Joel Geier Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Joel Geier

Nader 2000: Challenging the Parties of Corporate America

(August 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 13, August–September 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Today the concentration of wealth and its political power has reached stunning intensities. In large companies, people who work in the same enterprise are now earning $1 for every $416 that the CEO takes away. In 1940 it was $1 for every $12. Today the financial wealth of the top 1 percent of households exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 95 percent of American households. Earlier this year Bill Gates’ wealth was equal to the combined wealth of the poorest 120 million Americans. Whatever this enormous imbalance says about the great software imitator from Redmond, Wash., it means that about tens of millions of Americans who work year after year, decade after decade, are nearly broke. What democracy worth its salt would have left this profound inequity? Globally, the combined annual income of the poorest 3.5 billion people equals the world’s 200 richest people, who more than doubled their net worth between 1996 and 1999.
Ralph Nader’s acceptance speech as Green Party presidential candidate. [1]

Upset at the polls?

Ralph Nader is the popular symbol of the fight for consumer rights against the abuses of corporate power. Since the start of the year, he has registered 4 to 6 percent in pre-election polls as the Green Party presidential candidate. Recent polls show this trend growing, with Nader now favored by anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of voters, depending upon the state.

Until recently, Pat Buchanan was expected to capitalize on any economic discontent and channel it rightward toward protectionism and nationalism. But Buchanan’s support has evaporated, down to only 2 percent in the polls. It is Nader who is the focus for popular discontent, and whose agenda is a part of election discussions. [2]

Nader draws his strength from the issues raised by the new movements against the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, along with working-class anger toward the economic policies of the Clinton-Gore years. He has managed to tap into a mood of anger and revolt against big business and corporate power.

The media try to convince us that the Democrats lose elections when they are not sufficiently moderate, or when they are “too liberal.” But the truth is that the Democrats are losing workers’ and students’ votes that might cost them the election because they are too right wing. The unexpected popularity of Nader could shift the political balance and vastly increase the importance of the left in American politics. It is remarkable that such an important change has occurred in what seems to be just a few short months.

The employers’ consensus

For the past 20 years ... big business has been on a rampage to control our society.
Ralph Nader, Citizen’s Guide to the WTO [3]

Ever since the onset of the employers’ offensive in the 1970s, the “one-sided class war” [4] of capital against labor, establishment politics have moved rightward. And breaks from the two-party arrangement came from the right – Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, the militias – reinforcing the dynamic pressuring politics in an ever more conservative direction.

The American political system – where two capitalist parties represent distinct wings and interest groups of the same class, but have to appeal to, and make concessions to, different popular social bases for support – has always tried to prevent political alternatives from becoming real or finding an organized expression. Increased corporate funding reduced differences to the narrow range that fully accommodated the employers’ demands. As a loyal capitalist party, the Democrats got the message. First under Jimmy Carter, then under Clinton-Gore, the Democrats moved from a policy of New Deal government regulation and consumer-demand stimulus to traditional Republican neoliberalism – deregulation, corporate welfare, globalization, and budget-balancing social cuts. As USA Today commented, there is a “new consensus in which some century-old economic debates appear to be settled.” This convinced Nader, a one-time New Deal Democrat, to argue that the Democratic Party is “no longer the party of working families.” [5]

Then Clinton, under Gore’s conservative prodding, joined the employers’ attack on the gains of the social movements of the 1930s and 1960s. He abandoned traditional liberal social policies by ending welfare and cutting Medicare and food stamps. His policy on racial issues was essentially one of benign neglect. The Clinton-Gore team tolerated racial profiling, embraced “tough on crime” rhetoric to justify imprisoning two million Black and working-class victims, and massively extended the death penalty. As one Democratic congressman cynically joked, we now have two Republican parties divided over abortion. The last-ditch argument liberals give for voting for Gore over Nader is that, if allowed to win, Bush will make conservative Supreme Court appointments. But that misses the dynamics “down below” that are beginning to shift away from the ever more conservative Democratic and Republican consensus of the last two decades. [6]

Conservative setbacks

Freedom is participation in power ... justice means redistribution of power and opportunity and income and livelihood, that’s what justice means.
Ralph Nader’s speech to the NAACP [7]

The ideology used to justify choosing an ever worse “lesser evil” has been repeated so often that it has become widely accepted on the American left. The arguments for lining up behind Gore as a lesser evil, that he is the only choice for the left, have been belied by the important shift in the political mood in the United States. The far right of the militias, rabid congressional right-wingers like Helen Chenoweth-Hage, and the U.N./black helicopter conspiracy crackpots were a significant Republican force several years ago. They are now barely tolerated lunatics. The more “respectable” right of the Moral Majority, such as Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Jones University and flat taxers, are still powerful among Republicans. But they are increasingly viewed by the Republican leadership as electoral handicaps.

