The Nader Moment

When electing a Democrat is just not good enough

The Nader Moment… It sounds ominous. What could it mean?

By Nader Moment I wish to denote something besides the personal electoral prospects of this particular candidate. The term does not refer to Nader's campaign per se. He may or may not win this fall. In fact, he will likely lose the election. Yet the moment reflects his political style in any case. It reflects the need for a reform program that serves just ends.

As I use it, the term has two features: On the one hand, it refers to a specific point in time, more specifically, to the situation Americans now confront; on the other, it refers to something which is becoming a chronic problem for the country, a problem which marks our present situation while pointing to a disturbing future. The future looks disturbing because it promises to be a time of global war, economic crisis and dictatorship. This problem: The political culture which crystallized around the image of Ronald Reagan and the election of 1980 has been exposed as inane by the crisis the country now faces. 'Crisis' is the right word to use here since America now appears to be standing before a historical turning point. It must choose between reusing old thinking and past practices and inventing a politics adequate to the moment. It must reject Reaganism, for the Reagan Revolution generates war, instability and dictatorship. It leads to these things because it reflects the thinking and practices of neoliberalism and neoconservatism or, to put the matter less charitably, of 'market fundamentalism' and 'militarism.' Reagan's stated goals were to get government off 'our' backs and to 'stand tall' within the world and against the Communists. But the Reagan administration set in motion processes which strongly implicate it in the crisis Americans now confront. It is for this reason that market fundamentalism and militarism have little which is constructive to say about the current situation. Blind to the complexity of the world, deaf to the suffering of nearly every person on the planet, they provide no insight or practical guidance to those Americans who wish to live as good neighbors with the rest of humanity.

Briefly put, the Nader Moment points to a deeply rooted crisis — a crisis of America's institutions and political culture — and to the need to resolve the crisis in a way which provides long-term benefits to most Americans. It thus refers to a situation that demands an innovative, democratic and populist politics.

More specifically, why should we consider Reaganism inadequate?

First, if it were in fact 'morning in America,' as asserted by a famous 1984 Reagan campaign ad, the newly emerging day had a foundation with two key components: American financial hegemony and great military force. Both embodied what remained of American power in an age of decline. Together they enabled the United States to remain the world leader once the Cold War concluded and after the United States ceased to be the predominant industrial power. For their part, neoliberal and neoconservative ideologues formed a 'counter-establishment' (Blumenthal 1988) that legitimized attacks on the New Deal order and Cold War internationalism. After 1980, they came to dominate political discourse in the country. They became something like commonsense, a naturally occurring reflection of the world. This discourse sounded both familiar and novel to most Americans, so much so that Reagan's presidency could present itself as a return to the past and a new beginning.

Second, today the Republican and most of the Democratic Parties gladly stand within and are dwarfed by Reagan's shadow. They willingly implement policies consistent with the spirit and path that defines Reaganism. Candidates from both, including Barak Obama, draw upon his charisma. No 'electable' candidate for President or any other office campaigns vigorously against the Reagan Revolution. This self-imposed accommodation of the two major parties implies that the United States now lacks an opposition party that commands the resources needed to directly challenge the party duopoly which governs the country. Opposition to the government and the party system which controls it appears quixotic and thus wasteful ('There is no alternative,' according to Margaret Thatcher) if not antidemocratic to many Americans. This convoluted condition imposes on individual voters an unpleasant choice: When in the polling booth, the voter may feel constrained to select only from candidates who embody hard and soft versions of the same Reaganite daydream, that is, to identify and vote for the 'least evil' of the 'electable' candidates. In the best cases the voter may contribute in to the election of a President who will not often or decisively betray her interests. But that only expresses the voter's hope.

Third, it is unfortunate that the Bush administration pursued policies which undermined Reaganism's financial and military components. It is regrettable because Bush's reckless and criminal actions have and will continue to generate considerable and avoidable suffering around the world. What is fortunate in this is the damage the Bush administration has inflicted on the Reagan Revolution. He has damaged Reagan's legacy as a myth and as an institutional reality.

Consider the fact that, for all of its weapons and its will to use them, the Pentagon has failed to master the political and military situation in the Middle East. In fact, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has already destabilized this perpetually volatile region. In addition to this self-incurred instability the occupation has damaged America's armed forces and undermined its position in the Middle East and beyond. Yet the Bush administration now wishes to attack Iran before it leaves office! Bush's grandiose policies have thus made America significantly weaker, less secure at home and hate in the eyes of much of the world. It is now fighting wars it cannot win, creating new enemies it should never fight while wasting resources it cannot replace. If the Bush administration wished to save the situation it created in the Middle East all that remains for it is to implement crude actions like withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, thus suffering certain humiliation, or like the Carthage option (the annihilation of the 'enemy'), thus becoming the object of global and perpetual condemnation. These surely would bring one phase of the disaster to a conclusion. But neither is acceptable to Washington and no sane person could judge the latter as legitimate.

Despite the disaster that has become the Great War on Terror, the economic forecast looks much darker than the current political-military situation in Iraq. Massive and irrational tax cuts, deregulation meant to serve plutocratic ends, costly global and local wars, unrestrained and maniacal money grabbing, speculative investing, rampant fraud, capital flight while the country lives on imported capital — these policies and practices have nearly bankrupted the Federal government, destroyed the dollar as the world's reserve currency, undermined Wall Street and, by extension, the world financial system. The financial crisis is not without irony given the preeminence of finance capital in the neo-liberal scheme. It was to be the architect and primary beneficiary of the new global order. Nonetheless, decades of market fundamentalist policies have worked their black magic on American life. Unemployment and inflation have been and remain low; both, however, mask the decline of the real wage rate and the devastating blow inflicted on the working class by a deindustrializing economy. Currently, the real American economy is shedding jobs while housing and what remains of the manufacturing sector stagnate. The belated Keynesian policies of the Fed and the Bush administration will not quickly reverse the trend which has the financial crisis harming the real economy. The toll, as most Americans will experience it, will be national debt peonage and the pauperization of many members of America's 'consumers' republic.'

The President's game face as seen on Mission Accomplished day conjoined to his ignorance of inflating gas prices, pleas for tax cuts provides the ironic punctuation mark for the crisis. Bush's administration likely has 'discredited conservatism' for awhile, as Scott McConnell suggested he would in 2004. The upshot: The Reagan Revolution is all but dead as an effective force within the United States.

Following the presidential campaigns merely reveals parties and candidates which have nothing constructive to say about any of this. It is business as usual for McCain, Obama and Clinton. And that is the problem. It is the problem because the crisis demands a solution which supplants market fundamentalism and militarism. More money and freedom for Wall Street and the military-security apparatus will not improve either of the two. Rather resolving the crisis requires a solution that consists of and successfully implements a radical reform program. By radical reform I mean institutional changes which alter the social structure, change which must bring finance capital to heel and eliminate the Pentagon altogether, to put the matter bluntly. It also means initiating a program of sustainable reindustrialization.

To attribute the present to Ralph Nader is to assert that America has reached the point where it must break with the past by implementing a program which accomplishes goals necessary for the survival of the country.

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