Nader and the Politics of Fear

Mention his name in the House Democratic caucus and Ralph Nader draws spontaneous boos. Among party regulars, many assume that the anger and the regrets lingering from Election 2000 effectively put an end to the "Nader moment." Every right turn by George W. Bush reminds people that Nader's Green Party vote of 2.7 percent deprived Albert Gore of a clean victory. Even some erstwhile supporters are grumbling about Nader's postelection silence, depicting a weird recluse who's not even talking to old friends. Representative Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, had a different idea. He invited Nader in for a friendly chat in early February and began by congratulating him for running "a terrific campaign." According to Nader, Gephardt was especially impressed by the superrallies the Green campaign organized in city after city, filling large arenas with enthusiastic young people who paid $10 or $20 to cheer Nader's dense litany of progressive policy issues. Nobody is paying to hear us talk about policy, Gephardt observed.

Under the circumstances, it seems wiser to talk than to shun. The Democratic Party is now in the full wilderness -- complete minority status for the first time since the early 1950s -- and this fallen condition opens space for a different, more fractious kind of party politics. Where are the Democrats? "Castaways," said Representative Dennis Kucinich, new chair of the Progressive Caucus. "We're back on the island, learning to make fires.... What happened for the last eight years was the Democrats exchanged principles for polling data."

As the minority party, Democrats are likely to experience the pressures of inside-outside politics -- unscripted and unstable -- in which numerous irregular voices claim the right to clash with the elected establishment over the party's direction and core beliefs. Democratic senators got a first taste when their frontline constituencies mobilized against John Ashcroft for Attorney General. They coaxed or bludgeoned forty-two Democrats into voting against their former colleague (none of the senators dreaming of a future presidential candidacy dared to vote for him). At a Washington conference on February 28, the Campaign for America's Future launches its blueprint for progressive ideas and action, "The Next Agenda," which describes leading-edge strategies for achieving universal healthcare, sustainable economics and other forward-looking goals (reminiscent of the Heritage Foundation's long-established guidebook for conservative thinking). Inside Congress, the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus agitate for stronger principles and stiffer backbones.

Nader and the Greens, though outsiders, are among the more distant elements of the grassroots who intend to exert influence -- supportive or threatening -- toward restoration of a more substantial Democratic Party. Nader told Gephardt he expects Greens to run as many as eighty Congressional candidates in 2002, nearly twice their list this past year. Some of these, he said, will be challenging comfortable Republicans like Representatives Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, the House leaders who are used to enjoying a free ride in Texas. "At least, it will send them a message from back home when they think it's a lifetime job," Nader explained to him. But, of course, Greens will also target Gephardt's own Democrats. "We didn't talk about that," Nader said. "He understood, though, that this is about party-building. To build a party, you're not going to help the other guy win." Gephardt's office confirmed the meeting, but declined to discuss content.

Nader and the Greens are a problem for Democrats, but might also be a useful asset -- a force for stoking popular resistance to the party's rightward drift, drawing new voters and energy into the electoral process, test-marketing advanced issues Democrats are still afraid to touch, perhaps even encouraging party discipline. "I told him I'm going to continue to help build the Green Party," Nader said, "and, where there are no Green candidates running, the spillover vote is likely to help the Democratic candidate, and the Democrats ought to recognize that." In 2000, the Green vote was decisive in defeating at least one Democratic House candidate in Michigan and dangerously close in one or two other districts. On the other hand, the Green turnout clearly helped elect Maria Cantwell to the Senate from Washington State and probably saved a couple of House Democrats in very close California races. Nader directed his personal fire at several right-wing Republicans, who lost. He also thinks Green voters helped Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow defeat hard-right incumbent Spencer Abraham (now Bush's Energy Secretary) and could have helped more if the Dems had pointed them to the most promising contests. Nader and Gephardt talked about the missed opportunities last year. It would be helpful, the two agreed, to consult more closely in the future.

If the cozy talk rankles those many Democrats who loathe Nader, they should consider the possibility that it reflects their new condition. A minority party, utterly without governing power, finds itself scolded by unrepentant outsiders and can't blithely turn them away, if it wishes to grow. Five-term Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who won as a party outsider herself, observed: "My ability to get elected has always relied on nontraditional people -- bringing new people, new supporters in the process -- so every new voter the Green Party attracts is a potential new voter for me. The whole idea of progressives, I thought, was to have more people participating, not fewer. I absolutely understand the frustration of young people who feel alienated from a Democratic Party that looks like a Republican Party, especially that feeds at the same trough."

