Hearing that Ralph Nader is running for president for the fourth time, I keep thinking about the unusual and never-to-be- repeated circumstances in which I first met him. In early 1994, the Young Democrats at my college, Wesleyan University, brought Nader to campus to speak about how to revive our democracy. As he approached the podium, the chair of the local Young Democrats tried to pin a Democratic Party button on his lapel.
Even then, before Nader was marked by the Democratic establishment as a heretic, Nader had no love for the Democrats or any other party. He deftly deflected the Young Democrat's advance and refused the pin. Nader explained, as he reached the podium, that he was staunchly independent of all parties. He was a citizen, he told the audience, not a party operative.
At the reception afterward, I gave him the biggest compliment I had in my limited college freshman vocabulary: "Why don't you run for president?" I asked. "Politicians are like leaves on a tree," he told me disapprovingly. "The health of the tree isn't in its leaves, but in its roots." Engaged citizens, he added, are the real leaders in our society.
I DIDN'T KNOW when I asked the question that Nader had already run for president, as a write-in candidate in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. And, of course, I had no idea that he would run for president three more times, as a Green in 1996 and 2000 and as an independent this year. In 2000, as a local Green Party organizer, I saw how Nader's disdain for party politics undermined him and the Green Party. Today, his antipathy has compelled him to run for president again—against the wishes of all who would say that our allegiance must be to parties over issues, to strategy over ideals.
It's a bid that is likely to generate more vitriol against Nader in the next few months than he ever received from corporate America in his 40-plus years of activism. When people are claiming that the future of our nation and the planet are at stake in this year's election, Nader has come unwanted upon the scene to declare that, no matter who wins, our democracy will still be broken, our world will still be divided between haves and have-nots, and our environment will still be in a state of crisis that few Democrats or Republicans have the courage to substantively address.
As usual, Nader's analysis is spot on. Bush isn't the enemy. He's the public face of a corrupt system at its very worst, a system that has snared most Democrats as well.
But Nader didn't need to run for office to raise this. He could have run a media campaign without seeking ballot access. After bowing out of the election, Howard Dean called Nader and suggested an alliance that could reform the Democratic Party. But Nader has chosen his own path. Why?
The Nader haters and the Nader lovers focus on whether the man is a self-absorbed demagogue or selfless saint. But we should consider his ideas, not just his character.
"This isn't just our fight," Nader recently said about his 2004 campaign. "This is a fight for all third parties. . . . I don't think America belongs just to the Democratic and Republican parties." This is virtually the same message Nader campaigned on in the previous elections.
It's noble rhetoric, if badly timed. But if Nader is trying to build a real independent electoral movement to revitalize American democracy, his presidential bid will be a dismal failure. As in 2000, his contempt for political parties will mobilize his supporters into the same dead end that progressives have been stuck in since the Reagan Revolution.
TO UNDERSTAND why Nader is not a movement builder, it's worth recalling what happened to the Seattle Green Party when it tried to support him in 2000.
The local Green Party, which grew out of Nader's 1996 campaign, was once a hotbed of smart, young environmentalists who quickly worked their way into important nonpartisan coalitions with City Hall. Their influence wasn't huge, but it was notable. They led successful campaigns to preserve Seattle's watersheds, coordinated volunteers and donated money for progressive City Council candidates, and lobbied on a number of issues, from transportation policy to stopping corporate welfare.
It was in this context that a group of local activists banded together in late 1999 to form a Seattle-based, statewide committee to support Nader. This campaign was supposed to initiate local Green activists in partisan politics. But the effort was in vain. Nader's national organization told them, remarkably, that they formed too early, that Nader wasn't prepared to work with them. They weren't allowed to use Nader's name, and they dissolved unhappily.
In the meantime, supporters of the Natural Law Party tried a hostile takeover of the Seattle Greens to get it to endorse their New Age wacko candidate for president, John Hagelin. A Trotskyite group calling itself Socialist Alternative started its own Nader campaign, outside the Greens, as a means of promoting themselves. Months went by with grassroots enthusiasm for Nader spinning its wheels in senseless bickering, ineffective speculation, and uncoordinated activism.
IT WASN'T UNTIL the summer of 2000 that Nader's national organization actually hired someone to head up the Washington state campaign, and much of his job seemed to consist of passing orders down from on high.
When Nader finally came to town, he promoted local issues like the monorail and even campaigned for Deborah Senn, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Yet he didn't once mention Joe Szwaja, who was running for Congress and was the only Green Party candidate in Washington seeking a partisan office. (I was Szwaja's campaign manager.)
Nader never became a Green Party member. After the election, getting him to share his campaign's fund-raising lists with the Green Party was like pulling teeth. He went back to work largely on nonpartisan issues, as if he had never run for office or become a national spokesperson for electoral reform.
The next time Nader visited Washington, he didn't coordinate with the Greens and didn't even stop in Seattle. Plugging his book about his run for president, he spoke to a packed food court in a mall in Lake Forest Park.
To his credit, Nader did more for the Greens in the U.S. than anyone else ever has or probably ever will. He helped Green Party chapters around the country gain ballot access. He appeared at innumerable local Green Party fund-raisers. And the organic communities that grew out of support for his campaign were powerful and inspirational for anyone involved.
But these communities were largely fleeting, and Nader's belief that movements develop from the bottom up gave him an excuse to not get seriously involved in the messy process of making sure that new Green parties actually became functional organizations.
Seattle is just one of many examples of what happened to the Greens after the election. Within six months, the party saw its membership decline by half while its members debated bylaws. Some of its most active campaigners were burned out or disillusioned —many, like me, leaving for good. The political relationships with City Council members were torn asunder by the election and never rebuilt. And the wider community of people that had come together in idealism behind Nader dissolved into the anonymity of mass society. Individuals went away inspired and unrepentant. A few stuck with the Greens. But organizationally, Nader supporters were even more impoverished than before—lacking structure, experienced leadership, money, and a strong base of support.
NADER CAN'T BE blamed for the incompetence of local Green parties, in Seattle or elsewhere. But he can't entirely be let off the hook, either. He provided crucial sparks for fires but refused to fan the resulting flames. He seemed to expect untrained volunteers to morph into devoted citizen activists overnight, without any of his guidance, money, or leadership. And with his move this year toward independent status, he seems even more likely than ever to pursue a similar path of grandstanding without organizing.
It's no consolation to say that Nader is not the person to lead a grassroots electoral movement to revitalize our democracy, because there are few alternatives among Democrats or third-party leaders.
Progressive thinking is vibrant in our nation's radical activist groups, nonprofits, universities, lefty press, and what remains of the labor movement. But as long as progressives like Nader eschew party building, progressives will remain disorganized— just a bunch of idealistic independents stepping all over each other, consequences be damned, trying to get their individual voices heard as the radical right picks them off one by one.
Trevor Griffey is a freelance writer and former Green Party organizer who was manager of Joe Szwaja's 2000 campaign for Washington's 7th Congressional District.