Progressive Pragmatism: The Nader Factor

The true test is yet to come.

Ralph Nader announced his run for President on Meet the Press, and controversy was brewing even before he entered the building.

“This is an act of total vanity and ego satisfaction,” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) told the Washington Post. Nader “cost us the White House last time, and he could again.”

Other would-be liberals have been more vociferous in their attempts to spit venom at the 70-year-old progressive. “Certainly, this latter-day political narcissist has already made up his mind what he’s going to announce,” said writer and political commentator John Marshall. “So there’s no point waiting to call him what he is: an enemy of progressive change in this country and a cat’s paw of the Republican party.”

Nader was unflinching and unapologetic. “That’s the liberal intelligentsia that agrees with almost all our positions,” he said. “That is a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people.”

Richardson and Marshall are dead wrong. Nader is absolutely right. And I’m still not going to vote for him in November.

The election of 2000 was the first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote. Up until early spring when I learned about Nader’s campaign, I had been planning on sitting the election out. After all, choosing between Bush and Gore was like trying to decide if you’d rather be executed mercifully quickly or tortured first. Both men and, indeed, both political parties were exactly what Nader calls them to this day: “Giant corporations masquerading as human beings.”

Of course I wanted nothing to do with George W. Bush and the overwhelmingly mega-conservative Republicans. But what were the Democrats offering instead? What had been their great victory thus far? Eight years of Clinton/Gore in which the poor had been poached by welfare “reform,” the unelected and unaccountable FCC gained even broader powers of censorship through the Telecommunications Act, gay and lesbian people had their rights trampled on by the Defense of Marriage Act, corporations became fatter than ever off of deregulation and corporate welfare, the environment was traded as a pawn in political cat-and-mouse games repeatedly, and the US military was ordered to drop bombs on baby formula factories and hospitals in the Sudan but yet wasn’t asked to lift a finger to stop genocide in Rwanda?

These folks were supposed to be the good guys?

Nader ran a well-organized and well-managed campaign in 2000, which is more than anyone can say for Vice President Gore. Nader stood up and fought for issues of integrity that were ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike. He was the only candidate who was against capital punishment, the only candidate who held “peace” instead of “proportional response” as a centerpiece of foreign policy, the only candidate who had been consistent in supporting a woman’s right to choose, the only candidate against the war on drugs, the only candidate with a plan to get health care to every American and to pay for it, the only candidate for fair trade, and the only candidate who was willing to stand up to major corporations and call out the criminals who lead them.

If even one of these things had fallen into place for Gore, I might have given him another look. As it was, Gore was never going to be a part of a progressive future for this country. His record and his rhetoric both proved that. Nader’s experience proved the opposite. The man has spent the last 50 years making our lives better in a thousand different ways. As a young and disaffected voter, I was hungry for some real change.

I worked for Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000 and I was proud to do it. I was proud to have voted for him. And even after the election, when the nation spun off into turmoil over hanging chads, I stood my ground for having chosen Nader while the Democrats and other “liberals” attacked him for being a “spoiler.”

Ralph Nader did not steal away Al Gore’s votes. Al Gore had just as much of a shot at getting those votes as Nader did, and a much bigger, more expensive megaphone with which to communicate his message to the electorate. Al Gore lost the election because he ran a terrible campaign, because Katherine Harris and the Bush campaign in Florida engaged in racist and illegal acts of treason for which they will likely never suffer a single penalty, because the Supreme Court spat on the Constitution by choosing to install George W. Bush as President rather than allow the legal challenges to continue, and because the Democrats and the Gore campaign ultimately stopped fighting these atrocities, probably because they feared it might bring some of their own negative actions to light.

Ralph Nader lost in 2000 because he had almost no money, no access to major media outlets except for those that aimed to paint him in a negative light, no access to the presidential debates from which many Americans become informed about candidates, and no ballot access in seven states. What’s Mr. Gore’s excuse?

Now, as Nader enters the fray, Democrats are again crying “spoiler.” The spoiler argument is both childish and arrogant. It was so in 2000 and it is again today. It asserts that progressive voters who might be attracted to Nader are mindless sheep who would gladly endorse any Democrat, regardless of how unqualified or immoral he may be, simply because that person is not Bush.

Is this really the Democrats’ best defense against a man who took less than three percent of the votes in 2000? “Don’t vote Nader because if you do the bogeyman will come and live in our closets”? These reckless charges are part of a campaign of fear that is just as insulting to me as when the Bush campaign instructs me that I must vote Republican or else the Taliban will be setting off a nuclear warhead in my kitchen.

