Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders, probably the most famous figures on the American left, are in many ways a matched pair. Ascetic and tenacious activists, their shared critique of U.S. capitalism is inspiring a new generation of citizen-visionaries.
Nader and Sanders have parted ways, however, over the consumer advocate's presidential campaign. The Vermont congressman's support for Bill Clinton's reelection has "disappointed" Nader and caused him to question Sanders' status as "a real progressive."
In an interview prior to his speech last Sunday to an overflow crowd at Saint Michael's College, Nader accused Sanders of putting "personal political survival" ahead of the principles the Independent socialist has always espoused.
Nader theorizes that "Clinton's people told Bernie he had to support Clinton or else they would help the Democrat [Jack Long] in the congressional race." The Democrats' promise to bestow a subcommittee chairmanship on Sanders if they captured control of the House may also have encouraged him to cuddle up with Clinton, Nader suggests.
"Supporting me would not have been the most courageous act of his career," Nader says of his erstwhile ally. "You're not a real progressive if you don't work to build an alternative to the Democrats — which is something Bernie Sanders says he stands for. You've got to plant an acorn, which is what I was trying to do."
Nader notes that Sanders called him in June to ask that he refrain from challenging Clinton. The congressman has not called since, Nader says, even though "throughout my campaign I raised many issues — opposition to GATT and NAFTA, for example — that [Sanders] had opposed Clinton on. Given how long I've supported Bernie Sanders, even before he became a congressman, I think he owes me a phone call."
Sanders, currently vacationing in Montréal, could not be contacted for comment on Nader's remarks. The congressman's aides point out, however, that Sanders publicly endorsed Clinton long before Jack Long entered the House race. "It's really irresponsible of Ralph to be making that charge," says Sanders' campaign manager Tom Smith.
In an August interview, Sanders explained his endorsement of Clinton on grounds that his top priority was to prevent a Republican takeover of the White House. The incumbent president is "clearly preferable" to Bob Dole on a host of issues, the congressman argued then. Sanders further maintained that Nader was not a viable contender and could expect to get "at most 2 or 3 percent of the vote nationally."
That forecast proved inflated: Nader actually received less than 1 percent of the national tally, winning about 600,000 votes in the 21 states that listed him on the ballot. In California and Oregon, where he did campaign extensively, Nader was more of a factor, receiving a respective 2.4 and 4.1 percent vote share in those two states.
Many members of Vermont's Progressive Coalition say they were unimpressed by Nader's campaign, which never came to Vermont and which was plagued by an acute shortage of funds. Nader needlessly muffled his own message, his left-wing critics contend, by refusing to raise money even from individual donors. The shoestring crusade also made no effort to build a progressive party in Vermont, add Sanders' allies, some of whom voted for Nader, anyway.
The campaign was largely ineffectual in the Green Mountains, agrees Gary Widrick, the closest facsimile to a Nader organizer in Vermont. Besides lacking funds for basic items such as bumper stickers, the Nader for President drive sputtered in several states, including Vermont, due to what Widrick describes as "the toxic aspects of Green politics." Green Party activists comprised the core of Nader's campaign, but this coterie again displayed the left's propensity for splitting into feuding grouplets.
Nader regards his own presidential undertaking as a prelude to a more successful initiative four years hence. Acknowledging that his vote total puts no pressure on Clinton to move leftward, Nader predicts that the Democratic nominee will feel progressive heat in the 2000 campaign. "The Greens are coming on strong in more and more states, especially among young people," says Nader, who is not a Green Party member.
The 1996 result in Vermont, where Nader won 2.1 percent of the vote, would have been far more favorable to the left had Sanders and the Progs actively backed the insurgency Widrick says. He relates that Sanders' congressional campaign coordinator had refused to assist Vermont Naderites in any way.
"Bernie has always said he's willing to take on the Democrats," Widrick comments. "But he didn't follow through, and that has cooled many of us from doing much more work with Sanders and the Progressives."