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Tweedledee, Indeed

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My dictionary defines "myopia" as "a lack of discernment or long-range perspective in thinking or planning." This would have been a pretty good definition of the accusation leveled by Ralph Nader at progressive Gore supporters. The rap, according to Naderites, was that "frightened liberals" had blinded themselves to the opportunity to build a genuine progressive opposition party in exchange for a few pro-choice Supreme Court Justices and the odd rhetorical gesture. That's why, even when it became clear that Nader held the balance between Gore and Bush in key states like Florida and New Hampshire, he refused to release his supporters. Nader actually looked forward to a Bush presidency because it would "galvanize" progressives and teach the Democrats a lesson.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Back then it may have been possible to argue that Nader was simply naïve. He lusted after matching funds for Greens. He fell for Bush's false promises and moderate-sounding rhetoric, failing to pay sufficient attention to the extremist agenda they cloaked. Nader may also have been taken in by the punditocracy argument that Bush would not dare upset the centrist balance of politics, given the narrowness of his likely mandate and the opposition to most of his policies in virtually every election poll.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, indeed. Just sixty days into the Bush presidency, the myopia is clearly on the other foot. Nader argued that while Gore might have been superior to Bush on social issues like choice, virtually nothing separated the two candidates on issues relating to wealth and corporate power. How unfortunate, therefore, that George W. Bush has already:

§ convinced the House of Representatives to pass a $2 trillion tax cut, of which 43 percent will go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans;

§ signed a bankruptcy bill, vetoed by President Clinton, designed to squeeze poor and middle-class people with medical emergencies, childcare payments and the like, but which does nothing to curb banks' predatory lending practices, which target the young and poor;

§ signed a bill overturning Clinton Administration work rules requiring employers to address conditions causing repetitive stress syndrome--affecting more than 1.8 million workers, nearly two-thirds of whom are women--in what looks to be the opening shot in an all-out war against organized labor;

§ torpedoed global efforts to combat planetary warming--breaking a campaign pledge and humiliating his EPA chief--by ruling out regulation of carbon dioxide emissions (after Nader lauded Bush's support for such measures as "historic");

§ proposed the opening of "all public lands [!]," including national monuments, to drilling by his oil company cronies;

§ undermined John McCain and Russell Feingold's efforts to control the abusive, antidemocratic campaign finance system;

§ subverted the South Korean peace process--and humiliated his own Secretary of State--to preserve arguments for the costly Star Wars boondoggle.

Note that I haven't even mentioned the appointment of extremists like John Ashcroft and Theodore Olson, who will be advising Bush about whom to appoint to the federal bench; or Gale Norton, the James Watt protégée now heading the Interior Department, who believes polluters should be trusted to be self-policing; or Andrew Card, the automobile industry's chief lobbyist, now Chief of Staff; or Michael Powell, the new head of the FCC, who has no interest in moderating media mergers. And I haven't said a word about so-called social issues.

When asked today about the destruction his campaign has wrought, Nader replies, "I'm just amazed that people think I should be concerned about this stuff." "We're in a war," he explains. "No one asks the Republicans why they try to take votes from the Democrats." (In an interesting bit of self-contradictory hubris, Nader also likes to take credit for the election of the odd Democrat, like Maria Cantwell in Washington, where no Green candidate was in the race.) To take up Nader's argument, yes, Republicans do "take votes away" from Democrats, but they do so in the interest of electing Republicans. Greens, on the other hand, owing to our winner-take-all system, also take votes away from Democrats to elect Republicans.

Rather than "galvanizing" progressives, Nader's campaign has left them divided and dispirited, struggling to protect past gains now at risk. The Greens have shown that they can win just enough votes to tip a close race to their worst enemies, but not even a twentieth the number they need to win an election. Despite its fundamental incoherence, Nader and the Greens are sticking to their delusional plan. They say they'll run twice as many spoiler candidates in 2002, no doubt hoping to repeat their "success" not only in electing Bush, but also in races like the one in Michigan, where 3,467 Green votes allowed Republican Mike Rogers to beat Democrat Dianne Byrum by a margin of 110.

Pragmatic progressives are of two minds about Nader. All of us respected him enormously going into this past election. Most would have welcomed a Nader primary challenge to Gore that forced the latter to respond to issues of corporate rapaciousness and the debasement of our democratic process. No one looks forward to the prospect of internecine warfare at so unpropitious a political moment.

When a loved one destroys himself with drink or drugs, we stage an intervention in the hope of forcing him to recognize the cost of his behavior to himself and to those who depend on him. If this fails, the only thing left to do is try to limit the damage he causes to others. In Nader's case, George W. Bush has done us the favor of staging the intervention. But it has done no good. Nader's myopia remains unaffected; the kamikaze campaign continues.

Politicians blow with political winds. To force them to blow our way, progressives need leaders who can combine hardheaded realism with the ability to inspire Americans' nascent idealism. Once upon a time nobody understood that better than Ralph Nader.

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