First Time as Tragedy, Second Time as Farce, Third Time as Footnote — (I Hope)
I don’t feel the anger so many do when I think of another Nader presidential campaign. Mostly I feel sad. I feel sad for the values that Nader has so long championed. I feel sad for what it may mean for progressivism in the U.S.. I feel sad because I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Nader.
I admit I voted for him in 2000, but I did so with my eyes open. First, it was obvious Gore was going to pull California. If the election had been close, I would have punched the button for the Democrat. Second, after the eight years of Democratic capitulation and embarrassments supplied by the Clinton Administration, I felt we needed a truly progressive voice in the country. Third, I figured the worse that would happen was that we would get George Bush, who appeared at the time as only a marginally more conservative version of Bill Clinton. I was right about the first two points, but deeply wrong about the third.
Common sense and simple honesty demands we admit that Ralph Nader represents a clear alternative to both Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama. When it comes to the war, he is for an immediate and TOTAL pull out-something that not even Obama is willing to embrace. He supports a “single payer” healthcare system, while both Democratic candidates weasel in a continued role for the insurance companies. He openly calls for greater criticism of Israel’s brutality toward Palestinians, while Republican and Democrats shy away from even the most tepid criticism of the Jewish state.
I believe everything that Nader says about Democrats, but I also believe everything that Democrats say about Republicans. I cannot think of a single area where a Democrat would not have made a difference over Bush. The war in Iraq is obvious, but so too is healthcare, unions, the environment; the list is endless. I know that John McCain is no George Bush, but that is not saying much. A McCain presidency would keep us in Iraq for “a hundred years”. A McCain presidency would “solve” the healthcare crisis by giving more tax breaks to rich people. A McCain presidency would continue the onslaught against organized labor started by Reagan, and put a conservative lock on the Supreme Court.
My suspicion is that Nader is not running in spite of criticisms like these, but because of them. In Ralph Nader’s candidacy we see the other side of the characteristics that have made him so principled. Nader has been indefatigable and tenacious in his defense of what he believes is right. Neither private investigators, nor physical threats, nor sexual solicitations, nor cooptation have been able to stop him. The passion and commitment with which he holds his views have made him one of the most principled men in American public life, but they have also made him one of the most intransigent. If politics is the art of the possible, then Nader is less an artist than a butcher. He hacks away at it with more passion than nuance. Our strengths are often the source of our greatest weaknesses, and Ralph Nader is a good example of this.
The worse criticism of Mr. Nader is not that he is waging yet another presidential campaign, but his way of doing so. You could justify another Nader campaign on the basis of building a third party, but this time around there is not even the pretense of this. His campaign is not building the Green party or drawing attention to local races. Nader declared that he was running for president and then shopped his campaign to the Green and other third Parties. This is third party politics as an after thought.
If it was debate over progressive positions that mattered most to him, he could have run in the Democratic primary. This is the place where non-mainstream ideas fight it out to see if they can become mainstream. There were real progressives in the primaries: both Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards waged truly progressive campaigns. Those candidates lost, however, not merely because of resistance from Democratic party insiders, but because they could not generate enough following AMONG Democrats. The potential for a progressive candidate among the wider population is even less. Blaming Democrats for this fact confuses cause with consequence.
But the most important criticism of Nader’s campaign is that it devotes too much time and effort to national politics. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, he who does not participate in national politics has no heart, but he who devotes all of his time to it has no head. Yes, a national presidential campaign is the big league of American politics, but without a movement behind this campaign it is a wild pitch that wastes progressive time and money. Our priorities at this point should be strengthening our peace, labor, feminist, gay, ethnic, and environmental organizations so that we have the power to pressure who ever the president may be.
Our approach to national politics should be a seven per cent solution. That is, national politics is worth about 7% of our time; the other 93% should be devoted to grassroots politics. We should not waste our time by voting for a third party that does not build a movement, no matter how personally attractive that candidate might be. We will get a little bit of help from having a Democrat in the White House, and we should not lose this small but important advantage. Investing more than the marginal amount of time it takes to vote, is the wrong set of priorities for the left. Blaming Democrats for not being more progressive is like criticizing a cow for eating grass. It is their nature. The key is not to criticize, but to organize to stampede our cow in a progressive direction. Instead, Mr. Nader seems content to milk yet another presidential campaign for attention.