I support Nader’s right to run. If we truly wish to have a free and democratic system, then we must allow for a plurality of views to come through. Unlike the cynical critics, I have always taken Nader at his word. Governor Richardson and others accuse him of being an egomaniac. As if John Kerry or anyone else who has ever wanted to be president isn’t an egomaniac.

Nevertheless, Nader is not the right man for the job this year as I believed he was in 2000. I judge candidates on a simple set of criteria: I look to see if they hold progressive views that are similar to my own, if they have solid and well thought-out plans to achieve progressive goals while in office, and if they are qualified for the office they seek. Nader and I still agree on most of the major issues, but the way he goes about trying to achieve those goals leaves much to be desired.

In 2000, Nader ran as the candidate of the Green Party. This afforded him a grand opportunity to build a progressive network that could be a force for change, breaking open the two-party system by offering a third and better option. Indeed, the campaign worked hard to build the Green Party as an alternative to the pansy Democrats. But once the campaign ended, the movement that Nader engineered was orphaned. Nader did not bother to continue working with the people from his campaign to build the party and organize the various progressive interests that the party represents.

Though his Web site touts the many fundraisers and conferences he has attended since 2000, it fails to mention any work that Nader has done for the building of the Green platform and the election of Green candidates. That’s because he hasn’t done any. He has never even bothered to join the party himself, let alone encourage others to do so. And now he has decided to run as an independent, forcing the party to backtrack upon itself and decide whether it will endorse him, run a counter-candidate with even slimmer chances of making it into the debates, or run nobody at all.

In short, it seems Nader built a house of cards only to watch it fall.

When the Greens were being accused of spoiling in the aftermath of the 2000 debacle, Nader had the perfect opportunity to grab the microphone and reframe the debate. He had numerous opportunities to bring the work of Greens to light. The argument Nader’s supporters make now, that we haven’t seen him in four years because the corporate media has shut him out, is a cop out.

Not only has Nader been neglectful towards the Greens, he has also been unconscionably silent about life in post 9/11 America. When the bombs fell on Afghanistan, Nader did not speak. When the war machine geared up to attack Iraq, Nader was absent from the debate. His 2002 book, Crashing the Party, an excellent piece on politics and civics in America, has no mention of Iraq and virtually no mention of 9/11 or the Patriot Act. Now, all of a sudden, Nader is concerned about both of these things. His newfound concern is admirable but a little late. It’s like he’s trying to go to a New Year’s Eve party at 3:00 in the morning and complaining that everyone started without him.

But Nader is not the only one who has changed in recent times. The Democratic Party has gone through considerable changes in the last year, led by the courageous though ill-fated presidential campaign of Howard Dean. For most of the past year, Dean led in the polls to the astonishment of many critics. He tapped into the anger of a progressive-minded public that has been abused and neglected for years by the establishment of the Democratic Party.

Though Dean was ultimately unsuccessful in winning the nomination, the tenor of his candidacy and the progressive network that he developed has helped to create a sense of unity in the Democratic party for the first time since 1992, and it has helped to move the party into a more progressive place than it’s been since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. John Kerry is speaking about progressive issues and endorsing more progressive positions than he likely would have if the election were held a year ago.

The Democrats, of course, have a long way to go before they can really call themselves a progressive party again. Still, in 2004 the best-run network of progressive activists has a home within the Democratic Party rather than with the Greens or with any other independent movement. The most progressive network in the country was created and given life by Dean, not by Nader.

None of this is to say that Nader has not had a distinguished career as an activist. His work has made all of our lives better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that. He is an American hero. But inaction speaks as loudly as action does in this context, and for the past four years, Nader’s inaction has spoken volumes about his commitment to the political cause he so ably championed last time around. His work has become increasingly more obscure and bookish, making him seem out of touch and aloof. And some of his claims — for instance, the fantastic notion that somehow he is more likely to attract votes from Republicans than Democrats — make me wonder if he is even paying attention anymore.

So I’m sorry, Ralph. But you blew it.

As for the Democrats, the true test is yet to come. Nader may not be getting my vote, but that doesn’t mean that anyone else has an entitlement to it. I can guarantee you that I won’t be voting for W, but Kerry will have to make a compelling case for himself if he wants my vote. And any argument that has at its center “Vote for me because otherwise you’ll be stuck with this guy” is just not going to cut it. I’d rather sit on my hands or write in a vote for my fiancé’s cat than put a Clinton clone in the White House.

If fear is what motivates your vote, then fear is what you will get. There’s no substitute for substance. Not even in W’s America.

Article © 2004 by Jonathan Ratican