Reinventing Ralph Nader

The relatively small differences between the major party Presidential candidates require progressives to examine Green Party nominee Ralph Nader's bid for the White House.

Third party votes are not always "wasted." Our electoral laws are stacked in favor of the two party system, but third parties have changed the agendas of established parties. Pre-Civil-War Republicans, Populists, and Progressives persuaded so many voters to desert the major parties that significant reforms resulted. Yet with today's shrunken and fragmented electorate insurgency can succeed only by motivating alienated nonvoters while also addressing the concerns of discontented middle and working class voters.

Nader's 1996 "stealth campaign" was too sporadic to reach most middle Americans and too sectarian in its exclusive focus on economic issues to inspire the culturally marginalized. How he moves beyond these limits will determine this campaign's historic impact.

Nader's dismissal of a same sex marriage plank in the Green platform as "gonadal politics" during a notorious 1996 interview was taken by many to imply contempt for an oppressed minority. For others it also suggested disdain for non-economic areas of life and a conviction that pleasure is an unimportant and not a fit subject for political dialogue.

In addition to promising an active campaign, Nader now seems more willing to address concerns about race, gender, and sexuality. In the April issue of The Progressive magazine, he recalled his own work on behalf of Native Americans and his fights for the inclusion of women on civil juries. He went on to endorse the Green Party platform, with its liberal positions on social issues.

Any candidate must emphasize what he or she knows best, but I hope that Nader's campaign will not treat the so called cultural issues as an afterthought. The '60s were remarkable not only for the reexamination of corporate power but equally for the emergence of overlapping social movements. These examined, however imperfectly, relations between corporate power, war, racism, endless economic growth, and gender and sexual oppression within everyday life.

Nader is exemplary in that he has continued to build upon his sixties commitment to reform corporate power. A Nader campaign under the Green banner could break new ground not only by speaking out on both economic injustice and cultural repression but also by highlighting the ways in which they are connected. Racial profiling, "wars" on nonviolent drug users, demonization of "welfare mothers," and homophobia do more than deprive our society of important human resources. They also express and deepen conventional stereotypes on which our current economic order is built.

From our earliest days, the nose-to-the-grindstone, business dominated culture has been legitimized by vilifying others whose only real sin is that they were different. "Single women," native Americans, immigrants, and African Americans were condemned for values and actions that placed them outside the mainstream.

Especially repellent were an emphasis on leisure time, modes of personal pleasure, community celebrations, or other activities explicitly valued more highly than material economic gain.

Practitioners of these "deviant" lifestyles were also portrayed as "biologically distinct" and as natural perpetrators or encouragers of violence. They were in need of monitoring, re-education, or even coercion. When such intrusion led to resistance, that resistance itself became further proof of their devilish ways.

Through such jeremiads against outsiders, mainstream culture might arguably be seen as revealing its own inner doubts about the emotional sacrifices its lifestyle entailed. By projecting illicit desires onto a succession of dangerous villains, these desires might be exorcised or at least one's doubts about the truth of one's values stilled.

Our current cultural wars follow the essentials of this script. The drug war disproportionately targets particular recreational drugs enjoyed by poor racial and cultural minorities and the communities they inhabit. This new prohibition, like the old, engenders a vast black market, hordes of law breaking but nonviolent consumers, and clashing, heavily militarized drug cartels at home and abroad.

Many studies have shown that most violence associated with drugs is a product of the vast profits their illegal status generates and of the police state efforts to enforce those laws. Yet the violence and crime in these minority communities is then cited to "prove" that the culture of drug use is "inherently" anti-social and violent and that poverty is a consequence of the lascivious life styles of the minority culture.

Since drugs, race, and poverty are coded together and associated with anti-social violence, a warlike posture, complete with secret and unaccountable police units, becomes proper and necessary. We are witnessing the drug war's fruits today. Sixty percent of the inmates in Federal prisons now are there for nonviolent drug crimes. California now spends more on its prisons than its public colleges. Branded as criminals on leaving prisons, "convicted felons" can hope for little public assistance as prison construction displaces school budgets. Rates of recidivism are high, thus confirming the view that society must cope with a "criminal class."

Fortunately, if much of middle America can still strives to quiet inner doubts about the psychic sacrifices its workaholism entails by demonizing drug users and cultural minorities, this culture is hardly a monolith. As long-time Village Voice columnist Ellen Willis points out in Smile, Don't Think, the Clinton impeachment effort lost not so much because of the purportedly prosperous state of the economy as because '60s politics did make some changes in the culture. More citizens can and have come to recognize the way their own anxieties shaped their politics, and in the process they celebrate a world with more space for self-expression. Many Americans came to appreciate the messiness of erotic life and to acknowledge both injustices and even complexity inside their own emotional lives. Even the drug wars are coming in for increasing scrutiny.

Today, police scandals, born of drug and crime wars deeply tainted by cultural and racial hostilities, wrack both coasts and trouble even many middle class Americans. Overwork and declining leisure have become regular topics of daily conversation. The culture now seems more open to the possibility that current efforts to impose endless work, selectively repress particular recreational drugs, and deny all forms of unconventional sexual expression reflect cultural insecurities more than real threats. They suspect that conservative culture wars encourage an intrusive and discriminatory police state.

More citizens acknowledge at least implicitly that through consensual dialogue within the family and democratic politics within the larger society opportunities for personal pleasure can be extended without destroying others' opportunities. Such efforts, far from destroying civilization, may make it more sustainable.

Ralph Nader, a target himself of corporate efforts to smear his character, could play a pivotal role in reversing our long running destructive blend of moralism and corporate power. As a widely known figure whose ascetic life style could not be challenged by the most censorious moralist he is uniquely positioned. Nonetheless, to forge a broader political force, that voice must reaffirm the full range of '60s commitments. Ecumenical standards are the best foundation for enduring democratic politics.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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