The Republican primaries turned a surreal pink when hard rightist John McCain started denouncing special interest money corrupting the political process, demanded campaign finance reform and opposed “tax cuts for the rich.” Aping Clinton’s “I feel your pain” formula, one-time “Republican revolutionaries” and the Christian Coalition quickly reinvented themselves as “compassionate conservatives.” With the base of the right in decline, Bush has opportunistically maneuvered the Republican image to the center. One is reminded of Woodrow Wilson’s famous words on the last Gilded Age: “No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties.” Yet there is an important change from the years when differences narrowed as the Democrats moved right – now the Republicans are inching away from the right to tilt to the center. Meanwhile Gore, fearful of losing votes to Nader, has begun to adopt more populist, anti-big business rhetoric against Bush.

Birth of a new left

Seattle was a fork in the road.
Ralph Nader, Seattle and the WTO [8]

The shift at the top from the right is toward the center, but on the ground it is toward the left. We are seeing, as an expression of this, the start of the first serious radicalization since the 1960s. It is a challenge to the notion that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to neoliberalism, corporate control, globalization and the disparities of income and wealth. It is this emerging left that’s driving the Nader campaign.

The current radicalization has been bubbling below the surface for years. It is fueled by working-class anger and bitterness over an economic boom whose benefits are reserved for the rich while wages stagnate and better-paying jobs morph into part-time, contingent, no-benefits jobs. Meanwhile, full-time workers are forced to work longer hours and face harder working conditions and declining union power. Class struggle has been at a low ebb for some years, punctuated by eruptions like the UPS strike in 1997. But class consciousness has been growing. The emergence of a new left and the sudden upsurge of an anticorporate electoral campaign are the products of the last 25 years of class polarization.

A new political awakening became visible in the growth of struggles in the last few years. Even a partial list is impressive: opposition to the NATO bombing of Serbia; growing yearly demonstrations against the School of the Americas; various fights around police brutality; the fight to save Mumia Abu Jamal; the growth of United Students Against Sweatshops; new opposition to the death penalty; South Carolina’s fight against the Confederate flag; the defense of affirmative action in Florida; and the strike of janitorial workers in California.

Yet this mounting activity often seemed to be localized, single-issue struggles without links to other fights, not tied together in anything that resembled a movement. It was not perceived, even by participants, as different aspects of a common underlying ferment.

Some of that changed in November 1999 with the return of militant street confrontations in Seattle, and later in Washington, D.C., against the WTO, IMF and World Bank. The start of a new left finally broke through to reach popular awareness, and it began to be conscious of itself as a national movement. These protests produced unifying themes as they targeted corporate control of the global economy for destroying the environment, trampling on the rights of working people, and impoverishing the Third World. And they struck a responsive chord among workers.

This new left is still somewhere between mood and movement. It remains amorphous and unorganized. It lacks consistency and commitment. It comes and goes. At moments it is huge and combative; then it is impossible to find – momentarily nonexistent before it reappears in new struggles. Like all previous radicalizations it begins with contradictory, even confused, consciousness. No new left emerges by immaculate conception with full-blown revolutionary socialist consciousness. The origin always is a peculiar mixture of liberal and conservative beliefs with radical ideas. The liberal-conservative ideas are baggage from the past. The radical ideas are incomplete, a jumble that arises from struggles that begin without worked-out political programs. They are the future of the movement, an alternative that is in process of formation. These different strands of consciousness cohabit in uneasy tension in the new radical mood.

Seattle goes to the polls

How bad a party do you have to be to let the Congress of the United States be taken over by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott?
Ralph Nader’s speech to the NAACP [9]

A Seattle slogan, “Teamsters and Turtles Together at Last,” became popular because it captured the spirit of the demonstration, the hope for a blue-green alliance of labor and the environmental movement against the corporations. The politics of Seattle – the uniting of environmentalism with trade unionism into a common front against corporate capital control – is a central part of the Nader campaign.

Seattle and Nader are two parts of the same phenomena. Seattle made confrontational struggle legitimate again to large numbers of people. As the electoral expression of the budding social movements, the Nader campaign is making even more people aware of the questions raised in Seattle.

