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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ralph Nader Runs

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Micah Sifry, a journalist writing a book about third party politics in the U.S., about Ralph Nader's latest bid for the White House, the Green Party campaign supporting him and what the Greens hope to accomplish win the field of electoral politics.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ralph Nader is the Green Party's presidential candidate once again. But this time around, the anti-corporate crusader is campaigning a lot harder than he did four years ago, when he seemed to be running in name only. Many liberals concerned about the environment are in a quandary about how to respond to Nader's current White House bid. They like his politics, but they also know his chances for election are slim. Joining us is Micah Sifry, a writer for The Nation magazine who is working on a book about U.S. third-party politics. First, tell us about the focus of the Green Party platform, and how Ralph Nader presents it.

SIFRY: If anything, I think the focus comes down to a couple of things. One is trying to speak for the people on the bottom of the political system, and the sorts of issues that aren't being addressed by the major parties. For example, universal health care is a very important piece of the Green Party platform. Dealing in a serious way with global warming is an important part of the platform, as is political reform. There is a long laundry list of issues attached to the platform, and not all of them are ones that are that important to Ralph Nader. You don't think of him, for example, as having a position on abortion or on gay rights, and on both of those the Greens are very progressive. The interesting thing about Nader's candidacy is, he is, now as a full-blown presidential candidate, emerges someone who is consonant with just about everything in their platform, while he emphasizes his core issue, which is the rising role of corporations and how they are undermining democracy.

CURWOOD: Interesting theory. I wonder if you could talk a bit about Mr. Nader on the campaign trail. I think, in 1996 he didn't spend any money. He didn't go anywhere. How is he being received this time?

SIFRY: It's a completely different thing, you know. In 1996, he basically just allowed is name to be used. Now he's actually running. And I think at this point he's visited nearly all 50 states. What was exciting to me covering some of the early campaigning that he was doing, was that, you know, he has this image of a very monkish and serious kind of demeanor. And in fact the guy is very funny, and he has very dry wit and understands the need to connect with his audience. And I think if people go out and catch him at one of these appearances, they too will be surprised. Because there is a full-blown philosophy of life that he's expressing. It's far more than just consumerism. It's this notion of civic engagement, that the highest role that we have as citizens is to be active participants in our democracy. Yes, there is a gloom and doom element to what he has to say about corporate power and how it is overtaking our democratic institutions. But at the same time, there's something, I think, optimistic about what he is trying to convey, and I suspect that's why a lot of young people seem to be rallying behind his campaign.

CURWOOD: Is he a good campaigner?

SIFRY: You know what? He's not a good campaigner. I mean, let's be serious. He is not a politician. He doesn't like to wade into crowds and shake hands and kiss babies. And he is not one to glad-hand. "I do not have the political ego" is how he puts it. But I think that some people may find that an attractive element.

CURWOOD: Now, I don't think that Ralph Nader himself would tell us today that he expects to move into the White House some time in January of 2001. So, what does the voter get, aside, perhaps, from feeling good about voting for Mr. Nader if they have politics consonant with his?

SIFRY: You know, historically a vote for a third-party candidate has often been a very powerful vote for change in this country. There are a whole host of issues, ranging from the abolition of child labor, the creation of a 40-hour work week, suffrage for women, the direct election of Senators, unemployment insurance. All of these issues were first raised by third parties, going back now more than a century. And by voting for a third-party candidate raising those kinds of issues, usually what happens is, if enough voters do it, is that one or both of the major parties comes along and says gee, we've got to co-opt this. In fact, this is a good idea. We should be for it, too. So even in the case of Ross Perot in 1992, he only got 19 percent of the vote. He obviously didn't win. But he put that issue of deficit reduction, which until then had been neglected by both parties, he put it at the center of the debate. So that's what can happen with a strong third-party vote.

CURWOOD: Is money involved? I mean, one thing that Mr. Perot picked up after his third-party run was a lot of cash for the Reform Party from us, taxpayers. Federal money.

SIFRY: Well, the Greens and Nader do make this argument, that if he succeeds in getting more than five percent of the popular vote, and that's entirely possible, he's at about six percent now in the polls -- that under federal election law he will qualify the Green Party in 2004. Its presidential candidate will get a proportional share of the public funding that goes to presidential candidates for their campaigns. And that could be many millions of dollars. It would certainly establish the Green Party as a major national force.

CURWOOD: When people say that Ralph Nader would be a spoiler for Al Gore, what's your analysis here?

SIFRY: You know, it's a lot more complicated than that. First of all, Al Gore is in the head-to-head match with Bush right now. He's losing as is, without Nader included in the polls. Second, with Pat Buchanan in the race, it's quite possible that we will see a full-blooded four-way race, and no one will be a spoiler. The third factor is the role of new voters, the people who will come in who will otherwise not vote. And I think we saw this with Perot in '92. We saw it certainly with Jesse Ventura, that their is this X-factor. This is in fact one consideration for people who may think that the real battle here is not so much for the presidency as it may be for control of Congress. He may have a positive turnout effect that may tip the balance for the Democrats in the fight for the House. So it is a lot more complicated than a simple "you're throwing your vote away."

CURWOOD: Is Mr. Nader's campaign doomed in our present political system of two parties: That a vote for a third party is really a statement rather than the act of electing someone, for the most part?

SIFRY: No, there's no question that Nader's campaign is severely disadvantaged because of the winner-take-all system. I think it's also important to remember that the Greens already have a track record in some places of running candidates, running them strongly, and then moving the entire political scene sort of in their direction. So I think that that shows, yes, there is a short-term risk by running a strong candidacy as a Green, that you will potentially elect a Republican rather than a Democrat. But in the long run, what you do is you realign the parties in a more beneficial direction. And I think it's this quest for political realignment is what makes the Nader candidacy so interesting.

CURWOOD: Micah Sifry is a writer with The Nation and is writing a book about third parties in the U.S. Thank you for joining me today.

SIFRY: Thanks for having me.



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