The What-If Nader Campaign of 2000
by G. William Domhoff
The following pleasant daydream sketches out what Ralph Nader should have done in 2000, and suggests what he could have accomplished. Many of his longtime allies urged him to folIow this kind of a plan, but he would not listen. He now goes down in infamy as the first leftist third-party candidate ever to negatively impact a presidential election. Yes, there were many factors that led to Gore's defeat, but even with all his shortcomings, he would have won if he had carried one of the two states Nader cost him: New Hampshire and Florida.
Imagine the following plausible scenario:
Ralph Nader's decision to challenge Albert Gore, Jr., in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2000 will go down in history as a major turning point for Americans who seek greater equality, fairness, and opportunity for everyone in all areas of life from the personal to the economic to the political. It began the transformation of the Democratic Party and maybe of the United States as well. It already has triggered several positive consequences by energizing egalitarian activists inside and outside the electoral arena, putting the forces of reaction on the defensive for the first time in many years.
Not that it was an easy decision for Nader to go Democrat. He needed a lot of convincing, and almost went along with those who urged that he run as a third-party candidate because of the timidity and caution of many present-day Democrats. In the end, however, Nader was persuaded by his friends who pointed to comparative political studies and the history of American third parties. They show it is rare for a third party to develop in countries that have an electoral system like the one in America -- called a "single-member district plurality system" -- where it only takes the most votes to win, not a majority, and where candidates run for seats from specific geographical districts, like a House district.
This electoral system makes a party of the left or right a mortal threat to the two large coalitional parties that build out from right of center and left of center. Even one or two percent of the vote can make all the difference in the world if the loser ends up with, say, 48 percent of the vote and would have won with 50.1 percent if he or she had been able to capture the third-party votes. Thus the basic problem for egalitarians: a vote for a third party of the left is a vote for the Republicans because it allows them to win even if they don't have the support of the majority. Even worse, a vote for a third party of the left ignores the short-run concerns of the average citizens who believe that their lives are at least a little better on one or another seemingly small issue when the Democrats are in power.
So Democrat voters end up disliking those who vote for a third party of the left, and the liberals and egalitarians are at each other's throats right from the start. This is the first and basic dilemma confronting those who seek greater equality, fairness, and opportunity for everyone. They are divided among themselves in facing a corporate-financed Republican opposition that is already very powerful to begin with. Until this dilemma is resolved, there is no hope whatsoever of creating a majority for progressive social change.
Nader not only grasped this deadly structural logic, but that he learned from the disastrous history of previous leftist third parties, especially the Progressive Party of 1948. The formation of that party led to bitter battles between "liberals," who stayed with the Democrats, and "progressives" (mostly Communists, socialists, and pacifists), who backed former Vice President Henry Wallace as the third-party candidate. Despite Wallace's strong reputation among liberals and his high name recognition in the electorate, thanks to several important government positions he held from 1933 to 1946, he received only a little more than 1,000,000 votes. Worse, his campaign set in motion the events that finished off the strong left-liberal-labor coalition within the Democratic Party that slowly developed during the New Deal years.
Nader further understood that the two major political parties are now in part an extension of the government. That's first of all because the government "registers" citizens as "members" of one or another party, which means the party can't even control its own membership by refusing admittance or expelling dissidents. Then the government conducts "primaries" in which any member of the party can run on any platform he or she so desires, thereby contending with big money donors and their hired experts for control of the party. From a governmental perspective, the "Democratic Party" is merely the name for one of the two structured pathways into government. It's now a shell, which is a long way from the days when courthouse gangs controlled nominations in the South and city bosses decided on candidates in most big cities in the North.
Nor was it lost on Nader that insurgencies in party primaries have done much better than third-party candidates over the past 70 years. The most famous example is socialist Upton Sinclair's switch to the Democrats in 1934 so he could run for governor in the California party's primary, where he won 51 percent of the vote in a field of seven candidates, and went on to take 37 percent of the vote in the regular election against the incumbent Republican. The success of the New Right in transforming the Republican Party by running candidates in primaries was not overlooked by Nader either. So the combination of structure and history came down in favor of a Democratic insurgency. Third-party advocates were displeased, but not the great majority of Nader admirers and those leftists who suffered through the lean times of the last 30-plus years.
Not that there was a groundswell of voters for Nader at first, or even later. It looked for months like he was going nowhere; established political operatives and the media focused on Gore and Bradley. But when Bradley dropped out and Nader refused to quit, things began to get interesting. Suddenly there was more media attention because it was a David and Goliath story at a time when there was not much other news. Moreover, Nader's principled decision to avoid personal attacks on Gore, along with his laser focus on the tremendous failures of big corporations, and his equal emphasis on the great possibilities of using government to tame them, gained him increasing respect. Nader's slogan was also ideal for showing that there are more egalitarian Democrats than the centrists like to think: "Send Gore a message about social equality and the importance of the environment."
