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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #107, April 2004. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Ralph 'n' stuff

Twice before, in 1996 and again in 2000, this mighty page endorsed Ralph Nader for president. Not this time. Nader risks inheriting the mantle of Harold Stassen, though he's probably too old to match Stassen's record of nine failed presidential campaigns.

The previous endorsements came with heavy reservations that are worth recalling here. Nader has a long history of operating alone, scornful of coalitions, a characteristic visible in his on-again, off-again relations with the Green Party. He's got a deep conservative streak. Skeptical of public agencies, he prefers litigation to regulation, which amounts to an individualist adversarial approach rather than collective political action. One of his first published articles was a 1962 piece in a libertarian journal, The Freeman, supporting the residents of his hometown in their resistance against federally funded public housing. In the 1970s, his Raiders often included unions among the monopolists that benefited from transport regulation, providing intellectual fuel for the deregulation movement. In the 1980s, he resisted unionization attempts in his own shop, redbaiting one of the organizers in the process. In the 2000 campaign, he wooed David Brooks, then of The Weekly Standard, naming the many rightwingers he's worked well with in the past, among them such creeps as Bill Bennett, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, and Grover Norquist, and still talks dreamily of drawing votes from the right. He shares the austere morality of Bennett and Co.; he seems to lack a libido, and hold in contempt those who like theirs and consider them politically important. His dislike of trade flirts with xenophobia; his people have discreetly worked with Pat Buchanan, though they don't like to talk about that. And he still talks delusionally about peeling off votes from the Republicans by appealing to "true" conservatives, who are distressed by Bush's alleged impurities; in a letter to disgruntled reactionaries, he actually praises the Texas GOP, one of the more frightening political formations in the hemisphere.

Good intentions. Of course, he says lots of good things about corporate power and the corruption of politics by money. But is it enough to say good things? It often seems as if American leftists think that all you need to do is get the right candidate with the right message and things will more or less take care of themselves. For example, one Nader enthusiast we know pointed to his promise to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, a dreadful piece of legislation that hobbles organized labor. Fine - but if by some unimaginable fluke, Ralph were to get elected, how would he persuade Congress, the owning class, and the media to play along? What organization could he count on for support in what could be a fight to the death?

One of the major rationales for voting for Nader four and eight years ago was that it looked like a good way to build the Green Party. But even then he distanced himself from the party during the campaigns and did nothing to promote it in years not divisible by four - and now he's rejected their nomination.

Building a new party (and why limit ourselves to just one?) is the task of lifetimes, not months or years, and isn't a process that can be short-circuited by celebrity presidential runs. It was decades before the Swedish social democrats, for example, achieved national office. But they did more than run for office; they built cooperatives and social clubs, worked with unions, and made tactical alliances with existing parties, things that few of our independent politicians have showed much interest in doing. And Sweden is a parliamentary system, which makes it relatively easy for small parties to enter government. The U.S. federal system, with its winner-take-all elections and checking and balancing among the levels and branches of government, was consciously designed to keep politics from becoming too radical. With all those structural obstacles in the way, voting for Nader is an empty gesture that may make the voter feel virtuous and pure, but which will have little good long-term effect except maybe to re-elect Bush.

Burying the lead. Readers who've made it this far might suspect that the previous 650 words were attempts at self-justification for what follows-an embrace of the very lesser-evilism that this newsletter denounced in its rude younger days. But there seems little alternative at the moment; the best we can do is hope for a Kerry victory, and that disillusionment will rapidly set in.

After 1,200 days of the George W. Bush presidency, it's difficult to say there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. Sure there are plenty of similarities-deep agreement on the beauties of capitalism and the rightness of U.S. power in the world. But, as Noam Chomsky puts it, to the distress of many of his fans, given the magnitude of U.S. power, "small differences can translate into large outcomes." That's probably truer of domestic than foreign policy. We're more likely to see the privatization of Social Security and Medicare under a second Bush administration, more likely to see the public schools further privatized, more likely to see troglodytes appointed to the NLRB or the federal courts, more attacks on civil liberties, andad nauseam. Abroad, a Kerry administration is likely to be marginally less aggressive, less likely to talk of pre-emptive war or the right to use nuclear weapons, and more likely to be respectful of international institutions (such as they are).

There are also intangibles, like a better discursive and organizing environment. It's better for radicals when politics is about the guys in power not doing enough than when it's about defending the social gains of the 20th century. No matter how conservative a Democratic administration would like to be, it still has to respond to some of the party's core constituencies-like environmentalists, African-Americans, feminists, and civil libertarians, a sharp contrast with creationists and oilmen. Life is better when the air isn't filled with stupidity, arrogance, anti-intellectualism, and covert or overt appeals to bigotry coming from the top. It's good when the president isn't an ignoramus who thinks he's on a divine appointment and the attorney general doesn't hold prayer meetings and assemble anti-porn strike forces.

Bush, subverter? There is the paradox that Bush has done more to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. dominance of the global system than anyone who's occupied the office. The Pentagon is the ultimate guarantor of American power, but the empire can't operate mainly by force; subordinate countries have to feel they're getting something out of the deal. Those who profit the most out of the deal, Canada and the richer countries of Asia and Europe, get a stable global economic and political environment without having to spend much on arms or getting deeply involved in the dirty work of empire maintenance. Poorer countries get a rawer deal, but they're in a weak bargaining position. But it's best if the global hierarchy operates at the level of things we don't talk about. By pushing American dominance so hard, Bush has undermined the bargain. The U.S. is now more hated than it's been in decades, maybe ever.

Kerry would probably work to repair this. A Democratic administration would also police more vigilantly the departures from neoliberalism discussed in the last issue, like Argentina's admirable stiffing of its private bondholders. It'd be a return to empire as usual, which on balance would be a refreshing thing. The U.S. has never been known for a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind," but the administration has carried the rudeness to appalling levels.

Presumably the chaophilic wing of anarchism could want more rudeness and further discrediting of the U.S. But it's probably better if the hierarchy is overturned from below rather than undone by a bunch of heavily armed fanatics at the top. And several billion people around the world probably agree.

Disappointment, please. No less serious a radical than Tariq Ali has said that "the defeat of Bush would be viewed globally as a victory." He's also denied that by saying so he's urging anyone to vote for Kerry, though it's hard to see how anyone else could defeat Bush. Ali's squeamishness is understandable; for this newsletter, which has from the beginning viewed the Democratic Party as an obstacle to human progress, this is a difficult endorsement to make. Making it easier is the knowledge that were Kerry to win, he'd become the enemy on November 3.

He is also likely to be disappointing in many ways (disappointing to already low expectations), which is a comfort. He's already made a healthy downpayment on that disappointment, and the campaign has hardly begun. He proposed a corporate tax reform that was the triumph of wonkishness over any discernible political or economic strategy-"revenue-neutral," of course, but defying any interesting paraphrase. And, more repulsively, he endorsed Bush's endorsement of Ariel Sharon's "peace" plan-assassinations, wall-building, and making most settlements in the Occupied Territories permanent. Awful stuff, and it's only April. Come November, it's going to require a giant clothespin to enter a polling booth.

LBO has quoted several times Garry Wills' explanation of why the 1960s exploded: after years of liberals' saying things would improve when Ike was replaced, when things didn't get much better under JFK, a lot of people decided the System was the problem, not party or personnel. Some similar disillusionment with Clinton probably helped spark Seattle. It could happen again. Let's hope it does.

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