Two Cheers for Ralph Nader

I have to admit to taking some pleasure in Ralph Nader's entry into the 2004 presidential race, however quixotic his campaign might seem. The wailing and gnashing of teeth that came from the 'respectable' left alone is worth it. Nader has a delightful habit of pointing out the hypocrisy of mainstream liberalism in its utter dependence on special interest groups and corporate cash.

More substantively, I think Nader, because of his high profile, stands the best chance of any third-party candidate at injecting some true dissent into what will pass for debate between the presidential candidates for the next eight months. This is because on issues of crucial importance, Nader holds positions outside the bipartisan consensus that has a stranglehold on American life. These positions, moreover, are generally consistent with a libertarian, constitutionalist, or small-government conservative point of view.

In fact, Nader, in replying to The Nation magazine, which scoldingly admonished him not to run, explicitly promised to reach out to conservatives and Republicans upset with George Bush's big-government ways:

Much more than'in 2000'any candidacy would be directed toward Independents, Greens, third-party supporters, true progressives, and conservative and liberal Republicans, who are becoming furious with George W. Bush's policies, such as massive deficits, publicized corporate crimes, subsidies and pornography, civil liberties encroachments, sovereignty-suppressing trade agreements and outsourcing.

Nader realizes that many conservatives do not recognize George Bush as one of them. His massive increases in spending and regulation, not to mention his wildly interventionist foreign policy, is anathema to many of the core principles traditional conservatives hold dear.

A quick trip to Nader's campaign website reveals that he champions positions that should warm the cockles of any true libertarian's heart as well. He opposes our current bipartisan interventionist foreign policy, the crackdown on civil liberties, the war on drugs, and the corporate-welfare policies so zealously pursued by the Bush administration.

It seems to me that these are exactly the issues that should be at the top of the agenda of anyone concerned with preserving and expanding freedom. Libertarians have perhaps too long assumed that they are naturally allies of 'the Right.' Nader, a supposed leftist, is far closer to the libertarian position than nearly any major conservative in America today. This is especially true when 'the Right' is characterized primarily by reckless interventionism, runaway spending, and ham-fisted attempts at social engineering (e.g. the Federal Marriage Amendment).

This is not to say the Left is much better. Certainly not the mainstream left of the Democratic Party, which is just as committed to an expanding Leviathan state as the Republicans. Nader recognizes, as the two wings of what he calls the 'duopoly' don't, that there are areas of life the government is best kept out of.

But at the end of the day, I can give only two cheers for Nader. This is because, I think, Ralph is not really consistent or radical enough. Despite his radical positions on the drug war and foreign intervention, and his recognition that the State is run by and for special interests and corporate lobbyists, Nader retains a rather na've faith in the ability of centralized government to solve problems.

For instance, he advocates a single-payer health system, subsidies of family farms, and massive new public works programs. All of these programs would only further expand and entrench the bureaucratic morass that is the source of many of the problems Nader so perceptively diagnoses.

What Nader's platform seems to gloss over is the fact that the massive centralized machinery of the State cannot ultimately be used to liberate people, it can only enslave them. Bigger government favors the powerful, because it is the powerful who can get access to it and navigate its labyrinth of regulations and loopholes to their advantage. Nader seems to remain in the tradition of a technocratic, managerial liberalism--a tradition that thinks if you just have the right people, the 'best and brightest,' running things, you could ensure justice for all.

In fact, this kind of managerial liberalism is at odds with the humanistic, decentralized politics that characterize much of the Green movement that Nader has long been identified with. Thinkers like E.F. Schumacher and Kirkpatrick Sale argued that 'small is beautiful' and that Green ends could be served by libertarian means (both Schumacher and Sale described themselves as 'anarchists'). The devolution of power they favored would allow local communities to make the decisions that affect them directly, rather than trying to bring about change by getting their hands on the machinery of power.

Libertarians (rightly) emphasize the rights and dignity of the individual, but they sometimes forget that individuals exist only in a social context. This doesn't mean that the State is prior to the individual, but that organic, local communities provide the best matrix for individual flourishing. Thus, there is an underlying philosophical affinity between libertarians (and traditional conservatives) and certain aspects of the Green movement.

All this points to the increasing obsolescence of the traditional left-right spectrum, and the relevance of a bottom-up, localized and spontaneous form of social organization. The real dividing line, as Bill Kauffman has said, 'divides the human scale from the global, the local from the remote.' If Nader were to 'strike at the root' of the centralized corporate-State system, he might find he had many unlikely allies.

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Lee McCracken's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for