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How to Win Enemies and Influence People:
Ralph Nader’s Campaign Victories—A Mid-Campaign Assessment
(First in a Series)
by Greg Bates
September 22, 2004

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On September 14, 2004, nearly 80 leaders out of 113 who backed Nader in 2000 signed a petition urging people to vote for John Kerry. Many are luminaries of the left—Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Susan Sarandon, Studs Terkel and many others. But contrary to initial appearances, I believe this signals a major coup for Nader. His efforts may be losing him some friends, but a close analysis of this petition shows how he is nonetheless altering the political landscape for the better. The petition reads:

“We, the undersigned, were selected by Ralph Nader to be members of his 113-person national "Nader 2000 Citizens Committee." This year, we urge support for Kerry/Edwards in all swing states, even while we strongly disagree with Kerry's policies on Iraq and other issues. For people seeking progressive social change in the United States, removing George W. Bush from office should be the top priority in the 2004 presidential election. Progressive votes for John Kerry in swing states may prove decisive in attaining this vital goal.”

Calling this a Nader victory reminds me of that joke about the Marxist facing the firing squad. As the marksmen took aim, his last words were “This is just a momentary setback for the revo—”.

How could such a devastating abandonment of Nader’s efforts be seen as his victory?

The statement is interesting both for what it says, and what it doesn’t say. It’s a major shift from earlier positions on third party candidates. Right up through the time of Nader’s announcement in February that he was running, those asking him not to run issued blanket condemnations. As the Nation put it, “Candidate Nader’s request for your vote is a dangerous distraction.” A great articulation of these views prior to Nader’s run comes from columnist Norman Solomon (also a signer of the petition above) who, writing in a July 23rd 2003 Common Dreams piece, attacked the Green Party for its “rigidity” in deciding to run a presidential candidate. As he put it back then,

“Few present-day Green Party leaders seem willing to urge that Greens forego the blandishments of a presidential campaign. The increased attention -- including media coverage -- for the party is too compelling to pass up.…

“Green leaders are apt to offer rationales along the lines that "political parties run candidates" and Greens must continue to gain momentum at the ballot box. But by failing to make strategic decisions about which electoral battles to fight -- and which not to -- the Greens are set to damage the party's long-term prospects.…

“Fueled by idealistic fervor for its social-change program (which I basically share), the Green Party has become an odd sort of counterpoint to the liberals who have allowed pro-corporate centrists to dominate the Democratic Party for a dozen years now. Those liberal Democrats routinely sacrifice principles and idealism in the name of electoral strategy. The Greens are now largely doing the reverse -- proceeding toward the 2004 presidential race without any semblance of a viable electoral strategy, all in the name of principled idealism.”

Translation: Greens should not run a presidential candidate.

Seven months later, Nader picked up the campaign baton. By the end of June 2004, the Green Party, having spent the year waffling on whether or not to run a presidential ticket, nominated David Cobb and Pat LaMarche. One wonders if the party would have done so if Nader hadn’t paved the way by declaring several months earlier.

Suddenly, activists started making the distinction between voting for candidates in safe states and swing states. Solomon shifted to endorse the strategy, announcing in a column in June that he had registered as a Green and didn’t have to worry about voting for Cobb since he lived in the safe state of California.

Chomsky and Zinn, both arguing that Kerry should be elected and strongly opposing Bush’s re-election, stated they planned to vote for Nader because they lived in the safe state of Massachusetts. There’s no contradiction between voting Nader in a safe state and urging others in swing states to vote Kerry. But these public statements of voting for independent and third party candidates in safe states signaled to others that what was once a uniform denouncement of voting Nader has now incorporated a fundamental political reality. According to Business Week, 75% of voters live in safe states, giving leeway to millions of voters. Where once there was no room to pressure Kerry because the crisis is so dire that we just have to hold our nose and vote for the guy, people are waking up to the fact that most of us, even if we want to oust Bush, have a choice other than Kerry.

