Saint Ralph and the Dragon

Saint Ralph and the Dragon

Los Angeles; New York City


Los Angeles; New York City

Forgive us, Katha Pollitt, for we have sinned [“Subject to Debate,” March 20]. Having made some initial ideological errors, we continued to be led by impure thoughts into a life of blasphemy until your most recent column brought us back into the light! It all began in 1996 when we were among those foolish 700,000 people who wasted our vote on Ralph Nader’s now infamous un-campaign (see Cooper and Sifry, “The Case for Nader,” Oct. 14, 1996). Fortunately, you and The Nation‘s careful editors and fact-checkers set us straight about what “really” happened then. We thought we heard Nader praise the Green Party platform to the high heavens, comparing it often with a Democratic Party platform that he noted didn’t even mention universal healthcare, but your zealous reporting told us instead that he “claim[ed] he hadn’t read his party’s platform.” If you say so, it must be the gospel truth.

We thought he had one running mate on Election Day, the noted Native American activist Winona LaDuke (plus one VP stand-in who failed to get off the New York ballot), but you discovered “five or six.” We thought the FEC required that he file a personal financial disclosure statement only if he spent more than $5,000 on his campaign, but legal eagle Katha told us “he’d have to make his tax records, and the records of his various organizations, available” too. Preach on, preach on!

Silly us, we read a Nation article back then by candidate Nader [“The Greens and the Presidency,” July 8, 1996] denouncing the two parties’ collusion on issues like labor rights, the military budget, healthcare, the erosion of civil liberties, media concentration and welfare deform, but Katha knew better, writing that his campaign “resolutely avoided mention” of such “longtime progressive concerns.” You tell it, sister.

Somehow, we were deceived by Nader’s longtime efforts in the arena of civic education into thinking that he has a deep concern for the quality of schools; his embrace of the citizens’ movements of the sixties we took as evidence of his support of feminism and gay rights; his high-profile attack on Bill Gates’s wealth and huge CEO compensation we took as, well, you know.

And yet, before Katha’s admonition put us back on the shining path, there we were, four years later, sliding down that same slippery slope–tempted to blow one more sacred vote on crazy Ralph, ignoring the broad anticorporate reform agenda of Al Gore. Alas, there we were, like bedazzled fools, feeling some sneaking sympathy for John McCain as he took a campaign reform message–born on the left–and popularized it among millions of Republicans and other everyday nonprogressives.

But worst of all, we must now confess to having been lured into collaboration this past year with that Harlot Huffington. Straying from the Word as revealed by Katha, we had so lost our moral compass that we rejoiced in watching a former conservative ideologue use her wealth and celebrity to support groups and causes on the progressive side: working with ACT UP to criticize Gore’s position on AIDS drugs in South Africa, with Public Campaign to push campaign finance reform, with Nader’s Oaks Project to enhance citizen empowerment, with Sojourners in the fight to close the wealth gap, with Randall Robinson on domestic reparations, with activists opposing the draconian California Juvenile Justice Initiative and even with those devils fighting to reverse the inequities in mandatory-minimum drug sentencing. We could go on, but the pain of admitting our deviations is becoming too great to bear. Bless you, Katha Pollitt, for intervening to save us.


Santa Fe

While Katha Pollitt invites Nation readers to lie down in a hearse with her, New Mexicans who enjoy doing politics more than talking about it were welcoming Ralph Nader on the first swing of his 2000 campaign for President. In his first major campaign event, here on March 4, Nader raised money for Green candidates, recruited volunteers from among new and disaffected voters, talked about his sole running mate, Winona LaDuke, focused on urban decay, poverty, disparity of incomes, healthcare and other Pollitt litmus-test issues. More important, Nader inspired his listeners to try to take power back from the two crumbling and corrupt parties. Katha might start her recovery by doing some research at


Santa Fe

Katha Pollitt’s fiction about Ralph Nader’s 1996 Green Party campaign says that he hadn’t even read the party platform. As platform chair, I can assure readers that not only did he state that he had “read every word” of it, he also said he was running because of the Green platform and the related Concord Principles he believes in so strongly. Here’s part of Ralph’s acceptance speech at the 1996 nominating convention:

“What commended the Green Party so much to those of us who were not in on the founding is that if you look very carefully at the Green Party platform…this is by far the most comprehensive, broad-based platform, that deals with a wide range of systemic justice that’s needed in this country, from the political to the corporate, to the cultural, the civil liberties, the civil rights, of any party in the country. I wouldn’t begin to compare it with the flaccid, insipid, empty, cowardly platforms of the Democratic and Republican Tweedledum Tweedledee parties.”


Washington, D.C.

Yes, Ralph Nader ran an embarrassingly spare campaign in ’96. But he’s making a much greater effort this time, and we DC folks have already seen it pay off: At a fundraiser, Nader drew 250-plus supporters, helped raise more than $3,000 for the DC Statehood Green Party and to publicize DC’s wrongful status as a colony of a half-million US citizens with no voting representation in Congress. We’ve had some great results, like voter registrations, new volunteers and a renewed energy to make this one heck of an election year.


Torrington, Conn.

Why all the focus on the 1996 campaign? It’s 2000 and things will be different this time. Running a Green candidate for President will help build the party at the grassroots. The payoff is when we get local candidates elected. But it doesn’t happen overnight. On her second attempt as a Green candidate for Hartford City Council, Elizabeth Sheff, black and female, won a seat, pushing out a very conservative Republican. She is focusing on urban, poverty and education issues. Her election has helped build rapport between urban minorities and the admittedly lily-white suburban Greens. Instead of belittling the Greens, I invite Katha Pollitt to take a bus, train, or hearse to Connecticut and help us fundraise.


