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WHILE THE media circus follows the fortunes of big business-backed presidential hopefuls - Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush - they ignore the mass rallies organised in support of independent Left candidate, Ralph Nader. LYNN WALSH explains how Nader's campaign has tapped a growing anti-capitalist sentiment in the US.
Rallying against corporate capitalism
ONLY ONE candidate can attract thousands of enthusiastic, mainly young supporters to vibrant election rallies. While Gore and Bush perform at lavishly financed, carefully staged gatherings, Ralph Nader, standing on the Green Party ticket, has been filling $10-a-seat stadiums to capacity.
Nader reflects the radical mood of a layer of young people, especially students, crystallised by the anti-WTO protests in Seattle last December and continued through a sequence of protest actions. The mood is anti-corporate, against the plundering of underdeveloped countries, against sweat-shop labour at home and abroad, against the chasm of inequality, against the destruction of the environment.
A great variety of activists are involved, with many strands of ideas: environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, and many only just becoming politicised. From within this diverse movement, however, a clear anti-capitalist consciousness is emerging.
AN ENTHUSIASTIC audience of 16,000 packed Madison Square Gardens in New York on 13 October. 12,000 filled the huge Boston's FleetCenter on 1 October. Before that, 10,000 attended Nader's rally in Portland (Oregon), 12,000 in Minneapolis, and 10,000 in Seattle.
On 3 October, there were over 9,000 outside the first Gore/Bush debate in Boston, protesting against Nader's exclusion from the three big debates. There was fury among the protesters when Nader, despite his invitation ticket, was not even allowed to sit in the audience.
Sponsored by big corporations, these 'debates' symbolise the determination of the Democrats and the Republicans to maintain their duopoly. They are really two rival factions of one big-business party. There is no real debate. Gore and Bush share 90% of the same agenda. They differ only on details - and on the best way to sell their packages.
The turnout at Nader's rallies is overwhelmingly of young people, mostly college students, but with many high-school students as well. There are also young workers and older people, though not many people of colour. They are overwhelmingly fresh faces, people not previously involved in politics in any way.
This is above all a spontaneous movement of the younger generation who cannot accept that the Democrats are in any way a progressive party. For them, the Clinton/Gore presidency has accelerated globalisation, strengthening the stranglehold of the banks and multinational corporations over the semi-developed and poor countries. They have continued high arms spending and launched military interventions against Iraq, Serbia, and other 'targets'.
At home, Clinton/Gore have slashed social spending, refused to restore workers' rights, encouraged the intensified exploitation of minorities and undocumented immigrants, and promoted capital punishment.
For this radicalised layer, Nader represents an alternative to the multi-billion dollar corruption of big-business politics. He offers the only independent alternative to the pro-corporation consensus of the Democrats and Republicans.
Nader himself is a veteran consumer rights campaigner. He came to prominence through his redoubtable campaigning against the big car-makers over safety issues. He launched Public Citizen and an array of non-profit advocacy groups, taking up consumer rights, health and safety and environmental issues, legal rights, and many other problems. In 1996 Nader fought a token campaign on the Green Party ticket.
Seattle, however, had a radicalising effect on Nader too. "The political system, under the corporate domination," he concluded, "is closing out the civil society. Citizens' groups can't get anything done any more."
It was time for people to "turn onto politics", to engage in political action. Pointing to the fact that most workers earn less today in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did 25 years ago, Nader says: "We live now in an apartheid economy. It's an economy of such staggering inequalities that mere words and statistics can hardly do it justice."
NADER CALLS for a liveable minimum wage of $10 an hour, for the repeal of oppressive labour laws, for a universal healthcare system, and for the abolition of capital punishment. In the course of the campaign, he has begun to put more emphasis on trade union and minority rights, undocumented immigrants, rights for women and lesbians and gays.
While relentlessly attacking the power and political influence of the big corporations, however, Nader is not a socialist. He advocates a radical extension of democracy to "tame the giant corporations" rather than taking the economy out of the hands of the corporations, which is really the only way it could be run democratically to meet the needs of the majority.