Nader was wildly outspent, of course, by more than 20 to 1, due to Gore's many connections to big corporations and their lobbyists. This disadvantage naturally made it tough for him to give Gore a full challenge, but he knew that he would have had the same problem running as a third-party candidate in the regular elections. He also knew that campaign finance can be overrated if a candidate has name recognition and a strong message. He therefore concentrated initially on meetings with small groups so he could build a solid core who would spread the word gradually through friendship networks. Interviews with a few friendly journalists also got the word out, along with low-cost ads in local newspapers in the cities he was visiting.
It was the huge rallies at arena after arena across the country that really ignited the campaign. Thousands of people turned out in small cities up and down the Left Coast, along with nearly 10,000 in Chicago and Washington, and 15,000 at Madison Square Garden. Student audiences in Boston and other college towns were ecstatic for Nader. It was just like what the old days of grassroots politics were imagined to be, and even the skeptical and disaffected began to enjoy the campaign. They also admired the dogged way in which Nader insisted on visiting every state and speaking in every venue, even ones unlikely to give him any votes. Then a few clever and humorous television ads in a handful of relatively inexpensive markets added to the excitement and fun as Gore soldiered on in his usual stolid way.
Still, Nader never won more than 20-25 percent of the votes in any primary, even in California and Oregon. But he never got less than 5-10 percent either, whereas he would have been lucky to take 3 percent as a third party candidate in the regular elections. Overall, his vote totals were far more than the Gore campaign expected, forcing Gore to respect the egalitarian wing of the party, but less than Nader hoped for, a sobering reminder to insurgents that they have their work cut out for them if they expect to attract the many people they think of as their "natural" allies.
But Nader's overall showing was enough to make it necessary for Gore to allow him to speak at the convention. The negotiations were intense, with Gore's handlers trying to keep Nader's appearance short and far from prime time, but 10 minutes in the early evening wasn't bad, and the speech was a bell ringer that is available on video to rally new activists for years to come. Rehearsing once again the many failures and injustices of a raw anti-government capitalism that doesn't worry about health care needs or clean air or poverty, and explaining the many remedies available by government planning through the market system, Nader then cemented his future role by praising Gore and calling for his election. Saying those positive words wasn't easy for him, because he felt that Gore had treated him and other egalitarian activists shabbily over the previous eight years, but there was just enough politician in him to squeeze the words out.
Gore, of course, did not return the favor, saying little or nothing about Nader during the regular campaign, and limiting his official role to a few fringe appearances. Not that Nader was a wilting lily; as a supporter of the party's candidate, he took advantage of the campaign fervor to visit liberals and egalitarians on his own hook everywhere he could, working to convince the few remaining holdouts for futile third parties that they could have more influence inside the Democratic Party than outside it. He also used these visits to start Egalitarian Democratic Clubs in 43 states, laying the basis for the future takeover of the party in the same way liberals had taken over the California state party with their California Democratic Clubs in the 1950s. He also used these occasions to make plans for the national post-election Egalitarian Democrats convention that was held in March, 2001. where club members were given the task of developing a more detailed set of programs for future elections, and urged to find candidates to carry the egalitarian message in state and congressional races.
Although Gore continued to ignore Nader after his narrow victory, which was decided late in the evening by the electoral votes in New Hampshire and Florida, he quietly paid off the left with several of his second- and third-level appointments. Former Naderites gained some influence at the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where they implemented several rulings and regulations that the Clinton-Gore team had been sitting on because they did not want to stir up the corporate pressure groups.
Nader's decision to help send a moderate Democrat to the White House also made good sense in terms of the leverage it gave liberal Democrats in the Senate. Moreover, Nader earned credit for helping the Democrats come very close to a House majority, thanks to last-minute victories in districts in Michigan, New Jersey, and New Mexico, where his visits helped to reduce the vote for Green Party candidates just enough for the Democrats to squeak by.
Nader's tireless work within the Democratic Party helped to close the already narrowing gap between "liberals" and "progressives/socialists/radicals," a process that has been underway for many years for a variety of reasons. But it was not just his tireless work. Nader also forcefully articulated the point now brilliantly demonstrated by several outstanding economists -- it is possible to modify the worst aspects of capitalism to a considerable degree through market-based planning based on taxes, subsidies, government purchases, and regulations. There is no such thing as a "free market" that can operate without careful government regulation, as demonstrated once again by the scam artists from Enron, Global Crossing, and other fraudulent "new economy" companies, not to mention all the slick hustlers on Wall Street, but the centralized, non-market planning that is the essence of "socialism" doesn't work either. So the issue is not planning, as Nader patiently explained, but what kind of government planning and by whom, which means the basic necessity is political power within a market system.
