Originally published in New Ground 73, November — December, 2000.
Reconsidering Gore and Nader
by Bob Roman
It almost doesn’t matter who won the Presidential election. I’m not saying it makes no difference. It makes a difference in more or less obvious ways, such as in the appointment of judges, appointments to the NLRB. It makes a difference in less obvious ways, as in the administration of countless obscure programs that have a subtle yet intimate consequence in people’s lives. And while legislation in Congress is bounded by the need for consensus and thus largely limited to that range of possibilities, the President does have an important role in shaping that consensus. It does make a difference.
But an election is only the beginning of politics and any outcome presents its own set of opportunities and hazards. The general consensus of the moment among pundits is that the next President will be damaged goods; that Congress, evenly split to begin with, will be poisoned by “we was robbed”: a polarized, contentious situation. While this has probably been overstated (remember the reaction to closing down the government during earlier games of “budget chicken”; beware the cry for “bipartisanship”), it will limit the possibilities for change from either side.
A polarized polity and divided ruling class should be a good situation for insurgents, but this election also revealed the weakness of the left. There was no “left” candidate in the Democratic primaries (remember Wellstone for President?). The issues were no better; the most progressive proposal for national health, for example, was actually Bradley’s inferior retread of Senator Dole’s counter proposal to Clinton’s national health plan.
That Gore was just barely able to win a plurality of the electoral vote should come as no surprise. In this entrepreneurial candidate driven electoral system, a system that treats issues and candidates as if they were commodities, it is only that Bush is of the same ilk that made Gore’s campaign viable. François Mitterand said it best: “You cannot make politics that alienate your own clientele. It is fatal.”
And what can be said of the Nader campaign? Nader failed to reach his goal of 5% nationally thus failing to qualify for matching Federal funds in the next Presidential election. Only 19 Green candidates won their elections, exclusively on the municipal and county level; with a few notable exceptions, local Green candidates generally ran substantially behind Nader. (Some 74 Greens hold public office, exclusively at the county and municipal levels.) The Nader campaign had virtually no labor support (the major exception being the United Electrical Workers) and no grassroots support among the minority communities: this despite the fact that Nader had almost ideal positions on labor and trade. Which is precisely the point. Positions don’t count without also having the ability to do more than just talk about them. Until the Greens have something beyond nice words, something concrete to offer Labor and minorities, they should not be surprised to find themselves regarded as “spoilers” rather than as saviors.
Yet the Nader campaign was not regarded by most of its activists as being about today; the point was to build a new party. But party building is problematic both specifically for the Greens and in general. Specifically for the Greens, there are Greens and there are Greens. There is the Green Party USA. There is the Association of State Green Parties. There is Nader’s campaign organization which both straddles and exceeds those two organizations. Given the historical animosity between the two, the Greens are almost lucky they did not achieve 5% of the vote. Consider the fate of the Reform Party.
The general problem with building parties in the United States is beyond the scope of this article, especially as much of it involves the minutia of election laws. Suffice it to say that with the fiasco in Florida and the Electoral College, election law reform will be higher on the political agenda. The left should take advantage of this. And while the history of national third parties has been pretty dismal, there is a history of success for municipal, county and state third parties (in descending order). This implies an organizing strategy of building from the ground up may be successful. Nader’s campaign may have been organizationally premature.
Certainly Labor would argue that Nader’s campaign was politically premature. Even though organized labor tends to have an arrogance of resources (It claims almost a third of Gore’s vote; the total spent by Labor on the election and election related activities is greater by an order of magnitude than the total budget of the Greens. Not to mention the number of people mobilized by organized labor!), it’s become clear just how vulnerable the movement is. If the movement is to survive, at least, and rebuild, the desire to have a government that is not actively hostile to labor’s very existence is surely understandable. Organized labor is in essentially a defensive political posture.
The more serious problem is keeping the “Teamsters and Turtles” together. Some of the pre-election nastiness is at least understandable, but the polemics on both sides have not ceased. Talk is talk. We will not, we should not, have a left that does not quarrel among its various parts. But these are times of peril and opportunity. To take advantage of these opportunities and to effectively defend what we have, we need to work together.