"It's my right to run."
This is Ralph Nader's core case in announcing his 2004 presidential
candidacy. Yes, Nader has a legal right to do this. He also has a legal
right to donate $100,000 to the Republican Party and become a Bush Pioneer.
That doesn't make it a good idea.
So much of Nader's career has been built on reminding us of our common ties.
It's not ok, he's argued, for companies to make unsafe cars, pollute our
air, or pillage shared resources. Actions have consequences, he's pointed
out with persistence and eloquence.
Now, he's taking the opposite tack, fixating on his own absolute right to do
whatever he chooses, while branding those who've argued against his running
as contemptuous censors, who "want to block the American people from having
more choices and voices." This argument would seem familiar coming from an
Exxon executive. Coming from Ralph Nader, it marks a fundamental shift from
an ethic of responsibility to one of damn the consequences, no matter how
much populist precedent he tries to dress it up with. No wonder participants
in right-wing websites, like FreeRepublic.org, have salivated over Nader's
candidacy and suggested their members email him in encouragement.
The reasons to defeat Bush escalate daily. This regime enacts massively
regressive tax cuts, wages pre-emptive wars and lies about their
justification, smashes civil liberties and appoints hard-right judges to
shut down any challenges, and does their best to totally destroy the union
movement. They attack root structures of democracy by disenfranchising tens
of thousands of Florida voters, redistricting dozens of Texas, Pennsylvania
and Michigan Congressional seats in raw power grabs, and jamming Democratic
phone banks in New Hampshire. They brand all who oppose them as allies of
That doesn't even count global warming, which (as sources from Fortune
Magazine to the New York Times and a Pentagon study have recently warned)
now brings the potential for melting polar ice caps to shut down the Gulf
Stream and plunge Europe and northeastern North America into a man-made ice
age. This election may decide the very habitability of our planet.
How can Nader know this and still run? He says he'll raise the otherwise
buried hard issues. He says he'll bring disenchanted citizens back into
politics. He offers Byzantine explanations of how he'll actually help defeat
George Bush by raising fresh subjects and approaches, opening up "a second
front of voters against the regime," and offering an alternative for
moderate Republicans. But he can raise the issues on his own, as he has
throughout his life. He can do it without his every critique of the
"two-party duopoly" driving people away from voting for the Democratic
nominee. He can do it without offering the illusion that a purely symbolic
vote will do anything to get Bush out of office. (I keep thinking about the
endless political infighting that helped Hitler rise to power, culminating
in the German Communist Party's ghastly slogan, "After Hitler, us." I'm not
equating Bush's regime with Nazis, but splintered votes can produce terrible
Nader seems to have forgotten his own historical contribution to a
different, more hopeful path, where he encouraged thousands of citizens to
join in challenging illegitimate actions of power. He once recognized that
progressive politics gathers its strength from the breadth of citizen
movements. Now he acts, with an almost messianic fervor, a Lone Ranger
intent on holding on to his own moral purity whatever the pleas of his
compatriots and whatever the cost to the planet. By denying the real choices
we face, he betrays the best of his legacy.
Will Nader's candidacy ultimately matter? Many of his supporters have
bolted. He may not get on the ballot in every state. But if the election is
close enough, his candidacy could still have a tragic impact. We all know
the Florida numbers. We forget that the Nader vote made the difference in
New Hampshire as well, and that his support in states like Oregon,
Washington, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and even California forced Al Gore to
divert time, money and resources away from other close races he might well
have otherwise won. As a leader in the conservative group Concerned Women
for America recently told the Washington Times, the Bush ticket may be in
trouble, and they need a Nader alternative "to draw Democratic votes away
from the Democratic candidate." Because the more strongly Nader campaigns,
the more time, money, and energy we'll all have to divert away from the
prime task of defeating Bush.
Assuming the admittedly flawed John Kerry becomes the Democratic nominee, we
don't have to support him blindly. As we work to challenge's Bush's lies and
to reach out to our fellow citizens, we can build autonomous community. We
can connect with coworkers and neighbors, work to unite historically
separated progressive movements, keep raising core issues no matter who's
elected in November. We don't have to be true believers. But we're faced
with as critical a choice and challenge as we've experienced in our
lifetime. It's too bad that by prizing his own righteousness over the risks
of his actions, Ralph Nader has just made that challenge a little bit
From alternet.org. Paul Loeb is the author of
Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. This August,
Basic Books will publish his new anthology on political hope, The Impossible
Will Take a Little While. See www.paulloeb.org for more information.
"It's my right to run."