Whither Nader and (His) Greens?

News & Politics

Whether or not Ralph Nader gets five percent of the popular vote in Tuesday's election, what is the future of this "new, progressive political movement" Nader says he's building?

Is it the goofy Green Party of aging hippies like Joey Racano, who opened a Nader rally at Chapman University in Orange, California two weeks ago by announcing that he was running for the Huntington Beach City Council but then spent his invaluable half-hour on the stage before a captive audience of more than 1000 people killing time by playing obscure songs he had written on the guitar?

Or is it the savvy Green Party of Ross Mirkarimi, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco who is Nader's California campaign director, who effectively cajoled $75,000 in spontaneous contributions out of the 7,000 people who came to Nader's Oakland rally, and who has led the organizing that will put thousands of volunteers on the streets before Election Day to walk local precincts in get-out-the-vote efforts?

Is it a party that tries to use its 5 percent of the vote - and up to 10 percent or more in many congressional districts -- as leverage to bargain with the major parties into making changes in the status quo? Or is it a purer, more transformative force that will try to stand outside the mainstream political process?

And what will Nader's role be? In a year filled with political paradoxes, consider this one: the man who has done more than anyone else to put the Green Party on the national map isn't even a member and has no intentions of becoming one. "I'm an independent," Nader said, and it's clear that while he has broken with his own longstanding aversion to electoral politics, he isn't about to become a pure Green partisan either.

Of course, the leaders of Green parties in the many states where the Third Party has sprouted will certainly have a lot to say about the movement's future. Thanks to the Nader campaign, the party is much closer to having a genuine national presence.

By November of next year, the Greens will have ballot qualified parties in forty states, up from twenty-four before this election. Strong state branches like California, Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii and Maine will be joined by burgeoning Green parties in Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. And once the finishing touches are put on an agreement that has been hammered out to formally end the debilitating split between the Association of State Green Parties (ASGP) and the more leftist Greens/Green Party USA (G/GPUSA), the party should emerge with one national committee and structure.

Still, Nader will stand head and shoulders above the rest as its de facto national spokesman and, behind the scenes, as the party's most important resource.

In a lengthy interview October 21st, traveling from Santa Monica to Fresno, Nader gave the clearest picture to date of his thinking and plans for the future. We started with the brass-tacks: What will happen to the campaign organization after the election?

"The campaign stays open indefinitely, well into the next year while we establish post-election policies and programs," Nader said. But he made clear that he wasn't going to try to keep on all the dozens of people currently employed by the campaign, but had in mind a core staff of eight or so. It appears from talking to people in the Nader HQ that these will include some key field staffers for a few months, along with the core of the finance and administrative team.

And what about the 75,000 people on the campaign's fundraising lists? "We'll definitely be raising more funds from our lists," said Nader. But the first two projects he mentions for those funds don't sound like Green Party-building at all, or at least not directly.

The first is to set up a "People's Debate Commission" to replace the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that locked him and the other Third-Party contenders out of the national conversation. Of all the issues Nader raises on the hustings, none gets a bigger cheer than his announcement that he is suing the CPD. And if he manages to bust open that piece of the political duopoly, he'll be performing a huge service to democracy, one that will benefit the Greens along with all other outsider parties.

The second project sounds almost like a throwback to Nader's Public Interest Research Groups. "One thing I want to do is establish a much more rigorous exposure of members of Congress' voting records, back in their districts," he said. On the trail, Nader frequently needles congressmen and women for putting all sorts of information on their Web sites -- except for the most important data, "their voting record in retrievable form."

But pressed, Nader admits he has more in mind than just monitoring their records. "Basically, I'd like to have an investigator in every district, spreading the word, mobilizing, demonstrating, holding press conferences, encouraging others to take them on."

As for the Greens themselves, Nader sketches three ways he plans to be involved. "I'd like to encourage the Greens in the states where they have the inclination to join with various citizen groups on contemporary issues, like fighting electricity deregulation. To basically lock arms with groups that are ... on the ground fighting with, you know, testimony, mobilizations, demonstrations, putting out reports."

He points to the Connecticut Green Party as a model ("My favorite state Green Party, by sheer coincidence," said the Yankee state native). "They are completely issue-oriented, they meet regularly, they're running themselves for state legislature. They're cool-headed. And they did a great thing on the football (team, the New England) Patriots," where they led a coalition that defeated the Republican governor's plan to finance a new stadium in Hartford with public funds.

"Second is recruiting good candidates, really good candidates," Nader continues. And who will do that? "We'll do it and the Greens will too." This is a role that Nader has already played, without much attention. For example, when he heard that Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin was thinking of getting into the California Senate race, he called her to add his encouragement. And Benjamin played leapfrog with Nader at all of his California campaign events, appearing just before he speaks (and often extending her remarks to make up for his running perpetually late).

"Third is the Greens are going to file for national party status, with the FEC," Nader adds, "and I'd like to explore different modes [of organization], so that we don't fall into an institutional mimicry that produces cliquish results."

Here Nader was responding to a suggestion that national party status meant soon there would be a Green National Committee alongside the Democratic and Republican National Committees. In a late night conversation two weeks earlier, after Nader appeared on Saturday Night Live, he said he wasn't worried about the question of who would be the party's national chair, and that he was confident he would maintain a strong influence through the staff he would keep on in Washington. But this remains the least developed of his plans.

