Ballot Box

Ralph the Leninist

Over the past 10 days, liberals have been voicing shock and dismay at the imminent prospect of their old hero, Ralph Nader, intentionally throwing the election to George W. Bush. A first, eloquent protest came 10 days ago from a group of a dozen former “Nader’s Raiders,” who asserted that their former mentor had broken a promise not to campaign in states where he could hurt Gore and begged him to reconsider doing so. Others, including Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, have expressed a similar sense of disappointment and betrayal.

Nader’s response to all this heartfelt hand-wringing has been to scoff and sneer. On Good Morning America, he referred contemptuously to his old disciples as “frightened liberals.” The Green Party nominee is spending the final week of the campaign stumping in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington–the very states where a strong showing stands to hurt Gore the most. Nader has said he wants to maximize his vote in every state in hopes of attaining the 5 percent of the vote that will qualify the Green Party for $12 million in federal matching funds in 2004. Speaking to foreign journalists in Washington yesterday, he explicitly rejected Internet vote-swapping schemes that could help him reach this qualifying threshold without the side effect of electing Bush president. In various other TV appearances, Nader has stated bluntly that he couldn’t care less who wins.  

This depraved indifference to Republican rule has made Nader’s old liberal friends even more furious. A bunch of intellectuals organized by Sean Wilentz and Todd Gitlin are circulating a much nastier open letter, denouncing Nader’s “wrecking-ball campaign–one that betrays the very liberal and progressive values it claims to uphold.” But really, the question shouldn’t be the one liberals seem to be asking about why Nader is doing what he’s doing. The question should be why anyone is surprised. For some time now, Nader has made it perfectly clear that his campaign isn’t about trying to pull the Democrats back to the left. Rather, his strategy is the Leninist one of “heightening the contradictions.” It’s not just that Nader is willing to take a chance of being personally responsible for electing Bush. It’s that he’s actively trying to elect Bush because he thinks that social conditions in American need to get worse before they can better.

Nader often makes this “the worse, the better” point on the stump in relation to Republicans and the environment. He says that Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt was useful because he was a “provocateur” for change, noting that Watt spurred a massive boost in the Sierra Club’s membership. More recently, Nader applied the same logic to Bush himself. Here’s the Los Angeles Times’ account of a speech Nader gave at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., last week: “After lambasting Gore as part of a do-nothing Clinton administration, Nader said, ‘If it were a choice between a provocateur and an anesthetizer, I’d rather have a provocateur. It would mobilize us.’ “

Lest this remark be considered an aberration, Nader has said similar things before. “When [the Democrats] lose, they say it’s because they are not appealing to the Republican voters,” Nader told an audience in Madison, Wis., a few months ago, according to a story in The Nation. “We want them to say they lost because a progressive movement took away votes.” That might make it sound like Nader’s goal is to defeat Gore in order to shift the Democratic Party to the left. But in a more recent interview with David Moberg in the socialist paper In These Times, Nader made it clear that his real mission is to destroy and then replace the Democratic Party altogether. According to Moberg, Nader talked “about leading the Greens into a ‘death struggle’ with the Democratic Party to determine which will be the majority party.” Nader further and shockingly explained that he hopes in the future to run Green Party candidates around the country, including against such progressive Democrats as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Sen. Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and Rep. Henry Waxman of California. “I hate to use military analogies,” Nader said, “but this is war on the two parties.”

Hitler analogies always lead to trouble, but the one here is irresistible since Nader is actually making the argument of the German Communist Party circa 1932, which helped bring the Nazis to power. I’m not comparing the Republicans to fascists or the Greens to Stalinists for that matter. But Nader and his supporters are emulating a disturbing, familiar pattern of sectarian idiocy. You hear these echoes whenever Nader criticizes Bush halfheartedly, then becomes enthusiastic and animated blasting the Green version of the “social fascists”–Bill Clinton, Gore, and moderate environmentalists. It’s clear that the people he really despises are those who half agree with him. To Nader, it is liberal meliorists, not right-wing conservatives, who are the true enemies of his effort to build a “genuine” progressive movement. He does have a preference between Republicans and Democrats, and it’s for the party that he thinks will inflict maximum damage on the environment, civil rights, labor rights, and so on. By assisting his class enemy, Nader thinks he can help pull the wool from the eyes of a sheeplike public.

If Nader’s goal were actually progressive reform–a ban on soft money, a higher minimum wage, health-care coverage for some of the uninsured, a global warming treaty–it would be possible to say that his strategy was breathtakingly stupid. But Nader’s goal is not progressive reform; it’s a transformation in human consciousness. His Green Party will not flourish under Democratic presidents who lull the country into a sense of complacency by making things moderately better. If it is to thrive, it needs villainous, right-wing Republicans who will make things worse. Like Pat Buchanan, Nader understands that his movement thrives on misery. But the comparison is actually unfair to Buchanan (words I never thought I’d write) because Buchanan doesn’t work to create more misery for the sake of making his movement grow the way Nader does. From a strictly self-interested point of view, Nader’s stance is the more rational one.

So Gore supporters might as well quit warning the Green candidate that he’s going to put George W. Bush in White House. Ralph Nader is a very intelligent man who knows exactly what’s he doing. And they only seem to be encouraging him.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Photograph of Ralph Nader on the MSN Sidebar by Joyce Naltchayan/Agence France Presse.