Progressive Pragmatism: The Death of the Left, Part Two

The great Green hope.

Anyone who had the unfortunate experience of witnessing the Democratic
response to the State of the Union
knows the pathetic state of existence in which that party
dwindles. The Democrats are sad and impotent, long ago relegated to
irrelevance. Their inability to create anything even resembling a
cohesive platform should be grounds for America’s progressive voices to
push forward a new party to fill the void.

There is certainly a large enough progressive conscience in this country
to necessitate such a voice emerging. And yet, year after year, the
Democrats keep their grip on the political capital of the left, boring
us into submission.

There are many obstacles in place that keep progressive voices from
organizing a worthwhile resistance. Some of these obstacles are arguably
beyond our control. Money, for instance, will always be a problem. The
wheels of the system are greased by the funds of major donors, corporate
and otherwise. Progressive voices are almost entirely opposed to the big
money system. If we were to accept corporate donations, we would be as
morally bankrupt as those we wish to replace.

Our inability to compete in the funding wars, however, is not the only
thing holding us back. There are many problems of our own design that
make the money shortage seem quaint by comparison. As much as it pains
me to say it, the left could learn a thing or two from the Republican
Party. Despite the diversity of conservative interests within the party,
the various factions have managed to find enough points of unity between
each other to build the party into a vehicle for mass conservative
change. We left-leaning progressives, by comparison, spend much of our
time engrossed in internal debate.

We are disorganized and divisive. Labor is afraid of the
environmentalist movement. The pacifist movement does not gel well with
the black militants. Feminists and free speech advocates are habitually
at odds. Gay rights groups are accepted with open arms by some,
persecuted by others.

At least, that was the way things were…

In 1994, while most Americans were busy considering O.J.
Simpson’s gloves
and John Bobbitt’s
, the United States joined 132 other countries in quietly
creating the World Trade Organization.
The WTO has the power to supercede the laws and regulations of its
member states to ensure the “harmonization” of trade standards. This is
shorthand for the fact that the WTO can and has forced the United States
and other sovereign nations to eliminate food safety, environmental,
occupational health, and human rights laws and regulations in order to
maximize corporate profits.

The WTO’s charter — a treaty which has never been ratified by the
Senate despite the fact that we adhere to it — was drafted in part by
lobbyists from the very corporations who stood to gain the most from the
WTO’s inception. Naturally, such a monstrosity of corporate malfeasance
could only be accomplished with the full support of a Democrat,
President Bill Clinton (even Bush the elected was opposed to giving up
our rights as a sovereign nation to a foreign body we have no control

The WTO went on its merry way, chipping away at the progressive gains of
the last 150 years, until finally in 1999, people started to get angry.
And when they got angry they got organized. And when they got organized,
the whole world was forced to pay attention, if only for a short time.

The WTO had planned a week of meetings in Seattle, Washington. As per
the organization’s charter, no media was allowed access. Progressives of
all stripes converged on Seattle in mass protest. Labor organizations,
environmentalists, human rights advocates, feminists, pacifists, and
civil libertarians all came together to shine a spotlight onto the
secret tribunal being conducted within our borders. All of these groups
felt the effects of the WTO’s power. It was enough to make them put
their differences aside and organize for change.

It was a major victory for progressives, even though it did not serve to
end the WTO’s extrajudicial tyranny. Never mind the mainstream media,
which got lost in the small amount of violence that occurred at the
protests, violence that was caused in part by the aggressive attitudes
of the police. The ability to organize in this fashion proved the
resilience of progressivism in America. A whole world of possibilities
became open.

Over the course of the last few years, there have been other significant
moments of unity like the one in Seattle. Major protests of the IMF and
the World Bank drew crowds, if not media attention. The current rush
toward war by the administration of Bush the appointed has also helped
to encourage stronger ties between disparate progressive voices,
producing major protests across the country.

Our ability to unify and organize has been proven time and time again.
And yet our ability to organize an effective political party has
remained as yet unapparent. We have proven that we have a tremendous
capacity to organize for short bursts of enthusiasm. But we are unable
to sustain our enthusiasm over the long haul. We are either unwilling or
unmotivated to push our way through the tedious process of building a
political party with actual, palpable political capital.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What about the Greens? Are you forgetting that
Ralph Nader ran for President in

Most certainly I am not.

I am a tremendous admirer of Ralph Nader. I worked for his campaign and
proudly cast my vote for him and Winona
. Nader’s campaign was similar to the other events that I have
mentioned. It brought together a wide range of progressives who put
their differences aside to fight for the one candidate who was not
soiled by the corruption of big money politics.

I commend Nader for his campaign. I don’t regret that I voted for him
for a second. But the problem with Nader’s campaign is that it ended on
Election Day. As with the other events I’ve mentioned, there was a
highly concentrated drive towards one moment’s protest, and then all the
momentum was released once that moment passed.

As much as Nader deserves credit for what he accomplished, his silence
in the months that followed was a real detriment to the movement. He had
worked tirelessly to promote and energize a fledgling political party
that had been totally obscure before he signed on-board. It was his
passion, his eloquence, and his name recognition that created the ground
swell of support that the Greens needed to become legitimate in the
public’s eyes.

