It is widely accepted that the U.S. Green Party's Ralph Nader siphoned away enough votes from presidential nominee Al Gore in Florida and New Hampshire to make Bush president. Gore's solid environmental credentials underscore the grim irony that the Greens lured away enough environmentalists from Gore's camp to give Bush the winning margin.
Now I'm wondering if history will repeat itself. I'm not just talking about Nader, who is running again, this time as an independent. Yes, he may once again see some perverse success at splitting the opposition to President Bush. But least we forget, the Greens are also still out there tempting people who should know better. After all, one basic tenet of the Green Party -- that Democrats and Republicans differ in name only -- was shattered by President Bush, whose policies are a sharp departure from those of his Democratic predecessor.
A lot of environmentalists now realize how third parties can weaken the power of people with similar political views. However, a lot still don't get it. The Greens continue to attract support because their positions on environmental issues are tougher than anyone else's. Unfortunately, these supporters don't grasp the easy logic that before you can protect the environment you must win the power to do so. And the Green Party has neither the public support nor financing to win high office. Helping the Green Party always means hurting the environment if a Green candidate erodes support for a major party contender who promotes environmental issues.
I consider the Green Party a one-act play of political cowardice powered by a suicidal combination of arrogance and ignorance. To run away from the major political parties in order to start your own is to abandon the heavy lifting required to realistically reform a system you don't like.
Conservatives didn't like the Republican Party, so they changed it by working meticulously at every level of the organization for many years. Liberals who fled to the Greens simply didn't want to bother engaging in the struggles that reshape old political alliances into new ones. Environmentalists who joined them were ignorant or ill-advised or simply didn't care.
While many Greens understand they will never become a major party in the United States, they believe they can pull the Democrats to their side under the threat of election defeats. They will fail. The Democratic Party will not embrace battles of the Green Party for the simple reason that most Democratic supporters – and the people who pay for their candidates' campaigns – reject the far-left platform that Greens promote and are unwilling to compromise.
For the Greens, the next presidential race will be like the last one. Once again, they will sit on the sidelines with a presidential nominee who can never do better than play the pointless role of spoiler for the Democrats. They may achieve similar results in Congressional and gubernatorial contests.
Nader, who never believed enough in the Green Party to join as a member, initially pledged to avoid becoming a spoiler by not campaigning in "swing states" like Florida. He promptly broke his promise. Did Greens have remorse over the actions of their standard bearer? Past statements on their website suggest they didn't. Incredibly, the party claimed that in Nader's absence Gore would have done even worse.
In many ways, that issue is less important than this question: Why run in a race you know you won't win? I suppose it is either to send someone a message or boost your own profile. Either way, substantive concerns like the environment become secondary.
As head of the Sierra Club committee that endorses political candidates in New York, I will likely oppose every Green Party selection. I might feel differently if Greens were more willing to cross-endorse major party choices. Of course, they would first have to overcome their aversion to compromise, which happens to be a cornerstone of gaining power in a democracy. Since compromise is not part of this third party's vocabulary, it brings little value to the long-term goal of promoting an environmental agenda.
The Greens offer a siren's song that some in the environmental community find irresistible. However, to whatever extent the Green Party influences election outcomes, it will succeed only at pushing environmental issues onto the rocks. Or, more accurately, keeping them there.
Roger Savitt is state political chairman of the Sierra Club in New York.