Ralph Nader, the far left, and how both might affect the outcome of the 2016 Presidential race.
“Somebody must challenge from the left, because, I mean, Hillary Clinton, who started out as a progressive out of Yale Law School and Wellesley, she’s become almost the poster child for the military-industrial complex.”
-Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, former Presidential candidate, and master of hyperbole
As the 2000 race evolved, Nader’s key rationale became clearer, crystallized in the forms of his two main opponents, George W. Bush and Al Gore. Nader’s contention was that Bush and Gore were two of a kind—a couple of conservative corporate politicians, neither with the average person’s best interests at heart. This mantra, that there was no difference between Bush and Gore, was one Nader would continue reciting until election day, hopeful that the country’s complacency over its comparative good fortune had led to a national notion of invincibility, the feeling that anyone could lead America. If Bush and Gore were the same, why not take a chance on Nader?
In retrospect, we can see what a terrible misrepresentation this was, how the world might have been different had Gore been President instead of Bush. We hear the echoes even today as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with climate change, multiple misguided wars, a shaky economy, and a government burdened by growing debt. But we hear other echoes, a distant drumbeat developing on the left once again—a steady, martial cadence Republicans must, at this point, greet as a lullaby.
Ask a former Nader supporter how they feel about Bush’s presidency, and they’ll decry it as the worst thing that could have happened, a titanic failure for America, one from which we may never recover. “Military-industrial complex,” they sputter. “Fascism,” they spit. “Corporatism,” they cry.
But ask them about how Bush got to be President, and they’ll go mum. Push them, and they’ll disavow any responsibility, claiming they were simply voting their conscience in 2000. This answer leaves you wondering what exactly they mean by “conscience,” because their definition doesn’t appear to involve taking responsibility for the effects of their actions.
They’ll tell you it was the Supreme Court’s fault for its partisan decision in Bush v. Gore, that it was Gore’s fault for running a bad campaign, or the State of Florida’s fault for the many and varied flaws in its voting system. And let’s be clear: All these things are true.
But the other incontrovertible truth is that Nader’s supporters were wrong, and their collective choice did make a huge difference in the election. If just a fraction of Nader’s votes had gone to Gore, the Vice President would have won Florida and New Hampshire. A victory in either state would have seen Gore inaugurated instead of Bush.
This isn’t just about labeling a failure, or about calling someone or a group of someones to account. It’s about making sure we on the left don’t make the same collective mistake again, that we don’t pursue our dreams of perfection all the way to the Apocalypse. Because the left may well have another, similar decision to make in 2016, and from that standpoint, it’s important to understand why Nader’s supporters did what they did.
In spite of what Fox News will tell you, the American Dream doesn’t just belong to the right. Nor does the idea of American exceptionalism, or any other national myths we learned as children.
Left, right, and center, we’re given our national origin stories from a young age, sold them in the sort of multi-colored cartoon forms that we can’t help but absorb—coloring books and TV shows, action figures and parades. They’re a little like the foundational stories for religions, these national myths, the tales of miracles that prove someone a prophet or a savior: Jefferson locked in a sweltering room writing the Declaration of Independence, Washington willing his troops through the winter in Valley Forge, Paul Revere riding at superhuman speed to warn the colonists of the coming redcoats.
But in the same way that tales of arks and angels become harder to take as we get older, so too our national myths grow more difficult to accept, or at least harder to see as infallible. Sure, America might be a nice place but is it really that much better than everywhere else? More important, does American exceptionalism confer some magical power that allows us to do whatever we want and never be at fault? Is it a national get out of jail free card, an eternal “minesie” for who gets to wear the white hat?
Like a church full of off-pitch Pentecostals singing “Hallelujah,” the answer to these questions on the right is a refrain of joyful, eardrum-abusing yeses. On the left, things aren’t so clear. With Blue Dogs parroting the Republican chorus, non-interventionists filibustering about imperialism, and liberal humanitarians eager to intervene anywhere and anytime as long as we stand a high likelihood of failure, if you’re middle left like me, you start to feel a little like a chaperon at some lunatic mixer.
