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A little green: shaky start for the Nader campaign.

Chants of Go, RALPH, Go filled the auditorium at the University of California at Los Angeles, where more than 350 Greens gathered, anticipating the acceptance speech of their first-ever Presidential candidate, Ralph Nader.

The long time advocate of citizen rights and consumer safety delivered a two-and-a-half-hour acceptance speech that lambasted the corporate oligopoly and the Republican and Democratic "duopoly." In his customary way, Nader went on to offer a systemic overhaul--and hope.

Nader reminded delegates of the many historic victories brought about by the work of private citizens--women's suffrage, civil-rights laws, the Constitution. "One person can make a difference," he said.

"What we're doing is building for the future," Nader said. "The Greens and other progressives are in the early building stages of a people-first democratic political movement for future years. They deserve our attention because they are centering on the basic issues of representative government." Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Nader said one of those issues is "to curb the excesses of the monied interests."

The Democrats can no longer be counted on to perform this function, Nader said. "It's gotten so you can't tell Democrats from Republicans anymore in this country: They're both totally beholden to corporate America."

Nader vowed to curb corporate welfare, which has reached $140 billion each year, according to estimates by The Wall Street Journal, he said. But if you include "subsidies, bail-outs, giveaways, inflated government contracts, tax loopholes, and forgiveness of corporate debt, aid to dependent corporations" is easily up to $200 billion, he said.

He has no use for Clinton, whom he called a "RepDem hybrid," and he urged liberals not to sell themselves short. "Many Americans who call themselves liberals have so lowered their expectations about what politics can mean to this nation's future that they are settling for diminishing returns," he said. "Politics has been corrupted not just by money but by being trivialized out of addressing the great, enduring issues of who controls, who decides, who owns, who pays, who has a voice and access."

Already, Nader's candidacy has sent small tremors through the Democratic Party--enough to garner several solicitous requests for his withdrawal. But he spurns such approaches. Party strategists, like James Carville, are worried that Nader will siphon away enough votes from Clinton, especially in the key state of California, to give Dole a chance.

Nader has hoisted the Greens into the public eye and attracted enough members to qualify the party in eleven states. Organizers hope to be on twenty state ballots by the time of the election.

But the Greens are not the most organized bunch. Fierce infighting over proposed convention locations nearly caused the Congress for the Green Party USA to absent itself from the party's first convention. And convention organizers actually left their keynote speaker, the Sierra Club stalwart David Brower, stranded at the Los Angeles airport for hours. With no replacement available, disappointed Greens milled around, muttering under their breath.

The inability of party organizers to communicate and organize effectively has meant that the American public is not taking the Green Party or Nader seriously.

"It's unfortunate that the Greens can't pull it together," says Pamela Koslyn, a devout small-d democrat and feminist, who attended the convention. "I was really impressed by everything that Nader said, but I found the Greens immature, unorganized, and not worthy of a candidate like Nader."

Although Koslyn is "Green-friendly" and highly impressed by Nader, she fears a Bob Dole Presidency, and will cast her vote for Bill Clinton.

Nader's candidacy has stimulated much enthusiasm and teamwork among Greens, but it has also stirred controversy--magnifying fissures that were already troubling the party. Some Greens have defected from the campaign, complaining that Nader still represents the "typical, white, straight male."

Others criticize his refusal to endorse gay marriage, his reluctance to campaign, and his decision not to exceed the $5,000 campaign-spending limit. Still others denounce the selection process itself, arguing that an elite of Greens pursued Nader "undemocratically," a move many consider an abandonment of a fundamental Green tenet.

"The Nader campaign has been offered to Green Party members and other progressives for our signature, not our consideration," wrote Minnesota Green Greta Gaard in a party publication called Synthesis/Regeneration. "The lack of internal democracy among Green Party electoralists is one reason that some Greens have been less than enthusiastic about the Nader campaign."

Southern California Green John Ulloth agrees. "When some self-selected individuals aren't big enough to give up their autonomous decision-making to group authority, then what's the difference between the Greens and the other two parties?" he asks. "It's undemocratic and goes against our bottom-up, grassroots approach."

Meanwhile, Nader has been the target of criticism outside the Green ranks. One charge is that by refusing to accept more than $5,000 in campaign contributions, Nader is circumventing federal campaign-financing laws. Those laws require Presidential candidates who spend more than $5,000 to disclose their personal assets. In an editorial entitled "St. Ralph's Secrets," The Wall Street Journal, a long-time Nader nemesis, attacked his financial secrecy, suggesting hidden interests and hypocrisy. "For years he's hectored corporate chieftains and ideological opponents for hiding conflicts of interest and other problems from the public"--and now he refuses to release his own tax returns, the article said.

But Nader insists that his integrity, not some dark secret, binds him to the $5,000 spending limit.

"The no-money campaign is based on the need to get private money, and the corruption it creates, out of politics," Nader told me in an interview. "I am the arch anti-use foe of private money in any campaign, and I have to stay behind that Maginot Line. From the beginning, I made it clear that I won't get into the fundraising business. If I break that $5,000 number, I lose the principal argument to ward off all pressures to go to big-time fundraising. It's the only defense against this sort of thing."

Nader also fears "the pitfalls" of private-interest funds. "One can be trapped by contributions and pressured to take money from different interest groups. Then people will call, berating me because of [funding sources]," explains Nader. "It also becomes a diversion from the issues because all the media's attention focuses on campaign funders, and I will have less control. I have to focus on the instruments of democracy."

Nader supporters in California, who have organized to raise unofficial funds by means of unofficial campaign committees, say Nader's approach to the campaign is designed to stimulate grassroots action.

"I think he just wants to have hundreds of people raising less than $5,000 each, so it won't be a central campaign," says Charles Wilkin, a California Green and a former Congressional candidate. "It's the opposite of corporate campaigning, which uses top-down, big-budget TV and glossy advertising. Rather, it activates lots of people and forces many to take responsibility. Unfortunately, it's harder to win, and there is lots of confusion."

Since the start of their conversations with Nader, Green recruiters have known his stand. The party agreed to the spending cap and empathized with his consequent unwillingness to campaign aggressively, says Nader. "I didn't want to mislead them, so I told them not to expect it. I will campaign aggressively without spending money, using as much free media as I can."

But he still leaves other Greens wondering why he simply won't disclose his personal financial information. "The most important disclosure is, `Where did the money come from?"' Nader argues. "My answer is, from nowhere. The rest is self-flagellation. One's [personal finances] should remain private and never be violated. I don't care about other candidates' tax returns."

Instead of the corrosive practice of private campaign funding, Nader proposes a campaign that would use public funds by allowing a voluntary taxpayer checkoff of, say, $100 per tax return, and by granting a certain amount of free time on public airways for qualified candidates. Unfortunately, such suggestions don't help his campaign now, which is seriously hindered by limited funds.

So what is Nader up to with this campaign? He's calling public attention to the "collision course between global corporations and American democracy," he tells me. "American democracy is losing--to the multiple detriments of the American people. This dismantling of our democracy by the major corporations should be a front-line issue of political debate and action."

Nader says he wants to "focus on ways to develop universally accessible, accountable instruments of democratic action for citizens, voters, taxpayers, workers, consumers, shareholder investors, and students who fund our civic associations," while at the same time "attracting more young people to action and helping the Green Party qualify on as many state ballots as possible."

The Greens, Nader says, will "provide an answer to the assertion--due to the Tweedledee and Tweedledum two-party duopoly--that millions of Americans have nowhere to go. It will provide more competition."

In fact, anything aimed at breaking up the duopoly gets applause from Nader, sometimes to the shock of his supporters.

Ross Perot?

"A contribution," says Nader. "Perot performed a good service, one that could change voting habits from the perceived throwaway vote to a vote for a new candidate. He broke the myth that no one except a Democrat or a Republican could receive substantial votes. He also generated grassroots meetings and discussions. As billionaires go, they could be worse. And although he has his idiosyncrasies, he isn't a demigod. He keeps saying he doesn't want power, and I don't think he does. I would be more concerned about a millionaire like Steve Forbes."

And Pat Buchanan and the swelling Patriot movement?

