Ralph Nader, Rocky Anderson, and the Green Party: A Political Un-Love Story

On Tuesday, April 10, Ralph Nader announced his support for the presidential candidacy of Rocky Anderson, former Democrat, former mayor of Salt Lake City, and standard bearer of the fledgling Justice Party. On that day Nader spoke at a press conference alongside Anderson in Portland, Oregon, where Anderson had just gained ballot status by receiving the nod from that state’s Progressive Party.

Although Nader claims that his backing falls short of a formal endorsement, the Anderson campaign isn’t echoing that semantic hair splitting. After the joint appearance, Rocky Anderson’s Facebook page was updated as follows: “At a press conference in Portland, Oregon today, Ralph Nader officially endorsed Rocky Anderson! It’s been a great day so far, now with everyone’s help let’s raise 10k in just 1 day! We can do it!”

Nader has earned equal measures of adulation (among some radicals) and scorn (among most Democrats) for his unsparing dissections of the hypocrisies and pretensions of liberals and pseudoprogressives of various stripes (Nader, for example, was far more prescient and pointed in his critiques of Obama in 2008 than almost anyone else on the media radar). So one wonders why Nader has spurned the more overtly and unabashedly progressive candidacy of Jill Stein, the likely Green Party presidential nominee, to cast his lot with the shadowy, equivocal campaign of Anderson, a long-time Democratic Party/center-left pol who expressly abjures any identification with the left and who, as recently as 2002-2003, exchanged lavish expressions of praise and political support with Mitt Romney.

An on-line tour of the announced positions of Anderson, as stated on his campaign website, yields some intriguing anomalies. For example: on climate change, Nader and others on the left—including Jill Stein and NASA’s James Hansen—favor some form of carbon tax as a major step toward achieving sharp, rapid reductions in CO2 emissions. Anderson, by contrast, favors “a market-based approach (i.e., cap and trade) to reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions,” a proposal that has been widely ridiculed by climate activists as nothing more than another speculative tinker-toy for Wall Street. As Nader told the New York Times, “I mean, it’s not going to work. It’s too complex. It’s too easily manipulated politically.” Hansen’s assessment is even blunter: “Cap and trade does little to slow global warming or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars.”

On a host of other issues, Anderson lists noticeably to the right of Nader, despite praiseworthy planks such as raising the minimum wage to ten dollars per hour and slashing the Pentagon budget by 50 percent. On health care, while acknowledging the virtues of single-payer, Anderson also touts a variety of European multi-payer schemes that retain a role for private insurers. He does not expressly call for an outright repeal of WTO/NAFTA, the Patriot Act, or Taft-Hartley, demands that Nader has advanced prominently in all his campaigns. Nor does the solutions section of his website feature the specific demand for full public financing of elections, another of Nader’s key issues, (although Anderson has mentioned the idea in passing in a blog interview). Moreover, Anderson echoes the ideologues of the right in calling for a “balanced budget (or a surplus) except in times of war or major recession”—clearly a calculated appeal to conservative voters. Jill Stein, by contrast, converges with Nader on all the foregoing issues. And on it goes: the Anderson website’s “solutions” pages ladle on a thick glaze of leftish rhetoric that cannot conceal a paucity of programmatic specificity on many key progressive demands and a troubling penchant for pandering to the right.

If all this leaves you confused about Anderson’s true political convictions, it has evidently had the same effect on the candidate himself. As he writes on his campaign website, “If my fighting for the restoration of the rule of law and the bolstering of our most fundamental constitutional values makes me a conservative, a liberal, or a patriot, you can use whatever term you like.” Here he seems to make of himself a political Rorschach test, providing a classic example of the market-research, one-size-fits all vacuity that dominates mainstream American presidential “messaging.”

Anderson’s overtures to the political right are nothing new. In 2002, while he was Mayor of Salt Lake City, he worked closely with Mitt Romney, who was president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games of 2002. The two got on so famously that Anderson extended his warm support to Romney’s successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts. Romney returned the favor by endorsing Anderson’s re-election bid for the mayoralty of Salt Lake City in 2003. Anderson has distanced himself—somewhat—from his quondam embrace of the Great Downsizer. Anderson told Amy Goodman, “Well, that was that Mitt Romney. It’s a very different Mitt Romney, of course, who’s running for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. He’s changed his position on so many issues.” Romney’s packaging may have changed, but as recently as 2002-2003, Anderson was clearly comfortable with exchanging endorsements with a leading member and defender of the interests of the 1 percent.

Anderson’s forays into the precincts of the Right persist right up to the present. Just last month he announced that he would be seeking the nomination of Americans Elect, a proto-political party that is funded predominantly by hedge funds and is seeking to place a third-party “centrist” candidate on the ballot in all fifty states. As Harold Myerson wrote of this secretive group in the Washington Post: “We do know that its website has a ‘leadership’ list of roughly 100 people, and that of the 90 or so who aren’t the organization’s staffers or consultants, 20 are heads or leading executives of hedge funds, private equity firms and major banks. If Americans Elect is spearheading a revolution, it’s a revolution of the 1%.”

