January 19, 2001
A Stolen Presidency & the Seattle Coalition
By Nat Parry
When George W. Bush thwarted democracy by stopping the counting of votes in Florida and disenfranchising black voters of that state, he most likely did not think that he would be energizing a broad-based progressive coalition that - if it holds together - could threaten the conservative agenda he hopes to implement.
This alliance is not completely new. Many of the organizations, now opposing Bush over his theft of the election and challenging his right-wing Cabinet nominees, worked together in the anti-globalization movement that surfaced most notably in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in November 1999.
However, this movement seemed hopelessly fractured prior to Bush's audacious power grab in Florida.
The so-called "Seattle Coalition" - the alliance of labor, environmental, and consumer groups that was formed to challenge the WTO and unrestrained "free trade" - splintered during the 2000 presidential election.
With the candidacy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the coalition was bitterly divided between
those supporting Nader and those backing Vice President Al Gore.
To the Nader side, Al Gore and George W. Bush were too closely aligned on too many issues, especially trade. Many in the coalition saw Nader as the clear champion of the anti-globalization issues raised in Seattle.
They backed him even though he had no chance of winning and even though his candidacy could siphon off enough votes from Gore to throw the election to Bush.
On the other hand, many pragmatic activists from the Seattle Coalition saw the Nader campaign as dangerous and fickle. These activists - led by moderate environmental groups and major labor organizations - supported Gore's candidacy, seeing him as a politician who would listen to their concerns and would collaborate with them on many issues, especially on protecting the world's environment and injecting labor standards into world trade agreements.
Yet, largely because of the anti-globalization movement given voice in the streets of Seattle, Nader's candidacy inspired a more intense activism than did the campaigns of either Gore or Bush. Indeed, to these young activists, Nader's campaign was a powerful extension of their anti-corporate movement.
Some of the same activists who shut down meetings of the WTO in 1999 shifted their efforts to challenging the two-party system. There were major protests at both the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
These protests reflected the anti-globalization movement's contempt for the U.S. electoral system as corrupt.
According to this view, expressed frequently by Nader, both parties were beholden to the same corporate special interests. Choosing Al Gore, with his commitment to "free trade," was anathema to the more radical wing of the Seattle Coalition.
Protesters also targeted the presidential debates on the grounds that the debates excluded Nader and other third-party candidates.
Although the activists failed to shut down the debates, the protests did bring thousands into the streets. Nader drew tens of thousands more to his "super-rallies" as he derided the two major parties as a "duopoly" with no significant differences.
Many others in the Seattle Coalition, however, chose Gore, in part because of his moderate pro-environmental policies and in part because they feared that a Bush presidency would be disastrous for the environment and workers' rights.
As Election Day neared - and it became clearer that Nader could very well cost Gore the election - Gore supporters begged Nader to drop out of the race.
A group of former Nader allies, called "Nader's Raiders for Gore," urged their former mentor to end his dangerous campaign. Sierra Club president Carl Pope sent an open letter to Nader defending Al Gore's environmental record and calling Nader's strategy "irresponsible."
When Nader refused to step aside, alarmed Gore supporters grew increasingly bitter.
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which was founded by Ralph Nader and was integral to the Seattle Coalition, received hate mail from former allies, despite the fact that Public Citizen's formal affiliation with Nader ended in 1983.
After the election, when it became clear that Ralph Nader had won enough votes in New Hampshire and Florida to tip the Electoral College to Bush, the Seattle Coalition seemed to be hopelessly fractured.
Some groups that had backed Gore vowed privately never to work with Nader activists who were viewed as a divisive presence.
The Gore backers fumed that the Naderites effectively had handed the powers of the U.S. government over to conservative Republicans opposed to protecting the environment and against putting labor standards into world trade agreements.
The anger once directed at the WTO for trampling workers' rights and environmental safeguards now focused on Ralph Nader and his supporters. In turn, Nader and his supporters seemed indifferent to the harm they may have caused by helping to elect George W. Bush.
But there were some surprising turns in the weeks after the Nov. 7 election.
As fury spread over Bush's heavy-handed efforts to pin down a narrow victory in Florida, the Seattle Coalition transformed itself into an anti-Bush coalition.
