Monday, February 23, 2004

My Nader Mea Culpa

Hmmm. Chun the Unavoidable has defended Nader's decision to run for president. This has inspired a great and reflective sigh from Timothy Burke, wondering why Nader-voters, and nothing else, ignites his youthful, inner flamer. Eric Alterman is, of course, simply appalled--but not necessarily worried, for (as Todd Gitlin and Ryan Lizza both show), it seems that Nader's efforts this time around may be more farce than anything else. Still, Chun's frustration with what he labels (unfairly, I think, but not entirely inaccurately) as the sanctimonious efforts of some liberals to trash the very idea of voting for Nader rings a chord with me. Given that some of the participants here (Burke, Chun, Invisible Adjunct) are talented, passionate bloggers that I definitely wouldn't want to have on my case, I'm not sure I should expose myself this way, but...

It needs to be said: I happily wrote in Nader for president in 1996, and happily voted for him for president in 2000. Why? Did I think he would be elected president? Nope. Did I believe he would make a good president if he was? Not at all. Did I vote for him because I was a Green? Not really; I'm more a Christian Socialist, one of those socially conservative leftist communitarians (I believe there are four or five of us) that thought (and still think, by the way) that Gephardt would have made a fine president, and would have been an even better one if he hadn't flipped his position on abortion rights back in the 1980s. Well, did I vote for Nader because I like the idea of third parties making their mark on the electorate? Partly; I do in fact think that the more than century old Democrat/Republican institutional dominance of electoral campaigns is a bad thing. That said, I had no illusions that, for example, if Nader had gotten the magic 5% and received federal matching funds that the Green party would have overthrown the two-party system anytime soon. So then, did I vote for him because I'm a believer in generating revolutionary crises? Er, no.

What does that leave? Tim's accusation that I "think of a vote rather like the little gold stars that elementary school teachers give prize pupils, as a badge of their virtue," I'm afraid. Except that I have a somewhat different understanding of (civic) virtue than Tim, I think. Do end states matter? Of course. Are they all that matter? Of course not. Political life, as everyone from Aristotle to Arendt has taught us, is not full (and thus not fully empowering or fully worth its costs) if it is not at least partly an expressive act, a putting of oneself into the agora, a contribution to the appearance of the public, as it were. (One of the reasons I greatly fear that, as Chun believes, Kerry will be annihilated is that there is little or no expressivity behind his impending nomination at all; his support is built primary out of metaparanoia about how "other" voters--the mysterious swing voters, perhaps--will react when Doomsday arrives.) Is any of that an argument for not voting strategically? Not at all. An idea or ideal can be expressed relative to or in conjunction with any number of different institutional or long-range intentions. In my case, I didn't believe for a moment Nader's overblown claim that there was no real difference between Clinton and Dole, or Bush and Gore. But I did worry about trade, and globalism, and systematic poverty, and the power of corporations over our civic life. Are those the most important issues in the world? Perhaps not. Were either Clinton or Dole or Bush or Gore talking about any of them in a serious or constructive way in either 1996 or 2000? No, not really. So was it worth putting forward my two cents as a citizen, and signaling a concern for issues that otherwise were going to be treated cavalierly, at best? I think so.

My caveat, which you can take for whatever you think it's worth: I lived in Virginia in 1996 and 2000, and Bush was going to (and did) take that state easily. Would my thinking have been different if I'd lived in Florida, or Oregon, or Wisconsin? Possibly. Knowing what I know now (or at least think that I know now), post-9/11, post-Iraq, about Bush and Gore, do I wish I had voted differently in 2000? No, if for no other reason than the above Virginia residency caveat. If I'd voted the way I had and had lived in Florida at the time, would I now be wishing that I hadn't voted the way that I did? Absolutely. (Counter-factual enough for you?)

Incidentally, Nader has no appeal to me this time around. Different world, different concerns, different ideas and ideals to be expressed, different needs to be met. Ralph Nader may have been, arguably, a historically important vehicle of expression in the America of the 1990s. Given that he isn't even bothering with the Greens anymore, I can't see how he could possibly be so today.