A Word (or two) on Ralph Nader

Column No. 3 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH – March 11, 2004

Well, all the world knows that Ralphie boy has done it again.  How should progressive Democrats react?  Yes, we could talk about why, if one is really interested in changing the Democratic Party, one didn’t do what Governor Dean and Rep. Kucinich did, entering the Democratic primaries?   Yes, we could engage in analysis of Nader’s ego needs (as some leaders have already done): why did he have to start on another one of his destructive ego trips outside of the Party? We could ask if, regardless of any other considerations, it is really helpful for progressive politics and policies for Nader to be doing what he is doing? (Apparently he really, really, deep down thinks that it is).

It should be noted that Nader hardly gives one the impression that he is capable of negotiating anything.  How much change in the Democratic Party would be enough for him?  It has already changed a great deal in the last six months, due in large part to the efforts of Dean and Kucinich.  One observer of the latest Nader raid said that the Democratic Party “needs to grow up.”  Well, yes, if “grow up” is taken to mean really differentiate itself from the Republicans, shed the DLC, and return to its 20th century, Progressive Era/New Deal roots.  But that process is, finally, underway.  When we are talking about Ralph Nader, it's the man with the ego larger even than that of Mario Cuomo, who now needs to grow up.  But those types of considerations are at base aimed at trying to change Ralph Nader’s behavior.

In my view, that is a lost cause, a total waste of time.  This man is totally convinced of his own rightness.  He will listen neither to leading Democrats who agree with him on many of the issues, nor even to a number of his own advisors, former and possibly even present.  He marches to his own drummer, whose drumbeat is so loud in his ears that no other sounds can possibly get through.

So let’s forget about Nader and either trying to analyze him or worse yet, trying to get through to him with a view to getting him to back off.  If the results of the 2000 election couldn’t do that, I don’t know what can. His behavior is so obviously unchangeable that why then should time and effort be wasted trying to change it now?  Thus what we need to do now is ignore Ralph and aim at getting through to the Nader voter, past and potential.  Here are a few suggestions for how to do that.

1.  Don’t run guilt trips.  Don’t focus on the 2000 election.  Focus on the 2004 election.  Focus on what happens if the Georgites (as I like to call them) get re-elected.  Focus on the need, therefore, for every possible Democratic vote, in every single election district no matter Democratic it is.

2.  Point out that while neither the Democratic candidate (whomever it might be, most likely Kerry) nor the Democratic platform is or will be perfect, on many of the major issues, both are and will be certainly a lot closer to the interests of the potential Nader voter than are those of the Georgites.  And on some of them, like the principles on which health care and environmental policies should be based, it is virtually the same (unless I have missed something and please, don’t swamp me with detailed differences).

3.  Point out that if Nader voters and especially activists get involved in the Democratic primaries and the Democratic platform-building process now, they will have much more influence than they could have as outside voices, which many Democratic voters and most of the Democratic leadership would look upon with scorn.

4.  Point out that (as mentioned above) because of the efforts especially of Gov. Dean and Rep. Kucinich, both of whom have pledged to support the eventual Democratic nominee even though they won’t agree with him on every issue, the Democratic Party has changed, significantly.  As late as last fall, the message coming from both the DNC and the Congressional leadership, to say nothing of certain prominent candidates, was a primarily DLC-accomodationist, “let’s-not-offend the [supposed] ‘center’” one.  It has now become a full-throated roar from virtually all sectors of the Party (note the absence of the DLC from the chorus) to throw out the Georgites and replace them with radically different people and policies.

5.  Please, please, please, we should say to these folks, if nothing else, don’t ignore what has happened to the Federal judiciary under the Georgites, how that process would be compounded many fold should they be re-elected, and what impact that outcome would have on so many interests that progressives have in this country.

And so.  Let’s focus on the Georgites, let’s focus on the issues, let’s focus on potential Nader voters and what their concerns are, and let’s just forget about Ralph.  If you happen to be interested in payback (not an interest of mine), the worst thing that could happen to Ralph personally is to be finally ignored, and to go down in the history of Presidential campaigns as just another Ralph Stassen/Lyndon LaRouche.


For those of you interested in seeing how Ralph Nader thinks on paper (and it is fascinating) rather than over the airwaves, take a look at the March 8, 2004 issue of The Nation.  In the Letters column Nader has a very long reply to The Nation's plea to him not to run that appeared in the February 16 issue. – (See Nader’s Letter and the Editor’s Reply by clicking here: The Nation)  He of course said "no," but he did it at great length.

He also seems to be caught in a time-warp, justifying his running by attacking a Democratic Party that is fast undergoing major change before our very eyes.  But Nader either cannot see that or doesn't want to.  He can't take "yes" for an answer.  He cannot declare victory and say, "OK now let's work very hard to make sure that all of our very correct concerns most surely get into the platform and Sen. Kerry's primary message."  He cannot even claim some credit for forcing that change (although since he has been just attacking, not trying to build, I don't think that much of the credit belongs to him).

The Democratic Party is in the process of changing because of the work of Gov. Dean and Cong. Kucinich, the work of people like Steve Gheen and Michael Carmichael and Joe Napolitan, the work of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, and yes because of the work of people like Sen. Kennedy, an old-fashioned liberal who just happened to supply the steam that reinflated the Kerry campaign on both process and substance.  Unless there are some very big surprises in Sen. Kerry's choice for VP and in the platform, the DLC is on its way to being history.

This all tells us that the focus on the Nader issue must be on the potential Nader voter.  The man himself (who without a party may not be able to even get on the ballot in very many states anyway) should be simply told that he is behind the times.  The train has left the station, and he ain't on it.  Of course he could have been if Democratic Party reform were what he really is about.  But it isn't.

But in his letter, he did lay out many issues that are important. I don't have to repeat the list here.  And so, the Party can address his voters with the "these are the issues that we know you are interested in, and this is how our party is handling them.  Perfect, no, but who is?  Much better than the Georgites, and not just a lesser evil, however, aren't they?"

Let's focus on that and leave perfectionism to Ralph Nader.

Junkie: Dr. Jonas has aptly captured the perfectionism that lies at Nader’s core.  I encountered Nader in the early 1970’s when I introduced him to a very large audience in the mountains of North Carolina.  In the personal time I spent with Nader my sense of the man was: brilliant intellect; highest moral character; Spartan dedication to his cause; and pursuit of perfection in all things.  Certainly the attributes of a true sage, but unbending and uncompromising pursuit of perfection in a political system designed to foster compromise in order to reach a majority consensus is impractical.

Dr. Jonas has the best prescription for the approach the Democratic Party should take in dealing with the “Nader issue.”  I would only add that we should never speak ill of any man who has dedicated a life’s work to the betterment of mankind – even when we should disagree.  Nader has earned and deserves that respect.