|an opinion piece by DSAer David Walls..
White Knight or Pied Piper? Ralph Naderís Five-Percent Illusion
By David Walls
Ralph Nader wants to win at least five percent of the national vote to
qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds in the 2004 campaign,
hoping to provide the means to build a permanent political watchdog for
progressive causes. The recent experience of minor parties suggests a
less happy outcome. Was anyone watching what happened to the Reform
Membership in American political parties is wide open, leaving promising
minor parties vulnerable to colonization by less successful groups from
the fringes of political life, as the Reform Party discovered. If Nader
were to get five percent of the vote, the Greens would be a magnet for
every group of opportunists jumping ship from the battered Reform
Party. First in line likely would be Lenora Fulani, leader of the
political cult once called the New Alliance Party, followed by Maharishi
University professor John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party.
Superficially at least, the left-populist rhetoric of Fulani and the New
Age nostrums of Hagelin would be a better fit with the Greens than they
were with Reform.
Next in line would be the various Trotskyist sects presently biding
their time in more marginal minor parties. The banners of one of these,
the International Socialist Organization, were already in evidence at
the pro-Nader rally outside the Presidential debate in Boston. Battles
among such obscure socialist sects as the Workers World Party and its
perennial candidates contributed to the decline of Californiaís Peace
and Freedom Party, which lost its ballot status last year, leaving the
Greens as the only tempting alternative.
People from the farther shores of politics are present in all parties,
but they become more visible, influential, and disruptive in a minor
party. As we saw with the Reform Party, they often prove highly skilled
in ballot access, primary battles, delegate selection, and overall
The resulting minor party conventions become carnivals of eccentricity
that drive out anyone who imagines having a serious future in electoral
politics. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura left the Reform Party in
June when Pat Buchananís forces hijacked the party. California assembly
member Audie Bock, the highest-ranking public official in the country
elected as a Green, dropped the party designation this year to campaign
for reelection as an independent.
If Nader is able and willing to run again in 2004 at age 70, the Green
Party may be able to hold itself together despite the entry of sectarian
groups. But Nader has shown little interest in helping the Greens in
the meantime. He refused to join the party, and has indicated he will
play no role in its internal affairs.
Minor parties founder on the shoals of American politics because we have
single-member legislative districts and an executive elected at large at
both the state and national levels, not a proportional representation or
parliamentary structure in which multi-party systems flourish. Our only
example of a minor party replacing a major party is the emergence of the
Republicans after the collapse of the Whigs ? and that was over140 years
ago, on the verge of a civil war.
Recognizing this reality, the organized core constituencies the Greens
wish to speak for ? labor, minorities, feminists, environmentalists,
gays and lesbians ? remain within the Democratic Party, the only viable
political force with the power to defend their interests. And the
stakes are all too real: minimum wage increases, occupational health and
safety enforcement, appointments to the National Labor Relations Board
and the federal courts up through the Supreme Court, affirmative action,
abortion rights, domestic partner rights and benefits, environmental
protection, equitable tax policy, gun control, protecting Social
Security and expanding Medicare.
For these reasons -- not political cowardice -- Al Gore, not Nader, has
been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, most civil rights and feminist leaders,
the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the League of Conservation
Voters. The stakes are particularly high in the expanding list of
battleground states where Gore could lose to George W. Bush.
Progressives thus face the election with two contrasting images of the
Nader campaign. Is Nader a white knight, leading a crusade that
eventually will find the keys to a Green Jerusalem? Or is he a
political Pied Piper, leading youth down an initially appealing path but
then vanishing under a mountain of sectarian strife and conservative
victories, ending up disillusioned and burned out, never to be heard
from again? Those unconcerned about Bush winning see Nader as the white
knight, while those who fear a Republican triumph imagine the Pied
David Walls is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and
author of The Activistís Almanac: The Concerned Citizenís Guide to the
Leading Advocacy Organizations in America.