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Speaking truth to powerlessness


Later, Nader!


by Amanda Kirk



Ralph Nader is an asshole. I have never met the man but I feel absolutely confident in this assessment. I harbored this opinion well before he garnered the Green party nomination in the last presidential election and, as a registered Green Party member, I cringed at my party's choice of egomanical, authoritarian representative. Nader, an environmentalist? Then I'm Lady Godiva. I had no intention of voting for him even if there had been no danger that a third party vote might tip the election to the Republicans. As it was, there wasn't a sex toy's chance in Texas that I was going to waste my vote, even in true blue New York.

After the chads settled on the 2000 election debacle, I nursed an unreasonable anger at Nader for putting Dubya in the White House, as if the fault rested entirely with his ill-fated, third party challenge. Nader had maintained that he brought people out to the polls who wouldn't have voted otherwise. Sure, maybe two or three, but he was flattering his charmless self if he believed that the majority of Nader voters were otherwise alienated or apathetic citizens that he had lured off their futons and into the voting booths. It was a pretty incredible denial that he had siphoned none of his votes from Gore.

But worse than that abdication of responsibility were two angles of justification that bear dissection. First was the belligerent rebuttal that significant votes for third party candidates signal dissatisfaction with the status quo to both the major parties. If a Greenie got votes—not enough to win, but enough to send a message—both parties would realize, "Shit, we gotta pay more attention to that enviro crap. Voters actually care about clean water and all that." The second angle is that we have the right, nay, the duty to vote our conscience. Rather than casting your vote strategically (as third party supporters who vote for a major candidate so the other, scarier major candidate doesn't win often do), you should vote for whomever you actually want to win, regardless of their chance to win. What a concept. Admirable in theory, it is flawed in practice. So is the first justification—true, it sends a message of dissatisfaction but that's not enough to cause real change. Why?

Nothing has marked American politics in the twentieth century more than the loss of idealism and the triumph of pragmatism as a political M.O. Not since the '60s has there been any large-scale belief that human nature or the system can be overhauled dramatically. Political pressure groups have been resigned to making incremental progress rather than radically shifting the mainstream perspective on their cause. Of course, a lunatic fringe still exists, and it is from the extremes that the middle is determined.

The Founding Dads took the inherent selfishness of human nature into account when they designed The System. They didn't draw up a plan for government that was dependent on civic virtue, altruism and concern for the common good over self-interest; rather, they haggled out a government that would function despite the fact that people are basically greedy, selfish bastards. They worked with people as they is, not with some normative construct of how they should be. And the plan they scratched out with their quills has held up pretty well overall. The resilience and sensibleness of the design provides a powerful incentive to seek change within it rather than trying to overthrow it and institute a new one. That lesson was learned in the '60s, ahem. And the reverence for the constitution evinced by virtually the entire political spectrum lends credence to the idea that the problems are superficial rather than endemic. So, how do we deal?

One option is to give up on political change and sublimate one's disaffection into cultural rebellion, the choice of everyone from Kerouac and the Beats to the pink-haired goth next door whose pierced lips get stuck to the magnet on the cabinet door each time s/he opens it for another bag of Cheetos. Another option is to work for change from within. This can involve lifestyle modifications, from driving a hybrid car to not patronizing Wal-Mart to growing your own organic vegetables, but it necessitates direct political involvement as well. Involvement does not mean voting for a third party candidate who couldn't get an electoral vote if he did a striptease on Fox News. That kind of political action is known as wasting your fucking time.

But, wait, how can one advocate the lesser of evils voting strategy? What kind of integrity does that demonstrate? What message does that send to the powers that be? That we're satisfied with the two corporate whore parties and their twin candidates, Tweedledee and Tweedledum? No, no, no, remember: you can't speak truth to power unless you have power's ear. In a presidential election, we have *one* winner. That sets up a natural dichotomy. Campaigns turn on a few issues. What's he for? I'm against it. What's he against? I'm for it. It makes the choice nice and simple for the time-constrained voter. Muddy the campaign with three or four other candidates pushing variations of I'm-slightly-for-this-but-not-entirely-for-that and you get an ineffective campaign. If we had a parliamentary system, it would be a horse of a different kettle of fish, BUT WE DON'T. Get over it.

This is not to say that third parties do not perform a useful role. Because they do not water-down their message to pander to the masses, they can offer a distinctive position on an issue. But because they usually coalesce around a particular cause, they often do not have much to say on the full array of issues about which a candidate for the presidency has to take a stand. Third party candidates have won lower offices and this diatribe against Nader's presidential candidacy should not be taken as a call for the complete abolition of third party candidates. In fact, I cut my political fangs working for Vermont PIRG (founded by Nader) on a campaign for Bernie Sanders, who was the first Independent elected to Congress in forty years, and who is still there, five terms later.

Nader claims to be a true corporate motherfucker. He doth protest too much that the two major parties might as well add "Inc." to their names. He maintains that he offers the only real alternative to this corporate-controlled "duopoly." Wake up and smell the Starbuck's corporate brew, Ralphie. You in the White House against a Republican-dominated Congress are going to do what, exactly? Wheedle votes from the Democrats you despise as weak Republican-wannabes? That'll make the legislation fly across your desk. A recognition that the two parties are as close as two horny teenagers on the rec room sofa is more effectively met by an effort to change one of them into real opposition than by a third choice that does nothing to alter the status quo.

Nader doesn't care if Bush is re-elected because, not only does he not see any difference between the parties, he sees the Republicans as providing more honest opposition. The Democrats try to pretend that they're not corporate shills; the Republicans are open about it. A Republican candidate boasts that he voted for the war; a Dem candidate tries to hide it. The Democrats are always on the defensive. A Republican can say he is Pro-Life and Pro-Family. What can the Dem reply, that he's anti-life, anti-family? Nader's criticisms of the parties are mostly accurate but his solution of running against them is a cop-out. He's correct that many people don't bother to vote because they don't feel that either major party reflects their views or represents their interests. But he's only giving voters a real choice to waste their vote, not a choice for political change in America. Besides, after the last three years, do we really believe that there is no difference at all between four more years of Dubya and a Democratic challenger?

It may seem depressing, defeatist even, to vote for the lesser of evils. But it is a more optimistic endeavor than it appears prima facie. It is actually less cynical to believe that real change can happen than to make an impotent statement that changes nothing in the real world.


Think Nader's a nincompoop? E-mail

Posted February 22, 2004 12:34 AM






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