THE LONE RANGER OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Paul Rogat Loeb
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 terrorism.
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 consequences.)
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 harder.
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
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