The Nader moment revisited

I once defined the Nader Moment as:

….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, the Nader Moment refers to a specific point in time, namely, 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 and dictatorship, economic crisis and environmental catastrophe. This problem in general: The United States is pulling the world into this abyss. The problem stated specifically: The political culture which crystallized around the image of Ronald Reagan and the election of 1980 has been exposed as irrelevant, at best, by the crisis the country now faces. 'Crisis' is the relevant word to use here since America now appears to be confronting a historical turning point. It must choose between recycling old thinking and past practices and refusing the past by inventing a politics adequate to the moment. It must reject Reaganism, for the Reagan Revolution generates instability, tyranny and a lesser quality of life for much of the world. 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 oft-stated goals were to get government off 'our' backs and to 'stand tall' within the world and against the Communists. A resurgent America would replace the timid colossus left in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Stagflation crisis of the 1970s. But the Reagan administration set in motion processes which strongly implicate it in the crisis Americans now confront. The governments of Reagan's America have proven to be more intrusive, less transparent and more destructive than not. America neither stands tall nor resolutely for any principle but imperial self-aggrandizement. 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 just and long-term benefits to most Americans. It refers to a situation that demands an innovative, democratic and populist politics.

The term thus refers to the kind of politics Nader embodied as well as to the dire situation most Americans confront today. Although 2008 may have been Nader's moment, history recorded an Obama victory last November. To be sure, Barack Obama was the clear choice when compared to the McCain-Palin ticket. But comparing Obama to McCain should be unsatisfying to those individuals and groups who recognize the compelling need for a feasible and radical reformist politics in the United States. I feel comfortable making this claim because candidate Obama ran a campaign that promised hope and change to a massive collection of citizens that pined for both. Nevertheless, President Obama has delivered so far just more of the same malarkey. I suppose some may derive comfort from the fact that President Obama has made good on the common belief that he would be the lesser evil of the two major party candidates! Yet, even they must surely suspect that a world-befouling politics remains the order of the day in Obama's Washington. Chris Hedges addresses this very issue in a recent essay. He wrote:

The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury to enrich the corporate elite as rapaciously. It will not give us universal health care, abolish the Bush secrecy laws, end torture or "extraordinary rendition," restore habeas corpus or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of citizens. It will not push through significant environmental reform, regulate Wall Street or end our relationship with private contractors that provide mercenary armies to fight our imperial wars and produce useless and costly weapons systems.

The sad reality is that all the well-meaning groups and individuals who challenge our permanent war economy and the doctrine of pre-emptive war, who care about sustainable energy, fight for civil liberties and want corporate malfeasance to end, were once again suckered by the Democratic Party. They were had. It is not a new story. The Democrats have been doing this to us since Bill Clinton. It is the same old merry-go-round, only with Obama branding. And if we have not learned by now that the system is broken, that as citizens we do not matter to our political elite, that we live in a corporate state where our welfare and our interests are irrelevant, we are in serious trouble. Our last hope is to step outside of the two-party system and build movements that defy the Democrats and the Republicans. If we fail to do this we will continue to undergo a corporate coup d'etat in slow motion that will end in feudalism.

I cannot disagree with Hedges' judgment of Obama's performance so far. Obama has been a great disappointment even to someone like me who did not believe he would accomplish much as President. I do, however, differ with Hedges on one point: The Democratic Party has provided a slaughter bench for radical reform in America since the election of 1896! Even though this point may seem to be nitpicking on my part and surely when I make it within the current context, it is always useful to recall that the Democratic Party includes politicians above and beyond Franklin Roosevelt! The Party, along with its leaders and cadre, must also manage the constraints placed upon it by its place in the political system. The United States is an empire, the sole military superpower in the world today and a global economic hegemon. These facts are hardly trivial. Consequently, party-politicians are not free to do as they please when they hold office. Moreover, it can also be said that a Democrat need not be a Bourbon, a Dixiecrat, an urban machine politician or, for that matter, a Blue Dog to kill off a reform movement. He or she needs only to harbor great ambitions for him- or her-self and for the Party as a whole. The ambitious sort must also be inclined to take advantage of the opportunities which appear before them. They must pursue success. Yet, this peculiar end — success — imposes on the ambitious person a willingness to serve the goals of the system as they happen to find it. I believe this because conforming to the system as it exists provides the ambitious person with the only path he or she can take that can end with the prize they desire — personal success. The ambitious politician embodies, I would add, not hope, but more of the same. He or she thus stands before the electorate as a betrayal waiting to happen, no more so than the ambitious politician who promise reforms to any degree.

Behold —Barack Obama, President of the United States.

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