"I think this may be the only candidacy in our memory that is opposed by people who agree with us," joked Ralph Nader upon hitting the campaign trail this Monday. Unlike his 2000 run, which at the bare minimum was bolstered by the Green Party (and a few A-list fans), Nader 2004 is a lonely existence, decried by Lieberman, Sharpton, and everyone in between. Yet Nader remains impervious to the import of his own words. By divorcing his actions from the real concerns of progressive voters, Nader has become an army of one: unaccountable, unresponsive, and unrealisticin short, everything public citizen number one shouldn't be.
Nader claims to provide a third option for the disenchanted by eschewing the corporate dollars that fill both parties' coffers. It's true enough that corporations lay a heavy hand on both parties, and Nader should be applauded for his long-term efforts as a consumer advocate to expose and undermine such sordid alliances. If you've ever buckled a seat belt, you have Ralph Nader, among others, to thank for itas with dozens of other consumer protections in this country. To assert that the parties are identical, however, as Nader has done, ignores the realities of those who have borne the brunt of Bush's economic rough riding. Consequently, Nader voters tend to be affluent and white; in 2000, only one percent of minority voters nationwide supported him, and support for Nader was highest in whiter states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire. I can't say whether Nader genuinely stands for the disenchanted, but the majority isn't standing with him.
Even former Naderites are wincing. Jason Salzman and Aaron Toso, self-described progressive media activists and Nader supporters from 2000, have founded the website RepentantNaderVoter.com to purge themselves of electoral guilt. The phenomenon calls to mind an aphorism Bush himself once misstated: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Nader, of course, has every right to run, however imprudent his choice to do so. The real accountability lies with voters, and the left, for indulging vanity campaigns instead of seeking concrete change. Nader's supporters argue that his campaign raises larger issues the Dems can'tand it's a worthwhile point. But if voters choose Nader at the ballot box, they risk bumper-sticker idealism: politics worn on the sleeve, never to permeate the heart, or the head. Barney Frank, who I was fortunate enough to hear speak this past weekend, remarked that ideals divorced from pragmatism "make you feel morally superior. But you don't help anybody if you want to make your ideals mean something, you'd better be prepared to be pragmatic."
If you're looking for a button to put on your backpack, Nader may seem stylish. But if you want to stop Bush's wholesale assault on civil liberties, the national institutionalization of narrow religious values, and long-term conservatism on the Supreme Court, a Nader vote is tantamount to a non-vote. In states so decided that one's vote is inconsequentialin effect, a non-votechoosing Nader may make sense. But where votes do matter, a Nader vote states (in Frank's words), "I have a set of ideals, but I am indifferent as to whether or not they are implemented." Ultimately, that's not idealism; it's self-indulgence. Ralph Nader has been a devoted and tireless advocate for the public good, and our homes, hospitals, businesses and automobiles are better for it. But as a name on our ballots, Nader isn't going to make any of us safer.