The Nader of progress?

Did the Green Party's presidential campaign help or hurt the No-to-WTO movement?

"THE SPIRIT OF SEATTLE lives!" Those were the first words out of Ralph Nader's mouth when he took the stage at his massive Key Arena rally in September of this year. The specter of the previous year's Battle in Seattle was everywhere that night, indeed throughout Nader's entire campaign for president, serving as both a rallying call and an icon of the Greens' political movement. A video that began the Nader rally seemed to aim for a Kent State effect with its images of scary looking police and distraught protesters. The rally's emcee, fair-trade activist Sally Soriano, spoke of taking the spirit of the protests "to the next level, to elect a president that will shut down the WTO for good."

Just as at the WTO demonstrations, the crowd that night was wildly enthusiastic and impressively big—bigger than those the mainstream candidates could muster. If you were in it or any of the similar mega- rallies Nader held across the country, you might have gotten the feeling that a mass movement was in the process of being born.

Then came the election. Nader's count nationally was dismal, less than 3 percent. In Washington state, one of a handful considered his strongholds, he did just slightly better, with a little over 4 percent. Even in liberal King County, ground zero for the anti-WTO movement, he earned only 4.68 percent.

The results offer a lesson in drawing meaning from political crowds: A huge one may represent a very motivated minority rather than a broad constituency.

Do Nader's numbers in the presidential race also convey a limited scope for the vaunted coalition of labor, environmentalists, youth, and social-justice churches that coalesced around fighting the WTO? Ron Judd, the regional director of the AFL-CIO, argues no. "I don't think it's a good test," he says. "I think a lot of pragmatism went into a lot of votes." Simply put, Gore could win and Nader could not.

"If there is any lesson," reflects City Council member Nick Licata, "it's that to go from a movement to a political party is a long road and is very tricky to accomplish." That doesn't mean that the Nader campaign didn't help the No-to-WTO movement advance, according to Licata. "I guess the question is advance towards what? Advance towards a political party? I don't think so. Advance towards a movement that can shape national political opinion? Yes. Advance towards a movement that will shape legislation? Yes. Advance towards a movement that will affect how politicians shape their messages? Yes."

But it is precisely in those other realms that the anti-WTO movement failed most strikingly this election season. Mainstream candidates did not feel compelled to address criticism of our government's free-trade policy, nor did the press or public demand them to do so. It simply was not an issue.

Nader, of course, tried to make it one, but it's not clear whether he helped or hurt the cause. Clearly, he helped build a grassroots network under the auspices of the Green Party. Twenty Green Party "locals," or groups, have sprung up in this state, according to party activist Patrick Mazza.

But Mazza also admits "there's been a real wrenching among progressives" because of Nader. That's not only because he may have cost Gore the race.

Many argue Nader didn't just attack his opponents, he skewered them in a deeply personal way. And he focused particular venom on Gore and the Democrats. He called the vice president, for instance, "a giant corporation running for president disguised as a human being."

That didn't go over well among people who considered themselves both progressive and Democratic. And Nader's rhetoric implied, to some, an edge of contempt not only for Gore but also for those that supported him. "People felt attacked for making that choice," says City Council member Richard Conlin. "It wasn't pleasant."

"It made me think of old lefties," says Harolynne Bobis, a Central Area resident who frequently saw what she considered to be inflammatory signs at the Nader state headquarters in her neighborhood. "I just sort of feel with Nader supporters that you're either part of it or against it. If you have any questions, then you're part of the enemy."

The backlash against Nader's campaign holds another lesson for the anti-WTO movement. In this week of anniversary events, some who were considered part of that movement are already distancing themselves from those who want to—as Soriano put it at the Nader rally—"shut down the WTO for good." For instance, the Machinists union at Boeing, one of the major players in the protests, isn't participating in anniversary demonstrations because "they're just anti-WTO," according to the union's political director, Linda Lanham. The union, she says, merely wants to gain a seat at the table to negotiate labor and environmental standards. "We recognize that this is a trade dependent state," she says.

Moreover, Lanham doesn't think there's much to celebrate this anniversary. "I thought [November 30, 1999] was a lose-lose for everyone," she says. Delegates went home hating Seattle, and the protests didn't end up changing anything about the WTO.

As some put on their party hats for N30, there's obviously no unity among progressives.

 
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