Eventually, in the Democratic Party, most of these conflicts work themselves out. Labor and teachers, lawyers and minorities—all the various constituencies come together, recognizing that the prospect of Republican rule with its stacked Supreme Court, military-industrial-fun complex, and feudal tax system isn’t the way to go. Still, in Democratic politics in the 21st century, there’s one group that rarely seems happy and when they do it’s not for long. In much the way the minister’s kid rebels against faith, becoming an atheist more devout than Papa ever was a preacher, so the far left clings subconsciously to the magical notion of American exceptionalism. They’re looking for that perfect candidate, that left wing Messiah who’s going to give them everything they want. As a result, they reject the notion of differences between the Republicans and Democrats so vehemently, so nonsensically at times, that they seem a little like fallen fundamentalists, eternally pissed that Jesus turned out to be a fairy tale. “But you promised,” they say, crying big, salty tears year after year, election after election. “You said it would be perfect. You said it would be like a dream, an American dream.”
From Al Gore to Barack Obama and now to Hillary Clinton, the far left has found imperfection in the Democratic Party’s leaders, and used that as an excuse to convince themselves that the Republicans and the Democrats are the same, that we need a third party, a “true” Democrat, a legitimate liberal. Even now, names like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are deployed as trial balloons on the far left. And like a high priest of political chaos, Ralph Nader begins his electoral dance, the antics that some mistake for legitimate political discourse.
By the time Bush left the Presidency, he carried the support of only one in three Americans. A sitting two-term President, he was asked not to speak at his own party’s convention. He was, by many accounts, an abject failure. But things could have turned out very differently. Not so much for Bush—his brand of cowboy Christianity and dingbat capitalism seems doomed to have failed in any era other than the Middle Ages (or maybe the 1950s)—but for America. Save so many wicked twists of fate, Al Gore might have been inaugurated as President on January 20, 2001. And had that happened, can anyone doubt the world would be far different today?
Would Gore, a future Nobel laureate for his environmental work, have neglected the environment the way W. did, deregulating the energy industry as climate change accelerated? Would the guy who railed against going into Iraq have pushed the same shoddy intelligence the Bush Administration did, using that war of choice as an excuse to forget about Afghanistan and 9/11 and expending trillions of dollars in the process? Would he have advocated changing our tax code, the other key trigger for deficits that had topped a trillion dollars a year before Bush left office? Would Gore, who argued for putting the Social Security trust fund in a “lock box,” have altered the Clinton Administration’s successful tax and fiscal policies in favor of tax relief for high earners and corporations?
When we look back on the Bush years and assess how the world and America have changed, we can’t help but see our failure as a nation. And that applies to all of us from Bush and Gore supporters to non-voters. But if we’re looking for who should have supported Gore but didn’t, who should have seen the differences between the two major candidates, who should have understood what was really at stake, it was Ralph Nader and all those who voted for him. And perhaps even more troubling about the Naderite faction is that they replicated their mistake in 2004 and to some extent in 2008. More than that, they snipe at President Obama from the far left even today, taking no responsibility for the Bush legacy they own as much as—if not more than—the rest of us on the left.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Dubya, how could the left (even the far left) not rally around Obama? With his youth, intelligence, and incredible speaking ability, Obama seemed poised to be a transformational figure. And he has been in many ways.
Health care reform. Financial industry reform. Saving the auto industry. Ending the Iraq War. Winding down Afghanistan. Consulting with our allies. Actually communicating with our adversaries. President Obama’s accomplishments are impressive, yet somehow he’s not progressive enough for the far left.
Most of the critiques from the far left concern national security—the Snowden case, the Manning case, Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay, his continued use of drones, and large-scale data mining by the NSA. These are fair criticisms, some more salient than others. But the far left misses (or perhaps wants to miss) the ground situation Obama had to deal with—the foreign policy mess that included hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an abysmal national image, all clearly the result of Bush’s eight years in office.
Is there, on some level, a bit of self-defensiveness in the way the far left has come to treat President Obama? Do they feel guilt, perhaps even subconsciously, for the situation he’s dealt with? And does that guilt cause them to double down on the insistence that he’s not one of them? Just like with Al Gore, they believe they don’t really have a choice, that nothing they do matters.