Curiously, Anderson’s open-arms policy toward the corporate right is wedded to a chronic allergy to any associations with the left. Asked by Amy Goodman why he did not seek the Green Party nomination, he said, “Well, I think the Green Party, they have a lot of great people. They have a good platform. But I think there are some organizational problems. I think they’re also perceived as being sort of a sliver of just the left in this country. We are a—we’re attracting a multi-partisan group of people. We’ve been contacted by Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, people across the political spectrum that have just had enough. They know that there’s got to be another way.”

Notwithstanding Anderson’s rosy political ecumenicism, his campaign has generated no great groundswell of support from any segment of the electorate. Unlike the Green Party, which is already on the ballot in 21 states and expects to be listed in 40 to 48 by Election Day, Rocky Anderson’s name has found its way to only three state ballots, and some who have spoken to Anderson recently find him discouraged about his campaign’s prospects.

Michael McGee, Anderson’s campaign manager, is more upbeat. He told me that fifteen more states have “easy” requirements, but that they will need to raise substantial funds to get on in another ten—but the prospects for those petitioning drives remain hazy. Moreover, the Justice Party has yet to hold a national convention, as required by the FEC; it had announced one tentatively for last February, but it has been kicked down the road to sometime in August, with no firm date set.

So the obvious questions arise: Is Rocky Anderson serious about building a progressive alternative to the corporate duopoly parties, or is this just another exercise in political jockeying and self-promotion? According to Jill Stein, her campaign held several conference calls with Anderson and his staff in September and October of 2011, exploring grounds for unified action. The main message from the Anderson camp was a desire to conduct a hedged, safe-states campaign that would surge at the polls and then drop out at the last minute in exchange for a cabinet appointment.

Michael McGee confirms both that these conversations took place and that his party’s strategy does target the plums of high-profile government jobs. He views an all-out independent effort—the Nader approach in 2004 and 2008—as a “loser strategy, a Jehovah’s Witness approach that says to the voters: ‘This is what we believe even though we don’t think we can win.’ This simply turns people off.” What McGee advances instead is a swing-states gambit, focusing on Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. “If we can get on the ballot in 9 or 10 swing states,” McGee told me, “we can affect the outcome of the election and have the leverage to get Justice Party people in Federal positions, including the Cabinet.”

This strategy may leave some progressives wondering whether Anderson is running a sincere campaign or a ruse, whether he is trying to build an independent movement or merely a Cabinet résumé. It may also leave them wondering whether the Justice Party is an organic sprout from the grass roots or an attempted graft of Rocky Anderson’s political ambitions onto the progressive movement.

Given these yawning gaps in the Justice Party’s progressive bona fides, what accounts for Nader’s embrace of Anderson’s campaign and his brush-off of the more politically congenial candidacy of Stein? There are two possible explanations, both seemingly personal rather than political. The first is that Nader’s joint appearance with Anderson in Portland was simply a personal favor to some of the leadership of Oregon’s Progressive Party—people who had worked closely with Ralph in the past.

The second pertains to Nader’s long and checkered relationship with the Green Party, extending back to his presidential run on the Green ticket in 2000. In the aftermath of that year’s Florida debacle, with the ensuing ostracism of Nader and his supporters in the corporate media and the ranks of the Democratic Party, hordes of progressives—including many Greens and notable lefties such as Michael Moore and Cornel West—rediscovered their inner lesser-evilism, viewing it as an expedient to remove Bush from office. In the 2004 race the Green Party leadership, thwarting substantial pro-Nader sentiment in the party’s rank and file, joined the stampede away from Nader and toward the welcoming arms of the Kerry campaign.

The Green leaders did not overtly endorse Kerry but rather telegraphed their de facto support by pursuing a “safe-states” strategy, rebuffing Nader (who ran on his own) and enforcing skewed national convention voting rules that assured the nomination of David Cobb, an obscure Texas insurance lawyer whose lack of renown and charisma were gift-wrapped godsends to the Kerry camp; Cobb then announced his intention to campaign vigorously only in states securely in the blue column. That low-profile, safe-states “dive” benefited neither the hapless Kerry nor his Green enablers: the Green Party’s presidential vote collapsed in 2004 (Cobb earned one-fourth of Nader’s 2004 vote total); the bitter harvest was the loss of Green ballot status in 11 states. ((For a detailed account of the Green leadership’s convention manipulations that led to Cobb winning the party’ presidential nomination with only a small minority of Green primary votes, see “How David Cobb Became the Green Nominee Even Though He Only Got 12 Percent of the Votes,” by Carol Miller and Forrest Hill, CounterPunch, August 7-9, 2004; for the specifics on the post-Cobb contraction of the Green Party, see “All That’s Left Is the Cobb: The Decline of the Green Party,” by Steve Greenfield, CounterPunch, March 19-21, 2005.))

Fast forward to 2012: Ben Manski, one of the leading promoters of the 2004 Cobb campaign, is now the national manager of Jill Stein’s Green presidential bid. When I asked someone close to Nader why he had given his public blessing to Anderson rather than Stein, Manski’s name and the year 2004 popped up immediately. I was also told they resented Stein’s support of Cobb in 2004.

