The coming triumph of the 'least evil' presidential candidate
Ralph Nader announced his intention to run for president on February 24, 2008 during an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. It ought to be clear to anyone who saw this interview that Mr. Nader is running in order to foster politically creative solutions to the country's most difficult problems. His campaign intends to provide a means to realize this greater goal. This would make his program one of radical reform within the right-of-center American polity.
The path his campaign wants to travel is also meant to reflect the radical and reformist character of his project. It will be composed of rational dissent, publicity and self-organization. The presence of these elements imply that Nader's 2008 campaign will depart from the norm in this context, as the low and divisive road traveled by Hillary Clinton's 2007-8 primary campaign illustrates so well.
Another campaign goal implicit within his program: To represent to the country as a whole those needs and interests about which the Democratic and Republican parties could care less. Here it would be a matter of Nader's campaign expressing the interests of some among those Americans who are not represented at all or who are misrepresented by the two major parties. Once again rational dissent, publicity and self-organization will generate the path which effects this representation. And, to be sure, achieving this goal would also mark a radical departure from the norm.
Nader's candidacy looks to be a worthy project even though the effort promises failure at the polls in November. It derives its worth from the fact that American public life surely could stand to have more reasonable debate, choices and popular input than it normally has. Likewise, moving national political talk leftward can only be a real gain when past practice and conventional thinking (Reaganism and Clintonism) seem able only to push the country over the precipice. The campaign might thus have an educational effect on the country.
Yet some on the left were not impressed by or happy with Nader's decision. This group includes liberal intellectuals who consider another Nader run a potential disaster, just as they had in 2004 and 2000. Moreover, their responses to his announcement were rude enough to make them noteworthy per se. A small sample of the abuse:
What do the recent political announcements of Fidel Castro and Ralph Nader show the two to have in common? A shared allegiance to the cult of the Indispensable Man.
But Nader and Castro do come together on the ground where ego meets history.
For making America and the world bear the risks and potential costs of his actions, Ralph Nader should be judged one of the most unethical politicians in America.
Here's what I don't like about Ralph running: his run is all about Ralph and his right to run.
We know you've never been one to back down from a fight. But when devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hard truths must be faced. This run may well jeopardize your legacy. If you get even fewer votes than last time, the media may say it means your issues were not important.
Ego, ego, ego — and thus another 'destructive' and 'irresponsible' Nader campaign, according to his critics. Is Nader as grandiose and deluded as his detractors claim? Better yet, does it matter? I would think not. Why would it matter in Nader's case when a presidential campaign as well as the office itself requires an individual who possesses exceptional self-confidence if not also a rare degree of vanity? Do his critics really believe narcissistic personalities are scarce among the political elite or even among the public at large? I would hope not! Would they want to filter out every candidate to whom one might attribute a personality disorder? Are they proposing a litmus test to achieve this goal? If so, then they should ask for an extra share of luck before looking for a willing and capable candidate for the office. They will need that luck, and more.
Perhaps Nader's critics have prejudged the man. If they have, they may have done so because they are drawing from a liberal-Democratic version of partinost. He could, as his critics point out, run in the Democratic primaries. He could test his program and his popularity among Party activists and voters. This would be the democratic way. After all, Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson were leftist presidential candidates who remained loyal to and members of the Democratic Party after their failed presidential runs. Being a leftist and running for President does not require Party independence. Nor does it require an anti-Party attitude. It only requires partial submission to the Party after the results of the primaries are known. Nader, on the other hand, runs against the two-party system. He wants to remain a critic of that system while using it to promote his program. He could be attacked for this reason alone by left-liberal Democrats, especially by those among them willing to enforce party discipline on someone like Nader. He vexes them because he has opted to be what they would consider an unreliable outsider, a stranger (the 'other' who 'comes today and stays tomorrow,' according to Georg Simmel) and an incorrigible enemy. They merely treat him as such with their attacks.
But it is not only that Nader runs for President as an independent or as a candidate of a third party that irritates his critics so much. Nor, for that matter, is it his political autonomy. If it were only Nader's heresy they had to master…. But it is not. They cannot ignore him…. Nor can they recruit or co-opt him. Worst of all, his campaigns have proven practically inconvenient to the Democratic Party in some of its past quests for control of the empire. How so? First, Nader is famous and justly respected if not admired for his many accomplishments. He is a charismatic figure for many Americans. He has access to media which most left activists lack. His campaigns thus draw attention to the issues he discusses and the program he promotes. They also express cogent policy preferences and represent tangible interests. Consequently, they reflect the experiences of a potential constituency, one that left-liberal Democrats would claim as their own. Although his winning a presidential election might be impossible, given the strong constraints and many obstacles third parties confront, Nader can certainly use the opportunities he generates with his campaigns to make his points in public and to a somewhat attentive and broader audience than he would normally enjoy. This is a key reason to make the effort when winning is seemingly irrelevant, especially when the two major parties reject the policies he proposes. One important point his candidacies make is that the American polity can make little coherent use of someone like him and the politics he promotes. His electoral efforts thus amount to a critique in action of the two-party system. It exposes the shallowness of that system and the limited character of the interests it represents.
