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The Nader Controversy


Whenever a leftist runs for office there are various possible aims. For example:

(1) To win the office and use its powers to benefit deserving constituencies while also furthering broader movement gains.

(2) To push the campaign process leftward and alter some other candidate’s agenda in valuable ways that benefit deserving constituencies once that other candidate wins.

(3) To directly educate and organize parts of the public for further activism regardless of who wins the election, including expanding understanding, raising aspirations, developing useful movement infrastructure, enhancing grass roots support, developing funding channels, etc.

In Nader’s case, reason 1 is inoperative. He is not going to win.

Reason 2 is barely operative. John Kerry or some other Democrat might alter a few utterances on the campaign trail to avoid some Nader-related controversy with potential supporters. More than likely, however, even if this occurs, it will thereafter have little impact on Kerry’s actual views, much less on what he would do in office. Candidates lie, profusely and continuously. And in any event, what they actually do believe is marginally relevant. Once in office candidates respond to various constituencies — mostly their paymasters — not to the beat of their own drummer.

So for Nader’s campaigns, past and present, reason 3 isn’t the only factor, but it is certainly the heart of the matter. And two broad issues arise about Nader and movement building, it seems to me.

First, why would anyone on the left think it is remotely appropriate for someone to run on their own say so for President in a campaign representing the left? It was one thing for Nader to run as a Green with the explicit support of all kinds of progressive organizations all over the country, including myself. That was a reasonably democratic process at work. It is another thing for Nader to anoint himself to run.

We care about democracy, participation, and accountability. How can it make sense for a left candidate to pick himself? How can it make sense for a left candidate to ever do this, much less to do it when virtually all the organizational support which he extolled as wise and responsible in the past, tells him not to run?

Even if Nader was abstractly right that his running would be a good thing — it would only be a good thing if the process by which it came about was democratic and inclusive. Instead it has been autocratic.

Second, will a Nader campaign in 2004 educate and organize in ways that, on balance, enhance the capacity of leftists to raise costs for whoever is the new President and administration?

The first indicator regarding affectivity in building movement is that Nader ran a very impressive campaign in 2000, generating tremendous support…but he then largely disappeared from view squandering the momentum and resources unearthed, rather than aiding continued opposition. In 2004 my guess is that things will be worse. Nader will generate less support, less energy, and less momentum, and will also likely make an even quicker exit after the election.

A second indicator regarding movement building has to do with the message Nader communicates. While his stances are rather good regarding economics, ecology, and international relations, his stances are much weaker regarding gender, sexuality, and race.

And the third indicator is that whereas in 2000 Nader ran as part of a Green campaign, this time no existing institutions — save his own, I guess — will benefit from or influence the process. This is not movement building.

So, in my opinion, even if Bush were a sure, unequivocal loser in this election year so that everyone agreed 2004 was a perfect time for a vigorous left campaign, I still would not want Nader as a left candidate, and certainly not as a rootless, unaccountable one. Nader is too divorced from grass roots accountability and arguably also too narrow politically to produce an optimal national campaign.

That said, I understand that many people weigh in on these issues differently than I see them. For example, some think, okay, Nader is too much of a lone cowboy to be ideal, sure, and the process should have been better, yes, but nonetheless, relative to the available alternatives his campaign will be educational and generate momentum, and we should work to make it as successful as we can. Such a prognosis might turn out to be right, or my view could turn out to be right that it would be wiser to pay no attention to Nader, or some other assessment might prove more prescient than either of these.

Suppose all of a sudden Nader galvanizes massive response, bringing new people to the polls, pushing the debates to the left, raising consciousness, etc. Do I expect this? No. If it happened would I still have criticisms of the process? Yes. But might this justify some people’s choice to work hard on the campaign despite obvious flaws? Sure it might.

And that’s the main thing I want to say. There is no point in everyone taking out their knives and assaulting one another over the election as if it is an absolute certainty what is right and what is wrong.

Reasonable people can disagree dramatically, even with everyone broadly sharing the same progressive values. People should follow the course that seems best to them, in light of their expectations, and let others do likewise (everyone is going to do just that anyhow, in case anyone has any doubts) and let practice reveal outcomes.

I think that urging Nader not to run made sense. And I also think that his not listening does violate my sense of left principles. If he compromises even further, content or alliances, that will be ground for additional criticism. But Nader is running and some people are going to support him while many others will be upset and provide no support. Nothing is gained by these two factions, who each want Bush to lose and who each want social movements to grow as much as possible, endlessly assaulting one another over tactics.

The principled matters are clear enough — democracy, accountability, honest and thorough positions. The tactical matters are not so clear. How does the relative cost of bad process weigh against the relative gains of campaigning with better than otherwise available politics. And how does the relative loss due to election confusion, or relative gain of exciting new people to vote, balance in?

Time will tell whose expectations are closer to reality. Meanwhile, let’s not overly aggravate one another and the process itself, with endless vituperative debate that isn’t going to raise consciousness, build movement organization, win any office, or propel a better electoral outcome. Present our views compellingly, and even passionately — of course, especially when they have broader lessons, but let’s not question the integrity and motives of those who see tactical matters differently.

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