If Democrats manage to win back the House and Senate in '02 (a good bet if a severe recession unfolds), they might brush aside such critics. But, if not, Democrats will have to learn how to think like a minority -- taking bigger risks because they have nothing to lose. When the Republican Party endured in this wilderness, its ideological reconstruction was a long and very nasty affair. The energetic outsiders were true-blue conservatives who assailed the old guard and occasionally defeated their incumbents in primaries or as third-party challengers. The uncompromising right-wing ideologues were relentless and harsh, regarded in GOP circles as the "frothers" and "ankle-biters," but they had real impact in pulling the party rightward. Think of Ralph Nader as a vigorous new ankle-biter from the left.

Nader compares the Greens' potential to the electoral leverage the Christian right exerts over the Republican Party. "The Democrats are just not used to dealing with any leverage from the left," he said. "They're used to saying to progressives: Shut up, you've got nowhere else to go." This comparison sounds a bit self-inflated (as insurgent leaders often sound) and certainly it's far ahead of present facts. The Greens are growing but lack anything close to the popular base assembled by the TV preachers and allied groups. Indeed, the Greens barely exist as an organized party, though Nader has great confidence that young people will develop a more muscular organization. The 900 college coordinators from his campaign are launching Campus Greens to continue the party recruiting and to build active chapters on campus (in truth, mobilized young people could take over large chunks of the Democratic Party where state and local organizations are moribund). Nader doesn't have a developed electoral strategy for '02, not yet anyway, but at this point even the major parties cannot think strategically until state-by-state redistricting determines which seats are safe, which are in play. Still, Nader did not disappear, as some believe, and by his count has held nine press conferences since the election, along with four Green Party fundraisers, and he makes the rounds of TV chat shows.

Nader could flop, of course, or fail to deliver on his expansive ambitions. If one were designing the leader for an insurgent third party, Nader would probably not be the model. He is not a political animal in terms of the human sensibilities successful pols usually exude -- an acute empathy for how others are reacting to him, the neediness for personal affection. He has no real experience in electoral politics, aside from initiative campaigns. His singular strength of character -- the tenacity to go it alone -- is a bad fit with the everyday give-and-take of running campaigns or building a real organization.

Yet Al Gore and the Dems did not help themselves last year by underestimating Nader and the young people around him. At the eleventh hour, the attacks and warnings from party regulars succeeded in scaring off roughly half of Nader's potential voters, but an odd bounce occurred in some postelection polling. In late November, a Zogby International poll reported that 6 percent claimed to have voted for Nader (twice his actual vote). In late December, another poll found 10 percent claiming they had voted for him. One shouldn't make too much of this. Some voters typically misrepresent themselves afterward, but usually they pretend they voted for the winner, not for someone who finished a distant third. Possibly, the Nader moment left a stronger afterglow than Washington yet recognizes.

Nader has two essential strengths going for him. First, his ideas. The issues Nader articulates connect intensely with left-liberal activists and organizations at the grassroots, but are not ready for prime time, so far as the Democratic Party can see. Or they may even be dangerously liberal. The "living wage" campaign that has swept the country. Food safety and the concentration of production by agribusiness. The deformities in criminal law, including draconian drug sentences and the death penalty. The malfunctioning electoral system, beyond voting machines, which requires representational reforms like "instant runoff" voting. The archaic and bloated national security state. The federal subsidies to companies that abuse their own work forces, not to mention the environment. The overbearing influence of financial markets and corporate power. Nader says he reminded Gephardt: "The Greens actually have a more legitimate platform for the old Democratic Party than the Democratic Party does."

Nader's other great asset is the Democratic Party. It is more profoundly divided than the Congressional numbers suggest -- torn between serving money patrons and responding to its voting constituencies, and utterly without the means of imposing party discipline. Most Democratic incumbents are not deeply threatened by their party's fallen status, since they raise money and run largely on their own -- even gain contributors and favorable press by going against the party on large matters. Thus, among senior liberals, 2001 feels a lot like 1981, when the Reagan White House cherry-picked Democratic votes to enact its right-wing agenda. The defections have already begun. Instead of "Boll Weevils," the white Southern renegades who voted with the Reaganites, the potential defectors are now among the thirty-strong Blue Dogs or the sixty business-friendly New Democrats associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The faithful labor-liberal vote in the Senate is even weaker than in the House. The DLC roster exaggerates its influence (since some members sign up for political cover and fundraising), but it wagged the dog during the Clinton years -- insisting on a mushy agenda that did not upset business and finance. Leaders complied to keep everyone on the same page.