And yet, on the day after Election Day, all of that passion and promise
faded as Nader retreated from the national stage. He was silent as the
Supreme Court shredded the Constitution to put George W. Bush on the
presidential throne. He remained silent during the first months of 2001
as Bush went spoiler on our economy and our environment like a rich kid
in a candy store. And when the bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan,
Nader’s voice was nowhere to be found.

In his absence, the party suffered setbacks that nearly took them back
to square one. When Bush was handed the presidency, Nader was blamed as
the “spoiler.” Greens everywhere came under fire by the distraught
Democrats and the apologist media. They wanted blood, and Greens were
hard pressed to defend themselves.

Obviously, Nader should not be held responsible for the inequities of
the electoral system, nor should Greens be held responsible for
supporting the person they deemed to be the only reasonably qualified
candidate. The idea that Nader voters would have been Gore voters if
only Nader would have quit the race is pure fancy on the part of the

Let’s face it, folks. If my only choices had been Bush or Gore I would
have spent the day filing for a student visa with Canadian immigration.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to articulate such a position when the man
at the center of the controversy is unwilling to defend himself.

Honestly, Ralph, we could have used a little guidance.

It is difficult for me to be so critical of a man who is one of my
American heroes. To be fair, Nader has re-emerged considerably in the
last six months. Over the summer, he helped to form new organizations to
be watchdogs of corporate crime and to support whistle blowers. He has
also written a wonderful new book,
Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for
, which should be required reading in civics classes in
every high school and college in America (provided there are any left
that still consider civics important enough to teach).

In that book and in some recent interviews, he has taken responsibility
for some of the fallout of his disappearing act, for which I commend
him. Still, the damage is done. Greens are not in the position of
prevalence that they could and probably should be in.

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, though, Greens have been taking on
the challenge of rebuilding the party with a sense of vigor and purpose.
They have been active in the anti-war movement. They have been working
at the community level to support local initiatives and encourage
candidates for state and local offices. They have revamped their
campaign manual and have begun organizing at the national level to find
better ways to support the state parties.

All of these things are part of a larger recipe for success for a
grassroots political party, and yet there is still more that needs to be
done. As it stands, there are gaping holes in the strategy that the
party chooses to employ.

In 2002, many Green candidates ran in highly conservative districts,
some so staunchly Republican that the Democrats didn’t even bother
running candidates. Predictably, Greens did poorly in these races. In
more liberal districts where Democrats were strong, Greens often did not
run candidates, or if they did, they ran poor ones.

The rationale for such an absence of presence in liberal districts was
fear that running Green candidates in such races could upset the balance
and lead to Republican victory. In other words, Greens did not run for
fear that Democrats might lose. Their logic is exactly backwards.

If Democrats are really as worthless to progressivism as Greens claim
(and they are) then they should be defeated, even the liberal ones. This
is not as extreme as it sounds. It’s simply common sense. The goal of
the party should be to further progressive objectives by securing
elected office. The best districts to fight for are the ones in which
the chance of persuading the electorate is greatest. These are the
districts in which the party should invest its resources.

And, if in the aftermath of elections Greens are branded with the label
“spoiler,” they should not be so quick to hide and lick their wounds.
Rather, the momentum of such anger should be met with a carefully
crafted, highly energized response. Some of the most creative thinking
of the campaign should be reserved for the days after the election when
public outrage might be turned into public outcry for election reform
that would eliminate the spoiler system.

There are many constitutional solutions to the problems of the current
system which are championed by Greens. Imagine how much more effective
such championing could be if it were done when people are suffering the
most from the effects of the system’s failures.

Creativity is something that most Green campaigns do not lack. But such
creativity must go farther. Greens must learn to embrace the media as a
tool by which creative campaigning may alter the consciousness of the
public and widen the spectrum of the debate. Republicans and Democrats
are masters at the art of conning the media into framing debates over
policy in their terms. They do it through careful candidate grooming,
polling, and cash handouts.

But Greens can do it too, and do it successfully. Nader proved that. His
campaign creatively exploited the media every time an opportunity came
along. It paid off on Election Day when three percent of the voters put
their trust in him (as opposed to the non-media friendly campaigns of
other progressive parties which barely even squeaked out one percent of
the vote combined).

Some progressives will no doubt cry foul at these suggestions. They will
argue that such political moves undermine the very ideals that Greens
are trying to represent. But I would respond that politics by its very
nature requires playing tough. It’s possible to play tough and still
keep from compromising values, as Nader proved.

There is, however, no sense in becoming involved in politics if you are
going to ignore the competitive side of it. If the Greens are
endeavoring to build a political party and not simply a mutual
admiration society, then they have to be willing to work for it.

As it stands, the Greens are still far away from being able to claim the
mantle of progressivism and unseat the Democrats from their comfortable
slumber. Many changes must be made before the party will become
politically viable in any lasting way.

Still, the Green Party has been the party that has been best able to
synthesize progressive interests in such a way as to be appealing to all
the voices that occupy the left. It is the only David that has been able
to even stay upright for one round with the Goliath of corporate
interests personified in the current Democratic and Republican parties.
Frankly, it’s the best shot we have if we ever want to see progressive
ideas reflected in American politics again.

Perhaps in a few years time, as the party adapts and evolves, we’ll be
able to look back on the early years of the 21st century when the Left
appeared to be stone dead and smile, knowing that it was all just a
prolonged national nightmare.

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican