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 run. He also has a legal right to donate $100,000 to the Republican Party and become a Bush Pioneer, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.
So much of Nader's career has been built on reminding us of our common ties. It's wrong, 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.
The reasons to defeat Bush escalate daily. The administration enacts regressive tax cuts; wages pre-emptive wars and lies about their justification; hacks away at civil liberties and appoints hard-right judges to shut down challenges; and undermines the union movement. The Bush administration attacks 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. It brands those who oppose it 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 shutting down the Gulf Stream and plunging Europe and northeastern North America into a man-made ice age.
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 critiques of the "two-party duopoly" that may discourage some for 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.
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 onto his own moral purity whatever the pleas of his compatriots. By denying the real choices we face, he betrays the best of his legacy.
Will Nader's candidacy ultimately matter? Maybe not. Many of his supporters have bolted. He may not get on the ballot in every state. But if the 2004 election is as close as it was in 2000, his candidacy could still have a devastating impact. The Nader vote made the difference in New Hampshire and Florida, and 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.
Assuming the admittedly flawed John Kerry becomes the Democratic nominee, progressives do not have to support him blindly. We can work to unite historically separated progressive movements and keep raising core issues no matter who's elected in November. But this election 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, and board chair of Peace Action of Washington. See www.soulofacitizen.org for more information.
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