He's dropped "consumer protection" for the "citizen participation." He's flouted political propriety by campaigning for president. He's flung himself onto the machinery of U.S. politics. Now, Ralph Nader is, once again, considering a run for the presidency.
In 2000, he swayed nearly 3 million voters, and four years later that number dropped to fewer than 500,000. We've heard it so many times that it's virtually unquestioned today that Ralph was the "spoiler" that put King George into office. To question that interpretation, which is but one politically expedient reading of that election, has been to invite venomous attacks and vitriolic condescension from Democratic apologists.
My hat is off to Ralph Nader. I don't believe that the weight of Al Gore's loss rests on his shoulders, nor do I believe that we should write off Nader's foray into electoral politics so quickly. Despite the nauseatingly common whining about Ralph's "bloated ego," his campaign is a conscious and thoughtful one that goes beyond any single presidential race.
Nader's career as a consumer champion has revolved around politics for decades. His advocacy for automobile safety, clean air, whistleblowers, food labeling, and numerous other causes in the name of the "public interest" has sought new or improved legislation, regulation, and enforcement - all thoroughly depending on political channels. When General Motors sent spies to undermine his auto safety campaign, he was testifying before congressional committees about the need for seat belts. When the Reagan Revolution steamrolled through Washington, Ralph was on the streets to drum up public support. When the Democrats buckled under a Republican Congress, he recognized that the Left was losing its political voice in Washington. That's when he ran for President. 1996. 2000. 2004. Now, possibly 2008.
Did he expect to win? Of course not. But this is part of a campaign that dates back to the Nixon Administration. It has broadened from narrow consumer issues to fundamental questions of democracy. Nader's campaign today amounts to institutional civil disobedience - without breaking a single law (although, to hear the yelps of Democrats you'd never know it).
"What third parties can do is bring young people in, set standards on how to run a presidential election and keep the progressive agenda in front of the people," he said. "And maybe tweak a candidate here and there in the major parties." The narrowmindedness of liberal pundits has squeezed out any analysis that extends much beyond an election cycle.
When Nader's campaign ends - and who's to say when that will be? - we'll still have to wait another 20-30 years to be able to assess how successful it has been.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! - Mario Savio, Berkeley (1964)