Nader’s campaign has the potential to win over many working people who have not yet taken part in demonstrations and militant activity but who are sympathetic to the ideas of this new movement. Their next step, taking a stand by voting for Nader or arguing for him with their families, friends, and coworkers, draws them closer to the aims of the new movement. Nader’s campaign has the potential to move them to the left by getting them to make the case against the corporations, inequality, and the Democratic Party.

Nader’s campaign broadens the radicalization because it connects to people’s daily experience. It links generalizations about globalization and corporate control with their concrete effects on workers’ lives on questions of a living wage, health care, and restriction on trade union rights. The Nader campaign is deepening the radicalization by changing the class concerns of the movement.

A break with the Democrats

The only distinction between Bush and Gore is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock on the door.
Nader, in Robert Bryce, Naturally Nader, Austin Chronicle [10]

Without the Nader campaign, many more activists would vote for Gore. Their radicalism would be weakened by having to justify the Democrats’ commitment to corporate capitalism and American global domination. Radical ideals would be subordinated to the limits of “the possible,” to the election of officials who are the “less evil” face of capitalism. The Nader campaign is forcing activists to make the case for radical change beyond where the Democrats and their corporate sponsors are prepared to go.

Nader’s critique of Gore and the Democrats’ record is difficult for Gore defenders to dismiss. He calls Gore an “environmental imposter,” an enthusiast for “economic apartheid,” who drove millions of children into poverty as the behind-the-scenes force for the Clinton administration’s destruction of welfare. He compares Gore to Herbert Hoover in his support for paying down debt and opposition to deficit financing, no matter what the economic and social consequences. In truth, Gore yields nothing to the Republicans in terms of economic conservatism – something liberals seemed to accept until Nader pushed the debate to the left.

Nader argues that the lack of differences between Gore and Bush is because the two parties are both controlled by big business. “Bush and Gore,” says Nader, “are competing for the Presidency to see who will take the marching orders from their corporate paymasters.” Nader charges that under Clinton and Gore the Democrats provided more corporate welfare and subsidies than did the Republicans. As corporate creatures, they have been worse than Reagan and Bush were in policing the corporations through regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Food and Drug Administration. [11]

Charged by liberal apologists for the Democrats with being a spoiler – for taking votes from Gore and helping Bush win – Nader responds: “You can’t spoil a spoiled system ... business money runs the government. So you can’t really spoil a two-party system that acts like a duopoly, with one corporate head wearing different makeup.” [12] Nader argues that if Gore loses because of the Nader vote, it will not be a victory for the right, but for the left. It will shake corporate control over politics and put left demands back on the political agenda. The Democratic Party, whose career politicians depend on working-class votes to win, will be thrown into crisis. It will be pressured to move to the left to win elections or it will precipitate deeper splits that may allow for the formation of a new party independent of the corporations.

Nader’s arguments logically lead in the direction of forming a third-party alternative against the Democrats. Unfortunately, Nader does not carry them through to conclusion. Faced with liberal outrage over the possible defeat of Gore by the left, Nader equivocates. He argues that his candidacy will bring out large numbers of previously turned-off, working-class voters to the polls, and they will tend to vote for and return a Democratic Congress. But the problem is not Gore the individual. The problem is the class politics of the party which he leads, including its congressional wing, who are controlled agents of corporate capitalism. Even the most liberal Democrats play the role of left cover in order to keep workers and social movements bound to the Democratic Party. The question of partial support or reliance on sections of the Democratic Party – and even the pressure to move back into the Democratic Party fold come election time – will continue to be fought out within the Nader campaign and the new left movement.

Consumer Liberalism

People Before Profits.
Green Campaign Button

Nader’s campaign has some of the limits of capitalist electoralism, where the candidate floats above the movement and gives it his, not the movement’s, political outlook. In Nader’s campaign, he makes the important decisions, while the Green Party and the movement are assigned the role of mobilizing the vote.

The campaign’s politics are an eclectic mixture of liberal, populist, environmentalist, working-class, and radical ideas, joined together by its anticorporate theme. This is not electoral opportunism, which appeals to different constituencies with different messages. The politics of the campaign reflect Nader’s past liberalism, the current radicalization that has swung Nader and the Greens to the left, and the current mixed consciousness of this new movement.

Nader’s reputation as a militant liberal fighting for consumers’ and workers’ rights against the big corporations was created over decades. He made his political debut in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which charged General Motors with criminal negligence for designing unsafe cars when it had the technology to make its cars safer. He achieved national celebrity when his crusade forced the auto companies to introduce mandatory seat belts and air bags.

