The myth of political crusader Ralph Nader

By Patrick Burke

In his uplifting, feel-good essay-for-the-whole-family entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus asserts the happiness of Sisyphus, a prominent figure in Greek mythology eternally doomed to push a boulder up a mound, only to see it roll down at the peak of its ascent. As Camus sees it, Sisyphus knows he is hopelessly mired in an absurd situation. Rather than succumbing to disillusionment, however, Sisyphus emancipates himself through ridiculous, perhaps even pathetic, defiance and resilience.

In many ways, Ralph Nader is a low-key Sisyphus. Nader’s absurd fate, however, happens to be partisan politics. At the peak of Nader’s personal mound would seem to be the presidency. In the 2000 election, Nader pushed his figurative boulder a substantial way up the mound, albeit nowhere near the apex. He got his name on 43 state ballots and garnered a surprising 2.7 percent of the American vote. Despite these promising statistics, Nader’s boulder not only rolled back down the mound in the four years leading up to the impending election, it rolled over him.

Pushing his boulder back up the mound in ’04, Nader has not only lost the majority of his supporters, but these ex-supporters are now seeking to preclude his candidacy. Still bitter about Nader’s roll as “the spoiler” in the Bush-Gore bout (a parallel which is easier found in the work of Kafka than Camus), these turncoat former supporters are determined to prevent Nader from “spoiling” another election. In other words, it seems Nader is in an even more viciously absurd situation than Sisyphus. The burden of Sisyphus is at least consistent in magnitude. It appears that Nader’s yoke increases after the requisite erasure of progress or metaphorical descent. Currently in possession of an incalculably miniscule, if not negative, percentage of the American vote, where would Camus say the now septuagenarian Nader finds the will to lean his shoulder back into the boulder? More importantly, having not been inflicted from above with his fate as in the case of Sisyphus, what are the larger implications of Nader’s persistence?

From his own perspective, Ralph Nader is a political crusader, having simply transferred his advocacy from the consumer to the voter. Considering this, does Nader deserve the level of esteem typically ascribed to the American crusader? Unlike Sisyphus, Nader has never even truly aspired to push his figurative boulder to the apex of the mound. Nader has never taken a look at the peak of the mound. To unpack the metaphor, even in the height of his popularity, Nader never really considered himself a contender. This is to say that Nader has never sought to attain the presidency as much as he has planned to infiltrate the “two-party, winner-takes-all dictatorship,” his description of the predominant two-party system in American politics. What honor—or efficacy for that matter-—is there in the aim to destabilize? What is to prevent the boulder from rolling back down if Nader were to ever succeed in pushing it to the peak of the mound?

In a time when doublespeak and general ideological inconsistency is so prevalent in politics, the nature of Nader’s crusade is irrelevant and perhaps even detrimental. Sisyphus came to terms with his absurd fate. Yet, to reference yet another work of Camus, the American voter is far from viewing itself as a stranger staring blankly in the face of the absurd.