While campaigning on workers' conditions and rights, and appealing to unionised workers, Nader sees change coming through "building new political power, new economic power, new media power, new civic power for all Americans...", rather than through a mass movement of the working class. In other words, he is a radical populist rather than a socialist.
The key significance of Nader's campaign is not his platform but the role the Nader for President campaign is playing in mobilising and amplifying the wave of radicalisation triggered by the Seattle events. A radicalised layer is on the move, mainly students at the moment, but reflecting a mood developing amongst much wider sections of society.
Another sign of change has been the rising trend in strikes, with notable victories, for instance, by the janitors in Los Angeles and the Verizon telecomms workers in the north-east.
The radicalisation has continuously strengthened through Seattle, the anti-IMF/World Bank protests in Washington DC, and the protests at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia and the Democrats' Convention in Los Angeles. Following these actions, Nader's rallies have involved an extraordinary number of fresh people.
NADER'S MOST important contribution is that he decisively rejects the claim of the Democratic Party to be a 'progressive' or a 'left' party. "The only distinction between Bush and Gore," says Nader, "is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when their big corporations knock on the door."
Unfortunately, most of the trade union leaders and many of the 'old left' are still peddling the 'lesser-evil' line. However 'disappointing' the Democrats may be in office, they argue, the Republicans would be worse. They highlight the radical language Gore (undoubtedly worried by Nader) has been using during the campaign, attacking 'corporate power' and promising to help 'working families'.
But why did Gore select Lieberman as his vice-presidential candidate? Lieberman is on the extreme conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and played a prominent part in pushing the New Democrats to the right, stealing most of the Republicans' policies.
Any possible 'lesser-evil' benefit from a Democratic presidency is far outweighed by the advantages for the working class of taking long-overdue steps towards a decisive break with the capitalist Democratic Party. The US working class desperately needs a new party which will provide an independent political voice.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the fledgling Labor Party, which was launched in 1996 with the support of several unions, is still caught up in the pro-Democrat trap. A Labor Party is nothing unless it begins to fight in the political arena. Its failure to run any candidates in 2000 means that it has been completely marginalised during the campaign.
The potential support for candidates standing on a socialist platform, however, has been shown by the activity of Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party's sister CWI party in the United States.
Immediately recognising the significance of Nader's campaign, Socialist Alternative (SA) helped initiate the Nader for President campaign (which is much broader than the Green Party) in several areas. Calling for a Nader vote, SA has given prominence to demands for papers for all undocumented immigrants, an end to police brutality, and the abolition of the death penalty.
In rallies and discussions SA has put forward the case for socialism and the need to build an independent workers' party. They are calling for Nader, after the 7 November election, to call a conference of the trade unions, the Labor Party, community campaigns and all those supporting his campaign, to discuss the launching of a new party. SA activists have had a tremendous response, selling record numbers of their paper, Justice, and of socialist literature, and bringing new members into their ranks.
OPINION POLLS currently give Nader between 3% and 8% of the vote. One poll gives Nader 17% amongst people describing themselves as 'independents' and 18% amongst 'progressives'. Another poll gives Nader 10% amongst young people. The fact that Nader is offering an alternative, moreover, has probably helped reduce support to the ultra-rightwing, former Republican, Buchanan, now standing on the Reform Party ticket, to around only 1%.
It is possible, though not certain, that Nader will achieve over 5%, enough to give the Green Party federal election funds in the next election. That would indeed be "a political Molotov cocktail thrown into the voting booth," as Michael Moore, the radical documentary film-maker, recently said at a Nader rally.
In fact, whatever the percentage, Nader's campaign marks an important step forward in US politics. It has given independent expression to the radicalisation of a small layer that foreshadows the radicalisation of much wider layers of workers and the middle class. Already, it has delivered a blow to the two-party stranglehold.
Whatever the percentage achieved, Nader's campaign is helping to create the conditions for the development of an independent party of the working class.
In The Socialist 20 October 2000: