Here's how a life-long, very radical organizer put it to me in the week after Nader announced he was entering the race.
"I have never voted for a Democrat for President and I don't intend to start now, but I want to beat Bush — I want to beat Bush more than I have ever wanted to beat any Republican.
"I support Nader's run, wholeheartedly, but at the same time I think that punishing Bush should be the main point of this election. At the end of the Roman Empire, sitting on the throne became a death sentence. You were sure to be gone soon. We can't dispatch our emperors in the same manner, but I am for impeaching all of them, one by one, as they take their turn at the helm. And, if the impeachment fails, denying everybody a second term.
"Vote now to punish Bush; four years hence, vote to punish Kerry. And so on. But I am not sure where that leaves me. Can a vote for Nader be a vote to punish Bush, or does it just split the vote against Bush? That can be argued, as Nader did in his declaratory speech.
"What is certain is this: the Nader campaign does not interfere with punishing Bush. Of course Nader should run, because he has an opportunity to talk to a lot of people about the Democratic-Republican one-party system. That might not be our main point in this election, but it is certainly a close second. And second place is important enough that it shouldn't be sacrificed to the first. It is not so important to punish Bush that we should sow illusions about the Democratic Party. Punishing Bush is not worth that. The best way to do both is to support Nader's campaign, but make some calculated judgment about who we should vote for at the very end of the game.
"Nader, then, is personally the reverse of what the liberals are saying — he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to get our position on the so-called two party system out there. He knows full well, that despite all the good his campaign will do, many people who agree with him, won't vote for him. His turn-out will be smaller than last time, he will be politically discounted for the rest of his life, ridiculed by some, laughed at by others, dismissed by most all. He knows that. How could he not? Nonetheless, he honorably sacrifices himself so that there will be some national voice in this campaign reminding people that we are ruled by a two-headed monster, and warning them that cutting off one of the heads will do little more than give us the satisfaction of seeing that particular head roll.
"I didn't say Nader was selfless — selfless and selfish have nothing to do with it. I assume Nader is as much a mixture of ego, id, and superego as the next guy. The point is that politically Nader is making a calculated, major sacrifice. A noble act to cap a useful, courageous, political career.
"I am still a bit confused. The way people have always tried to convince me to vote for a Democrat is by threatening fascism. 'Fascism is around the corner, so better go with the Democrats.' Well, Bush is not fascism — the essence of which, señor Hobsbawm tells us, is the street mobilization of ordinary folks to enforce a right-wing agenda. Bush and his cronies are not that. They want people to vote and to then go home, and stay home.
"But are Bush and his gang importantly different in some other way? Do they represent an imperial agenda more dangerous than what the Demos offer? Are Cheney/Perle/Rumsfeld different enough that we should, as they used to say, 'block' with the Democrats in the privacy of the voting booth, after we fully support Nader's campaign? Maybe. That maybe doesn't mean that Kerry is anything more than just an alternative imperial strategy. But if Cheney/Perle/Rumsfeld have put us in Sharon's pocket, maybe, in the short run, an alternative imperial strategy would be different enough to vote for. I think there is an argument there. It is just that I don't like making it.
"I prefer to argue only that I want the satisfaction of wiping the grin off the Boy Emperor's face. That's all. I want to see his head roll, just as Macheath wished that heavy axes would fall upon their faces. Then, after Bush's head plunks into the basket, we could turn our attention to the next guy on the throne.
"I fear I am slipping into darkness. Coming on as a tough guy to mask the bullshit of my position, which I guess could be summed up like this: Support Nader's campaign; vote for whomever you like."
Now there's a thoughtful voice, but alas, one of the few to greet Nader's intervention with the consideration it deserves. In thirty years we have not seen and heard such hysteria and venom about Nader the saboteur, Nader the facilitator of fascism. People are frightened of Bush, more frightened than they should be, and fear is always ugly, just as it was when the liberals rushed out to red-bait and denounce the left in the McCarthy years.
Listening to Democrats screaming about Ralph Nader's entry into the presidential race we finally understand the mindset of those Communist dictatorships that used to take such trouble to ensure that the final count showed a 99 percent Yes vote for the CP candidate. It's a totalitarian logic. "Anybody But Bush" chorus the Democrats. But they don't mean that. They mean, "Nobody But Kerry."
What they're saying is that no one has the right to challenge Bush but a Democrat, whoever that Democrat might be, no matter what that Democrat stands for.
The stream of abuse at Nader, a man who has toiled unceasingly for the public good for half a century has been childishly vulgar and vitriolic, freighted with wild accusations that he put Bush in the White House in 2000 and will do so again in 2004. The truth of course is that Al Gore put Bush in, and Kerry may keep him there. Nader is a "faded chanteuse in a dingy nightclub," wrote Robert Scheer, venerable liberal pundit for the Los Angeles Times. He should know. What has Nader done since 2000?, asked Scheer scornfully, albeit stupidly. As Jim Ridgeway points out in the Village Voice, it's been Nader and his groups, not the Democrats, who've spearheaded universal health care ever since Hillary Clinton botched the chance for health reform in the early 90s. It's been Nader and his troops who've kept the searchlight on corporate crime, who raised the hue and cry on Enron, when Democrats were smoothing the counterpane for Lay in the Lincoln Bedroom.
From the point of view of democracy, the American political system is a shambles of corruption, gerrymandered to ensure that it is almost impossible to evict any sitting member of the House of Representatives. The presidential debates are fixed to exclude unwelcome intruders. Nader says that in the whole of his 2000 challenge he got about 3 minutes face-time on the major networks.
You can understand why the two major parties don't want any outsider spoiling the fun. They arranged things that way, as Nader understands, and explains better than anyone.
"I think the mistake the Democrats are making," said Nader at the National Press Club on Monday, February 23, " when they use the mantra 'anybody but Bush' is, first of all, it closes their mind to any alternative strategies or any creative thinking, which is not good for a political party. And second, it gives their ultimate nominee no mandate, no constituency, no policies, if the ultimate nominee goes into the White House.
"And then they'll be back to us. I guarantee you the Democrats, the liberal groups, the liberal intelligentsia, the civic groups that are now whining and complaining, even though they know they're being shut out increasingly, year after year, from trying to improve their country when they go to work every day. And they'll be saying, 'Oh, you can't believe — we were betrayed. The Democrats are succumbing to the corporate interests in the environment, consumer protection.'
"How many cycles do we have to go through here? How long is the learning curve before we recognize that political parties are the problem? They're the problem! They're the ones who have turned our government over to the corporations, so they can say no to universal health insurance and no to a living wage and no to environmental sanity and no to renewable energy and no to a whole range of issues that corporations were never allowed to say no to 30, 40, 50 years ago. Things really have changed."
Nader's seen it happen time and again. Bold promises from a Democratic candidate, followed by ignominious collapse. And each time the promises are vaguer, more timid. Each time the whole system tilts further in the direction of corporate power. Nader is saying that the Democrats are so hopelessly compromised that they don't know how to energize people to get them into the polling booths to vote against Bush. So he's going to lend a hand. Nader can be the candidate denouncing the war that Bush started and Kerry voted for. Nader can denounce the corporate slush that's given Bush his hundred million dollar war chest and Kerry his $30 million in corporate swag.
With NBK as their war cry ("Nobody But Kerry") I doubt the Democrats have much of a shot at the White House. Already George Bush has winged Mr Facing-Both-Ways pretty good. Kerry looks like an uncertain proposition to us. If I was advising him, or John Edwards for that matter, I'd push for a joint press conference with Nader, welcome him into the race, hail him as a man who knows what's wrong with America and how to mend it. That would make for an exciting political year, and a pretty good chance of ousting George Bush.