Clarity over the difference between safe and swing states, embodied in that petition quoted above, has become so widespread that we forget how far we have come. And many fail to acknowledge—and continue to attack—the very person who helped get us to that realization.

But what about the fact that Nader is running in swing states, or trying to? Shouldn’t that strategy be attacked? In his column announcing that it wasn’t so hard to be Green after all, Solomon issued just such a warning to the Greens:

“With the swing states all too close for comfort, activists should be emphatic that the Green Party's presidential campaign this year ought to concentrate its efforts on ‘safe states’ -- where the Bush-Kerry race isn't close.”

But here too, Nader’s actions have led the way for others. To put any effective pressure on the Kerry campaign, a candidate has to run in the swing states. By appearing on the ballot, a candidate exerts that pressure even if voters later choose to vote Kerry for the simple reason that they create an option: voters can threaten to walk. In fact, if a candidate were going to follow the idea of conserving resources, he or she should be concentrating on the swing, not the safe states in order to provide the maximum force against Democrats running right.

This insight of running in swing states and the point that running is not the same as voting for a candidate in that state is only just on the horizon of today’s political debate. But the idea has been firmly grasped by the Green Party. It has fought a hard battle to get Cobb/LaMarche on key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. These are the second and third largest swing states after Florida, where the most pressure can be exerted. And that Green Party effort has been strong; they missed getting on the Ohio ballot by being shy just 500 names. They turned in over 7,000 signatures, more than enough to qualify. Unfortunately, too many were ruled invalid. As with every time Nader is shut out, when the Greens are kept off a ballot it is the voters who lose. 

In fact the Greens have struggled to little avail to be accurately portrayed on this issue. After I gave an interview describing Cobb/LaMarche as a “safe state strategy,” Scott McLarty of the Green Party Media office, who demanded that I make a correction, brought me up short. He wrote,

David Cobb and the Green Party agree that all voters, including those in swing states, should enjoy a choice that includes Green candidates, other parties' candidates, and independents.”

Point taken—I was wrong. Because voter choice is a fundamental requirement for democracy, I am delighted to be corrected, and delighted that Greens are pushing into swing states.

As is well known, Nader has received Republican support to get on the ballot. I save that question for a future column. But, as Solomon shows, the swing state strategy was denounced on principle prior to that controversial support. It will be interesting to see if the condemnations of Nader over his swing state strategy will now extend to a condemnation of the Greens over their identical strategy, or whether the standard will only be selectively applied.

Interestingly, the petition above does not judge whether a swing state run is of any value and concentrates—as it should—on dialoging with voters. In the end, it is the voters, not the candidates, who should be approached. In contrast to denouncing candidates for running (and thereby trying to limit voter choice by pressuring candidates to step down), such appeals to voters are the stuff of democracy.

Indeed I would count that as another victory. Nader has stuck with it through unprecedented villification by his former allies until they have finally focused on the real issue: not who is running but who is voting for whom. Having abandoned their efforts to get Nader (I hope), they are now engaged in a mad scramble to get voters on their side—a wise shift.

How should those of us inclined to vote Nader respond to the petition’s urging? That question I leave for another column. Suffice it to say here that swing voters are just as capable of figuring this out as the petition signers, and need argument and discussion and dialog about what many of us see as a difficult decision, instead of ham handed urging. In any case, even if I were inclined to vote for Kerry, I wouldn’t delcare such intentions—that just gives Kerry support to keep moving right relieveing the pressure of my threat to vote for Nader.

There is a great deal of irony in how that petition is being used. It is being touted by the Progressive Unity Voter Fund, a group that has denounced Nader’s run because polls show that he is more popular with progressives than with Republicans. The group is worried voters might split from Kerry and by doing so throw a close election to Bush. Their website, run by John Pearce and others, has relentlessly chided Nader for claiming he will gain more votes from conservatives than progressives. But the petition with its progressive signers, and the efforts of Pearce and the legion of Nader‘s critics, is aimed at exactly Nader’s goal: make sure he gets more votes from Republicans than progressives. We have come full circle: the critics may not have realized it yet but they are pursuing the goals of the man they have in the past denounced.

