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Ralph Nader and the Structure of Progressive Change

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I’ve mostly sat out the recent rehashing of the Nader Wars here. Like Rob and Scott, I have grown deeply critical of Ralph Nader and his 2000 presidential campaign. But I come from a very different place on this. I was a Nader voter. And not one living in a safe state–I was in New Mexico in 2000. There was a time, relatively early in the evening, when I actually wondered out loud whether I might know enough Nader voters to swing the state to Bush. Like a lot of you, I was deeply disappointed in Bill Clinton and the continued rightward swing of the Democratic Party. I can’t speak for anyone else and I can’t say whether this really mattered for too many people in the end, but the last straw for me was when Gore picked Lieberman as VP. I almost puked when that was announced. And I was done with the Democratic Party.

So I was a Nader voter. I saw him speak that fall, as he increased his campaign presence in states he could plausibly throw to Bush like New Mexico and Florida. It wasn’t totally inspiring to me, largely because there were too many aging Santa Fe hippies at his events who I already knew were too often about slogans and not often enough about doing the work to create long-term change. And I was a bit concerned that Nader himself refused to join the Green Party. If he believed in challenging the two-party structure, where was his own commitment to that change? Was this just about his own beef with the Democrats? Or did he really want to usurp the Democratic Party as the nation’s party of the left?

Soon after Bush’s election, I realized the folly of my own political errors and regretted my Nader vote. In 2004, I wasn’t that thrilled with any of the Democratic primary candidates. I rolled my eyes a bit at the Dean boom, not because I wasn’t against the war but because he was hardly progressive on many issues. Still, I certainly wasn’t voting for Nader again. But my transformation back into the Democratic Party wasn’t just because Bush was so awful. It was because Nader had done absolutely nothing in the previous four years to build upon the 2000 run and create a progressive movement in this country. It was just more of the same in ’04, Nader complaining about the Democrats but offering no real substantive change except for rhetoric. I was more than just disillusioned. I was kind of disgusted. For Ralph, it’s all about Ralph. He is still mad that the Carter Administration froze him out after the ’78 midterms, or at least that’s the lesson I learned from the documentary about him, An Unreasonable Man. And that disgust at the Democrats seems to have taken hold of him, becoming an all-consuming hate.

In that documentary, Eric Alterman calls Nader a Leninist because he believes things have to get worse before they get better. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But it doesn’t really matter to me here. Because my fundamental problem is as much with Nader’s supporters as with the ultimate vanity candidate.

The best way I can explain this is to refer to the literature on the rise of conservatism. A really transformative moment in my political thinking came when reading Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. In this book about the rise of conservatism in the defense industry suburbs, McGirr shows how conservatives, outraged that the country had moved so far to the left during the New Deal and had not really shifted back right under Eisenhower, started taking over their local political structures. They ran for school board, county commissioner, other local offices. They volunteered at county-level Republican Party HQs. They very quickly controlled the machinery of the Republican Party on the local level. Not too long after that, in 1964, they managed to push Goldwater on the presidential ticket. When he got crushed, the mainstream media crowed that this movement was dead. But the conservatives didn’t care. They kept on organizing. In 1966, their support helped Ronald Reagan become governor of California. And from there, they kept organizing until today, despite being totally crazy on so many issues, they are the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, progressives have responded to the country’s rightward shift by running vanity candidates like Ralph Nader for president every four years. In 2008, progressives changed strategies when Barack Obama seemed to capture their dreams and then were shocked when he turned out to be the centrist he always was. But even in 2008, it was still a simplistic analysis of progressive change offered by his supporters that hadn’t learned much in the previous 8 years.

I oversimplify, sure. But the trajectory of the conservative movement should be teaching us many lessons. Not that we should be crazy extremists. But that party structures are actually not that hard to take over if you really want to do it. Yet progressives seem to almost NEVER talk about localized politics. We complain about education reform but don’t organize to take over school boards. Conservatives outflank us in part because they seem to understand that the presidency is not all-powerful. Perhaps local offices like county clerk and elected judges are as or even more important than the presidency, at least from a long-term perspective. Too many progressives believe in Green Lantern presidencies. Elect Obama in ’08 and he can force through all the changes we want.

No. That’s not how it works.

You turn the Democratic Party into what you want it to be by controlling the mechanisms of everyday party life. By becoming a force that must be reckoned with or at least co-opted. By becoming the Populists in the 1880s and 1890s, eventually forcing the Democratic Party off its Cleveland-era support of plutocracy and helping usher in the Progressive Era. By becoming the abolitionists in the 1850s and 1860s, whose constant moral harping gave them power within the Republican Party far outstripping the small number of fanatical followers of William Lloyd Garrison.

And by becoming conservatives in the 1960s who burrow into the Republican Party structure and transform it from within.

Ralph Nader cared about none of this. He wasn’t committed to a real leftist movement. He wasn’t committed to pushing progressive change from either within or outside the system. He took no leadership positions within progressive movements after 2000 to move the country back to the left except to make another vanity run for president in ’04.

One-off candidates like Nader accomplish almost nothing except to give people an outlet for their anger at a political system they think has betrayed them. These candidacies are performance art done to make a point, in Nader’s case explicitly to throw the election to Bush.

I have no problem at all with a third-party candidacy from the left–if it is a real third party that is serious about making a long-term challenge to the Democratic Party. I would still be philosophically OK with his 2000 run today, even with what we know now, if Nader had cared one iota about doing what it actually took to create a progressive party not controlled by big money interests. Whether that happened inside or outside the Democratic Party, it doesn’t much matter to me. But he didn’t care.

In the end, Ralph Nader became a tool of the capitalists and warmongers rather the force for progressive change he was early in his career. It’s sad for his legacy and for the country. And I wish his supporters would learn the lessons from his candidacy that I learned. To repeat those lessons are:

1. Vanity presidential campaigns are completely worthless without a commitment to building long-term party structures that have the explicit goal of transforming our politics at the local, state, and national level–and probably in that order.

2. Real change comes from below, not above. In other words, real change comes from local organizing and local elections, not running someone for president every four years.

3. Progressives can move the nation to the left. But not by “making a point” in their presidential vote during the general election. They can do it by taking over the local and state party machinery. Or they can do it by committing themselves and their neighbors to a third party (which I don’t think is realistic today but that’s for another post). But voting for a Ralph Nader or whatever prominent savior comes next to shame the mainstream Democratic Party has very little value.

So that’s my critique of Nader and watching the debates around his candidacy unfold for the last 12 years. I see an angry embittered man leading a lot of well-meaning progressives down a road that helped elect George W. Bush and did absolutely nothing to turn the Democratic Party to the left. Did any concrete positive come out of the Nader campaigns? Did it directly lead to any progressive change? Or is the most concrete thing we can tie to it the election of George W. Bush?

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