Ralph Nader is poised to fill the Mr. Smith slot in American political fantasy. Squint hard and he even resembles young Jimmy Stewart as the little man who rocked the system. As for the Greens, Nader can crow that they are now the biggest third party in America (though they garnered only 3 percent of the vote). He certainly has given the Greens name recognition. But progressives should ponder the cliché about notoriety: Be careful what you wish for.
Nader sees the Greens fielding “thousands of candidates at the state and local level.” But unless he’s talking about the very local level, these campaigns are doomed. Greens will have a tough time winning without liberals, who are still seething over what Nader did to Al Gore. Nor can these insurgents win working-class precincts without the support of organized labor. The electricians notwithstanding, most union members would agree with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s assessment of the Nader campaign: “Reprehensible.” This crucial avenue for the growth of any progressive movement is all but closed to the Greens.
So is the other source of the left’s strength, its alliance with the black community. Nader drew just 1 percent of the black vote, cementing the image of the Green Party as white identified. Not even Al Sharpton can turn snow into a rainbow. By alienating blacks and labor, Nader has ripped the Greens from their mooring in progressive politics, leaving them only one way to grow: away from the left.
To glimpse the party’s future, look at its base today. As exit polls show, the average Nader voter was a young white male, college educated and income poor. Only the Greens could attract a constituency that earns little and learns a lot. These are not the striving poor. They care more about the environment than the economy; world affairs matter more to them than Social Security and Medicare. This is the group that gravitates to eco-humanism, for better or worse. It’s a strong base for a movement, but hardly sufficient for building the national force Nader wants the Greens to become. In order to accomplish that, he will have to reach out to independents.
The Great Left Myth is that unaligned voters represent a potentially progressive bloc. But let’s go to the exit polls. Only 17 percent of Americans identify themselves as liberal (never mind radical), and the great majority of those are Democrats. There’s only one way for Nader to attract independents: move to the right.
Consider the state that gave Nader his greatest proportional vote. It wasn’t a liberal stronghold like Oregon or Wisconsin; it was Alaska, where Republicans rule. Here, Nader ran at 10 percent. The politics of the Green constituency in this great northern realm is libertarianism with an environmental edge. These folks didn’t vote for Nader because they believe in union shops.
There are people with similar politics all across the country. Until Nader came along, the closest they came to affiliating was with the Reform Party. It’s no coincidence that most of the pros in Nader’s campaign were borrowed from the Jesse Ventura wing of that party. Shake out the Buchananites from Ross Perot’s spawn and you get a constituency that could go for Nader.
But there’s a contradiction at the heart of this embrace. While a chunk of the Reform Party might be drawn to Nader’s ideas about environmental protection and consumer rights, they won’t take to a candidate who wants to tax stock transactions. In order to attract them, Nader will be tempted to behave exactly like the Democrats he despises, by tailoring his agenda to suit the possibilities.
Nader has always seen himself as a triangulator. That’s why he was easier on Bush than on Gore, why he lambasted the culture like a regular Lynne Cheney, why he didn’t go front and center with issues like abortion and gun control. Nader wants to woo conservatives; after all, as he has often said, they’re for safe cars too. But how far will he go to score? Nader isn’t even a member of the Green Party. Nor did he set out to create a left-wing movement. He has struggled to build a broad consensus for environmental and consumer reform, and if he has to jettison some progressive proposals in order to accomplish that, he just might.
Whether the Greens would stand for such a shift remains to be seen. The party might split up into factions, as it did before this campaign. There has always been an implicit schism in the Greens between its economic and ecological wings. Nader might force the issue, making it far more difficult for the party to synthesize its differences. The Greens could end up as a loose alliance of local affiliates that stand for very different things. This would be as postmodern as politics gets.
What looks like a moment of triumph is actually a moment of truth. The Greens must now decide whether they want to be a real political party—and what kind of party they want to be.
These questions haunted the European Greens in the 1980s, when they first began to gnaw at the Social Democrats (which we would call liberals). But after a decade of splitting the left and assuring conservative rule, the Euro Greens realized that their fate lay in securing a progressive majority.
“We see the need to build on institutions; to reform them, not transform them,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which represents the German Greens in America. To that end, the Euro Greens eventually teamed up with Social Democrats in an arrangement that allowed them to run unopposed by other left candidates in certain districts. The result was power: In Germany, for example, the foreign minister is a Green.
Such an accommodation is easier to achieve in Europe, where the system favors the proliferation of parties. But one reason the Euro Greens won a place at the table is that they arrived ready to eat. The American Greens are far from that point. “They cannot form a stable political base, because they aren’t a homogeneous force,” notes Müller-Kraenner. “The only leader they have speaks only for himself.”
To Müller-Kraenner, Nader looks “far more American than Green.” His platform is a patchwork of positions with no systematic relationship to actual policies. “It’s not enough to take a few positions,” says Müller-Kraenner. “Then you are an NGO, not a political party.” To him, the American Greens are the eco-equivalent of the Christian Coalition. Except that Pat Robertson’s minions are savvy enough to stick with the Republican Party.
If Nader makes his move for the mainstream, the Greens will have to decide whether to follow him. The alternative is to find a new leader who can rebuild the bridges he has burned. This is the choice Nader has thrust upon the Greens: Either they outgrow him or they may lose their party to a politics not their own.