“I Am Alive, You Are Dead”: Ralph Nader’s Political Post-Mortem

Brian Cook

"But that was in another country. And besides, the wench is dead." --Christopher Marlowe Watching Ralph Nader recently, I've been reminded of another Wizard from Washington stumbling through the final stages of his career: Michael Jordan. Sure, Nader's capable of putting up fifty in a single night with a scintillating speech railing against corporatism, or of hitting the game winner with a nicely phrased barb exploding the platitudes of some liberal pundit. The rare highlights aside, however, the overall impression is that of seeing a somnambulant shade of his former self, in many ways a dead man walking, with the maggots already at work in his brain. While Nader's degradation from a man of staunch principle and high integrity into a flimsy caricature of the same makes for a disheartening spectacle, it is perhaps instructive when viewed as a lesson in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The past week was an eventful one for Ralph, and the happenings illustrated just how intellectually (and thus, spiritually and politically) dead are all of the involved parties-Republicans, Democrats and Nader himself. Indeed, only the Greens have emerged from the rabbit hole of American politics with their dignity and vitality still intact. Let's begin with Nader's open letter to Michael Moore, published last Thursday, a day before the release of Fahrenheit 911. In the tone of a jilted lover, Nader complained that Moore no longer returns his calls and appears to be more interested in reaching out to mainstream voters than chilling with Nader on the impotent margins. (Does this paraphrase do Nader injustice? Read for yourself.) While perhaps best dismissed as an opportunistic ploy to ride on the coattails of the latest ephemer-nomenon (and a successful one at that-the stunt got him ink in the Washington Post), the letter's last paragraph is so bizarre one wonders if Ralph has begun outsourcing his press release duties to his newest friend and supporter, the Newmanite cult head-and complete and total whacko-Lenora Fulani. It concludes: Your old friends…are also trim and take care of themselves. Girth they avoid. The more you let them see you, the less they will see of you. That could be their greatest gift to [Michael] Moore…the gift of health. What say you? "Girth they avoid"?! From the scourge of General Motors to…what the hell is this, exactly? Yoda channeling Richard Simmons?! And there are only two types of people who promise to give others "the gift of health": doctors and charlatans. And, indeed, any doctor worth her salt would never promise anything so radically contingent as human health to a patient. So on what side of the divide does this unhappy fact leave Ralph? Shifting from the lunacy of his recent prose to the lunacy of his recent politics, the following weekend found Nader in Portland, holding a rally of more than 1,100 people in a bid to get on the Oregon ballot. (The law requires 1,000 valid signatures obtained at a single event; Nader's first attempt in April failed when only 741 supporters showed up, which Nader, in typical self-exonerating fashion, blamed on the NCAA basketball tournament.) Predictably, it was reported that the large showing was helped in part by the organizing efforts of two Republican groups, Citizens for a Sound Economy (whose platform, according to its national chairman, Rep. Dick Armey, calls for "a smaller, less intrusive government [read: deregulation], a low, simple tax code [read: tax cuts for the rich], and a vibrant, free economy" [read: deregulation, again]) and the Oregon Family Council, whose director gleefully informed reporters that they wanted Nader on the ballot because, "we are a conservative, pro-family organization, and Bush is our guy on virtually every issue." The Right's perpetual reliance on these tired tactics exemplifies the utter poverty of their own political imagination. That Nader openly accepts these wheezing wolves into his flock-with the grand-minded justification that "any registered voter is invited here"-provides further proof that he himself is as pathetically opportunistic as the Democrats he so righteously derides. But also, derides so justly. For out of all the despicable behavior on display in Portland last weekend, the nadir was plumbed not by Nader's opportunism, nor the Republicans' manipulations, but by the Multnomah County Democratic spokesman, Moses Ross. Taking a page from Gandhi's playbook, Ross urged his party members to attend the Nader event in droves, but to employ "non-cooperation" once there and refuse to sign the signature-gathering petition. (Ross claimed the "Mission: Impossible" defense: that he acted on his, and only his, initiative.) Thus, a tactic once used to end Britain's colonial stranglehold on India has been perverted into a means of hindering the democratic process. This should be obvious, but for the sake of Chairman Ross and any others who think that a second Bush term must be stopped by any means necessary, let's review the democratic rules of engagement. You can call a fool a fool, particularly when you can explain what makes him a fool (and in the case of Nader, this is now stunningly easy to do). But you cannot prevent a fool from acting the fool, and any attempt to do so is an attack on democracy as despicable as any already launched by Ashcroft and co. In the midst of this tripartite buffoonery, Nader's old party, the Greens, have been something of an oasis for the rational progressive. David Cobb, their presidential candidate, has made the indisputable assertion that the differences between Bush and Kerry, while "incremental," are not "inconsequential." (An assertion that, despite his actions, Nader also agrees with, telling Chris Matthews in a rare moment of clarity that "Kerry and Edwards would certainly be much better than Bush.") As a result, Cobb is not focusing his candidacy in any of the "battleground" states where a strong Green presence might swing the election to Bush. Instead, he is taking a long-term approach, focusing on the continuance of the Greens' considerable progress in local and state elections, which are infinitely more important for realizing a progressive politics than the presidential election. (Indeed, even if Nader won and could stack his cabinet with an All-Star team of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Rama, Einstein, Thucydides, Chomsky and Zinn, what the hell good would it do when Tom DeLay is still running the House?) Cobb is not alone in viewing this tactic of slowly building up the Green Party at the grassroots level as the best means to effectively change our woeful political constellation. It was also endorsed by none other than Ralph Nader, who in 2003 wrote: I submit that 2004 might be the year that the Green Party makes a deeper commitment to building the party through state and local candidacies. I and many Greens concur that this is the Party's clearest present strength and will be the source of its important talent in the future. So why does he still insist on running his peripheral, "independent" presidential campaign? It's enough to make one think that, though written just last year, that endorsement came from another country, and that the wench who wrote it is now dead.

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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