There is, however, a kernel of political substance lurking in Nader’s rancor about the party that once snubbed him. When I pointed out to Nader’s associate that Jill Stein was much closer to Ralph on the issues than Anderson is, the reply was, “Yeah, but given their [the Greens’] recent history, how do we know they’re serious about really remaining independent from the Democrats?” A reasonable enough question—so I took it to the source: Jill Stein herself.

Stein is baffled and frustrated by Nader’s cold shoulder. “I have repeatedly tried to speak with Ralph, but to no avail,” she told me. “This is so disappointing to me because Ralph was the person who woke me up politically. His 2000 campaign was for me political shock therapy—my political awakening. I worked so hard on his campaign—I spoke at the Super Rally for him in Boston that year.” Stein is a physician who has labored hard for the past twenty years on a host of progressive causes, beginning with local health-related issues like closing down incinerators and coal–burning plants. “I didn’t really begin to focus on these issues until I was forty years old, in 1990. Then it took me another decade to understand that progressive activism without an independent political vehicle—a party—is futile. And the 2000 Nader campaign was the clincher for me.”

She ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Green ticket in 2002 and made a favorable impression in the televised debates; one newspaper columnist wrote that she was “the only adult in the room.” She professes to have been oblivious to the Green factional battles of 2004: “I was not really tuned into the controversy between Nader and Cobb,” she told me. “I was really too clueless about internal Green Party battles to take sides. I voted for Cobb that year only because he was the party’s candidate and I was all about trying to build the Green Party.”

Stein did not seek the Green Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. Although she had been working for ten years to build the Massachusetts Greens, she did not attend her first Green Party national convention until August 2011, hoping to aid in the search for a suitable presidential candidate. But, she says, “I was approached—as in heavily arm-twisted—to become a candidate myself.” When she spoke to Cobb about the prospect of running, he told her that her candidacy would be a good idea but that he couldn’t become personally involved because the people who were recruiting her had been Nader supporters in 2004 and “still hate me.” So Nader’s Green supporters see in Stein a serious and effective proponent of Ralph’s agenda, but not the seemingly peevish Great Man himself.

Manski, whose name still can arouse the ire of the Nader camp, acknowledges the blunders of 2004. “There were many mistakes made by many people on all sides of the 2004 debate,” he told me. “The test is whether people learn from their mistakes, and whether they recognize that others have learned from their mistakes. The Greens have a lot of experience with independent politics. We’ve learned many lessons the hard way, and having survived those lessons, we are stronger for it.” He added, “Even David Cobb now thinks that the whole safe-states thing was a mistake.”

Nader, while nursing his undying pique over the Greens’ “dive” of 2004, has not always hewed to his own stringent standards of political independence in the recent past. In neither 2004 nor 2008 did Nader attempt to build an enduring party structure that would survive his presidential runs. Since then he has occasionally dipped his toe back into the waters of the Democratic Party, as in his endorsement of Jonathan Tasini’s primary run for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2010 and his more recent abortive efforts to spur a Democratic primary challenge to Obama. If Nader regards the Democratic Party as a corporate swamp where the progressive agenda sinks into oblivion, why does he lead sporadic charges into a party he so often denounces as a dead end? At least the Greens, whatever their current and past sins of temporizing and de facto complicity, have never urged direct participation in the Democratic Party. And if Nader can overlook Rocky Anderson’s embrace of the rightist corporate buccaneer Mitt Romney, why can’t he bury the hatchet over Stein’s vote for the left-liberal Cobb in 2004?

Given the widespread disillusionment with Obama among progressives and the unexpected flourishing of the Occupy movement, the 2012 election presents priceless opportunities for propagating a left message to an increasingly besieged electorate that is hungry for solutions. But what are the alternatives for the left? To dissipate and fragment its finite resources and energies among a half dozen socialist sects? To unify behind Rocky Anderson, who is spotty on program and still seemingly immured in the glad-handing, horse-trading ethos of the political establishment? Notwithstanding the Green Party’s history of organizational quirks, factional strife, and fitful irresolution in confronting the Democrats, it seems that the best opportunity to use electoral activism to complement Occupy is through Stein’s candidacy. Radical yet nonsectarian, her campaign is an all-out effort to build an independent progressive movement rather than an elaborate ploy to snare a Cabinet post or the rote ritual of a would-be socialist vanguard; in short, it’s the closest we can come, in spirit if not in size, to the Left Front in France or the Left Party of Germany.

The Greens seem at last to have gotten over their internal wars of the past decade, with the former Cobbites, now sorry about the fiasco of 2004, having joined with former Naderite Greens to back Stein; Nader, on the other hand, appears not to have gotten over or moved on, and may someday find himself sorry that he again spited the Greens, this time to back a candidate well to their—and his—right.

This political un-love story furnishes a potential lesson for all the battered antagonists: in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, forging a unified and potent left front, unburdened by opportunism, personal spite, or sectarian sanctimony, means never having to say you’re sorry.

William Kaufman is an educational writer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at: kman484@earthlink.net. Read other articles by William.