It launched Nader’s career as a reformer, a maverick within bourgeois politics. His operation was all about reform from above. His activist student core, known as “Nader’s Raiders,” mobilized popular attention and support through meetings, congressional hearings, and lobbying (with the occasional demonstration) to push through legislation and government oversight of corporate abuse.

Nader’s list of reforms is impressive. Defending his liberal approach as more practical than what radicals could achieve, Nader failed to understand that without the left he would have been ignored. His success in achieving legislative reform was made possible through the climate created by the left’s more militant actions. His battles against the corporations won cleaner air and water, a ban on smoking on airplanes, insurance reform, better meat and poultry quality, oversight of utility rates, and defense of coal miners’ working conditions, among many other reforms. Nader became an outspoken crusader for workers’ health and safety on and off the job. [13]

End of reform

Civil society is being closed down by the corporate state.
Ralph Nader in the Los Angeles Times [14]

But Nader’s strategy of incremental reform became a casualty of the employers’ offensive and the collapse of the left. Nader was pushed out of the system. His liberal lobbying could not compete against corporate lobbyists, who bought out the legislative process. Frustration over the fact that “corporations have taken over the government, stymieing the kind of citizen advocacy he did successfully in the past” convinced Nader to take his apolitical operation into the electoral arena. Rather than collapse like so many liberals, Nader decided to challenge corporate power and its hold over the legislative system. [15]

Nader’s solution to overcome “democracy” run by and for monopoly capital, what he calls “deep democracy,” is summarized in his Concord Principles. The Concord Principles call for a return to a nineteenth century past of good government based on small businesses and the small-town democracy of a New England town meeting. Nader seeks to replace the impersonal globalism of the present, where people have no control over the institutions and decisions that affect their lives, with (an idealized) localism of the past. These ideas appeal to middle-class interests represented among the Greens and newly radicalized students. [16]

But there was no “golden age” of American democracy to return to. Nineteenth century small-scale capitalism was a limited democracy whose characteristics were racism, nativism, sexism, restricted suffrage, mass poverty and illiteracy. The lower classes were expected to “know their place” and never challenge “their betters” on whom they were economically dependent at “democratic” village meetings.


We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for the DuPonts.
Ralph Nader’s statement announcing his candidacy [17]

Forced beyond liberalism, Nader now champions the historic American left tradition, populism. He speaks for the struggle of the common people – farmers, workers, small business people – “for the many against the few,” against the power of “the octopus” – the giant corporations, monopolies and trusts. He frequently quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous thought, “We can have a democratic society, or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot have both.” [18]

Nader attributes recent concentration of corporate wealth and power to deregulation. The state no longer regulates the corporations to prevent abuses against the people, says Nader. Now the corporations regulate the government the better to control the people. Corporate power has destroyed trade union rights so that now only 10 percent of workers in private industry are unionized, the lowest level since the 1920s. Nader stresses that this is the cause of declining wages and poverty.

Nader’s opposition to corporate capitalism is far to the left of European social democracy (followers of Clinton’s “Third Way”) and more radical than present-day left social democrats, such as Ken Livingstone in Britain and Oskar LaFontaine in Germany. But populism is an even weaker tradition than social democracy when dealing with questions of class and the capitalist system of production. Nader’s populism shades into an unrealistic, even reactionary, utopianism. It harkens back to a century-old world of small corporations and small towns run by “civic-minded” local elites.

There will never be a return to the social world of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century populists and progressives, whose mass social base were independent farmers, then the majority of the people. Today farmers are 2 to 3 percent of the population. The small manufacturers who supported the Progressive movement looked to government regulation to defend them from the oil, railroad, and steel trusts. But the capitalist state was, and has always been, the state of the large industrialists. Trust busting in America proved to be a sham – witness today’s power of the global corporations.

The small manufacturers lost to the trusts. They went bust and were bought up or merged into the great corporations. Today’s small manufacturers are suppliers, subsidiaries, or wards of the large corporations. They do not constitute an independent social class opposed to big business; they are its dependents. Moreover, they are typically the most reactionary wing of capital.

Anticorporate but not anticapitalist

Are you a Marxist?

&lldquo;No, I believe in democracy. I believe in competition. I think big corporations are destroying capitalism. Ask a lot of small business around the country how they’re pressed and exploited and deprived by the big-business predators.”
Nader on CNN, Talk Back Live, July 5, 2000 [19]

Nader’s attack on the great corporations but deference to small business is a predisposition of every new movement in the United States. It is where the barriers of populism run up against the absence of a mass, labor-based American social democracy. It is part of the American tradition of militant action but theoretical primitivism that has often acted as a barrier to socialist consciousness. In this sense it repeats the history of the left of the early 1960s prior to the international radicalization of 1968.