Although Nader was unrelenting in his criticism of corporations and those individuals and groups who support the economic and political status quo, he was careful not to attack "the capitalists," "the rich," or "the ruling class." That's because he didn't buy into the overly simple assumption that everyone currently in those categories is an inevitable opponent of egalitarian social change. Even though there is a dominant social class of corporate owners and top executives, who have different interests from people who work for wages and salaries, it did not make sense to him to rely on a class-based "Us" versus "Them" framing. He understood that the issue is ultimately a value-based program and political power, and he knew from past experience that some members of the ownership class might come to support part or all of his platform. In fact, knowing that defectors from an elite group can be very important to insurgent causes, he emphasized that many wealthy people already were among his supporters. He therefore confined himself to attacks on corporate greed and those who oppose greater equality, fairness, and opportunity. He defined the opposition as the "corporate-conservative coalition" and the Republican Party. In so doing he drew upon the magnificent example of the early Civil Rights Movement, which wisely refused to label all whites as enemies, but only racists and bigots, and thereby provided an opening whereby prejudiced whites could change their minds and adopt new values in the light of new information and changing circumstances.
In addition, Nader's longstanding connections with grassroots social movement organizations means that those organizations will have more clout because they are now linked to a solid electoral strategy. By being inside and outside of electoral politics, the wider egalitarian movement he is championing can have the best of both worlds. Most of the time its members can continue to work in specific environmental, social justice, or workplace organizations that have no electoral focus, but they also can involve themselves periodically in electoral politics through the Egalitarian Democrat Clubs.
Moreover, Nader put a strong emphasis on the power of what is now called "strategic nonviolence," or nonviolent direct action, stressing that is the only method for prevailing in a conflict that is consistent with maintaining and expanding political democracy. He and his forces thereby tried to marginalize those activists whose calls for property destruction and retaliatory attacks on the police at demonstrations have undermined the outreach potential of the global justice movement. In focusing on nonviolence, Nader urged that activists now build on the work of the strategists who have catalogued many dozens of nonviolent direct action tactics and documented their usefulness in a variety of countries and settings. In particular, they can draw inspiration and training methods from the early Civil Rights Movement, which was a picture-perfect example of the power of strategic nonviolence through its combination of sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts, and marches.
No matter what the future may bring in the face of a formidable corporate power structure and a great many citizens satisfied with the status quo, Nader's decision to take egalitarian activism into the Democratic Party was a sensational expenditure of moral capital, providing egalitarians with new hope and a new direction.
Well, that's the way it should have been. If that scenario had been carried out, the United States would look very different today, and those seeking greater equality, fairness, and opportunity would be making plans to expand on their successes. Why, then, do so many egalitarians try to build new third parties of the left in the face of overwhelming structural odds and terrible historical precedents, always ending up with a meager few percent of the vote, far less than they expect? Then, too, why is there no sustained effort to create programs for greater fairness and equality based on planning through the market, a decentralized approach consistent with democratic participation in the political arena? Furthermore, why are so many egalitarians hesitant to speak out against violent tactics at demonstrations, thereby implicitly conceding moral leadership to those who think that the destruction of property or violence towards persons are a virtue or an eventual necessity?
If you have ever asked yourself any of these questions, then there are other documents on this web site that may be of interest to you. Although these documents are often critical of past leftist strategies, they do not say everything egalitarians have done is counterproductive. To the contrary, egalitarians played a catalytic role in every movement that led to the expansion of individual rights and opportunities in the United States in the twentieth century, starting with the women's suffrage campaign, the creation of industrial unions, and the Civil Rights Movement, and continuing today in movements for gender equality, racial and ethnic equality, environmental protection, and rights for gays and lesbians. In each case, new nonviolent methods have been invented by egalitarians to disrupt the routines and belief systems of those who favor the status quo, everything from strikes to sit-ins to outing to locking down.
So, too, the living-wage and anti-sweatshop campaigns have been brilliantly done. They have made just the right use of research, litigation, strategic nonviolence, and media. They also serve as a very useful model because they raise all the right issues about the limits of markets, and because they provide links among so many different groups -- immigrant workers in the United States, college students who have leverage on their home campuses, urban activists calling for a living wage, trade unions with lobbying connections to local and state government, and low-income workers in less developed countries. Their efforts can be built upon and have the potential to contribute to a larger egalitarian movement, but they are also a good model because they can succeed on their own terms even if they do not trigger a more general movement. No one could improve upon them as a superb use of limited resources and as a way to inspire new activists of an egalitarian stripe.
