatures. Millions who want that candidate or party on the ballot could sign up for these notices months in advance. Then collecting signatures would be a relative snap-those who want to sign the petitions would be told where to find the signature collectors, a potentially vast improvement over the current hit and miss link up.
This time the Democrats have used litigation as a means to sap Nader's campaign. But if a new party organized over the next 4 years to confront that challenge, rather than on the fly as was done this time, the Democratic Party's tactics might be more easily defeated.
To give it a clear identity, a new party needs not just access but also a platform, far more detailed than what other parties have provided. One legacy from Nader's current efforts might be his extensive platform. It's just sitting there, from progressive taxation to universal health care to an end to war (all of which are positions held by a majority of Americans and, sadly, will probably remain off the Democratic platform in 2008).
The third ingredient a new party needs after a means to get on the ballot and a platform to identify itself is energy. The Democratic Party and Nader's critics have arguably done more to fuel that demand than Nader has himself. Nader critics and Kerry boosters are gradually waking up to what they have done. As John Nichols writes in the Nation, October 18,
"When they got Nader tossed off the ballots in noncompetitive states such as Illinois and Texas-where he would have spent most of his time banging Bush-they in effect guided him into states where polls show the Bush/Kerry race so close that even a marginal Nader vote could do damage. Instead of knocking Nader out, the Democrats have drawn him into places where they least want him to be. Now, he is turning up regularly in the competitive states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania."
The extent of the Nader critics' blunder is stunning. Long accustomed to vilifying their enemies, they couldn't see that dialoging with their friends is their only hope to persuade them to vote Kerry. While Nichols may be right that Nader has been guided into the swing states by the very people who want him there least, it's certainly clear-at least from email responses to this series of articles-that some Nader voters who might have been open to voting Kerry have so been repulsed by the Democrats' anti-democratic tactics that for them, the matter is closed.
Pile this on top of an already repulsive platform of more war and you have a seething cauldron of anger toward the Democratic Party that is far larger than Nader alone could have whipped up. In the wake of the Democratic Party's attacks not just on Nader but on its own progressive wing who backed Kucinich, Dean and others, a Kerry loss could mean the loss of liberals and progressives from the party-and the beginning of its ultimate demise.
Democrats seem determined to alienate their constituents. Our local party chairperson here in Maine, Dottie Melanson, has been challenging Nader's slot on the ballot as far as she can possibly take it. As a registered Democrat myself, I telephoned her to ask her to stop. Because we live in a small state, I actually got her on the phone. She claimed what she was doing wasn't out of self-interest; she was just trying to make sure Nader was following the rules. When I pointed out that no one other than herself would buy that line, she said, "I appreciate your feedback," and hung up. She either takes her constituents for stupid if she thinks they will buy that rationale, or she doesn't care. That stance is an impediment for those trying to get voters to oust Bush.
The rot extends to the local level, making it all the harder to hold our noses and vote Kerry. One example from my state of Maine will suffice. On the ballot this November is a referendum question for a property tax cap. If passed, the resulting billion-dollar tax break, $200 million of which would go to owners of coastline who live out of state, would lead to draconian cutbacks in social services. Our local library, the heart of our tiny town, would in all likelihood close. You can imagine my distress as a homeschooling parent-that library is the central hub for my children's education. Naturally, we approached the local Democratic Party office for material to fight the tax cap, asking them to take a stand in defense of the library. We were told that they had no materials and that such a stand wasn't possible because it would interfere with the message they were focused on: get Bush out.
In spite of all this, no doubt some of us in the swing states might still manage to brave the stench and vote Kerry. But that doesn't detract from the obvious. When even local party operatives refuse to denounce a tax cut and can't even find the backbone to defend something as uncontroversial as a public library, you know it's time Nader's critics got what they asked for: a new party.
Next: Empire of Insanity: Kerry's Iraq Numbers
Greg Bates is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion.
Other Articles by Greg Bates
An Open Letter
to Eric Alterman