Small capitalists and large capitalists are part of the same economic system, driven by the same dynamics. They both produce for profit, which comes from the exploitation of labor. In order to compete against the large corporations, the small firms are usually the most anti-union, and offer the worst wages, benefits, and working conditions. A return to small manufacturing would be reactionary. Without the productivity of large, modern industry, there was a miserable standard of living that could not provide for abundance, the prerequisite for equality and the end of class society.

If the large corporations disappeared, the scramble for profit among a host of smaller producers would reproduce the same result it did in the past. Business competition forces companies to maximize and accumulate profits or be driven out by more competitive producers. Capital accumulation leads to concentration in bigger units, and the rise of monopolies. Nader’s sharp attack on the corporations ends in a solution that tries to replace the sorry end of capitalist development by its more competitive beginnings – a move that, if possible, would reproduce the horrors he condemns.

While it is possible to win some regulatory measures from the state, the market can not be fundamentally altered by a state that serves capitalist social relations. The corporations and banks will always find ways to overcome whatever limits are placed on their profitability.

Nader’s populism – opposing big business but supporting competition – is anticorporate but not anticapitalist. The American radical populist tradition remains a barrier to going beyond the capitalist system, to rejecting profit and exploitation. It looks for economic justice in a world of class inequality. It supports the private ownership of the means of production, of an economy where the products of labor belong not to the laborers but to the owners.

Nader and this new left are against the corporations and are spreading opposition to corporate control to masses of workers. They have enormously widened the audience for socialist ideas. They must be supported for this, but they don’t go far enough. Within this movement, socialists must organize a fight that can go beyond this system – a fight to win democracy, to end inequality, and to put control over production in the hands of the producers not the owners of business, big or small.

Nader and labor

... here are about 47 million workers, one-third of the workforce making less than $10 per hour, many at $5.25, $6.00, $7.00, with no or few benefits. The majority of workers still after 10 years of overall economic growth make less today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and work 160 hours longer per year than did workers in 1973.
Nader’s acceptance speech [20]

A third party against the corporations can only be successful in the present day if it has mass support from wage workers, who are 80 percent of the population. The call for a blue-green alliance is recognition by environmentalists that, as a force, they can only be effective in association with the working class. This appreciation draws on the experiences of the last left upsurge of the 1960s, which failed to connect the radical movement with the lives and struggles of working people.

The Nader campaign has started to win a sympathetic response among workers. Union enthusiasm for the Democrats rings hollow after eight years of broken promises and betrayals. Only the Nader campaign raises class politics on wages, health care, and trade union rights. Though Nader addresses workers’ concerns, he is not building or advocating a class party, nor is his appeal to workers that they should be a self-active class.

One union, the California Nurses Association (CNA), has endorsed Nader. The CNA, which has 31,000 members, never before endorsed a presidential candidate but came out for Nader because of his support of universal health care, patient rights, and trade union organizing as the way to achieve them. [21]

Both the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have made strong attacks on Gore for being controlled by the corporations and for selling out all of labor’s demands. They have made favorable statements about Nader. This marks an important turn, even if they are only using such statements as leverage to gain concessions from Gore. Stephen Yokich, president of the UAW, recently stated, “We have no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major parties ... and instead focus on supporting candidates such as Ralph Nader who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.” [22]

It is indicative of the political shift to the left in the country that the Teamsters under Hoffa started the year by playing footsie with Buchanan and his racist nationalism, and have shifted to flirting with Nader on grounds that he represents the views of working people. Hoffa stated, “No one in the political arena speaks stronger on the issues important to working American families than Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader understands what globalization means ... it’s a race to the bottom.” [23] However limited, this is a large opening to win support for a shift to the left in the unions.

Nader’s labor program makes a class appeal, linking corporate wealth to inequality and the need for trade union law reform and a social-democratic welfare state.