Second, as we know, Nader's critics allege that this willful outsider, by competing in the 2000 election, inflicted the Bush regime on the world by reducing (spoiling) Al Gore's chances to win the close 2000 election. Nader supposedly 'split' the left vote, thus depriving Gore and the Democratic Party of their victory. Thus the crude attacks on Nader's character: Given the enormity and permanence of Bush's crimes and the critic's belief that Nader was one of the efficient causes of Bush's first national victory, who but the vainest of men would not be thoroughly shamed into silence by this outcome? Who but a 'deluded megalomaniac' would run again and again? It all appears so clear to Nader's critics: Nader's candidacies provide America with the opportunity to injure itself. And, indeed, Gore was and remains preferable to Bush. He was the lesser evil in 2000 just as Kerry was the lesser evil in 2004 and Clinton or Obama will be this fall. Only Republican dead-enders and crackpots believe otherwise, especially at this late date in the Bush 'crime wave' presidency. But accepting the claim that Gore was preferable to Bush does not mean that he was worthy of support as such. It only means that Gore was preferable when compared to Bush (or any other Republican). Nor, for that matter, does it imply that electing Gore was a riskless choice for the electorate. It suggests instead that the risks probably would have been different.
In the end, leftwing Nader criticism points to one disturbing conclusion: Third parties presidential candidacies are intrinsically counterproductive in the United States when they pursue leftwing reform projects. They are of dubious legitimacy because they are counterproductive if not also because they can contribute in to effecting collective self-injury.
By relying upon this kind of thinking Nader's critics can turn him into a 'beautiful soul' who refuses to see the plain facts of the matter at hand (like the inevitability of the two-party system), a politician without a practice and a real constituency, a 'loser' who causes worthy candidates to lose. Like a bacteria which makes nourishing food inedible, Nader campaigns 'spoil' democratic elections in America. They manage this by creating impediments to electing the Democratic candidate. Since the debacle of 2000, Nader and his supporters ought to know better, his critics contend. They ought to recognize that his Presidential runs are dangerous, and should act accordingly. They should have learned of the need for self-limiting strategies from the past. With the experiences of the last eight years so fresh in everyone's mind, Nader cannot claim to be innocent of the consequences if his campaign draws support from the Democrat running for President this fall and a dangerous man like McCain wins the prize because of the putative 'Nader spoilage' of the election. Assuming Nader's foreknowledge of this possibility or, for that matter, his willful ignorance of it, his 2008 campaign can only have the potential to become both an efficient and final cause of a Democratic defeat this November. According to many of his critics, voting for Nader must be a tacit vote for the greater evil of the lot — John McCain.
Given the character of these criticisms and the overt vehemence of those who make them, some questions come directly to my mind:
Since when did selecting a Democratic presidential candidate imply voting to combat political corruption, insider and money-driven politics, white collar crime, militarism and empire?
When did it mean voting to affirm political accountability and transparency, popular participation and economic justice, full employment (or a guaranteed minimum income) and universal health care, a sustainable developmental regime and environmental stewardship of the highest quality?
How many decades have passed since it also meant affirming the interests of the working class? By the way, which classes and interest groups does the Party now represent?
Have Congressional Democrats adequately defended the Constitution, its Amendments and its vital institutions against the recent Republican onslaught? How did they fare during the Iran-Contra scandal? The War on Drugs? Do they oppose torture? The surveillance-prison state?
Did they resist Bush's reckless war-making as a matter of principle or even as the kind of action sane men and women would take when given the opportunity and need? Do they oppose American support for Israel?
Did they resist the barbaric economic sanctions regime imposed on post-war Iraq? Are they 'humanitarian interventionists,' and thus imperialists?
Did they oppose the kind of 'reforms' which produced the latest financial crisis, that abetted the gutting of the country's industrial economy, that squandered precious resources on war-making, prisons and the police?
