Ralph Nader’s gotten a fair share of attention on this site, especially last spring around the time he announced his bid for President. My basic stance on this, set forth in this op-ed (and here here, here, and here), is that Nader’s run is misguided and attempts to appropriate him as a scapegoat for the recent failures of the Democratic party to energize voters are equally so. I would’ve liked to see Ralph Nader speak here last night, because he’s certainly, in my experience, a sharp and powerful speaker and more so because I’d like to see him defend his recent lurch to the right on immigration. But besides the scheduling conflict, I wasn’t going to donate money to his campaign to get in, a concern which I suspect kept many who otherwise would have attended (in his defense, Nader, unlike Bush, didn’t make anyone sign loyalty oaths to get in). According the YDN write-up, Nader said some things I agree with, like
“If you don’t make demands on [Kerry], he doesn’t get any better,” Nader said. “If he doesn’t get any better, he doesn’t get votes.”
Absolutely, the left needs to hold Kerry accountable as a candidate, and im yertzach HaShem as President, and to do so forcefully, stubbornly, and persuasively, something the left manifestly failed to do with Clinton, as Randy Shaw recounts from an environmentalist perspective in his Activist Handbook, and Thomas Geoghegan recounts from a labor perspective in Which Side Are You On. But my break with Nader comes when he conflates those who’ll vote for Kerry with those who idolize him, and those who see unseating Bush as a first priority with those who see it as the only goal:
“Universities are a den of ‘anybody but Bush, leave Kerry alone, make no demands on him,'” Nader said. “That’s a brain-closer. Give me anybody who says ‘anybody but Bush,’ and they’re incapable of talking about any other strategies, variables, nothing.”
Condescension and self-righteousness (among the qualities, like gigantic bank accounts, which Nader, Bush, and Kerry share in common) aside, this argument is effective as constructing and beating up a straw man (I know very, very few folks who really believe that getting rid of Bush would solve all our problems), and phenomenally ineffective at speaking to the concerns of the millions of Americans who’ve born the greatest portion of the burden of the Bush presidency, those faced with losing their jobs, losing their healthcare, or having the constitution desecrated to write them into second-class citizenship. For all Nader’s arguments about long-term benefits and short-term costs, he hasn’t done much of a job of garnering the support of those most likely to pay the costs for the benefits he talks so compellingly about. The truly outrage slap in the face of those who’ve judged themselves unable to take another four years of the same, though, is this:
It really is political bigotry when people say, ‘Do not run.’ When they’re saying, ‘Do not run,’ they’re saying, ‘Do not speak, do not petition, do not assemble.
This sound byte follows in the proud rhetorical tradition of George Bush’s use of the term “political hate speech” to refer to those of us who criticize his policy record. It’s equally disingenuous, and equally cheapens the real bigotry which continues to bedevil this country and the real people who make and express empirical views on the best course for progressive change for this country. The fact of the matter is that most of us who’ve said to Nader, “Do not run,” have also said, affirmatively, “Speak. Petition. Assemble.” We desperately need, before this election and after it, to demonstrate resounding consensus behind progressive change. What absolutely must challenge the Democrats from the left. But voting is more than a symbolic aesthetic act. It’s an exercise of power, a power most effectively used at this juncture to elect a candidate who would be drastically better for this country. And there are far more effective means to articulate strong progressive stances than rallying behind an electoral campaign whose couple-percentage vote draw will only provide talking points for those who deny the existence of a broad progressive constituency – a constituency which has largely turned on Nader not out of bigotry, but out of urgent insistence on immediate change in the direction of this nation.