They have their good points too, he says. "[The Patriots] are viewing the giant global corporations as the subverters of national sovereignty and the increasing subverters of individual liberties--controlling the media, stifling dissent, and pulling strings that affect security in the workplace," says Nader. "If someone wants to learn the truth, I'll [support that]. Pat Buchanan learned from us. We educated him. And he made corporate abuse of power an issue like no progressive has. I'm working to educate Buchanan and others who want to know the truth."

Nader hopes there will be many new political formations. "We need more competition, more parties in the fray, and more robust debate. We need to generate fresh political energy. Half of the people stay home feeling apathetic and powerless," he says.

Surprised? Many progressives are, but Nader focuses on what he considers the root evil--the stranglehold of the corporations that have twisted American democracy and turned fundamental freedoms into mere myth.

This is why he adamantly stands his ground, fighting broad-based indiscriminate injustice and avoiding more focused battles for individual rights, he says. "Most people in the progressive movement focus on discriminate injustice, but all [of our rights] are being subjected" to assault, says Nader. "Our democracy is deteriorating, and without a structure of democracy, we can't fight for our rights."

The government is bought and paid for by corporate interests, he says. "The need for justice isn't adequately addressed, not even anticipated to be addressed, by a government that sells the trust of the American people for a billion dollars of campaign contributions each year," he explains. "With that, I include the Executive Branch, the elected officials of Congress, and their challengers. A billion dollars takes control of the U.S. government. There is no higher return on investment anywhere in the world than the return on the billion dollars to control the U.S. government, its enormous assets, and its decision to do wrong or right."

A vote for either of the two major parties, therefore, is a vote for continued corporate control. Dole and Clinton are largely the same, with only slight differences in rhetoric, according to Nader. "They're very similar, whether it's about the Federal Reserve, safety regulation, foreign affairs, fiscal policy, or taxes," he says. "Look at Silicon Valley, where their big priority is a capital-gains tax cut--they support Clinton. Even if you believe in the better proposals of the major-party candidates, they can't deliver once in the White House because they're prisoners of corporate power. Jimmy Carter tried to change the tax laws, and [the corporations] stopped him and added a few more loopholes."

He notes evidence for the "pronounced and alarming acceleration of corporate power" in the health industry, where HMOs dictate budget-based care orders to doctors and nurses; in the defense industry, where contractors maintain massive arrangements with the Pentagon, despite "nonexistent enemies"; and in organized labor's loss of power.

The result, according to Nader, is a decline in quality of life--shrinking wages, growing child poverty, and disparity between the rich and the regular.

Once democracy is reinvigorated, once the corporations are put under popular control, we can address specific issues, argues Nader. Until then, he doesn't want to discuss anything else.

Much to the dismay of many progressive activists, Nader has publicly refused to comment on key issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and immigration. And he appeared to deride gay and lesbian rights when he called the issue of same-sex marriage an example of "gonadal politics."

The phrase was meant to be dignified, not dismissive, insists Nader. "Linguistically, it's a pure phrase that literally means `that which generates,"' he says. "It came about when Bill Safire was baiting me, asking my positions on a [host] of sexual issues. I wanted to end the exchange. I thought `gonadal politics' was a more dignified phrase than `love politics,' `sexual politics,' or `personal politics."'

Though Nader refuses to run on the Green Party platform, he does admire it, calling it the most "comprehensive, broad-based party platform in the whole country. I wouldn't begin to compare it to the flaccid, insipid, empty platforms of the Democrats and Republicans."

Nader knows what he'd like to accomplish in the unlikely event that he becomes President. He says he'd ensure an accountable democracy; increase law enforcement on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse; include practical, civic skills in public schools; "heed the advice of many military strategists who say the defense budget could be cut by $100 billion"; remove $150 billion of corporate welfare; funnel money into research and development for people's needs; restore the "critical public wealth of our country"; and create major community-development loans.

Becoming President, though, is not as important to Nader as reinvigorating citizens. That's why he's running with the Greens. "Nothing is more powerful," he says, "than organized people who perceive injustices and see outlets of change."
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Title Annotation:Crashing the Parties; Ralph Nader, Green Party presidential candidate for 1996
Author:Armoudian, Maria
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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