A Shadow of His Past

Election '04

In mid-September, Ralph Nader came to Wisconsin, a perilously teetering swing state. The day before he arrived, more than 70 well-known supporters of his 2000 campaign released a statement urging people who live in states where the election looks tight not to vote for him. Noam Chomsky, Phil Donahue, Barbara Ehrenreich and Howard Zinn were among the signers, as were Medea Benjamin, Norman Solomon, Jim Hightower, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Cornel West. "Even while we strongly disagree with Kerry's policies on Iraq and other issues," they wrote, "for people seeking progressive social change in the United States, removing George W. Bush from office should be the priority in 2004."

That opinion is so ubiquitous among people who supported Nader in 2000 that I wondered: Who are the Nader supporters in 2004?

To find out, I called Bill Linville, the statewide coordinator of the Nader campaign in Wisconsin. A recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Linville showed up for our interview at the UW student union wearing a Ramones T-shirt, sneakers, and a backpack. He shook my hand, glanced around the room, and announced that something had come up and he had to go. He ended up sticking around after all, though, and he answered my questions for almost an hour, fiddling with his cell phone and looking pained.

Linville and his colleagues – mostly college students and recent grads – had just finished collecting 4,000 signatures to get Nader on the ballot. It was a harrowing experience, to hear them describe it.

"The people who got Nader on the ballot in Wisconsin are damn principled," Linville said, flushing. "We grew so much from taking so much crap."

At their regular weekly meetings on Monday nights, members of Students for Nader in Madison shared stories of being yelled at, spat on, and called names as they canvassed for signatures. Their signs were torn down, doors were slammed in their faces. And, of course, there were the legal challenges from the Democratic Party, which had teams of lawyers fighting hard to keep Nader off the ballot across the country.

When they finally turned in their signatures to the state elections board, "the Democrats challenged us with a minute and a half to go before the deadline Friday afternoon," Linville said. The Democrats found a mistake on the petitions and seized on it: An elector was listed in the wrong district. The Democrats' other argument – that it was illegal for Nader to run as in independent in Wisconsin – seemed unlikely to succeed. It looked like Linville and his small band of Naderites would beat the party. Linville shared this news with the Monday night group after our interview. "The guy I'm working with in D.C. thought we should sue them!" he said, to laughter from the dozen or so young men and women sitting around a small classroom.

How many of these folks voted for Nader in 2000? I asked the group. Two of the students giggled. "We were fourteen in 2000," one said. The rest had voted for Nader – except for Linville, who voted for Gore in 2000. He was radicalized after Sept. 11 by the war in Afghanistan, and after marching against the war, joined the International Socialist Organization. The ISO endorsed Nader, and Linville volunteered to be state coordinator of his campaign. When the campaign is over, he plans to become a high school history teacher.

Linville gives chapter and verse from the Nader bible: the rise of movements throughout American history; the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party; the need for an independent force for social change. This campaign "is about the AFL spending $60 million on the Democrats and not organizing Wal-Mart," he said. "It's about LBGT groups giving all this money to the Democratic Party, which is responsible for 'don't-ask-don't-tell,' and the Defense of Marriage Act." In Wisconsin, Linville says disgustedly, left wing Democrats urged activists to drop pressure for gay marriage legislation because it wasn't good for the party. "By these groups and institutions supporting the Democrats, their ideas become muted. You have to take more and more concessions as you shill for the Democrats," he said.

But it's a pretty serious thing to do to be getting Nader on the ballot in a swing state. Given that he isn't building any immediate third party alternative to the Democrats, does it really make sense?

Linville got angry. "I think it's a serious thing for a progressive to vote for Kerry," he said, rattling off Kerry's regressive stands on Iraq, U.S. militarism, and corporate tax breaks. "You're asking me to connect the dots, but no one connects the dots. No one stopped and said, 'What will you do after the sit-in?' during the anti-Vietnam War movement. It's about starting something."

Linville and Paul Heideman, the head of Students for Nader, a friendly guy with a mop of red curls and a Shakespeare T-shirt, both quoted Howard Zinn to me: "It's not important who's sitting in the White House, it's who's sitting in." But, of course, Zinn recently signed the letter urging swing state voters to get Bush out of the White House.

The Students for Nader are impatient with such a cautious approach.

Matt Goins, a junior in the philosophy department, who compared the Democrats to the Mafia "without the killings," said, about re-electing Bush, "It's irrelevant."

Heideman took a gentler tone. "We shouldn't belittle it, but it's not as important as building a movement," he said.

Alycia Sellie, a library science graduate student who was organizing a 'zine fest in town, said, "I don't want to support either party, because they don't represent me. I don't believe in the two party system."

(This was followed by a lot of head-shaking in the group about how many 'zines and punk rockers are apparently backing Kerry.)

"I'd rather vote for something and not get it than vote for something I hate," said Nate Punswick, who recently graduated from UW-Whitewater and works at a local bank.

Can't one criticize the Democrats and still not organize voters in a swing state so that Bush may well win four more years? They debated the point passionately.

"Every single one of us is involved in a social movement, but they're dead because of folding into the Kerry campaign!" said ISO member Laura Nelson. The other students agreed: stopping the war, gay marriage, and other causes have been abandoned as activists fall in line with Kerry. The goal of the Nader campaign, they said, is to force these movements to break from the party that has hijacked their ideals.

You have to hand it to these young people. They're idealistic, and they are running uphill to do what they think is right.

Talking to Linville and the Students for Nader reminded me of a conversation I had, back during the 2000 campaign, with a middle-aged activist in Vermont. He worked for one of Nader's public interest research groups when he was in his 20s, and his life changed. He walked into the PIRG office thinking he'd volunteer to do drudge work. Instead, they sat him down at a phone and had him call some big corporations. He was to go up the chain of command, until he was talking to an executive and saying "you are in violation of the law and, if you don't stop what you're doing, we are going to sue you." The thrill of that experience made him glow, remembering his young, disaffected self transformed into a Nader Raider.

Linville's battle with the Democratic Party lawyers produced a similar glow. Seated in the marble-colonnaded chambers of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, he and his T-shirt-clad colleagues passed notes to the pro bono attorney arguing for Nader's ballot line. Here they were, in the heart of power, making their case. The court decided in their favor.

At 70, Nader is still issuing a clarion call to young people – that they can and should change the world. Whether Nader is right or wrong, that message is as heart-stirring as ever.

I hadn't seen Nader since 2000, when I tagged along with him in his campaign car, watching him electrify audiences up and down the East Coast.

When I caught up with him before his speech at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the statement from his former supporters asking people in swing states not to vote for him had just come out. He called it "unconditional surrender." "It's the politics of fear run amok," he said. "The loss of nerve. They are helping Kerry lose."

Nader blamed liberal intellectuals – along with labor unions, the ACLU, and other progressive groups who are now backing Kerry – for what looked like a floundering Democratic campaign. By giving up their "stature and integrity," by acting like "weaklings," and by not holding the Democrats' feet to the fire on trade, civil liberties, the war in Iraq, and economic justice, progressives have allowed the party to be pulled to the right by corporate interests and their preferred brand of "swing vote" politics, he says. Hence, Kerry's dismally vague message.

"I don't remember any time in history when the left has surrendered like this on the foreign policy, military, and economic issues they believe in," Nader said.

Instead of releasing a statement opposing Nader, "Why couldn't they have said, 'We urge Kerry to adopt the following positions'?" he asked. "If they don't make Kerry better, he'll be made worse."

Sitting backstage before his speech, eating Middle Eastern take-out, Nader looked tired. Who are your supporters now? I asked. "We've been abandoned by most people," he said, matter-of-factly. "Patti Smith is the only entertainer."

Was it true, I asked, that he changed his mind and decided to campaign in swing states because he was angry about the Democrats' legal challenges aiming to keep him off the ballot? "I told them you're driving us into the swing states," he said. "We were going to set up an office in Crawford, Texas." Instead, an aide jumped in: "The Democrats want to bury Ralph so no one ever tries this again."

But is it so contemptible to be scared of another four years of Bush? Even if the Democrats are as hollow as he says, isn't it a high price for teaching them a lesson to help perpetuate the current far-right regime?

"I'm running to defeat Bush," Nader said. He repeated this idea in his speech later: The Democrats can't be trusted to beat Bush. Someone else needs to make the progressive argument. The party needs a "jolt." If they lose, it's their fault, not his.

The "help" Nader talks about offering the Democrats has been a murky concept from the start. Early in the campaign, he suggested that he would pull more votes from Republicans. That does not seem to be the case. Now he's threatening that if the Democrats don't motivate voters with a more aggressive message and set of policies, they'll lose. Fair enough. But meanwhile, by taking his campaign to states like Wisconsin, he seems poised to give them an extra push off the cliff.

Sometimes Nader seems to acknowledge that the Republicans are significantly worse than the Democrats. Sometimes he seems to say the two parties are just alike. The strongest part of his message, it seems to me, is that the Democrats have been a growth medium for the far right.

In his speech to the packed Union Theater, the applause lines started rolling as he attacked Bush and expressed progressives' exasperation with the feckless Democrats.

He described meeting with John Kerry and offering a list of issues that Kerry could adopt. If Kerry had taken his advice, Nader said, "you would now be singing bye-bye George W. Bush." Besides opposing the war, Nader's advice included a repeal of Taft-Hartley and other anti-union laws, curbs on outsourcing, and serious prosecution of corporate crime.

Kerry demurred, Nader said, and as a consequence, "he's falling behind. Bush is taunting him on Iraq. He's taunting him! This bumbling governor from Texas who can barely read his cue cards!"

Why are Kerry and Edwards acting so weak? Nader asked rhetorically. Because years ago they began "dialing for corporate dollars."

"Look at the results ... with the worst right wing administration in history, the Democratic Party has left our country defenseless. Over the last 10 years, they've repeatedly lost to the worst of the Republicans, who are the most anti-worker, anti-anything that can be called human decency."

That got a huge round of applause.

Nader blamed not only the Democrats, but also the "liberal intelligentsia," including The Progressive magazine. "They're so freaked out by Bush, they make the following mantra: 'Anybody but Bush,' not making any demands on Kerry. If John Kerry loses to this craven regime in Washington, he'll lose because the liberals abdicated responsibility to make him a more popular, go-getting Democrat. It's almost as if they're ashamed of what they're advocating."

To the Democrats, he said, "Throw in the towel. Give up. Step aside. Let the younger generation that sees through the sham take over."

And to the audience: "This is a decadent party. This is a decaying party. You can watch it, or you can do something. Try to give it a jolt, as we're doing. Make demands on it. But do something."

This is the same message that was so galvanizing in 2000 when Nader packed Madison Square Garden, and so many other venues, talking to people eager to help build the grassroots movement he envisioned. What has happened since then?

Eddie Vedder, Bonnie Raitt, and other entertainers who were on stage with Nader are out playing anti-Bush events. Nader derided Michael Moore in his speech for getting down on his knees and begging him not to run. ("Don't grovel. ... Stand up for justice," he said.)

Has the dream died? Has the left given up? Are Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich really just "scared liberals," as Nader called them in his reply to their recent statement?

"It's hard to dismiss them as corporate Democrats," says Jeff Cohen, former head of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, who helped put together the statement to swing state voters. "Clearly, I don't think people signed this because they think the Democratic leadership under Kerry is dramatically better than the Democratic leadership under Gore," Cohen says. "It's because the Republicans are worse than anyone imagined."

The optimistic feeling many on the left had in 2000 is almost hard to recall now. The country has taken such a hard turn to the right since then. Bush seemed like a bumbler who couldn't win. If elected, he might, as Ehrenreich put it, "while away his presidency on the elliptical trainer." Activists were fed up with Democratic retreat on issues like welfare reform and corporate control of the media. People believed, as Cohen says, that it was a good time for a "center-left" strategy: helping to build a strong Green Party to put pressure on the corporate Democrats who were running things.

Bush's regime, Sept. 11, and its aftermath changed everything. The most devastating aspect of the Republican regime, it seems to me, is its lawless militarism, which is spreading a toxic hatred of America around the globe. Linville snorts at this: "I'm glad America is hated," he said. "I think the U.S. should shut down all its military bases abroad."

To the young people supporting Nader today, Bush is the status quo – not some freakish aberration. They see the pre-emptive war in Iraq as an extension of Clinton's bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. They see Dennis Kucinich, the leftmost Democrat, as a sellout, whose campaign was designed, from the beginning, to co-opt the anti-war movement. (The ISO website calls Kucinich a "bagman" for Kerry.)

"Some of that rhetoric made sense to me decades ago, but when I hear it today it seems like it's wanting me to conflate Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich with Joe Lieberman," says Cohen. "It's not meaningful."

As for Howard Zinn and that quote of his the Nader backers repeated to me: "That quote is a little misleading, because it suggests I don't care who's in the White House," Zinn said, when I reached him by phone. "I'm arguing that social action is more important. But it doesn't mean that who's in the White House is of zero importance." Having Bush in charge of the world's mightiest war machine is too dangerous, he says.

About Nader, Zinn said, "He's been seduced by the last thing in the world he should be seduced by, which is electoral politics. He's not about that. He's about movement politics."

Zinn is sympathetic with Nader's supporters.

"The Democratic Party is a pitiful example of an opposition. And when you look at what Kerry stands for and what Nader stands for, I understand perfectly why people might find it repugnant to vote for Kerry and not for Nader ... I'm sort of with them emotionally.

"But," he continues, "I think that in this election they, too, are placing too much stock in the election itself, thinking it's very important for people to mark their ballots for Nader. That's not the most important thing. The most important thing is carrying on the issues he stands for."

In fact, if Nader gets less than he did last time, Zinn thinks it gives an erroneous picture of how much support there is for what he stands for – causes that a majority of Americans actually agree with.

The election will be over soon. The effect of Nader's run may be to help drive the country further to the right. But I like Zinn's optimism. I hope his students, and Nader's, bring about the massive social change they, and their mentors, still believe in.

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