Party time?

Will a vote for Nader really build a progressive third party?

THE RECENT FAUX POPULISM of Al Gore's presidential campaign has one source: Ralph Nader. The Green Party's impact in several swing states, including Washington, where Gore has a negligible lead over George W. Bush has Democrats on the attack.

Last Thursday's press conference in Westlake Park, hosted by Seattle City Council members Judy Nicastro and Richard Conlin, was—like many recent Democratic events—held with the expressed purpose of getting Seattle's Nader supporters into the Gore camp.

Before the conference, Nicastro resigned from the Green Party and sent out a blistering e-mail list criticizing the Nader campaign for its negative take on Gore. "I don't see how you can be a member of both the Democrats and the Greens," Nicastro now says. "The Green Party is getting much more momentum, which I'm glad about, but [I quit] because of that credibility."

In response to such attacks, Nader fans make two points: 1) Gore and Bush are indistinguishably awful, and 2) a Nader vote will help build the Green party into a force that can compete in national and especially local elections in the future.

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about Al Gore's relative merits. But the question of party building also needs examination. It seems like a peculiar question—nobody advocates a vote for Gore because it will strengthen the Democratic Party in Seattle. But when your candidate has no chance of winning and little chance of having his ideas co-opted by the front-runners, you need a different rationale for your vote.

Will a vote for Nader build the Green Party in Seattle or anywhere else? After all, voting for Barry Commoner and the Citizens Party in 1980—the last time an explicitly progressive third party caused even a minor stir—didn't prevent that party's rapid slide into oblivion. It certainly didn't influence the subsequent policies of the Reagan Administration. Fate was no kinder that year to John Anderson's independent effort, or to the Reform Party of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. Progressive insurgencies within the Democratic Party, like Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in 1984 and 1988 and Jerry Brown's We the People in 1992, were accompanied by the same Nader-like rhetoric of building a permanent grassroots movement. They led nowhere.

And the near-deification of Citizen Nader by some of his supporters raises another troubling question. Is the Green Party's running for office without Nader any more viable than the Rainbow Coalition without Jackson?

"No," concludes City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, a member of both the Green and the Democratic parties. "In fact, I think the Rainbow Coalition was farther along. The Rainbow Coalition had more inclusiveness and was a much stronger coalition. The [Green Party] needs to get way beyond the homogeneity that it has now. I happen to think that third parties have historically been the change agents and that that role is far more important than getting people elected. [But] I'm not sure that the Green Party can ever pull it off."

Ironically, this skepticism comes from an elected official who reportedly called the Greens the "inevitable wave of the future" at a recent party gathering and who received widespread Democratic criticism for his endorsement of Nader. Now, with the election too close to call, Steinbrueck is not sure who he'll vote for—even though as Green electoral analyst Sean Rockhold points out, no presidential election since 1889 has been decided by as few as Washington's 11 electoral votes. (In addition, the latest polls at press time put Gore up by nine points in the Evergreen state.)

Trevor Griffey, campaign manager for Joe Szwaja's Green Party congressional bid, rejects Steinbrueck's contention that the Green Party has become simply an extension of one man's ambition. "The Seattle Greens are something without Nader. [We] are going to continue to be active in the city politics. Nader's campaign has been very helpful. A lot of people get involved through the mainstream media, and what they pay attention to is the presidential races."

The most successful third party, however, barely registers in presidential races. The Libertarian Party—quick, name its presidential candidate—has not only candidates in every statewide race but more members, distributed more broadly geographically, than the Greens.

Over two decades, the Libertarians have repeatedly been successful in having the major parties "steal" and implement their ideas. Their message of less government resonates deeply with many Americans. Yet the Libertarians are viewed as utterly marginal. Is this the fate of the Greens?

"I just think the Green Party has more solid and quality ideas than the Libertarians do; I think our ideas are more mainstream than the Libertarians and more reflective of a possible elective majority," says Green activist Patrick Mazza

Ironically, it was the Washington State Libertarian Party's Jocelyn Langlois who made the best case for voting for Nader or Harry Browne (the Libertarian entry) or the Socialist Party's David McReynolds or the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan. "If there were only the two parties on the ballot and I voted for the loser, did I waste my vote? Any time you don't vote for a winner, is it a wasted vote? I'm going to use my vote, my currency to express what I want. If you don't vote your conscience, you're only getting second best." But a funny thing happens with protest votes: After a while, nobody cares.

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