The question of how the Greens will organize themselves nationally remains critical and unanswered. Most of the people I spoke to expect the split between the ASGP and the G/GPUSA to be healed soon. From a purely legal point of view, the ASGP has a much stronger claim on getting FEC recognition than the much smaller G/GPUSA, as it was the ASGP that held the convention that nominated Nader for president. The leaders of the ASGP are, by and large, more serious about building parties that will contest for power in the electoral arena than are the holdouts in the G/GPUSA.

But the party could be the victim of its own success -- especially if Nader manages to get enough votes to qualify the party for several million dollars in public funding for its 2004 presidential nominee. That outcome could easily prompt well-organized outsiders -- from Lenora Fulani to the International Socialist Organization -- to try to take the party over just as Pat Buchanan won control of the Reform Party.

"That's why it's critical that when the ASGP meets in December," said Green organizer David Cobb, "we begin the process of congealing those state parties with a structure and process so that there are not self-appointed delegates."

Cobb is fast emerging as one of the Greens' most talented and hardworking organizers. In less than 3 years, he founded and built the Texas Green Party despite the huge obstacles to creating a Third Party in Bush's home state. Now, as Nader's Texas coordinator, he's amassed a mailing list of over 7,000 supporters, while the state party has grown from just 3 chapters a year ago to 25 today.

"Texas' model is that we are based on counties that are grouped by bioregions, and then we have an overall state executive committee," said Cobb. "We have county parties with formal affiliation agreements with the state party. The state chair and co-chair are registered with the secretary of state."

But how do you prevent interlopers from trying to take control? After all, there were many delegates at the Greens' national convention in Denver this June who were little more than self-appointed representatives who paid their own way to attend. He answers like a true small-d democrat, "The only way to stop people from taking over the apparatus is to have more party faithful attending the appropriate local, regional and state conventions," Cobb said.

"If there is a state where there is 'no there there,' absolutely that state will be ripe for a takeover attempt. The responsibility is on us to make sure there is real infrastructure on the ground making sure that doesn't happen."

But before the Greens get to the 2004 presidential campaign, they will have to figure out what they want to do with their already expanded role in state and national politics. If Nader tops the 5 percent barrier, the added boost in media attention will be worth much more than the $8 or $10 million coming to the party's candidate four years from now. And even if Nader misses that goal, he will undoubtedly get more than 5 percent in many congressional districts -- a fact that will be on the minds of Democratic and Republican incumbents in those seats.

Some Greens have already used this leverage to great effect. For example, after Greens in New Mexico drew 17 and 14 percent in two simultaneous special elections for congressional seats in 1997 and 1998, Democrats running in those districts shifted to the left, coming out for national health care and against any privatization of Social Security.

The Greens even claim credit for causing President Clinton to protect millions of acres in the southwest as national monuments in response to their campaign in 1998. Carol Miller, the New Mexico Green Party co-chair who ran in 1997, is now talking about running for the open governor's seat in two years and hoping that this may lead the political establishment to pass some needed electoral reforms, like instant runoff voting and election-day voter registration.

But when I asked Nader if he could see himself playing a similar role with the Greens on a national scale -- gearing up to run candidates in dozens of House districts, spoilers by design, and then using that threat to get the Democrats or Republicans to make concessions that might open up the political system and make it easier for the Greens to grow, he was emphatic in his disapproval.

"You don't start with that. You start with the assumption that you're going to beat 'em, because otherwise, you're in a transactional relationship with them: 'If you don't do this, we're going to do that,'" he mimicked in a mocking tone.

"No," he insisted, "The approach is, we're going to do 'that' regardless of what you do. And it's in your interest to counteract that by doing the right thing. It's not transactional, it's transformational. Because the minute that happens, look how it changes the character of the party: They start cutting deals. 'Well, you come out for, uh, reduced commercial logging on the forests and we'll just back off.'

"It's very corruptive," he said. "It is more than co-optive, it's corruptive."

"You can't sustain a major movement for justice piddling around," Nader continued. "We've lost a lot of time in this country, a lot of time." Besides, he added, the parties in power aren't about to yield anything to the Greens in any kind of bargaining relationship. "It'll never happen until they lose (elections) themselves. And they're going to lose only (if the Greens) pursue transformational rather than transactional politics."

Ultimately, Nader said he is absolutely serious about building a new majority political party in America. "You think I'm kidding when I say a million [members], a hundred [dollars a year], and a hundred [hours a year of volunteer time]?" Those are the benchmarks he has stated time and again for building a new independent political force. Indeed, I heard those very numbers from him nine years ago, when reporting on the Draft Nader for President effort in New Hampshire.

Are the Greens up to the task? Is Nader? And will they be able to keep pushing forward in the increasingly bitter climate among liberals and progressives worried about his impact on the Bush-Gore contest? These questions can't possibly be answered before Election Day. Nader himself admits the Greens are a long way from achieving this vision. But it's clear that he is irrevocably committed to that goal, and that he has inspired many others to join with him.

Micah L. Sifry, whose book on Third Parties in America will be published next year by Routledge, is reporting on Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign for NewsForChange.

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