The world according to St. Ralph

We can thank Nader and his supporters for the election mess -- and they're not even sorry.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 15, 2000 10:18PM (EST)

Like children who have mastered the art of manipulation by holding their breath until they turn blue, Ralph Nader's supporters have learned how to get what they want. There can be no doubt that Nader's supporters fulfilled their wish of making an impact on politics by throwing the vote count in several closely contested states -- including, unfortunately, Florida -- to Gov. George W. Bush.

There may be some Nader voters who are feeling sheepish about their decision -- especially, I imagine, some of his college-age supporters. This is a tough lesson for them to learn about the price of idealism (to the exclusion of realism) in politics. But when Nader and his legion have effected the disruption they threatened all along, it's hard to believe that many actually feel sorry.

Certainly Nader himself has no qualms. Speaking on Tuesday, he blamed Vice President Al Gore's woes on Gore, as he has since the election. "There aren't many presidential candidates who can't carry their own state," he said. (So I guess that means George McGovern really did deserve to lose to Nixon.)

It would be hard to imagine a man with less grasp of irony than Nader. Certainly he showed no inkling of the irony in announcing his opposition to a hand recount in four Florida counties, insisting that the same method should be used throughout the state. Here's the guy who made his reputation protecting the interests of citizens over the interests of corporations and unsafe machines, but is now willing to put the right to have your vote counted accurately into the hands of machines -- even though those machines are so unreliable they won't even read clearly marked ballots if a tiny piece of cardboard happens to be hanging off the back. Can a PR position at General Motors be far behind?

Last Thursday morning CNN showed Nader voters ecstatic and unapologetic about their part in the election mess. "I'm a part of history," burbled one woman. If Bush does take this election, let's hope that some whiz intercuts that woman's mindless enthusiasm with footage of seniors who can't afford prescription drugs or are forced to work because the retirement age has been raised, or inner-city kids whose schools are collapsing because private-school vouchers have drained away public funds for education, or women denied abortions after Dubya stacks the Supreme Court with opponents of Roe vs. Wade.

Along with that woman CNN showed another Naderite who shrugged off the prospect of a Bush presidency with the following: "I believe things have to get worse before they get better." But since most of Nader's supporters are white, solidly middle class and college-educated, they won't be the ones feeling the brunt when things do get worse.

It's a joke to hear Nader's supporters talking about how the "so-called left wing of American politics" has abandoned minorities and working people when Nader enjoys little substantial support from blacks, Latinos or unions, and when he brushed aside the concerns of feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and Kate Michelman.

Nader's candidacy should make those of us on the left hang our heads in shame. It's a blatant display of our ugliest secret: the contempt of some leftists for the people they presume to care about. The stink of paternalism and the willingness to sacrifice the underclass that has emerged from Nader's campaign should make us sick. It's the conviction of white liberal intellectuals (do you know anyone else supporting Nader?) that they are better equipped to make decisions for minorities and the poor and that issues concerning women aren't really that important.

Nader's supporters represent what novelist Padgett Powell called "the entire army of modest Americans who believe themselves superior to other Americans (but not to any foreigners, except dictators) mostly by virtue of doing nothing but electing to think themselves superior."

That seems to me to adequately sum up the belief of Ellen Willis who, in a Salon piece supporting Nader last week, wrote: "More and more I am coming to the conviction that Roe vs. Wade, in the guise of a great victory, has been in some respects a disaster for feminism. We might be better off today if it had never happened, and we had had to continue a state-by-state political fight. Roe vs. Wade resulted in a lot of women declaring victory and going home."

Yes. It also resulted in a lot of women not shoving clothes hangers into their uteruses and bleeding to death or dying of infection. But you won't find any mention of them in Willis' article. What, after all, are the female dead next to a chance to rekindle the dwindling feminist campfires? Sisterhood is powerful -- just not if you live in, say, West Virginia.

The brutal truth that this election has revealed about the American left is that it is willing to be the ruthless social engineer that the Reagan Republicans and the '94 Congress were. But then, as with the right wing, we are dealing less with politics than with evangelism.

Nader is selling salvation-by-voting, and his supporters have heard the call. All they have to do to convert others is to foment the public's disgust and wait for the scales to fall from the people's eyes as they fall to their knees in adoration of St. Ralph. And just as Jesus used myths, Nader is using the myth that there is no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, a position that's delusional at best. But it involves making the sort of distinctions that Nader supporters have refused.

Politics, not social revolutions, is where change in this country comes from. And real politics involves tough, sometimes untenable choices. Nader's supporters believe that the right to vote should protect them from those choices. They believe that exercising the right to vote should make them feel clean.

There is a strain of Nader voters, those in "safe" states who wanted to help the Green Party achieve their 5 percent of the vote and qualify for federal funds in 2004, who at least acknowledged the implications of supporting Nader. But their decision to go ahead and vote for him anyway suggests that they are indulging in similar fantasies about the political process. The notion that there can be such a thing as a "safe" vote for any candidate in any election is a self-serving myth.

Democracy is a crapshoot, and you bear the ramifications of your choice. Support is support. You can't with any honesty say that it's OK for me (in New York or Massachusetts or California) to vote this way but not for you (in Oregon or Wisconsin or Florida). The reality is that support for Nader, wherever it comes from, only serves to drain money and strength from the party that, under the system that exists and isn't going away anytime soon, is still the best hope for liberal politics in this country. Does the left really want its political legacy for this era to be adding a name to the roll of third-party fantasists which includes Norman Thomas, Harold Stassen, Barry Commoner, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan?

Republicans and Democrats react to whomever has the upper hand. If President Clinton moved the Democratic Party to the center, then he has forced the Republicans to at least contemplate the same move. When was the last time that it was necessary for a Republican presidential candidate to talk, however falsely, about his compassion? If Nader voters had decided to support Gore, there's no telling how they could have used their influence to move the Democratic Party to the left in a country where the right wing's grip on power has been steadily ebbing for nearly 10 years.

But we may never know because the left has prissily refused to get its hands dirty with the deal-making and influence that is the life's blood of politics. Its patron saint might be Holden Caulfield. Like all adolescents (no matter their real age), leftists think that compromise equals corruption. So Gore's corporate ties make him, in their eyes, equal to Bush. But if they were really thinking about how connections affect politics, then they'd be asking about how the strings of a Bush presidency would be pulled by the likes of Trent Lott and Tom DeLay.

In ways that have only just started to be played out, it seems clear that the paradigm for current American political life is the impeachment of Clinton. The impeachment showed that a right wing that knows the iron grip it enjoyed in the '80s is slipping away will do anything to remain in power. Congressional Republicans flouted the will of the people and continued their attempts to destroy Clinton, just as they are now trying to flout the will of voters by declaring victory before we know the real election results. (And that is a bipartisan reality. For the sake of allowing people's votes to count, it's as important to know if Bush really won New Mexico as it is to know if Gore really won Florida.)

And the impeachment, like Nader's campaign, revealed the poisonous effect that the fantasy of purity can have in politics. The Republicans made a bid for power cloaked in rhetoric about the need for purity in the White House. Nader's supporters are cloaking a passion for purity as a grab for their share of federal funds.

All along they have insisted that there is no difference between right and left in current American politics, and in some ways they have proved their point. At last, the left, like the leaders of the war they once opposed, can say that it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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