Growing the Greens

When Ralph Nader announced he would run for president in 2000, few people thought his impact would register very high on the political Richter scale. Now, in the wake of an election so close that some Gore supporters blame the Bush presidency on Nader’s siphoning of would-be Gore votes, the Green Party has become a household name, and Democrats and Republicans across the country are trying to come to terms with the unwanted stepchild of modern American politics: a third party with teeth. But will Ralph Nader’s role in election 2000 mark a watershed event for the Green Party, or the beginning of its demise?

Ralph Nader attracted only three percent of the national vote, two percent less than he needed to qualify the Green Party for matching federal campaign funds in future elections. But the consumer advocate famous for writing Unsafe at Any Speed and a lifetime of campaigning for product safety and corporate responsibility did draw over five percent of the vote in ten states, including six percent in Massachusetts, Montana and Hawaii, seven percent in Vermont and a whopping ten percent in Alaska. And Green Party candidates running for almost every kind of political office made it onto 43 state ballots this time – almost double the number in 1996. Few of them won, but the gain in recognition was a victory in itself, party leaders say. “A new day is dawning in America politically,” Nader told a crowd of supporters in Rhode Island a few weeks after the election. “It’s a long trip
but not an impossible one.”

Nader ran for president once before—half-heartedly, some say—but garnered only one percent of the national vote in 1996. This time, he was serious, stumping around the country until election day, fighting for inclusion in the presidential debates and appearing on late night talk shows.

But Nader lacked a critical tool that his two main opponents had and used well: the mainstream press. Few presidential candidates have been skewered in the press the way Ralph Nader was during the 2000 presidential campaign. Coverage of Nader mostly took the form of editorials and op-eds lambasting the Green Party candidate for splintering votes off Gore’s pedestal. A few questioned his dedication to the Green Party platform. There were even personal attacks: “One of the saddest sights in politics is a fading public figure who refuses to concede that his or her time has passed,” Hearst columnist Marianne Means wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Others called Nader “egotistical” and “self-indulgent” for staying in the race. The Denver Post shrugged off any pretense of believing in a multi-party democracy in a July editorial: “The two-party system works fine, if not perfectly. Why can’t we leave it at that?”

David Bennett, a history professor at Syracuse University, wrote in the Montana Billings Gazette that Nader not only stymied Gore’s campaign, he disgraced himself and the party he represented. Because of Nader, he wrote, “the Green Party has no future as a serious political organization in America.” Even some prominent environmentalists like the Earth Day Network’s Denis Hayes called Nader’s campaign “a horrible mistake,” fearful that Bush could do extensive damage to hard-won environmental protections.

Such anti-Naderisms are enough to make a Green turn red with anger. True democracy is about voting for the candidates you believe in, they say – not settling for a lesser evil. And when almost three million people cast their ballots for Nader, they weren’t only voting for the man, they were sending a message: We’re disillusioned with corporatized American politics, and we deserve something better. That sentiment, say some political analysts and Green Party leaders, is likely to only grow stronger during George W. Bush’s presidency.

The election sparked deep division within the environmental movement and even within the Green party itself, with some members steadfastly supporting Nader and others “defecting” to Al Gore, either convinced that a vote for Nader would be a de facto vote for Bush or because they sincerely believed in Gore. Some said they were turned off by Nader’s characterization of Gore and Bush as “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” and concluded that the Green Party candidate had become the kind of politician they thought he was not.

But, as veteran Greens will tell you, the Green Party is not the Nader Party, and even those few who became disillusioned with Nader are likely to support other Green candidates running for a variety of offices in the future. And Annie Goeke, co-chair of the Association of State Green Parties and a 2000 candidate for auditor-general of Pennsylvania, says she expects the to continue to attract broader support, especially from minorities, labor, college students and other demographic groups that have expressed high dissatisfaction with the political status quo. “The people who are involved with the Green Party feel as though they are participants in it,” she says.

That sense of inclusion, of being part of a growing movement that could change things for the better, was apparent at the MCI Center on November 5. Nader drew more people to the MCI Center than some rock bands. All but the upper-most reaches of the venue was pretty much filled with enthusiastic supporters, mostly young (with several middle-aged exceptions), politically disillusioned, and idealistic. Listening to Nader talk up “the politics of joy and justice,” touching on issues ranging from corporate welfare reform to universal health care to logging in national forests, some hung banners alongside the venue’s corporate logos: “Bush and Gore make me Ralph” and “Nader: Not for sale at any price.”

“He speaks the people’s point of view, and he has not sold out,” said a seventy-nine-year-old woman from Arlington, Virginia, explaining what drew her to the rally. Devin Heritage, a twenty-year-old George Washington University student who describes himself as a conservative socialist, agreed: “He’s the most down-to-earth, the most real” of all the candidates. And Nader’s position on the death penalty and human rights drew him in, Heritage says.

On November 7, Heritage and 2.7 million other Nader voters made the Green Party the largest third party in the United States, usurping the fractious and faltering Reform Party, mostly due to Ralph Nader’s high-profile campaign. Nader told the Sacramento News and Review last September that “party-building” was one of his objectives in the campaign. “Remember: The Republicans lost their first election too – in 1854. Think about those early Republicans who were told, ‘You’re taking away votes from the Whigs!’” he said.

Goeke says the party’s biggest challenge right now is “keeping the momentum going.” She points to the quick rise and fall of the Reform Party as a lesson in how to squander post-election third party potential. “It proves that you have to have strong grassroots across the country,” she says. It’s very important that we build correctly and strongly, that we’re a true grass roots party.”

Will the man Life Magazine named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century run again in 2004, at age 70? Too soon to tell, say the Greens. “He hasn&#821

7;t told us directly if he wants to run,” says Goeke. “But he’s staying involved with us.” In the meantime, Goeke says the party will do everything it can to add more political offices to its small but growing list of election victories: “Our goal for 2002 is to get a lot more people running.”