Workers and Electoral Politics — Part Two
The Nader Factor
by Bill Onasch
The campaign by Ralph Nader, on the Green Party ticket, shook things up. In 1996, Nader had allowed his name to be placed on the ballot in a few states, but didn’t campaign; still, he still got over 200,000 votes that year. This time around Nader made a major effort, raised a little money, and got on the ballot in all but a few states. Though he was excluded from the debates, and often left out of pre-election polls, Gore started viewing him as a serious threat late in the campaign.
The Democrats were much more fearful of Nader than they had ever been of Ross Perot — even though Perot got many times more votes (19 percent in 1992). Perot, like other significant third-party tickets of recent decades, such as John Anderson in 1980 and George Wallace in 1968, took support from both Democrats and Republicans in more or less equal numbers. Candidates like Perot aim at people that have been regular voters but are disgusted with the performance of politicians and think a successful businessman could bring efficiency and honesty to government.
Nader, on the other hand, appealed almost exclusively to groups the Democrats had long taken for granted — trade unionists, environmentalists, social activists, and campus youth. For decades, the Democrats had ignored these loyal followers and kept shifting their perspective ever further to the right. Gore was a key leader of the “New Democrats,” who won the respect and gratitude of the rich and the wannabe rich.
The first sign of alarm for Gore came in the aftermath of the China trade bill last Spring. That was an important milestone in the fight against globalization, a struggle that had seen mass demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., put together by a coalition of union, environmental, and student activist groups. About the same time Gore announced that Bill Daley, long the administration’s point man on trade, would be his campaign manager. Union leaders were furious with Gore.
United Auto Workers President Stephen Yokich pointedly invited Nader to a UAW leadership meeting in Detroit and told a press conference: “It’s time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.”
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa made this statement with Nader at this side: “There is no distinction between Al Gore and George W. Bush when it comes to trade. We agree wholeheartedly with what Mr. Nader has said.”
Two small independent unions, the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the California Nurses Association (CAN), actually endorsed Nader at their conventions. Tony Mazzocchi, national organizer of the Labor Party, was a featured speaker at the Green Party convention and, at Nader’s suggestion, the delegates adopted the essential points of the Labor Party platform. (The Labor Party did not endorse Nader, or any other candidate for office, though some LP affiliated unions, such as the UE and CNA, and many individual members did support the Nader effort.)
Jan Pierce, a longtime leader of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), was chosen by Nader to head up a Labor for Nader component of the campaign.
Prominent artists and intellectuals also started signing on, names such as Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Cornell West, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Studs Terkel, Phil Donahue, and Eddie Vedder. So did respected environmentalists such as the late David R Brower.
By the end of last summer, it appeared the Nader campaign was on the way to building a significant mass movement. Many were hopeful that this would finally be the time when at least substantial sections of the labor movement, and its allies, would break from the Democrats and start a political realignment around class and social issues.
But that didn’t happen. The leaders of these movements pride themselves on being “practical.” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney made it perfectly clear when asked by a reporter about the Nader campaign: “Ralph Nader won’t be the next President. Either Gore or Bush will be President. We want to make sure it’s not Bush.”
That’s when we started hearing a constant refrain: a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. By Labor Day every major AFL-CIO leader, including Yokich and Hoffa, were pulling out all the stops to mobilize the labor vote for Gore. Nader supporters were treated like scabs.
Some feminist leaders, such as Gloria Steinem, told their followers that a vote for Nader was the same as a vote for banning abortion because the evil Bush would be appointing the new Supreme Court Justices. The Sierra Club spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative ads aimed not at Bush — but at Nader.
This tremendous hosing from the top certainly dampened the Nader campaign. Aside from the tiny Green Party apparatus Nader’s base of campaign troops came mainly from the college campuses. They did an impressive job considering their meager resources. Eight “super-rallies” drew 10–15,000 each.
But the Labor for Nader formations never really got off the ground. Facing palpable threats of retribution, most Nader supporters in unions kept their heads down and revealed their heretic views only to their most trusted friends.
I suspect the experience of Kansas City Labor for Nader was fairly typical. We started out with a handful of Labor Party and Green activists. We set up a web site and distributed a few hundred leaflets. We tried to arrange a debate but were stonewalled by all. When the campaign came to an end we still had the same handful of Labor Party and Green activists and little else to show for our troubles.
In the end most liberals succumbed to leadership pressure and backed Gore. Some tried to come up with “practical” proposals of their own. In states where it won’t matter in the outcome vote for Nader, they said. But in the “battleground” states we better vote for Gore.
Sympathetic to Nader’s goal of getting 5 percent of the vote to assure the Green Party official recognition, some even devised bizarre schemes for “trading” votes. Gore supporters would pledge to vote for Nader in the no-contest states in exchange for Nader supporters helping Democrats where the outcome was up for grabs.
Nader was charged with being a “spoiler.” When the votes were counted Nader did appear to have “cost” Gore two states where Nader’s total was bigger than Gore’s gap behind Bush — New Hampshire and, of course, infamous Florida. The liberals were livid, sentencing Nader and his supporters to life terms as pariahs.
Of course in the state of Florida Nader was only one of a half-dozen “spoilers.” One could as easily say the Socialist Workers Party or Workers World Party candidates were responsible for the election of Bush. Nor was Nader at fault for Gore’s failure to carry his home state of Tennessee — which would have given him more than enough electoral votes to win.
But the reality is that most of Nader’s votes would not have gone to Gore. Many were first-time voters, or long-term abstainers, who were motivated by Nader’s fresh approach and turned off by politicians like Gore. They would have stayed home, or maybe in a few cases voted for one of the socialist candidates, if Nader had pulled out. It is in fact this Nader vote that was largely responsible for the marginal increase in voter turnout (51 percent of eligible voters, instead of 49 percent in 1996).
Just as troubling as the liberal backlash against the Nader campaign is the campaign movement’s virtual disappearance after the election. Our country went through a month of political crisis, leading to much questioning of the system. There were mass demonstrations and counter-demonstrations around the Florida vote count. This was an opportunity to educate and intervene — an opportunity lost.
Except for news of a book deal with St Martin’s Press, little has been heard from Nader since the election. The national campaign web site quit updating on November 11. The Kansas City Greens site has been terminated. There have been no public meetings, no demonstrations called by the Greens that I am aware of. This does not bode well for those who hoped the Greens would become an influential alternative force.
The Nader factor gave a glimpse of political discontent that is seething beneath the surface. But electoral campaigns alone are not going to tap the full potential of this discord. Nor will it be mobilized by the Green Party. What we need to do next to advance working class politics in the post-election period will be the topic of our third installment, coming soon.
January 14, 2001