- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

There will be two lingering political questions after all the presidential dust settles. One is whether our winner-take-all system has become too brittle to translate the will of the American people into effective government. The other is why Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan together only polled 3.1 million votes.
Is there a connection between these two questions? I think the answer is "yes." The first question points to the growing need for structural reform of America's political process and the second question points to the long road ahead in achieving it.
Mr. Nader polled the lion's share of the third-party vote. About 2.7 million Americans, or 3 percent, cast ballots for the Green Party presidential candidate. Mr. Buchanan was a distant second with 441,000, roughly half a percent. Both were shooting for 5 percent, which would have qualified Mr. Buchanan's Reform Party and the Greens for public funding in 2004. Both fell short.
Mr. Buchanan's campaign tanked well before Election Day, largely because he abandoned his populist themes and alliances in favor of a gamble that social conservatives would desert George W. Bush. He was dead wrong.
Some believe that Mr. Nader's focus on the 5 percent goal was reason for the underperformance of his campaign. In effect Mr. Nader's message, which began as a frontal assault on globalist corporate special interests, devolved into a sectarian appeal to help the Greens get $7 million in 2004 and to leverage a left agenda within the Democratic Party.
Ironically, Messrs. Nader and Buchanan, both opponents of special interests, presented themselves to the public as special interest candidacies. For Mr. Buchanan, the special interest was the far right. For Mr. Nader it was the liberal left. And while he outpolled Mr. Buchanan more than 5 to 1, Mr. Nader never broke out of the politics of ideology that defined, and limited, them both.
In remarks at a press conference the day after the election Mr. Buchanan put a forward-looking spin on his dismal results. "This is our party and this is our home," he said of the Reform Party, which will "become the core of a national conservative populist party. It will be the first in America. It's a number of years off, but it will happen." But the Reform Party is now down to about 10 ballot-qualified state affiliates from 32 after Ross Perot's 1996 run, and is not positioned for growth. It was the collapse of social conservatism that brought him to the Reform Party in the first place. I knew that and told him that when he and I formed what was to be our left/right populist partnership. I broke with him when he failed to make good on that coalition (a coalition which outraged virtually the entirety of the left), but all the evidence continues to indicate that the American people want a new populist alliance that is not driven by ideology. In the end, it was Mr. Buchanan's refusal to buck his own right-wing special interests that destroyed his campaign and the Reform Party along with it.
Whatever disappointment exists within the left over Mr. Nader's failure to hit the 5 percent mark has been eclipsed by recriminations over Mr. Nader is having apparently cost Al Gore the election. The Nation's Eric Alterman, an avid critic of the Nader strategy, wrote in his post-election piece "Left in Shambles," "For now, we can expect an ugly period of payback in Washington in which Nader's valuable network of organizations will likely be the first to pay. Democrats will no longer return his calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike. Sadly, his life's work will be a victim of the infantile left-wing disorder Mr. Nader developed in his quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency."
In rebuttal, Alex Cockburn titled his Nation election summary, "The Best of All Possible Worlds." He listed the multiple issues from toxic runoff in the Florida Everglades to the diminished salmon runs in Oregon's Snake River that gained currency in and produced votes for Mr. Nader's campaign. Mr. Cockburn concludes, "As for Nader holding the country to ransom, what's wrong with a hostage-taker with a national backing of 2.7 million people? The election came alive because of Nader. Let's hope he and the Greens keep it up through the next four years. He got them where it counted, and now the Democrats are going to have to deal with it."
But in truth, the election didn't come alive. Turnout barely passed an abysmal 50 percent. Yes, Mr. Nader campaigned against the corporate special interests music to many a leftist's ear but he never challenged the extent to which the left itself has become a special interest with its own elite leadership rosters and its predictable political agendas. Perhaps no statistic is more telling than these: In 1992, Perot polled 7 percent of the black vote. In 1994 he polled 4 percent of the black vote, both times running a populist anti-establishment campaign. This year Ralph Nader polled only 1 percent of the black vote, a signal of the narrowness of his candidacy.
That's why Mr. Nader unraveled at the polls. The masses of the American people don't want ideological agendas or petty sectarianism. They'd rather have George Bush or Al Gore. Or not vote at all. When Gov. Jesse Ventura told Larry King the American people want a centrist independent party, he was talking about an independent party that is based neither on ideology or special interests.
Ultimately, rejecting all forms of special-interest politics including the left and right ideological versions of it will be required to move America ahead. Neither Mr. Nader nor Mr. Buchanan did that this year. That was the biggest loss of all.

Lenora Fulani twice ran for president as an independent. She is based in New York where she chairs the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, an independent think tank.

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