Try applying people’s yardsticks instead of the measures of record GDP, corporate profits and stock exchange prices, and a very different picture emerges. Because the benefits of this boom have accrued to the wealthier and especially the wealthiest class. The majority of Americans are left behind. There is over 20 percent child poverty, 25 percent for pre-school children.” [24]

Nader stresses that the economic decline of working-class wages and living standards is due to the decline of trade unions. He calls for stronger trade unions, and he supports wiping out corporate-imposed legal restrictions on union rights. Nader calls for the repeal of Taft-Hartley, the notorious antilabor act passed in 1947 that allows the president to impose a 60-day “cooling off period” before termination or modification of a contract; makes “secondary boycotts,” or sympathy strikes, illegal; and prohibits strikes by workers in government-owned corporations. Nader also backs the banning of permanent replacement workers for strikers and card-check union recognition in organizing drives. He says, “A minimum wage that is not a livable wage can never be a minimum wage in our eyes. The livable wage should move to $10 an hour as soon as possible. [25]

Nader says that workers need “cradle to the grave, universal health care based on a single payer plan.” He also supports the old European social-democratic welfare state:

During the Fifties and Sixties, several European countries provided all their citizens with health care coverage, day care and other services for children, labor laws which facilitate the organization of trade unions, a statutory “social wage” for all workers, union and non-union, providing one month paid vacations, retention of pay while caring for sick family members, pensions and other services. In the year 2000 A.D. most workers in our country do not have these basic rights ... This is not only embarrassing but also unacceptable. Western European countries provided for their people thirty to fifty years ago. Why can’t we do it now in a period of economic boom? It’s possible. We can make a difference. [26]

Nader makes the case that the trade unions are weak precisely because of their dependent relationship to the Democrats. The Democrats cannot win elections without working-class support. But since the unions can never support the greater-evil Republicans and won’t engage in independent political action, they have no political bargaining power. They are taken for granted by Clinton-Gore, treated with contempt and given no concessions. This has shifted American politics to the right. As Nader sums it up, “When labor is taken for granted, labor is taken.”

Nader’s campaign has handed the left an important weapon to use in the unions. It gives the left the opportunity to fight for class solutions with a small but serious pro-labor alternative. For the first time in decades, calls for the unions to break with the Democratic Party are no longer fringe. Even though Nader can’t win the election, the left can make a case that will win respect and support where it counts, among the rank and file, stewards, and lower-level union representatives. Exploratory work to build labor committees for Nader is beginning in some unions.

These class questions can be raised because Nader’s campaign evokes the promise of a radical third-party alternative, not controlled by any section of the capitalist class. If Nader does well, it may create a situation that leads sections of labor to break from the Democrats. Meanwhile, it allows us to approach workers individually and to invite trade union locals to support Nader’s anticorporate demands, break with the Democrats, and prepare the ground for an independent working-class party. This potential may not be reached, but it would be thoroughly conservative to reject it out of hand because this movement is still a hybrid halfway house, not yet an independent working-class party. It would mean the left should not engage in independent political action against the Democrats until the unions and their officials are ready to break with capitalist politics. It would make the radical left hostage to what the conservative labor bureaucracy is prepared to do.

Socialists and the Nader campaign

The[y] have not realized how they can use their theory as a lever that will set the American masses in motion; they ... treat it in doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion ... to them it is a credo, not a guide to action ... The American masses have had to find a way of their own and would appear to have done so for the time being in the Knights of Labor [with] muddle-headed principles and ridiculous organization ... It is, I believe, necessary to work in their midst, to form, within this still malleable mass, a nucleus of men who know the movement and its aim and will thus automatically take over the leadership of at least some part of it when, as is inevitable, the present “Order” disintegrated ... In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party. That the first program of this party should be muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, and that it should have picked Henry George for its figurehead, are unavoidable if transitory evils. The masses must have the time and the opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity until they have a movement of their own – no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement – in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience.
Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, November 29, 1886 [27]

Nader claims to be fighting for an ongoing progressive third party, but he could easily revert to his past of consumer advocacy and reform. Even if that worse-case scenario came to pass, Nader’s campaign has already achieved extraordinary progress for this new movement. It has helped break the conservative consensus, shifted national debate to the left, broken the monopoly the Democratic Party has over progressive social movements, and is weakening lesser-evil attachment to the liberal wing of big business. It has forced movement activists to go beyond single-issue politics, made them deal with all political questions, and examine the class relations of American society. It has changed the class concerns of the new radicals.

Most significantly, it has opened up working-class politics. A few million workers and students have been won to the idea of a vote against corporate capitalism. It is raising the question of an independent working-class party. For all of those reasons, socialists are enthusiastic supporters of what the new movement has achieved in a few months. It shows that despite the limitations of electoralism, the potential of a radical electoral challenge exists. Elections cannot produce socialism, but they can produce socialists. They can raise the consciousness and fighting capacity of the working class and win greater numbers to radicalism and socialism.