The story of the Democratic Party since the 1960s is mostly one of backsliding and capitulation to the right. The best one can say about it is that it has followed the lead of the Republicans and its own rightwing cohort. It has not opposed the Republican Party as a matter of principle; it merely competes with the GOP for political offices, lobbyist money, publicity, etc.
Meaningful and lasting reform, on the other hand, requires and has long required pulling hard on the brake handle, as Walter Benjamin might put it. Reform of this kind necessarily includes dismantling the empire, rejecting war and militarism, abandoning national security as a legitimating idea for the federal government and sinking a party's roots deep into civil society, and thereby drawing inspiration from it. It requires an authentic opposition party. Yet most of Nader's leftwing critics seemingly wish to cloak themselves in the spirit of George McGovern while also railing against those reformers who are McGovern's contemporary analogues when these reform-minded individuals are not Democratic partisans. They are partisans first, reformers second. But it surely is not 1968 or 1972. Nor is it 1964. The Party no longer commands the political resources it had back then. Nader's critics thus beg an important question: Might the party that betrayed McGovern and his supporters — along with Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney and, most recently, Dennis Kucinich — ever support a program of radical reform? This question is an important one to ask because the Party seemingly has rejected this kind of reform. Has it not constructed its post-Reagan identity by moving rightward in response to Republican browbeating? Did not Clinton govern like an 'Eisenhower Republican'? If the Party has moved to the right, and it would be difficult to argue otherwise, can one then defend supporting the Democratic Party by asserting that it will someday become an agent of radical reform? No. One cannot rationally do so because there is not a bit of evidence suggesting that the Democratic Party would make that choice soon or at any time in the future. To convince oneself of this point one need only consider the lesson the Party drew from the McGovern fiasco: Leftist candidates and their reform projects = electoral defeat. The so-called Reagan Revolution, which the Carter administration anticipated in practice but not in rhetoric, only reaffirmed this belief. For their part, left-liberal Democrats have also learned this lesson well, as their criticism of Nader demonstrates. Today, unsurprisingly enough, the Democratic Party treats its leftwing as pariahs while the latter judge as pariahs Nader and his kind!
The United States is long past its best days. The 'Golden Age' economy has come and gone. America's leaders will soon learn that they can no longer throw money at the country's problems. The money will not be there. The American addiction to war and antipolitics, to suburbia and automobiles has done and will continue to do it in. What, within a context marked by systemic decline, elevates the debate about Nader's presidential runs above sectarian squabbling is this: Managing the current situation in order to avoid a greater disaster — a transition to dictatorship made under the auspices of an emergency government — requires an effective and popular 'catch-all party' committed to radical reform and social justice, to democratic legitimacy and the rule of law. The project requires active social movements and an institution which represents these movements. This is just the kind of party Nader's presidential runs anticipate. On the other hand, what place does good old institutional liberalism have in this situation? None? Some? In fact, the Democratic Party appears to be an aspect of the problem, as critics of the two-party system argue and as I suggested above. What other conclusion might one reasonably draw from the fact that Party leaders want to give America a Clinton dynasty or from the fact that its left-liberal wing backs Barak Obama and his pleasing rhetoric and safe policies. We notice the inviting aura of the two Democrats only because John McCain was the best offer the Republican Party could manage in America's hour of need and because most Americans now greatly despise George Bush, the proximate cause of the current crisis. The Democrats shine because they stand before the dark and bloodstained horizon provided by the GOP.
It should be obvious to any sensible person that Obama is the least evil candidate of the three. I can say without illusions that it would be best for the country and the world if Obama became the next President but only if the alternative is a Republican stalwart like McCain.
Yet will a newly elected president Obama prove able to meet the demands of the moment? Will he and his allies generate the political resources required to implement the reforms the country needs? Would he or they want to? Would they even know what they are?
We may hope for the best, for even the Soviet Communist Party, long a school of servility and corruption, produced a Gorbachev in its final hours! On the other hand, who among Nader's critics wishes to put his or her neck on the block by predicting a successful Obama administration? By successful I mean this: Will Obama do the job that needs to be done? I ask because his lack of commitment to radical reform is an important quality of the bundle of qualities which makes him electable. If the least evil candidate fails in any way can Nader's critics admit that voting for Obama (or any other Democrat likely to get the nomination) also poses dangers to the country and the world? Can they admit that there are no risk-free political choices and that the system, such as it is, cannot reform itself? Can they tolerate the thought that the Democratic Party will have only proven to be a dead end once the national story concludes? If they are willing to take the risk by supporting the Democratic Party, can we trust that they are doing so without illusions about their choice?