Tumult on the Left and Right

Tumult on the Left and Right
Jacqueline Salit

THE BATTLE of Seattle prefigures another battle, now less than 11 months away. It’s the Battle for Seattle, the contest over who will be the ultimate beneficiary of those protests at the ballot box.

These implications were not lost on the two presidential candidates who were in Seattle — the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan and the Green Party’s Ralph Nader — acid critics of the World Trade Organization and the controversial trade pacts that have accompanied unbridled globalization. Both Buchanan and Nader have been in the forefront of the anti- NAFTA, anti-fast track, anti-WTO movements — a testament to the extent these issues galvanize left, right and center.

Buchanan’s and Nader’s election day fortunes could turn on how well they tap into the new left/center/right populism — requiring that each goes beyond their respective ideological political borders.

Buchanan began that journey with a bang. He abandoned the Republican Party — his political home for 30 years — to enter the tendentious world of Reform Party politics. Reform is the electoral vortex of the new vertical paradigm — the bottom versus top (as opposed to the left versus center versus right) arrangement. The Reform Party is an amalgam of conservatives, libertarians, socialists and “goo-goos” who have carved out a simple but compelling message that crosses ideological, socioeconomic and geographic lines: structural reform of America’s political process to give citizens the democratic power to rein in the transnational corporate and big labor special interests. When Buchanan sought and received the endorsement of left Reform leader Lenora Fulani, their right/left alliance triggered a media melee over the impossibility of such a coalition.

Perhaps Seattle — where tree huggers and Teamsters found themselves on the same side of the police barricades — will make our fourth estate think a little harder about what is and isn’t possible.

Buchanan, for all his dreams of restoring social conservatism to its once and future (he hopes) glory — has made some pretty radical moves. By contrast Nader, his radical counterpart in the Greens, is playing a pretty conservative game.

Nader’s reluctance to formally announce and to commit to running a large-scale candidacy has some Greens and Green sympathizers worried. As Micah Sifrey reports in the Nation magazine, they want Nader to “launch one more institution of countervailing citizen power, the Green Party, into permanent orbit” and “to get at least 5 percent of the vote,” the threshold to become a recognized minor party and receive a proportional share of public funding in the next cycle. Sifrey says they want the same money in 2004 that’s coming to the Reform Party this year.

Some Greens, now engaging the hardball organizational realities of American electoral politics and the long road to crossing over from the margin to the mainstream, are putting the heat on Nader. He is their celebrity candidate, who polled 700,000 votes for them in 1996 — less than 1 percent — on the ballot in 22 states. They hope that a committed Nader will catapult the Green Party to a new level of political relevance.

The tough question for Nader, however, may be more than how much energy he is willing to devote to a run. If his campaign is geared solely to attracting left/liberal/enviro voters, he might top his 1996 totals, particularly if the Greens get him on the ballot in more states. But unless he hears the message of Seattle and crosses the Rubicon to explicitly reach out to the right and the center as well, he and the Greens run the risk of remaining marginal and little more than spoilers for the Democrats. As an alternative to Al Gore, Nader is merely a protest vote. As a nonideological populist alternative to Gore and Bush, he could be part of cracking the two-party monolith.

So far, Nader seems caught up in the droning mantra of left political correctness. He turned down offers to meet with Reform Party leaders interested in recruiting him into their primary process on the grounds of ideological incompatibility. Loyalty to the Greens? Perhaps. But also one of many signals that left leaders are afraid to aggressively partner with the right and center.

Can Nader or Buchanan, the independents, capture the momentum of Seattle on Election Day 2000? The Democrats and the Republicans fervently hope not. The leaders of mainstream environmentalism, economic nationalism and labor will back the usual two-party suspects. But will the rank-and-file of these movements break free of the bureaucrats’ allegiances and go independent? That depends in large measure on how far Reform, the Greens and the new populism go in uniting the “bottom” against the “top.” Anyone for Buchanan/Nader on a Reform/Green fusion ticket in 2000?

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