When it became clear that Bush was stealing the election by stopping the vote count in Florida and by disenfranchising black voters, many liberals and many radicals were outraged. In effect, they put aside their differences over Nader to join in opposing Bush's anti-democratic power grab.
The civil rights community, in particular, mobilized to count all the votes and to protest tactics that had prevented some blacks from voting. Those tactics included computer purges of black voters falsely labeled as felons and cruder methods such as placing a police roadblock near one polling place.
Organizations from the Seattle Coalition joined in the battle. The AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and Public Interest Research Group demanded a full counting of the votes in Florida as a matter of democratic principle.
When five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida on Dec. 9 and effectively handed the election to George W. Bush on Dec. 12, activists across the country concluded that Bush had stolen the election and subverted democracy.
The corrupting influence of corporate money on the democratic process - that Ralph Nader had railed against - seemed almost quaint in the face of what had the foul smell of a coup d'etat.
Once again, it appeared that everyone who cared about democracy had little choice but to unite against a common foe, this time one that represented a clear and present danger to the fundamental precepts of liberty.
The progressives' resolve stiffened further when Bush cast aside his promises of moderation and began nominating right-wingers to his Cabinet.
Alliances of labor, civil rights, women's rights, consumer advocacy, and environmental protection groups quickly emerged to challenge nominations such as Linda Chavez for Labor Secretary, John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Gale Norton for Interior Secretary.
Chavez had opposed increases in the minimum wage; Ashcroft had battled many of the laws he would be expected to enforce, such as abortion rights; and Gale Norton advocated private property rights above environmental concerns.
Liberal groups refused to accept these choices largely because George W. Bush was an un-elected, illegitimate president with no national mandate.
More than half a million more Americans had voted for Al Gore for president than Bush. Beyond that one-on-one match-up, more than three million more Americans had voted for left-of-center candidates over right-of-center candidates.
It seemed to many activists that George W. Bush had not just stolen the election, but planned to hand the country over to the corporations and to the right-wingers.
An indication of the early resistance to Bush's presidency is the plan for major protests at his Inauguration.
Bush can expect a dozen separate permitted protests questioning his legitimacy and challenging his policies. Interspersed with the pro-Bush celebrants will be groups - limited by the Park Service to 25 people each - holding signs such as "Hail to the Thief."
Like other major protests since Seattle, there will be the black-clad anarchists marching along with other radicals, and even liberals. Unlike the earlier protests, however, the anti-Bush demonstrations are expected to attract a much larger contingent of people of color.
The largely African-American Kensington Welfare Rights Union plans a march, without a permit, to the Department of Health and Human Services to protest the nomination of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, known as a "welfare reformer," to head that department.
The New Black Panther Party will likely be out in paramilitary fatigues at the Day of Outrage protest. Al Sharpton and his supporters are expected to turn out at the Supreme Court for a shadow inauguration.
Besides pre-existing groups, many Americans who were passive before are now outraged and joining in the fight against Bush. Spontaneous groups have formed such as the Trust the People/Countercoup network. The outrage is not likely to fade soon.
In some ways, it makes sense that the coalition formed to challenge the WTO would now be focused on challenging George W. Bush. Like the WTO, Bush is seen as a threat to the environment, the rights of workers and democratic principles.
Activists note, too, that both the WTO and George W. Bush gained their enormous powers without the benefit of a democratic election.
By stealing the 2000 election and taking the White House as the first popular-vote loser in more than a century, George W. Bush unintentionally may have salvaged - and possibly strengthened - a pro-democracy movement in the United States.
This still-fragile coalition may be divided on what it supports: Nader vs. Gore, revolution vs. reform, property destruction vs. non-violent civil disobedience, etc.
But the coalition is clear on what it opposes: rolling back women's, workers' and civil rights as well as reducing consumer and environmental protections. Even before he is sworn in as the 43rd president, George W. Bush has come to represent what this coalition is against.
In that way at least, Bush has lived up to his campaign pledge of being "a uniter, not a divider."
Nat Parry formerly worked at Public Citizen and went to the Seattle WTO protests in November 1999 as a volunteer with the Sierra Club.