The odd one out

The 2000 election was such an embarrassing episode in American democracy that it sort of makes you sick to bring it all up again. There were, of course, the candidates from the major parties, one the flabbergastingly arrogant son of an ex-president who spoke (according to a well-publicized study) at a fourth-grade level; the other a vice president whose sense of self was so vague that he kept inventing new and increasingly unconvincing ones for public consumption.

Then there was the $200 million their campaigns and associated PACs spent trying to get them elected; money that came overwhelmingly from wealthy individuals and mammoth corporations. Add to that the fact that—in a country with a 20 percent child poverty rate, the worst fourth-to-12th-grade educational system in the Western world, ecological disasters looming from sea to polluted sea—the biggest campaign issue was “character” (as in you won’t catch me fucking interns). Throw in the Florida thing, which culminated in a Supreme Court decision so politically motivated that many European observers called it what it was—a fix—and you start wondering why people bother to vote at all.

Amid this mess, though, was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who has recently emerged with Crashing The Party, his book about the 2000 campaign. Let us remember: the man won 2.7 percent of the popular vote despite the fact that he had virtually no money for campaign ads. Because he wasn’t allowed to participate in the presidential debates, he earned his votes the hard way: on the road, speaking directly to voters or to news organizations. We should remember that even when he did pick up media coverage, 90 percent of the time the context was, “Is Nader a spoiler?” And when the Florida debacle emerged, the media and the Republicrats huffed their, “I told you so’s,” and cast Nader as an ego-driven despoiler of the “process.”

It might help to know that Nader is not a socialist or commie. He isn’t even anti-capitalist. You won’t find Marx, Engels or even Eugene Debs mentioned in his new book. He lauds corporations when he thinks they’re doing a good job—like Southwest Airlines, which he admires for their safe, efficient service and the way they take care of their employees. Nader is, in fact, the newest product in a long American political tradition, starting with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson on through the Populists, Progressives, New Dealers and the moderates among the New Left. Nader wants a humane, honest capitalism—that is, an economic system that reinforces rather than threatens political principles of liberty, justice and equality. He wants a clean global environment, equal rights for everybody, and a health-care system motivated by, of all things, a desire for public health rather than merely healthy quarterly earnings.

That Nader wants what public opinion polls say most Americans want, and still got only 2.7 percent of the vote, can’t be explained merely by the fact that his woebegone, sexless personality doesn’t project presidentially. It always goes back to the way campaigns are financed and thus delivered to the electorate through the media. Nader couldn’t get his message out. Why? It wasn’t just that he couldn’t afford the commercials. He was cut out of the all-important presidential debates, which, he points out, were put on by a private, bipartisan (not nonpartisan) committee sponsored by large corporations bent on preventing disturbing episodes like the 1992 Ross Perot candidacy from ever happening again.

Why did they get away with this? Because most of us are sheep, and the herd instinct is strong. The corporations need sheep; Nader and participatory democracy can’t abide the species. Where you gonna stand, what you gonna be in 2004?