Nader thinks Greens can help break up the party's passive strategy, at least discomfort it, first by identifying core-issue roll calls as "the markers" and then going after the incumbents who ignore them. "The marker is: Are the Democrats really going to fight?" he said. "If they really fought, they could stop Bush on anything, we know that. But, they will say, 'Oh no, you don't understand about the Blue Dogs or the DLC.' Well, if they don't have party discipline on these major issues, then you don't really have a party. They shouldn't say, 'We, the Democratic Party, are better on this and that.' Don't talk about the Democratic Party -- it's two parties." This blunt-nosed analysis sounds naive -- and terribly unfair -- to insiders familiar with the reality of intraparty divisions. Yet, if Democrats do disappoint energized constituencies on major matters, the Greens will have good talking points for recruiting.

The Progressive Caucus, though a minority within the minority, is sounding a similar warning inside the party: Restoration requires strong principles and ideas, not more polling data. Nader, says Kucinich, "should have stayed within the party. We've talked about these same issues for years and have worked with Ralph. The issues are valid. They become more valid when they are taken within the Democratic Party."

Nader's logic has a serious downside -- a mismatch he does not acknowledge, but that could injure the party without producing therapeutic change. Given the nature of the Greens and their issues, they typically demonstrate the best potential for harvesting votes in the districts already held by liberal Democrats or conscientious moderates. So, as Greens go about building a party, they are going to run against "good guys," for sure. "When you're building a party, you don't go around saying, 'Hey, don't run against him, he's a good guy,'" Nader said. That naturally enrages Democrats. "His idea is making things better by making them worse," said Representative David Obey, a thirty-year veteran of liberal legislative battles. "In some cases, [Green challengers] might work, but in most cases it will push those members further into the arms of the people they're already beholden to. The answer isn't that you have to break fifteen people's arms. The answer is you have to win the national debate, and the way you do that is on the economic issues -- the kitchen-table issues people care about." Nader shrugged. "Sometimes you've got to prune the tree to make it grow healthy," he told me.

The untested Green potential is whether they can exert electoral influence on the less obvious targets -- the New Democrats from closely contested swing districts or conservative-voting Democrats with safe seats and even some Republicans who vote more conservative than their districts. "That's a collateral benefit of what we're trying to do," Nader insisted. Despite appearances, the status quo is not invulnerable. Among the New Democrats, for instance, a dozen won last year by less than 10 percent, and some of their margins were squeakers where a third-party candidate might well have tipped the balance against them. The watch list includes some voluble champions of DLC deal-making such as California Representatives Cal Dooley (53-45 percent) and Ellen Tauscher (53-44 percent). A Green opponent might at least complicate life for some Democrats who win easily and flaunt their independence -- Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas or Representative Gary Condit of California or Representative Jim Moran of Virginia (whose affluent district may be more liberal than he is on environmental issues). At a minimum, the idea of introducing competition in uncontested districts should be stimulating for small-d democracy.

Certainly, it might be far more effective if the major constituencies (labor, blacks, enviros and others) decided to impose their own, more aggressive electoral tests on Democrats who stray. These groups have the battlefield experience and resources to get everyone's attention, but as effective players inside the legislative system, they are also inhibited by some of the same factors that make the party itself risk-averse. Labor brings the most muscle, for instance, but it also has to play defense against Republican assaults on a variety of bread-and-butter issues. Many incumbent Democrats who swing conservative on the more visible issues will give labor their votes on parochial matters vital to union members but not the general public. It's difficult to threaten retribution against an incumbent if you have to stop by the senator's office the next day and ask for a vote.

What Nader and the Greens might bring to the table is fear -- "nameless, unreasoning fear," as FDR put it in a different context. That emotion is (or ought to be) a powerful motivation in representative democracy -- the fear of being defeated by the next unknown. In my experience, the one thing sure to alter thinking among comfortable incumbents is seeing a couple of their colleagues cut down -- blindsided by a new issue or a swarm of discontented voters they didn't see coming. Typically, politicians will do what they can to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to them. Even safe incumbents are eager to avoid the harassment and risk of a dedicated challenger. This fear helps explain why presumably marginal forces like the NRA can accumulate so much influence or how the antiabortion camp gradually swallowed the Republican Party, despite opposition from the American majority. Winning elections depends on amassing big numbers, but political leverage exists on the margins for those with intensity of purpose. The Democratic Party, for that matter, could benefit itself from a little more intensity of purpose.

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