Redwood City, Calif.

Katha Pollitt is right: Those of us working to elect Ralph Nader have much better ways to spend the next eight months. But instead, I waste my lunch hour talking to some of the 500 local community-college students who showed up for a Nader speech organized on a moment’s notice, where he told them about universal healthcare and that their education shouldn’t just be training for corporations but a training ground for democracy. And along about August, I’ll really be wishing Ralph wasn’t running–then I could skip the county fair. Instead I’ll spend ten days talking to thousands of working-class men and women about declining real wages and why they can’t make ends meet in one of the richest counties in America. And come November I’ll be wasting my time helping the Green Party candidate for State Assembly defeat the Tweedledum Democrat and the Tweedledumber Republican. Out here in the political wilderness, we’ll just have to go on blindly following Saint Ralph in his quixotic campaign to make the government of the Exxons, by the Du Ponts and for the General Motors into the government of, by and for the people.


Iowa City

Katha Pollitt finds it “too depressing” to support Ralph Nader’s goals of running a solid progressive campaign and helping the Green Party obtain ballot status in most states. Nader’s platform contains a strong and wide-reaching critique of corporate hegemony, expressed in common-sense left-populist terms that resonate with the citizenry and that include practical reform proposals–an alternative to the conservatism of Gore-Bush-Buchanan that the public deserves to hear. More important, as the Green Party candidate, Nader is helping develop an authentic voice for the left. Where the Greens are successful, the Democrats will move to the left in search of the progressive voters they have taken for granted for so long. In some cases, Greens will be able to convince embattled Democrats to support proportional-representation. The Nader candidacy is no panacea. It will not satisfy those leftists who yearn for the heady (or headless) experience of social revolution. But it is an important step in the evolution of a grassroots progressive movement. If Pollitt wants to call out the hearse, let it be for pessimists and naysayers like herself. Many of us believe, with Nation columnist Daniel Singer, that the question “Whose millennium?” has not yet been definitively answered.


San Francisco

Hoorah to Katha Pollitt for naming the unmentionable elephant in the living room: pompous leftists’ enthusiasm for Ralph Nader. The guy speaks not at all to the passions that drive the most volatile areas of US politics, the injuries of race and gender. Let the white-guy wonks keep their disembodied brain–and let’s the rest of us get on with building some power to actually do some good.



New York City

In their snide and condescending attempt at humor, Marc Cooper and Micah Sifry deploy tropes that will be familiar to the many recipients of Marc’s ire via print or e-mail. I’m a dogmatic and authoritarian preacher (“blasphemy,” “devils,” etc.), a sectarian communist (“ideological errors,” “shining path”) and a sexually repressive prig (“impure thoughts,” “Harlot Huffington”). Why? Because I dared to query the wisdom of rerunning Ralph Nader, falling for John McCain and flattering Arianna Huffington. Apparently only Marc himself is allowed to write energetic polemics and to question the progressive consensus.

I stand by my portrait of Nader’s l996 campaign. If it really was the vivid operation Marc and Micah claim, its failure to garner even 1 percent of the vote is more telling than I thought. Nader’s disengagement from the Greens then and his ineptness as a candidate are common knowledge, even in the ever-hopeful progressive press (see John Nichols, “Run, Ralph, Really Run,” March 6, and Doug Ireland in In These Times, April 3). Marc and Micah’s minor corrections don’t alter that basic picture. Nader read the party platform, but he told Tish Durkin in the New York Times Magazine that he “stops short of endorsing it,” and when interviewed by William Safire, he ridiculed the same-sex marriage plank as “gonadal politics.”

Writing progressive boilerplate in The Nation isn’t the same as actually running a progressive campaign. How many speeches did Nader give in black churches? How many people on welfare did his campaign register to vote? How often did he talk about reproductive rights, except as a passing mention in a laundry list of causes? As for his “five or six” vice presidents, further research has turned up no fewer than eight! By Election Day these had been reduced not to two, but four (Annie Goeke, Muriel Tillinghast, Winona LaDuke, Madelyn Hoffman). I don’t think I’m alone in finding this more the stuff of musical comedy than politics.

It’s true that had Nader spent more than $5,000 only his personal finances would have been made public. But regardless of FEC requirements, a vigorous and visible campaign would of course draw attention to Nader’s organizations and their funding. Wisely, Marc and Micah don’t mention the credible charges I reported (see, for example, the January 10 New Republic) that important funding for Nader’s organizations comes from anti-union textile zillionaire Roger Milliken, who has his own reasons to oppose NAFTA and who, interesting enough, is also widely believed to fund Pat Buchanan. Nor do they challenge my mention of Nader’s uncomfortably friendly relations with Buchanan, something no candidate serious about winning the votes of immigrants, women, minorities, gays or Jews–or the unbigoted of any race, sexuality or class–would indulge in. Ralph Nader has done some wonderful things. But he’s not a saint, and he’s not a politician either.

Nation readers who wrote in to doubt that progressives had fallen for the antics of John McCain need only read Marc’s paean to the man he calls “Johnny Mack” in the right-wing New York Press. As for Arianna Huffington, obviously she sees the handwriting on the wall. Gingrichism–the weird mix of far-right economics, moralistic Christianity and nutty futurology she was pushing a few years ago–is finished. Now she wants soft-money bans and charity, especially the “faith-based” kind. It’s natural for Marc and Micah to defend their new friend, but I’ll believe in her political makeover when she comes out for restoring the income tax to the degree of progressivity operating in l980, before the Republican right wing came to power.

To the many Greens and others who wrote to kvetch that I’m a whiner, a complainer, a naysayer and a doomsayer: Quite right! It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.


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