In a nutshell, all the pieces are there for a strong egalitarian movement. But they have not been used effectively for two reasons. First, they have not been linked by an underlying rationale that shows activists how they all fit together. Second, they have been obscured and distorted by the inclusion of self-defeating methods that should not be part of the picture.
There is a good literature on comparative studies of electoral systems. For the most comprehensive studies, see Maurice Duverger, Political Parties. Second English Edition, New York: Wiley and Sons, 1959; Douglas W. Rae, The political consequences of electoral laws, revised edition, New Haven : Yale University Press, 1971; and Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It didn't happen here: Why socialism failed in the United States, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, Chapter 2.
For the story of the Wallace campaign, see James Weinstein, Ambiguous legacy: The left in American politics, New York : New Viewpoints, 1975, Chapter 6; Curtis D. MacDougall, Gideon's army, New York, Marzani & Munsell, 1965; and the important revelations in Thomas W. Devine, The eclipse of progressivism. (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2000). For information on Upton Sinclair's EPIC Campaign (End Poverty in California), see Greg Mitchell, The campaign of the century: Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California and the birth of media politics, New York : Random House, 1992.
The hypothetical numbers at Nader rallies are based on the actual turnouts for his rallies as a Green Party candidate. The hypothetical claim that Nader started Egalitarian Democratic Clubs in 43 states is based on the fact that he was on the ballot in 43 states as the Green Party candidate. The hypothetical second-level and third-level appointments in a Gore Administration are based on he fact that several Nader colleagues were appointed to such positions by President Jimmy Carter. The hypothetical house seats that Nader saved from the Greens come from the fact that Greens did cost the Democrats House seats in Michigan and New Mexico, and almost did so in New Jersey.
For good accounts of the problems of central planning and the possibilities of planning through the market, see Charles Lindblom, Politics and markets: The world's political economic systems, New York: Basic Books, 1977; Charles Lindblom, The market system: What it is, how it works, and what to make of it, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001; and Alex Nove, The economics of feasible socialism revisited. Second edition, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
For an explanation of how a corporate-conservative coalition rooted in the ownership and control of large corporations dominates the weaker and more fragmented liberal-labor coalition, see my Who Rules America? Power and Politics, 5th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. In effect, Who Rules America? provides the power context within which this current document on large-scale social change can be situated. Conversely, this current document can be read as a statement of the political analysis that follows from the sociological analysis in Who Rules America?
For the best accounts of strategic nonviolence, see Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler , Strategic nonviolent conflict: The dynamics of people power in the twentieth century, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994; Ronald M. McCarthy and Gene Sharp, Nonviolent action: A research guide, New York: Garland Publishing, 1997; and George Lakey, Powerful peacemaking: A strategy for a living revolution, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
There are many classic justifications of hierarchy by conservatives throughout Western history. For one good brief summary of them, see T.B. Bottomore, Elites and society, London: C.A. Watts, 1964. For a modern-day equivalent in a right-wing book claiming African-Americans are intellectually inferior, see Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life, New York: Free Press, 1994. For a thorough scholarly statement on the problem of dominators by social psychologists, as supported by their own research, see Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
For the importance of the liberal-conservative dimension in American politics, see Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal Congress: A political-economic history of roll call voting, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. For an analysis of the "illiberal" tendencies within egalitarianism, see Richard J. Ellis, The dark side of the Left: Illiberal egalitarianism in America, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998. The final pages of the book present the general outlines of a "liberal egalitarianism."
For a discussion of how egalitarians can control tendencies toward elitism through defining themselves as catalysts and focusing on strategic nonviolence, see Richard Flacks, Making history: The radical tradition in American life, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, pages 271-275. "Activists who choose a radical path and an elitist practice must begin their journey by refusing absolutely to reach for power, seeing instead that their mission is to serve as exemplars of moral being and action. They must refuse absolutely the belief that history can be short-circuited through violent intervention. They ought to study Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Muste, and King as models of history making, rather than Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Che, and Fanon" (page 275).
For two sympathetic but critical studies of the history of the American left through the late 1960s and early 1970s, which show both its successes and failures, see Weinstein, Ambiguous legacy, op. cit.; and Flacks, Making history, op. cit., Chapter 4. For a summary of the living wage campaign, see Jim Hightower, "Going down the road: Campaign for a Living Wage," The Nation, April 1, 2002, page 8. For the early stages of the anti-sweatshop movement, see Randy Shaw, Reclaiming America: Nike, clean air, and the new national activism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, Chapters 1 and 2. For another account, see Marc Cooper, "No sweat: Uniting workers and students, a new movement is born," The Nation, 268, June 7, 1999, pages 11-14.
First posted March 2005