Conservatives hate Obama, and they always will. He’s a Democratic President. Add to that the fact that he is black and you have cause for the sort of inauguration eve meeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell convened to make sure Obama wouldn’t be re-elected. Sadly, for McConnell and conservatives, President Obama was re-elected.
But conservatives don’t hate Obama just because he’s black or a Democrat. They hate him because they understand that Obama simply isn’t the conservative the far left suggests he is. Which is also true of Obama’s probable successor (at least as the Democratic nominee), Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Republicans may have lauded her at times as Secretary of State but that was only to sew dissension in the Administration. Once she left office they attacked Clinton like a pack of Ben Ghazi-crazed jackals. And make no mistake: They’re not trying to reach their base. They’ve already done that. The Clintons have been in the public eye for more than 20 years. Conservatives don’t need to be convinced to hate Hillary.
“She hugs Kissinger. She hobnobs with Bob Rubin and the Wall Street crowd. I mean it’s almost a caricature. But you know on social issues, like pro-choice, children’s issues, you know she keeps that liberal sheen.”
When Nader speaks, the gods of demagoguery must smile. Hillary Clinton has spent her adult life working for women’s and children’s rights. To reduce her to a joke and to belillte her accomplishments or the importance of her views on social issues to “that liberal sheen” is precisely the sort of self-serving sound bite we should expect from Nader at this point.
With the most recent Supreme Court session drawing to an end, does anyone doubt that our next President’s stance on social issues may determine the fate of our country for the next half-century? With another seat or two on the Supreme Court, the conservative majority will be unassailable. They will be able to tear down everything from Roe v. Wade to the separation of church and state, and to make great strides toward the establishment of the “Christian nation” they long for. Hillary Clinton is the only person standing between us and the soft theocracy that Justices like Scalia, Alito, and Thomas seem to covet.
Former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State—it’s not necessary to go beyond that in terms of assessing such an impressive resume. What is vital is to look at the way Nader is attacking Clinton before she’s even declared her candidacy. And it’s important to compare that with the way Nader and his followers treated Obama, and especially Gore.
Back in 2000, the consensus was that Al Gore and George W. Bush were the same, a pair of Republicans, more or less. Bush’s advantages were his perceived morality and his reputation as a “compassionate conservative.” Gore, on the other hand, seemed a little dirty, tainted by his connection to the scandal-filled Clinton Administration. Americans wanted to restore integrity to the White House. And after all, practically anyone could manage the great economy, the comparatively warless world, and the surplus trajectory. Experience didn’t matter, really. We could choose anyone we liked, even a relatively untested governor from Texas or a consumer advocate from Massachusetts.
Negativity prevailed in the primaries and particularly in the general election. There was the story about Gore fundraising at the Buddhist temple and the story about Gore claiming to have invented the Internet. There were whispers about how President Clinton didn’t like Gore and whispers that even some elements of the “liberal media” didn’t care for him. Chris Matthews, for one, did a bit more than whisper, using his personal megaphone to wonder aloud about Gore night after night while praising Bush as a compassionate conservative, a different sort of Republican. Matthews never came out and endorsed W. but the implications were clear. Maybe America should take a chance. Maybe America would take a chance.
The sad truth is that America (especially its far left) did take a chance in 2000. They bet on Ralph Nader and in so doing ensured the election of George W. Bush. Now, years later, Nader wants us to take another chance. Clinton is too conservative, he says. We need a challenger, he says—a “true” Democrat, a legitimate liberal.
The far left will have a choice come 2016. That choice will be between the nominees of our two primary political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Any other action—a non-vote or a vote for a fringe candidate like Nader—is really a non-action, a useless protest, the pursuit of the same sort of twisted American perfectionism many progressives laugh at when it comes from the right.
What will the far left tell themselves, let alone the nation and the world, if they choose wrong again, if they choose Nader or someone like him? Will they nod and smile, laugh at the policy failures of a President Jindal or Ryan, Santorum or Gingrich? Will they insist there was no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, that Hillary Clinton would have kept denying the science of global warming, or that she would have continued stacking the Supreme Court with conservatives? Will they say this over the screams of women dying in back alley abortions and soldiers maimed in another war of choice? Will they stand beneath a sky of oily gray singing those same self-righteous songs of conscience, telling us there was nothing they could have done?