Progressives, speaking broadly, are clearly divided when it comes to the four most well-known, liberal or progressive Presidential candidates who are still out there.
A week or two or three from now that field of four may be down to three, depending upon what happens in Ohio and Texas tomorrow. Most progressives continue to support Obama or Clinton. Supporters of either Cynthia McKinney, the likely candidate of the Green Party, or independent Ralph Nader are in a very distinct numerical minority. Although with pockets of strength in certain parts of the country, on a national level there is no question but that the progressive third party cause is and has been struggling for years.
It didn’t used to be like this. The political period from the mid-80′s until 2000 saw much independent political ferment, beginning with Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition (NRC) effort in the 1980′s. Though running as a Democrat, Jackson supported, until midway through 1988, the development of the NRC as an independent, "third force" alternative to the Republicans and the dominant forces in the Democratic Party. And the NRC was taking root and growing. Over the late spring and summer of 1988, building upon Jackson’s victories in a number of Democratic Party primaries in the spring, statewide Rainbow conventions were happening, often bringing together many hundreds of people. 700, for example, came to a California state convention.
When these efforts were shut down by Jackson in late summer and the NRC lost its independent, movement-building character, a number of third party efforts came forward over the next few years: the Labor Party, the Green Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow and the New Party. Throughout the decade of the 90′s these efforts generally had energy and vitality.
In retrospect, however, it is clear that a high point of this 15-year-or-so political period was reached in 2000 with the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Green Party campaign. This campaign had excitement and resources, massive campaign rallies similar in numbers to the ones Obama has been having this year, and relatively extensive media coverage. But in the end, the closeness of the election and the winner-take-all nature of the U.S. electoral system led many who supported Nader/LaDuke to vote for Al Gore. Polling at a consistent 5% for weeks leading up to the weekend before the election, Nader ended up getting about half that, 2.8% of the total Presidential vote.
Since that time, suffering under the 7-plus years of Bush/Cheney, the progressive third party movement has survived, particularly the Green Party, but it has not thrived. In 2004 Nader ran as an independent for President rather than as a Green and got about 1/6 the total number of votes as in 2000. The Green Party was internally divided between those who wanted a specifically Green Party candidate and those who supported Nader. The end result was two progressive Presidential candidacies: Nader and Green Party candidate David Cobb. Cobb, relatively unknown, got about 1/4 as many votes as Nader.
Three years later the Green Party continues to have many weaknesses, but, in the words of the late Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Victoria Gray-Adams at a meeting earlier this decade, it is a nationally-organized political force that is "keeping the vision alive." And it continues to struggle in a conscious way to become more multi-racial and more anti-racist, which is essential if we are to forge the kind of powerful alliance that can eventually have the power and potential that we saw with the 80′s Rainbow.
With Ralph Nader’s announcement this week that he 1) is running for President for the fourth time in a row, 2) is doing so as an independent and 3) will not be contesting for the nomination of the Green Party, it sure looks like 2008 could be as difficult for third party supporters, particularly for the Green Party, as was the case in 2004.
Indeed, I would think that the Democratic Party establishment must be very pleased at the likelihood that Ralph Nader and, most likely, Cynthia McKinney will be competing against not just the Dems and Reps but each other. This is not the best way to build a unified independent progressive alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.
I don’t know how Greens who are long-time supporters of Nader are feeling about this latest development. I would think that some Greens who support McKinney and many of those who were hoping for a contest between Nader and McKinney within the Green Party context are not happy about it. That includes me.
A number of us were hopeful for a period of time last fall that there could be a Green Party Presidential ticket that included both of them. Many Greens signed a letter urging McKinney and Nader–both of whom spoke at a late summer national GP gathering–to agree that whoever won the internal competition for the GP Presidential nomination would seriously consider naming the other as their VP candidate. For a time I was entertaining the hope that Nader would appreciate that, at age 74 and having already run for President three times, the best thing he could do for the third party cause would be not to run again but to support the African American woman and six-times-elected former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney. I thought it would be a great example and a modeling of what we need: white men willing to step back, not be the ones always leading, supporting women and people of color who assert positive leadership.
I guess that was a naïve thing to hope for.
I honestly don’t understand why Nader is attempting the same thing that he did in 2004. Does he think there are significant constituencies that he is going to attract to his candidacy, and if so who? I definitely can’t see any such movement from labor, women, people of color, lesbians and gays, environmentalists or any other progressive constituency. And young people, from every indication, are strongly behind Obama.
If there was a unified McKinney/Nader (my preference) or Nader/McKinney ticket, or McKinney/somebody supported by Nader, there would still be many difficulties. A major one is the widespread progressive and grassroots desire, for understandable reasons, for a Democratic Party victory after eight years of Republican control of the White House. If Obama wins the Democratic nomination, which I hope he does, it will not be easy to compete with such a dynamic and articulate man of African descent. And there’s always the difficulty for any third party effort in a corporate- and corporate-media dominated, winner-take-all electoral system.
These difficulties will not be made easier when Nader and McKinney have to also compete against each other for votes and, before that, for state ballot lines.
Nevertheless, it is better that there will be two progressive third party candidacies rather than none at all. They will play an important role in bringing forward the truth about Obama’s–or Clinton’s– histories and positions on issues, challenge the Democrats from the left, expose the inconsistencies and downright bad positions. That will make it more difficult for the Democratic nominee to jettison his or her primary-season, more-progressive politics during the general election campaign. And that will help to lay the basis for an "action, not rhetoric" movement from below that will be absolutely essential to pressure Obama or Clinton, if one of them becomes President (which I hope Obama does), or to organize a militant fightback movement if it is McCain.
For myself, I’ll continue to support Cynthia McKinney as the best option for the Green Party, and I’ll continue to support the Green Party as important in helping to "keep hope alive." With its 21 state ballot lines, its 230 or so elected officials at local levels, its 46 organized state parties and its continuing, if uneven, efforts to build a 21st century Rainbow-type political movement, it deserves support.