The new radicalization is the greatest hope for the revolutionary left in a generation. It would be self-destructive to find barriers or obstacles to support or involvement with this emerging movement. Yet it is easy to seize on some of the many real limitations of Nader, the Greens, or the current level of this new left as the excuse to stand aside. Radical language can be used to justify conservative deeds, the avoidance of having to contend for leadership among people just opening to radicalism.

Many self-described revolutionaries in the 1960s held themselves aloof from the civil rights movement because it was pacifist, Christian, for integration into capitalism, and allied with liberalism and the Democratic Party. Malcolm X provided radical cover for them, criticizing from the outside the imperfect struggle of a real movement. Malcolm was forced to admit his mistake and break with conservative abstentionism.

The Nader campaign is but one transitory episode in the new radicalization. Electoral campaigns quickly fade. After the November elections, different forms of struggle will replace the Nader campaign and the Greens. But it will leave many ripples, broader radicalization, and, if socialists seize the time, a bigger socialist movement and a wider audience for socialist ideas.

We are enthusiastic defenders of this new radicalization, but that does not mean we are cheerleaders as it goes through the phases of its development. Socialists have to be participants in all of its phases, as its revolutionary wing, struggling within it for its future, to create out of it a revolutionary workers’ party. Socialists have to be confident that they can move those who hate corporate greed to opposing capitalism as a whole, and from opposing capitalism to wanting workers’ power.

* * *


1. Ralph Nader, Acceptance speech as Green Party presidential candidate, available at

2. Recent polls are cited in Will Lester, New state polls, Associated Press, July 2000; Richard Berke, Odd man out of race, Nader rocks Gore, New York Times, June 23, 2000; and Zogby Poll, April 10, 2000.

3. Ralph Nader, Citizen’s Guide to the WTO (Inkworks, 1999).

4. The quote comes from a statement in 1978 by then-UAW President Doug Fraser, who, in the face of mounting demands for union concessions from employers, complained, “I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war on this country.” (Quoted in David M. Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” (New York: Free Press, 1996), p. 205.

5. Robert Kuttner, Ralph Nader: A conversation, American Prospect, Vol. 11, Issue 15, June 19, 2000.

6. For the Clinton-Gore record, see Lance Selfa’s article in this issue of ISR.

7. Text: Ralph Nader’s speech to the NAACP, Washington Post, July 11, 2000.

8. Ralph Nader, Seattle and the WTO, Public Interest Column, December 7, 1999.

9. Nader’s speech to NAACP.

10. Robert Bryce, Naturally Nader, Austin [Texas] Chronicle, April 17, 2000.

11. Kuttner, A Conversation.

12. Meet the Press, June 25, 2000.

13. Nader’s career is documented on the campaign Web site in the sections headed Biography, Consumer Advocate, Nader’s Raiders, and Auto Safety on the Nader campaign Web site at

14. Faye Fiore, Crusader Nader plays low-key, low budget spoiler, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2000.

15. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, Nader picks up speed in new bid for election, Baltimore Sun, June 9, 2000.

16. Ralph Nader, Concord Principles, available at

17. Ralph Nader, Statement announcing candidacy, February 21, 2000, available at

18. Nader’s acceptance speech.

19. Ralph Nader interview with Bobbie Battista on CNN Talk Back live, July 5, 2000.

20. Nader’s acceptance speech.

21. Marc Sandlow, Nurses endorse Nader for president, San Francisco Chronicle, June 15, 2000.

22. Tom Edsall, Unions see Nader as leverage on trade issues, Washington Post, June 22, 2000.

23. Tom Edsall, Labor chief touts third party candidate, Washington Post, June 22, 2000.

24. Nader’s acceptance speech.

25. Nader’s speech to NAACP.

26. Nader’s acceptance speech.

27. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 47 (New York: International Publishers, 1995), pp. 531–2.

* * *

Nader on Social Justice

We have to look at the criminal justice system and ask why it’s so criminal.
Ralph Nader

As the Green Party presidential candidate in 1996, Nader refused to take a stand on abortion and gay liberation, dismissing them as “gonadal politics.” Whatever his private views, Nader has been forced to the left by the new radicalization. He now takes principled stands in defense of abortion and gay rights.

Nader argues that a woman has the right to control her body and reproduction, and that the state has no right “in forcing a woman to have a child.” He campaigns for gays to “have the right to civil union” for “economic reason and ... humanitarian reasons ... and I think the Vermont decision is a good one. I think homosexuals should be given equal rights.”