The critics’ shift is for real. I asked Pearce why his website no longer featured poll data on how many progressive voters were likely to vote Nader and showing Nader is wrong wrong wrong. Previous editions of the website were packed with derision. Pearce replied, “I know there are now more recent polls, and don't know how they break. We haven't updated recently and don't have the map on our home page at this time. We're instead focused on the Zinn/Chomsky/Sarandon/Terkel/Hightower et. al statement,” which is the petition quoted earlier.

It’s interesting to note that Pearce’s whole earlier thesis, that too many progressive voters may cost Kerry the election by voting Nader, and that Nader’s assertions to the contrary were ridiculous, may instead turn out exactly as Nader has predicted all along. The latest Harris poll, September 16, shows Nader support among likely voters is waning, moving from 8% in April down to 2% now. Pearce other critics may claim this as a victory for their efforts. But Nader’s prediction that this would happen is based on events in 2000: as the election neared, the number of people planning to vote for Nader shrank. It will be interesting to see if his critics ever bother to acknowledge that, so far, Nader has called it correctly.

Returning to Nader’s accomplishments, added to his victories of acceptance of running and voting in safe states, of demonstrating that pressure comes from running in swing states, and of egging the Green Party, Nader has had a string of small victories as well as others that have also altered the political landscape.

Among the smaller accomplishments is the debate between Howard Dean and Nader, which registered hardly a blip on the political radar screen. Yet this and other factors have made it clear that Nader could not have been as effective a critic without running. Without his campaign, there would have been no debate with Dean.

During the debate, Dean carefully articulated why the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was a step backwards. For the first time since prohibition, he said, this is an amendment designed to curtail rather than extend people’s rights. Even though Dean omitted the point that Kerry still opposes same sex marriage, there’s nothing wrong with that statement. But Dean might have acknowledged that the point he did make comes directly off Nader’s website. It’s always nice—and a sign of success—when your opposition starts adopting your arguments!

Nader has also raised a number of issues that might not have seen the light of day: the need for electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting, an end to the electoral college and so on, moves the Greens are also pushing. He has attacked Bush more effectively than Kerry has, calling for Bush’s impeachment and an end to the war in Iraq. And he has built an impressive political platform, one most progressives would be proud to vote for if strategic considerations were not in play. Perhaps chunks of it can be adopted by candidates in the future, both those inside and outside the Democratic Party.

Nader has at least in a limited way succeeded in pressuring Kerry, a pressure that would have been nonexistent had Nader not declared his candidacy. He secured a meeting with Kerry, and among other things asked him to push for an anti-poverty program. Shortly after, Kerry announced he supported raising the minimum wage to $7. Nader suggested Kerry pick Edwards as a running mate. Who knows how much of a factor Nader was in either decision, but I’m glad he was pushing.

Kerry has explicitly acknowledged that Nader has forced him to alter his own campaign. During the Nader/Dean debate, a tape of Kerry was played, stating that he was running a campaign designed to win over Nader voters. He’s done a poor job of that, to put it kindly. But the pressure is there.

Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group FAIR and now working with the Progressive Unity Voter Fund, has argued that such pressure is ineffective. Judging by Kerry’s pro war policies, Cohen will probably turn out to be right. All the more reason to embrace the Green slogan, we’re not just out to pressure the Democrats, we’re out to replace them. Hopefully the Green Party has been invigorated to run presidential candidates not just this time but consistently, so that building toward an electoral win becomes possible.        

