A run that fizzled - or a promising start?

Green Party members say they have created a genuine base. But uncertain party leadership may keep them on fringe of power.

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Does the Green Party and its - take your pick - exalted or reviled leader Ralph Nader have a political future in the United States? Will Greens be in a position to wield power as the nation's third-largest party, or will they slip back into their traditionally fractured and marginal position?

It's way too soon to know, of course. This year's election commotion still has to be sorted out. But given Mr. Nader's role in all the fuss, plus the impact of the Reform Party before it flamed out under Pat Buchanan's banner, there is evidence that the major parties are not appealing to many Americans.

Nader's supporters say they're now in a position to move the Democratic Party back toward its traditional roots.

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"Nader has helped strengthen the progressive wing of the Democratic Party," says Green Party member Cris Moore, a professor of computer science at the University of Mexico, who holds a seat on the Santa Fe City Council.

For many Democrats, however, Nader is persona non grata. In Washington, leaders of organized labor, environmentalists, women's rights advocates, and others on the left end of the party spectrum have essentially told the Green presidential candidate, "You'll never have lunch in this town again."

"Spoiler" is the most polite description hurled at the consumer advocate, whose votes may have caused Al Gore to lose the electoral count in some key states.

As he did throughout the campaign, Nader mostly gets the back of the rhetorical hand from prominent newspaper columnists as well. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls him an "egomaniacal narcissist" with an "insane economic philosophy." The Washington Post's David Broder dismisses the Green Party as existing "mostly in the imagination of its candidate."

Greens in office

Greens hold 72 elective posts, 18 of those won last week. Concentrated in California (29), Wisconsin (11), Colorado (5), Minnesota (4), and New Mexico (4), most are local city council, school board, and commission seats.

"We're encouraging people to run in a lot of elections in the upcoming years, and we're going to keep pushing on the issues we've been working on," says Winona LaDuke, Nader's running mate on the national ticket this year. "It's time for a multiparty system. The country is vastly more diverse than is reflected in a two-party system."

If there's any historical precedent for Green aspirations, it may be the Populist Party in the latter half of the 19th century, says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. Populists held seats in Congress and statehouses, and they won some races for governor.

"The Green Party does have the capacity to generate more genuine party presence, and from that base develop strength," says Dr. Lunch. "That is conceivable to me - but they're not there yet."

Below expectations

Nader's vote count of less than 3 percent did not match preelection polls. The dropoff he experienced was typical of minor-party or independent candidates, says Lunch, as potential supporters set aside "expressiveness" for "effectiveness" in the vote they cast.

The only recent exception to that was Ross Perot, who spent $50 million of his own money on television ads in the last days of his 1992 campaign, and actually exceeded expectations at the polls.

Greens say the current electoral system works against them.

"When you're at 3 percent and the other guys are at 40 percent, you're not quite on the same playing field," says Dan Hamburg, who served one term as a California Democrat in the US Congress before switching to the Green Party and running unsuccessfully for governor.

But reaching a competitive level of support could require much more than simply organizing the grass roots.

"We also need to look at proportional representation, instant run-off where you can rank your candidates, challenging the fact that we spent billion of dollars on this election," says Ms. LaDuke, a native American author, mother of three, and activist with a Harvard degree.

Also working against them may be their tendency to be so inclusive that tough-minded decisions never get made.

"The Greens are all over the place," says Tim Hermach, an environmental organizer in Eugene, Ore. "They're intelligent, they're caring, they're sensitive, they know things are bad the way they are and they want them to be better. But then they're so process-oriented, so politically correct, so consensus-driven."

Nader has given no indication that he's eager to run again, or even that he intends to take the lead in keeping the progressive political pot stirred.

But for many Greens, this doesn't matter.

"Nader has ... legitimized the Green Party in a way that was previously absent," says Thomas Powell, a Green Party member of the county board of supervisors in Madison, Wis. Still, he says, "It may be a while before the Green Party finds another presidential candidate with the drawing power of Nader."

A long-term vision

For many Americans who describe themselves as "Green" - whether they are card-carrying party members of not - how well they do in national races is less relevant than giving voice to what they see as a growing movement of enlightened individuals.

In the broadest sense, their target is the 44 million people sociologist Paul Ray dubs "cultural creatives" - those whose personal concerns include the environment, social justice, anticonsumerism, the spiritual realm, and alternative healthcare.

"For us, the key is long-term vision and patience," says Bill Smaldone, a Green Party member of the City Council in Salem, Ore. "Our victories will be modest at first, and there will be lots of defeats, but if we can form a large-enough core of supporters, we have a chance to succeed."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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