Ralph Nader runs for president
The spirit of Seattle blows through the US election
THE TWO main political parties in the US are gearing up for this November's presidential election. The Republican Party's national convention took place in Philadelphia this week. The Democrats' convention is later this month. Protests were to take place outside both to highlight how the two parties are squeezing out the voice and concerns of ordinary Americans.
One presidential candidate, however, is trying to raise that voice. He is Ralph Nader, a longstanding consumer rights activist who is standing with the backing of the Green Party. SAM ASHMAN looks at how the Nader campaign is inspiring audiences and organising activists across the US.
THE LOS Angeles Weekly radical listings magazine recently summed up Ralph Nader. It described him as "Seattle man". "Nader has come to personify the spirit of Seattle", one of revolt against "the corruption of the entire civilisation by market forces, the commodification of fucking everything." LA Weekly got it right.
Nader's five minute long campaign video intercuts his image with shots of the demonstrators who shut down the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in the US city of Seattle last year. Nader's speeches attack the power of global corporations, poverty, the gap between rich and poor, the ever lengthening working hours for the majority.
"America wants a change," says Nader, "a change from the dominance of the two major political parties which offer little more than band-aids for the nation's problems of health, child poverty, job security." He says, "Social issues must be addressed from a class perspective. Whatever your issue is, whether it is racism or homophobia or urban decay or healthcare, you're not going to go anywhere with it if we don't focus on the concentration of power."
Nader's running mate for vice-president is a Native American, and he is backed by the Green Party. If Seattle has reshaped the left in the US, the process has also reshaped the Green Party.
It wants to build on the unity between "Teamsters and turtle kids" seen at Seattle. They see 2000 as "the year of the Blue-Green alliance"-the blue being for blue collar workers in the US. They too want union rights and a living wage, universal healthcare and efforts to tackle the growing gap between rich and poor.
Nader stood for president in 1996 but did little campaigning. This time Nader is touring the US, speaking in every state. Over 400 listened to him speak in Montpelier, Vermont. He told them he wants to try to start a movement: "Think of the farmers in east Texas who in the late 19th century started the populist, progressive farmer revolt against the big banks and the railroads. They had nothing but their hearts, their minds and their feet. Do you think they gave up? Think what it was like for the early abolitionists [of slavery] or the suffragists or the workers who formed the trade union movement."
At another public meeting he urged his listeners to reclaim a "government of the General Motors, by the Exxons and for the Du Ponts". In Detroit Nader joined striking newspaper workers on the picket line. Some 300 heard him speak in Oakland in California, where he condemned an "apartheid economy" that benefits only the rich, while hundreds turned out to hear him speak at Princeton university.
Nader is not a socialist. He calls himself an independent. But he is leading the most left wing and exciting presidential campaign for 50 years. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Nader spoke to a crowd of 1,500 students.
A reporter for the Nation magazine described the scene: "Nader invokes the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. He praises the students for the anti-sweatshop movement that is sweeping the country and for recent protests against the International Monetary Fund and WTO. He attacks corporate power: 'Commercial interests have congealed into giant economic interests' with such political clout that 'the two parties have merged into one corporate party, with two heads in different makeup'. 'They fought Social Security, Medicare, auto safety. They fought every social justice movement in this country,' he tells the crowd which is by now roaring its approval. Nader's speech is so inspiring, and the reaction he produces is so strong, you get the feeling something big might be happening."
THE DEMOCRATS are getting worried. US-wide opinion polls put Nader's support at around 7 percent. But in some states, like California, Nader is polling between 10 and 12 percent. The Democrats' candidate for president is Al Gore, currently Clinton's vice-president. He was left in no doubt of the mood for Nader when he spoke recently at a public meeting of 200 people in Saginaw, Michigan, a working class city north of Detroit.
One woman stood up and said, "It has felt to me like the Clinton-Gore administration gave an awful lot of ground back to the right and I would like to know why I should vote for you and not Ralph Nader. And don't tell me, 'Because I'll split the vote.' That is not an answer."
The Democrats are playing up Gore's environmental rhetoric in response-ignoring the fact that Gore's family owns a half million dollar stake in Occidental oil. They say Nader is a "spoiler" candidate who will split the vote and let Republican George Bush Jnr get elected. But Nader says, "You can't spoil a system that is spoiled to the core."
Echo in the unions
DEMOCRAT PARTY presidential candidate Al Gore is trying to shore up trade union backing. He spoke to the convention of the AFL-CIO union federation last month and attacked Republican George Bush Jnr, claiming his Social Security plans would hit workers.
But many trade unionists are not happy with Gore's record. Most of the big unions have declared their support for the Democrats. But the car workers' UAW and the transport workers' International Brotherhood of Teamsters have not yet said who they will back.
Between them they represent about two million of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members. Both unions have flirted with the idea of backing Nader. UAW president Steve Yokich issued a statement earlier this year saying, "It's time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not on what big money dictates."
Teamsters' leader Jimmy Hoffa Jnr also suggested that Nader is allowed to appear in TV presidential debates. It is far from certain that either union will back Nader. But one union is-the 31,000-strong California Nurses' Association.
"He is the real thing and he deserves the support of caregivers," says the union's president, Kay McVay. "At a time when nearly 45 million Americans are uninsured, Ralph Nader is the only candidate for president to stand for universal health care, including a national health insurance plan that guarantees access to full healthcare services for every man, woman and child."
'Enthusiasm and excitement'
NADER'S CAMPAIGN is inspiring groups of activists. Many are out on the streets collecting the thousands of signatures necessary to get Nader on the ballot paper in November. In Texas volunteers collected 74,000 signatures in 75 days. They linked up with local union activists and others.
In Michigan Nader's supporters collected 50,000 signatures. "The ones that sign are just so happy to have a viable alternative," says one of those involved. Around 100 to 150 are already involved in Nader's campaign in the Bay Area around San Francisco. Students from the campaign travelled to Nevada to help collect signatures to register Nader.
At a meeting in Vermont a group of volunteers set up a local Nader network. Those present included an organiser for the Northern Forest Alliance, who offered to set up an e-mail list, while a youth organiser for the organisation People Over Profit explained how to get people to register to vote.
"There is no doubt there is enthusiasm and excitement about this campaign. Even the media is beginning to treat him as a real candidate," says a member of Socialist Worker's sister organisation in the US, the International Socialist Organisation, which is backing Nader's campaign.