2008 Presidential Prospects for Progressives: Nader, the Greens, and Building a Movement

While the presidential primary season lurches onward with Obama and Hillary struggling to secure the Democrat nomination, progressives are finding themselves in a predicament similar to both 2000 and 2004. Al Gore and John Kerry left a lot to be desired, though Bill Bradley, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton never gained much traction with their "inside the party" candidacies. We can’t forget Howard Dean either, who was considered the frontrunner in 2004 before faltering and eventually becoming the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The question, yet again, is whether or not to hold your nose and vote for the "lesser of two evils" (or, if you will, against the Republican Party) OR vote your conscience in support of a true progressive. Casting such a ballot in 2008 for a candidate with almost no chance of winning after the 2000 election fiasco is a tall order, especially when recognizing the substantial differences between McCain and Obama/Clinton on many, though certainly not all, important issues.

Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party presidential run is well documented. Charges of "spoiling" aside, his 2.7% – despite appearing on only 44 states’ ballots and not being included in presidential debates – represented a significant and promising development for progressives. Unfortunately, as many journalists have documented, Bush won Florida – and thus the presidency – through a combination of illegal voter disenfranchisement and legal fiat thanks to a 5 to 4 US Supreme Court decision. The momentum created by Nader’s candidacy was blunted considerably by the resulting anger and frustration over Bush’s installation as president and what remaining energy was effectively silenced in the disturbingly reactionary "patriotic" fervor immediately following 9-11. The combination of 9-11 and fallout over the 2000 election was disastrous, in many respects, for the Greens, specifically, and progressives, generally.

What may have been, however, is now a mute point.

In 2004, while Dean’s presidential candidacy prospects rose rapidly only to crash with equal speed, Nader decided not seek the Greens’ nomination, instead declaring an independent candidacy. Acrimony over both the result of the 2000 election and Nader’s distant relationship to the Greens (more on that later) led to divisions within the Green Party that eventually resulted in a something of a split. Unknown Green Party member David Cobb campaigned nationally for the nomination and articulated what became known as a "safe state strategy" that involved largely staying away from contested swing states that were likely to determine the next president. (Of course, now some controversy exists as to whether this was, in fact, Cobb’s campaign plan but I personally attended a meeting in San Antonio, Texas where Cobb clearly stated just such an approach.)

Nader, for his part, never joined the Green Party and refused to share donor/volunteer lists from his 2000 campaign with the Greens – this despite his oft-repeated campaign goal of building the party infrastructure and triggering federal matching funds with at least 5% of the national vote. Nonetheless, he did select a prominent California Green politician, Peter Camejo, as his vice-presidential running mate and asked the Greens for an "endorsement" of their ticket. At a contentious 2004 national convention, Nader’s appeal was rejected and Cobb became the party’s nominee.

Although Nader was on 44 ballots in 2000, both he and Cobb managed only a fraction of that total for the 2004 general election. Unsurprisingly, several states reacted to Nader’s previous candidacy by raising already unreasonable ballot access standards even higher. The Democrats, fearing a repeat of 2000, contested the Nader campaign through a series of lawsuits designed to drain precious time, resources, and, ultimately, deny him ballot access.

Many Greens, especially those in the relative stronghold of California, went outside the party to support Nader leaving the Green candidate, Cobb, with only 118,000 votes nationwide – good for just 6th place behind Bush, Kerry, Nader and both the Libertarian and Constitution Party candidates. Nader’s support fell drastically to less than .4%.

In this 2008 election cycle Nader has offered praise for some of the positions of John Edwards – Kerry’s vice-presidential running mate turned populist progressive 2008 presidential candidate – as well as those of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, all of whom ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Democratic nomination. He also has had kind words for Cynthia McKinney, former Democratic Congresswoman from Georgia who recently joined the Green Party and declared her candidacy for the Greens’ presidential nomination. But, for better or worse, Nader has decided on another independent candidacy opting not to support McKinney or any of the other Green candidates.

Progressives, by definition, must be concerned with the future. Many thoughtful progressives, with this in mind, have long understood the absolute necessity of building social movements as the basis of transformative social change. The German Green Party evolved as an extension of environmental, peace, and other activist currents in recognition of the need for an electoral arm to social movements. The American Green movement began similarly as a coalition of anti-nuclear activists, feminists, and both those connected to ecology and social justice movements.