Turning to another Nader success, he has had a profound impact on how many view the Democratic Party. Chomsky has toiled for decades to show the limits of acceptable political discourse by examining the Democrats, and to help people see the limits of American benevolence by exposing Democratic policies. In President Jimmy Carter’s case, to pick one example, Chomsky showed just what Carter’s slogan of putting “human rights at the heart of our foreign policy,” really meant: supporting the Shah of Iran as he killed his own people, arguing that we don’t owe Vietnam reparations after bombing it into the stone age because the damage was mutual, and other principled stands. In six short months, Ralph Nader’s campaign has also exposed the Democrat Party leaders for what they are—a desperate group of corporate hacks who will gladly weaken democracy by challenging Nader’s right to be on the ballot.

The Democrats had another choice: take the high road and convince the voters by saying, “Okay, we support Nader’s access to the ballot, but because of the crisis called the Bush presidency, we want you to vote for Kerry.” Instead, they exposed their own lack of faith in their candidate by resorting to underhanded tactics to kick Nader off ballots in several states. It may be disheartening for Nader’s campaign workers to be continually slugged by the “party of the people” as it tries to keep voters from having a choice, but Nader and his troops are doing important work in showing that the Democratic Party has relinquished even the pretense of principle.

Nader’s efforts are also aiding and signaling an important shift in progressive voter sentiment. Once we had to fight tooth and nail to convince people that the Democratic Party, at least on the presidential level, is rotten to the core. Back in the 90s, I proudly published Solomon’s effort on the subject, False Hope: The Politics of Illusion in the Clinton Era. Many liberals and progressives considered opposing and exposing Clinton a bizarre idea at the time. Today, criticism of Kerry is all the rage. I have met many campaign workers for Kerry but not one—not one!—who is excited by their candidate. So many say Nader would make a better president. In fact criticism of Kerry is so pervasive that those drafting the petition above felt they had to throw in their own bit about Kerry and the Iraq war. THAT is a sea change. It’s not all or even mostly due to Nader by any means, but is aided by his relentless hammering nonetheless. Like some of his other victories, this wariness of Kerry has become so widespread that we have lost track of the distance we have traveled.

Nader has also revealed that there is a growing constituency abandoned by the Democrats. In response, many within the Democratic Party have started “progressive caucuses,” an acknowledgement that if Democrats don’t move left, someone—Nader, Cobb, who knows?—will move into the space the Democrats have left behind during their march right. It is unclear whether the caucuses have any chance at succeeding in making the party progressive. But it is clear that Nader has sent a warning shot, and some within the Party are listening.

It makes for an impressive list:

  1. Had a string of small victories from debating Dean, to pushing for electoral reform, to pressuring Kerry and ratcheting up the attack on Bush. Then Nader helped to fundamentally alter the political landscape by accomplishing the following:

  2. Created a widely accepted distinction between voting in swing and safe states;

  3. Shown the importance of running in swing states, a fact separate from what voters in those states choose to do;

  4. By example egged on the Green Party to get in the harness and run;

  5. Exposed John Kerry for who he is and helped make criticism of his policies a pervasive part of political discourse;

  6. Exposed Democratic leaders’ opposition to democracy by showing they want to limit voter choice—and in the process revealed how little faith Democrats have in their candidate’s ability to win an election by appealing to the voters;

  7. By showing that the Democrats are losing constituents as the party moves right, Nader is helping to ignite reform efforts inside the Democratic Party that are taking place after the primaries;

  8. And has stood his ground until some of his critics shifted focus to pursuing goals he shared.

And there is room for a much more important victory to come. Winning the battle for the presidency could take a third party running consistently for 10 to 15 election cycles over 50 years. Nader has shown it is possible to withstand the natterings of those who would limit the field to just two candidates, as well as fight against the limitless resources of the Democratic Party trying to dictate that outcome. Such an example could well inspire others to begin that cycle of running consistently to capture the presidency.

That would be a truly great legacy.

Next time: Ralph’s Right Stuff: The Politics of Nader’s Republican Support

Greg Bates is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion.

Other Articles by Greg Bates

* Ralph’s Revolt: A Discussion with Greg Bates