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US elections: Nader's challenge fails to impress working class

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Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy was widely regarded as the most serious “left-wing” challenge to the Democratic/Republican duopoly in US politics since Henry Wallace stood for the presidency in 1948.

Earlier in the campaign some polls had suggested that Nader and the Green Party (he was its official candidate) would gain five per cent of the national vote - enough to ensure federal match funding at the 2004 presidential election and far greater media exposure.

In the event the Nader campaign fell well below that target, attracting less than 3 per cent of the total poll or slightly over 2.7 million votes. In states such as Oregon and Washington where polls had highlighted the threat posed by Nader to the Gore campaign, the Democratic Party’s message that “a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush” (given the winner take all nature of the electoral college) clearly hit home and cost Nader thousands of votes.

Nader’s strongest performances came in Alaska, where he scooped up 10 per cent of the state’s tiny electorate and in the six New England states - five of which went for Gore by clear margins. Nader gained some six per cent of the vote in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and seven per cent of the poll in sparsely populated Vermont.

In general these states are among the most progressive in the US on a range of social questions. All four New England states, but especially Massachusetts, have large numbers of university students among their registered electorates, along with substantial clusters of radical petit bourgeois voters.

None, however, records especially high levels of trade union membership, even by relatively modest US standards. In the more heavily unionised states of Illinois and Michigan, Gore emerged the undisputed victor, with Nader failing to capture much more than two per cent of the vote in either state.

The Michigan result, in particular, reflected the extent to which the top reaches of the UAW union bureaucracy proved successful in mobilising their members’ vote for Gore and so stifling the pro-Nader challenge mounted by elements in the union’s New Directions movement.

The 2.7 million votes Nader chalked up were hardly trivial, especially compared to his minuscule showing in the 1996 election, but the available returns also show conclusively that the Nader campaign failed to make any significant inroads within the organised working class nationally.

There is still less evidence to show that Nader was at all effective in attracting African-American voters away from the Democratic Party. His vote here was negligible.

Thousands of trade unionists were in Seattle at the World Trade Organisation meeting last year and fought the city’s robocops to a standstill. This year has seen a further resurgence of a fighting spirit among US workers: in the Verizon telecoms dispute, the militant campaigns by Latino cleaning staff in California, the strike by bus drivers in Los Angeles and teachers’ walk-outs in several cities this year.

But this has not yet translated into large-scale support among trade unionists either for a workers’ party or, indeed, a populist alternative to the Democrats led by Nader.

Above all, the recent election illustrates that breaking the mould of bourgeois politics in the US will demand an unambiguous class struggle programme that unites the interests of the working class as a whole with the interests of those most oppressed by US capitalism both domestically and globally. This was something the Nader campaign failed to offer.