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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Netroots Eclipsing Nader’s Influence on Dems

Is Ralph Nader over? Or is he still a force for reform? How much damage can he do to Democrats in 2008? Democratic strategists need to give some thought to such questions if Nader runs again.
Todd Gitlin has a thought-provoking L.A. Times op-ed that adds perspective in answering these questions. Gitlin argues that the emergence of the netroots as a strong progressive force inside the Democratic Party has rendered Ralph Nader largely irrelevant. As Gitlin explains:

As Nader’s advocates do not weary of pointing out, American third parties have often been the vehicles in which those excluded from the two-party system (such as the abolitionist Republicans of the mid-19th century and the Socialists of the early 20th) hitched a ride. The idea is that when the major parties duck the urgent and transforming issues of their time, outsiders will fuse their passion and ideals into a battering ram. They are likely to lose in the end, but they will be influential.
There’s some truth to that argument, and especially to the idea that their self-sacrifice is both inevitable and, at times, somewhat effective. A rhythm of outsider assault followed by accommodation runs through American history. The moral declaimers aim to upend the table but eventually find seats there — if not for themselves then for their ideas, as espoused by their better-behaved, more accommodating cousins. The Socialists and Progressives, for example, were rarely elected, but their ideas were critical to the New Deal. And many of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s anti-federal attitudes found their way into Ronald Reagan’s programs.

But Gitlin sees a fundamental transformation in the way the Democratic left exerts it’s unfluence:

What Nader refuses to recognize, however — indeed, what he is intensely committed to not recognizing — is that political reform movements today are not what they were. The world has changed. The energy and moral vigor of outsiders has now taken up residence inside the Democratic Party. There, it is a force — a recruiting channel, a source of funds, a well of campaigners, a lobby, a debate center.
…Now, the fervent activists of the so-called netroots have taken a page from the conservative playbook. They have stormed into the Democratic Party and become one of its indispensable segments. First visible in the MoveOn.org anti-impeachment effort of 1998, then in the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean, and most recently in the decidedly more successful Democratic mobilization of 2006, the netroots number in the millions, united, organized and empowered by the power of the Internet. Their numbers are compounded by their fervor — they are, in the main, activists.
…The netroots want their movement to function within the party — a machine committed to winning and governing. And this is why Nader no longer matters. In the post-Bush setting, Nader’s Greens are dead-enders. MoveOn.org counts 3.25 million members, a larger number than the Nader voters of 2000.

All true, as far as it goes. But Nader may still play spoiler. despite his weak showing in 2004. At least one recent opinion poll shows surprising support for third parties in general. Asked “…Do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?”, 58 percent of respondents agreed that “a third party is needed” in a Harris Poll conducted July 6-8.
Gitlin may not be taking seriously enough the number of Democrats who still are influenced by Nader’s criticism of toxic corporate influence, even when they don’t vote for him, and not just old school left Dems. To some extent, the progressive netroots are Nader’s children, often mirroring his fierce critique of corporate corruption of politics, even though many would like him to go away.
Many Democrats blame Nader for Gore’s defeat: in 2000. But Nader may still have some constructive influence. Political parties need criticism to improve and grow. Democrats get plenty from the right. It’s good to get some tough criticism from the left, and this Nader delivers (Weekly posts on his web page available here.).

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