Even with the ultimate result still unclear, last week's election showed some contradictory things about the state of progressive politics in the United States: They still matter, and there's a lot of work to do if the movement is going to overcome its fragmentation.

On the one hand, Ralph Nader's candidacy failed to nab 5 percent of the vote - a stated goal that would have ensured the Green Party matching federal financing during the next presidential campaign as well as a certain amount of legitimacy.

Yet even though Nader collected fewer than 3 million votes nationwide, he had a major bearing on the outcome of the election: Al Gore would probably have been declared the official winner in Florida by now - and thus taken the White House - without his opposition. Nader got just fewer than 100,000 votes in Florida, and at press time George W. Bush's lead over Gore numbered only several hundred votes.

Nationwide exit polls reported by CNN showed that 6 percent of people who consider themselves liberals (and 2 percent of Democrats) voted for Nader, while only 1 percent of conservatives (and 1 percent of Republicans) cast their presidential ballots for the Green Party. Just as important, 6 percent of people who consider themselves independent voted for Nader. In Florida, the results were less dramatic but still significant: 3 percent of liberals (compared to 1 percent of conservatives) voted Green for president.

Those facts clearly divide progressives, a diverse group of people and organizations who champion traditionally liberal causes such as campaign and health-care reform, the environment, better working conditions and wages, and a strong government safety net.

Several progressive organizations contacted for this story talked about the triumph of Nader's campaign. But William McNary, president of U.S. Action and co-director of Citizen Action Illinois, called the campaign the "disastrous run of Ralph Nader" because he failed to reach 5 percent and likely cost Gore the election.

But even those results can be spun as positives.

"Maybe the best thing that happened to the Green Party was not getting the $12 million," said Jim Cullen, editor of the five-year-old Progressive Populist newspaper, which is printed in Iowa. "If they got the federal money, they might have been taken over" by fringe groups in the same way as the Reform Party.

Similarly, some progressives have said that a Bush victory might galvanize the left in a way that a Gore win wouldn't.

But the big question facing progressives is whether they will unite under one banner - the Democratic party - or continue to operate out of warring camps.

As the Reform Party under Ross Perot showed, the most successful third parties have tended to be cults of personality with strong leaders. And while the party of Perot thrived on some of the same disgust with conventional politics that Nader has tapped into, it crumbled without a charismatic head. (There are clear differences: The Reform Party appealed to a more conservative voter and had a protectionist worldview, compared to the Green Party's unabashedly liberal agenda.) So should Nader try to strengthen his hold on the Green Party and risk turning it into Team Ralph, or should he give up the reins and hope that what he built doesn't fall apart? Should Democrats try to woo Nader and his supporters, or continue blaming him for what might end up a Gore loss?

"You think anybody's figured that out?" joked Rick Kozin, executive director of the Iowa Citizen Action Network in Des Moines, three days after last week's election.

But in the Quad Cities two weeks ago to stump for U.S. Representative Lane Evans, populist commentator, radio personality, and author Jim Hightower sat down with the River Cities' Reader and claimed to know exactly what should come next as he outlined plans for marching forward with the progressive cause.

"I'm taking the longer term view of this," said Hightower, a Texan dressed in jeans, a white shirt, and a cowboy hat. "The key to success is to make it [the progressive cause] a genuine movement. ... Movements are not about a campaign."

Hightower said progressives - whether they're loyal to the Democratic, Green, or some other party - need to work together against corporate power. "We can all get together and decide what to call ourselves," he said. "It doesn't have a leader. It won't for a while."

Hightower, whose latest book is If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is organizing a series of rallies beginning in March to maintain some of the momentum that Nader built. He has already begun planning events in Atlanta, Minnesota, Boston, Seattle, and Wisconsin next spring. He said the rallies won't be stuffy affairs, but will instead feature music and beer because "politics has a life to it, and it's about life."

Like most progressives, Hightower has his own list of pet issues: a single-payer health-care system, which he said has never been properly debated; public financing of all elections ("It means ordinary people could run for office again"); a requirement that biotech companies prove the safety of their products before they can bring them to market; and a living-wage law.

