From tragedy to farce

He's running for president as an independent, not as a Green. He has no organization. He's starting late. Does Ralph Nader's narcissism have no bounds?

Published February 22, 2004 8:23PM (EST)

A classic book of social psychology analyzes a flying saucer cult of the 1950s. This sect of Midwesterners believed that on a particular date to come, a date revealed to them and them alone, the world would be engulfed by a flood of biblical proportions -- but also that, on the day in question, flying saucers would arrive and rescue the true believers. The researchers infiltrated the group and waited to see what would happen.

When the designated date came, the landscape remained dry and no saucers landed. A number of followers fell away. But a core of fanatics stuck to their guns, reinterpreted the data, concluded that they had (slightly) misread the signs, figured out the right date, and redoubled their energy. If reality was going to be in such poor taste as to disconfirm their belief, they would find a way to make them match. Thus does the book that emerged from this research, "When Prophecy Fails," by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, published in 1956, anticipate Ralph Nader. Nader, like the cult members, has newly retooled arguments at his disposal, and therefore must be counted as fervent in his reckless disregard for the all-too-real world in which George W. Bush and his crowd have taken power over every important institution of American politics on behalf of preventive war, plutocracy, environmental meltdown, cultural rollback and a judiciary that ratifies the above.

Nader's narcissism has metastasized to such proportions that he came forward to announce his candidacy without being able to brandish a single one of the celebrities who surrounded him in 2000 -- not Michael Moore, not Tim Robbins or Susan Sarandon, not Patti Smith. In fact, more important, he cannot offer the Green Party, whose nomination he disdains to seek -- so much for his claim that he is the principled champion of third parties and their indispensability in American history. To the struggle against "corporate-occupied territory," Nader offers only himself. La troisième partie, c'est moi. He has gone way over into flying saucer territory. He occupies an Area 51 of his own. Will he make the headquarters of his campaign in Roswell, N. M.?

The third-party candidate of 2000 now runs as the one-man answer to "the two-party duopoly." This year he adds a new wrinkle, a new enemy: "the liberal intelligentsia" (referring to them twice during his interview on NBC's "Meet the Press"). Nader admits that this enemy has been striving to talk him out of his mad intent to run as an independent this year. Professing in his interview to believe in the fantasy that "we have no major enemy left in the world," he substituted another menace: "corporate pornography directed toward children." He seems to want to dip into the murky waters of the culture war. It's a hell of a way to make sure that you're an unforgettable figure in American history.

How grave Nader's decision proves to be will, of course, depend on how the brutal face-off of 2004 shapes up. Florida, New Mexico and New Hampshire are only three of the states where even a weakened Nader might make a difference comparable to his decisive margin in 2000. Accordingly, John Kerry has shrewdly said that he wants to appeal to those who followed Nader in 2000.

Judging from proliferating anti-Nader Web sites, open letters from former supporters, a don't-run editorial in the Nation, and other such appeals, Nader can scarcely take for granted the 2.74 percent of the voters he attracted in 2000. But there is a permanent margin that he can speak to -- a magic one-digit number. His 2.74 percent is almost exactly what California's Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo, drew in the strange California gubernatorial recall race of 2003. Even a third of that vote might conceivably tip a state or two.

Nader, of course, has grander designs than being a fraction of his previous fraction. Making his announcement, Nader referred to the "100 million nonvoters" he thinks he speaks to and for. It's especially peculiar to think that nonvoters are counting on him at a time when turnout has risen, sometimes impressively, in almost every Democratic primary and caucus so far this year. But leaving that aside, if you take a hard look at the turnout argument, you see that the legions of nonvoters are the spectral cavalry of the marginals -- the phantasmagorical saviors waiting in the canyons. Nader invoked them in 2000. Howard Dean invoked them this year. They are an argument of last resort in political fantasies.

But here's the truth: There's no evidence that nonvoters differ from voters in any radical ideological way. They are not bashful saints biding their time as they hold out for perfection. They are mainly low-income people who want practical results. Their cynicism about politics comes from the lack of precisely that, practical results. They don't want prophecy or a new party. They have no more faith in Ralph Nader's version of the "liberal intelligentsia" than in any other.

If those who suffer most from corporate domination were vulnerable to Nader's appeal, why was his black vote in 2000 so puny -- only 1 percent in Washington, D.C., for example, where Nader won 5 percent overall? A Green vote was a luxury of those who didn't need politics to improve their material lives. In fact, Nader's base is a sliver of upper-middle-class whites -- a sliver of "the liberal intelligentsia," you might say -- disproportionately located in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire, those with the smallest black populations. Here's a headline you didn't see in 2000 but remains evergreen in 2004: Nader Undermines Minorities.

A final point: The Green Party, say what you will, has a fundraising base and is on state ballots. But Nader is running as an independent, not as a Green, not as the candidate of any party. He needs thousands of signatures to get on 50 state ballots. Petitioning is an expensive business. Nader has no organization. He's starting late. Who will pay? Who will pound the pavement and make calls for him? Who will sign his petitions? In 2000, there were Republicans who came to the aid of local Green candidacies. And this time? Will Karl Rove and his fundraising Rangers limit their splurge? Will they find a warm place in their hearts for Nader's effort to undermine yet another Democratic candidate? Reporters in search of springtime stories, start your investigations.

So, when all is said and done, leave aside Nader's wishful thinking -- his hallucination of ideologically aroused masses, his prayer that the Electoral College system might vanish. What Nader's decision amounts to is not logic but an exercise in monomania by a man who once accomplished great things and now believes that whatever he claims to accomplish is great by virtue of the fact that he claims it. Quixotic Nader, whose first run was tragedy, now tries farce. It's not funny.

By Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin taught at Columbia University, wrote regularly for and Tablet, and was the author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

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2004 Elections