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Gore Ignored the Greens and Lost Them to Nader

November 30, 2000|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn is co-author with Jeffrey St. Clair of "Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond," forthcoming from Verso Press

This time a year ago, a truly prescient person monitoring bus, car and plane traffic into Seattle could have predicted that Al Gore's presidential bid faced serious trouble on its left.

The mostly young people pouring up Interstate 5 from Oregon and California and other states were the Green Street Warriors who managed to paralyze downtown Seattle and shut down the opening ceremonies of the World Trade Organization conference. And these same young people made up the core organizers of Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy, which denied Al Gore the crucial margin in Florida and New Hampshire.

As the WTO delegates abandoned Seattle in defeat at the end of that tumultuous week last year, many on the left hailed the coming of age of a new coalition. Among its supposed components: the militant greens in the form of Earth First!, Rainforest Action and Direct Action Network; more mainstream green groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth; Ralph Nader's citizens' trade campaign; labor's legions mustered in Seattle under the banners of the AFL-CIO.

With the advantage of nearly 12 months' hindsight we can now see that these months have offered us a political parable of a very different nature, a parable about the ability of a relatively small number of militant people to shake the system by sticking to their principles.

After all, what happened to the labor legions after the WTO was run out of Seattle? It was not long before the Clinton administration thumbed its nose at the AFL-CIO by pushing through Congress permanent trade normalization status for China, a campaign led by then-Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, now Al Gore's campaign manager. Big Labor fumed, but the fuming was impotent, as Clinton and Gore had reckoned from the start it would be. After getting a sound kick in the teeth over China, the AFL-CIO threw itself into the task of electing Al Gore.

Like the AFL-CIO, the big green groups rallied to the Gore campaign, demanding nothing in return. Indeed, the ties between mainstream environmentalism and the Democratic Party are so enduring that even Friends of the Earth, which vigorously opposed Gore in the Democratic primaries and endorsed Bill Bradley, came crawling back into the fold. By late October, Friends of the Earth's executive director, Brent Blackwelder, was touring the Pacific Northwest urging Nader supporters to back Gore.

But a huge gulf now separates the official leaders of America's green groups from activists across the country. Carl Pope could get his board to commit the Sierra Club's financial resources to Gore, but that didn't mean that the group's activists obeyed Pope's call to fall into line and abandon Nader. The young folk on those Seattle streets who locked down and awaited the gas, pepper spray and batons a year ago were not of a mood to be intimidated into supporting the Democrats.

There is a new breed of green: people who have come of age during the Clinton-Gore years, and who have cut their teeth as activists fighting projects that had been given the OK by the Clinton-Gore administration.

After Seattle last November, these green militants went on to protest against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington D.C. And then they decided it was important to organize protests at both political conventions.

One would have thought that Gore and his strategists might have scented danger as the L.A. police trampled green activists at the Democratic convention and sprayed them with gas and rubber bullets. But they never woke up until it was too late, because they had been operating so long under the assumption that these green activists had nowhere but the Democratic Party to turn to.

Now the Democrats gnash their teeth as they look at those 97,000 green votes in Florida that went to Nader. In a Southern state like Florida this defection was as inconceivable to Democratic Party regulars as was the prospect to the mayor of Seattle of having the WTO meeting shut down. Democratic leaders and their friends at the top of the big green outfits had done business amiably for so long that they entirely missed the reality of a new generation for whom these accommodations were entirely repugnant.

A year has passed since Seattle and they remain deluded. One of the environmentalists' top lobbyists recently warned Nader's supporters that he'll be looking for them "on the front lines in D.C." when Bush takes power. But the front lines aren't in Washington D.C. They're in the forests of the Pacific Northwest; in the chemical plants and oil refineries of Cancer Alley; in the wildlands of Montana; the strip mines of Appalachia.

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