Hightower envisions rounding up liberal celebrities and politicians to champion the cause next spring, including newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, and documentarian and all-around hell-raiser Michael Moore. Hightower said he feels that a variety of charismatic leaders - and a good deal of fun - could help the progressive movement more than Nader alone.

But at this point, he doesn't have commitments. "It's easier for me to just do it than get everybody else and then do it," he said. Unification is also the theme for U.S. Action's McNary. And like Hightower, McNary said it's not enough to rally around a single person. Progressives must join "not on personality, but on issues and a common set of values," he said. "It's clear that progressive issues dominated the discussion in this campaign" between Bush and Gore, including a patient's "bill of rights" and a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare. "We have to decide how to best wield power around these issues. ... It is easy to unite people under a broad-based vision."

Iowa Citizen Action Network's Kozin agreed that the progressive agenda seemed to be the nation's agenda in this election, with campaign-finance reform and health care drawing a lot of the candidates' focus. "You have to be heartened by the amount of attention to ... those issues," he said. "The challenge is to turn that into political clout and into ... meaningful reform."

Kristina Wilfore, communications director for the Center for Policy Alternatives, sees opportunities for progressives in the current political climate. Because the federal government has become more decentralized - especially on issues such as welfare reform - progressive battles are going to be increasingly local. "It puts even more pressure on the states," she said. "We've had a different government structure for the past 10 years. ... States make the decisions."

The Center for Policy Alternatives is focusing on finding innovative programs to improve family-leave benefits and make welfare reform work. While the federal government created "windows of opportunity" by making programs more flexible, the states themselves have to develop and implement them.

Wilfore added that it's imperative for progressives to work with Democrats, Republicans, and independents because of the split composition of many state legislatures. She said the Center holds leadership workshops that attract Republicans and Democrats, although "it would lean more Democratic."

Meanwhile, Nader is not doing much to help the unity talk. Spokesperson Stacy Malkan said the longtime consumer advocate has not decided whether he'll run for president a fourth time in 2004. But he has committed to recruiting state, local, and national candidates for the Green Party in 2002; opening a party office in Washington, D.C.; and starting Green chapters on college campuses throughout the nation. Rather than unifying progressives, Nader is dedicated to "continuing to build the party," she said.

It might be possible to enact electoral reform that could benefit the traditional and fringe parties. Progressive Populist editor Cullen said a number of voting systems would allow voters to support a preferred candidate without hurting one who might be acceptable. (The cry from Democrats late in this campaign was that even though progressives preferred Gore over Bush, votes for Nader gave the Republican an advantage.)

Under the "instant run-off" voting system, for example, voters rank candidates from favorite to least favorite. If no candidate has a majority of votes, the one with the smallest number is eliminated, and that person's votes are shifted to the remaining candidates based on voter preference. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote. Under instant runoff, a person could vote for Ralph Nader and list Al Gore as the second choice.

Cullen said progressives should now focus on lobbying their state legislatures to change voting systems, because if a vote for Nader doesn't necessarily take a vote away from Gore, fragmentation becomes less of an issue.

It's also possible that arguments to self-interest could convince the two-party system to open itself up more to third parties. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been burned by third-party candidates over the past three presidential elections - George Bush by Ross Perot in 1992 and Al Gore (apparently) by Nader in 2000.

"If they don't go for that, these third parties will continue to wreck their electoral chances," Cullen said. Sticking with the current voting system would continue to give fringe candidates serious clout in close elections. "This does make Nader more powerful," he said. "He could hold the key to future elections if they don't squash him now."

Many Democrats indeed are blaming Nader for a probable Gore loss, a factor that has further divided those progressives who want to work within the Democratic party and those who want an alternative.

The problem is that the Democratic party is slow to move and has alienated many people on the left, while third parties have traditionally been able only to rise to the role of spoiler.

As Hightower said, "The deck is stacked ... but it always has been."

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