The development of the American Green movement was also helped, in part, by Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential candidacies. Many of the elements of the "Rainbow Coalition" brought together in support of Jackson’s ultimately unsuccessful candidacies subsequently rallied to the Green movement. Jackson’s failure to capture the Democrat’s nomination – and the similar letdowns of subsequent progressive efforts – suggests the considerable obstacles to building substantive progressive movements inside the Democratic Party.

But the unique realities of the US "winner take all" system combined with the entrenchment of the two-party system – both institutionally and in the hearts and minds of the American public – require an especially nuanced approach to progressive electoral activity. The struggle over "party" vs. "movement" has already caused a major split as the current electoral-focused Green Party US diverged from the original – and much more movement-oriented – Greens/Green Party USA.

Ralph Nader’s unwillingness to work within the Green Party coupled with his inability, thus far, to build any sort of movement since 2000, raises serious questions about the value of his 2008 candidacy. While Nader’s tireless, lifelong efforts will doubtless serve to ensure his very positive legacy to history, his independent candidacy can aspire to little more than raising issues in the short term. Furthermore, his choice of another high profile California Green, Matt Gonzalez, as his vice-presidential running mate is particularly troubling for the Green Party.

Gonzalez, running as a Green, was nearly elected mayor of San Francisco in an election that received nationwide attention. Gonzalez was so close to besting Democrat Gavin Newsom that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson campaigned on Newsom’s behalf. As result of this race and his stature as president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (similar to a city council) Gonzalez appeared to be a promising asset to the Green Party. However, Gonzalez has announced his decision to change his registration from Green to independent, explaining this as consequence of his part of the independent Nader ticket.

What this means for the Green Party remains to be seen. Nader handily won the California Green Party presidential primary vote over McKinney even as he steadfastly pronounced he was not a candidate. (He declined, however, to have his name removed from the primary ballot.) Perhaps the Nader/Gonzalez ticket will be successful in their stated desire to raise the issue of third party and independent candidates’ ballot access as a major civil rights issue. This is certainly an important matter that deserves public attention, as are Nader’s well-known critiques of corporate power.

McKinney, the likely Green nominee at this point, escapes what Katha Pollitt, writing in her weekly column in The Nation, referred to the "white populist error," a notion expressed by Bill Fletcher in The Black Commentator. "Edwards, much like Kucinich, fell prey to… (the idea) that unity will magically appear by building a campaign that attacks poverty and corporate abuse, supports unions and focuses on the challenges facing the working class, BUT IGNORES RACE AND GENDER" (Fletcher quoted by Pollitt with her emphasis).

But there is a real possibility that a McKinney candidacy will not have a united Green Party behind her. Though Nader has stated he will not actively seek the Green’s nomination, there is a chance that individual states could break from the national party to give Nader their ballot lines. Another national convention battle appears almost certain, though with declining numbers – in terms of both active supporters and ballot lines – there is, in some respects, less at stake than in 2004.

Green Party US’s almost singular focus on ballot access as well as electoral politics, generally, and presidential candidacies, specifically – as part of a "trickle down" strategy of party growth – is terribly misguided. Building a broad-based social movement, one that includes themes of economic justice, ecology, and social justice as well as a recognition of the importance of so-called "identity politics" to a comprehensive critique of the dominant order, around the idea of citizenship is an idea that was part of the beginnings of the American Green movement.

Though they were ultimately futile in their attempts to maintain a decidedly "bottom-up" movement focus within the Green Party, social ecologists and other forward thinking elements advocated just this position. They stressed the importance of education and historical perspective as part of engaging in movements oriented at everyday concerns and far-reaching, reconstructive visions of a liberatory, ecological human society.

Is it possible that progressives may have learned enough from the experiences of the recent election cycles to reconsider the hazards of an electoral, party-based focus? With economic recession and both the global warming and an enduring "War on Terror" looming as momentous challenges for both near and short term, here’s hoping.

Karl Hardy is a graduate student at Prescott College studying social ecology, a community activist, and was a 2007 Green Party candidate for city council (South Bend, IN.)