Nader is for the moratorium on the death penalty, and is also an abolitionist. He has opposed the death penalty for more than 40 years, “Since I was a law student,” he said. “It does not deter. It is severely discriminatory against minorities, especially since they’re given no competent legal defense in many cases.” It is impossible for the death penalty to be flawless, and Nader opposes the execution of even “one innocent person.”

Nader indicts Reagan and Bush for expanding the prison population to over one million, mainly by unfair jailing of Black and poor non-violent drug users. Clinton and Gore have doubled this injustice, sacrificing an additional million prisoners, to the point that the “criminal justice system [is] being increasingly driven by the corporate prison industry that wants ever more customers, grossly discriminates against minorities, and is greatly distorted ... by the failed war on drugs.”

Nader charges that environmental destruction is caused by the profit greed of the big corporations, who are protected by the government and courts. “More coal miners have lost their lives from black lung and mine collapses in the past 110 years than all the American lives lost in World War II,” says Nader. “There is an epidemic of slow environmental violence ... 65,000 Americans who die every year from air pollution, 100,000 whose death comes from occupational and toxic exposure ... and environmental racism.”

He defends affirmative action, and attacks the results of “300 years of white, male affirmative action.” Nader assails racial profiling, defining it broadly to include racist “redlining” by the banks, corporate rip-offs where Blacks pay more for similar or worse services and corporate environmental policy which places toxic dumps near minority neighborhoods. “Environmental racism is a disgrace of neglect,” he says. He charges that Clinton and the Democrats have a worse record on the enforcement of laws on affirmative action and police brutality than their Republican predecessors. Nader has the support of a few prominent Black activists, including Randall Robinson and Mel King in Boston.

But, except for environmentalism, questions of social justice do not figure prominently in Nader’s campaign. Racism is rarely mentioned. On his Web site, Nader lists his positions on two dozen issues, but incredibly, race is not one of them. That may be a personal flaw, but it is an unacceptable political defect, one that is all too common in the middle class left.

Racism is not central in the campaign, but it is central to American life, to a historically divided working class and weakened American left. Blacks are rightly suspicious of, and hold back from, movements that are silent or passive about the struggle for Black equality. The way to achieve working-class unity against the corporations is not to overlook the racist character of American capitalism, but to fight uncompromisingly against all manifestations of it. The attempt to get unity on shared economic questions but by ignoring the question of racism because it is “divisive,” is a spurious unity. In a racist society, you either oppose racism or you tolerate it. Clinton and Gore may be personally and morally opposed to racism, but through benign neglect, they end up sustaining and upholding it. They will not fight the corporate status quo with its inbuilt racism.

Nader treats racism as if it comes from bad attitudes that people of good will could overcome in the “pursuit of justice so that bigotry, discrimination and intolerant violence recedes toward oblivion.” He takes good liberal positions, but something more than well-meaning but ineffective liberalism is required. The root cause of racism is the way the institutions of capitalist society systematically discriminate by race in terms of jobs, housing, schools, criminal justice, health care, and so on. The Nader campaign has to make institutional racism a central component of its indictment of corporate capitalism, of big business. Unless this argument is won, Black workers will continue to support the Democrats, particularly a lack Democrats, whose rhetoric at least is better than the Republican Southern strategy, which denies racism, attacks affirmative action, winks at white supremacy, upholds “states’ rights” and opposes any demand for Black advancement.

The new radical movements have not yet overcome the legacy of the 1960s, when the left in this country became divided by race. The Seattle and Washington, D.C., protests against global corporations were barely integrated, and racism was not on the list of global corporate abuses. Recent struggles against racism in South Carolina, Florida, and Detroit and the upcoming civil rights march on August 26 have had little involvement or support from this new movement. Nader will be as outspoken on race as this new movement demands of him. It is this new radicalization that has to fight to overcome the racism which infects everything in this country.

Socialists have to be in the forefront, taking the lead to create the links between these movements and issues. Racial profiling, police brutality, the racist criminal justice system and death penalty, the racism of economic apartheid, and the recognition that Blacks and other minorities are the poorest, most exploited section of the working class must become central issues in the fight against corporations and class inequality.

The slogan of a blue-green alliance can be achieved when the blue part – the working class – is united, which means broadening that concept to a blue-green-Black alliance, a movement that puts the fight against racism in the forefront of its struggle against corporate capitalism.

Note: Nader’s views on abortion and gay liberation come from his Meet the Press interview of May 7, 2000; on the death penalty from the Meet the Press interview of June 25, 2000. His views on the criminal justice system, the environment and racism from his NAACP and Green Party acceptance speeches.

Joel Geier Archive   |    Ahmed Shawki Archive    |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 30 October 2021