It's my right to run.
This is Ralph Nader's core case in announcing his 2004 presidential candidacy. Yes, Nader has a legal right to do this. He also has a legal right to donate $100,000 to the Republican Party and become a Bush Pioneer. That doesn't make it a good idea.
So much of Nader's career has been built on reminding us of our common ties. It's not okay, he's argued, for companies to make unsafe cars, pollute our air, or pillage shared resources. Actions have consequences, he's pointed out with persistence and eloquence.
Now, he's taking the opposite tack, fixating on his own absolute right to do whatever he chooses while branding those who've argued against his running as contemptuous censors who "want to block the American people from having more choices and voices."
No wonder participants in right-wing Web sites have salivated over Nader's candidacy and suggested their members e-mail him in encouragement.
The reasons to defeat Bush escalate daily. This regime enacted massively regressive tax cuts, waged a preemptive war and lied about its justification, smashed civil liberties and appointed hard-right judges to shut down any challenges, and did its best to destroy the union movement. They attacked root structures of democracy by disenfranchising tens of thousands of Florida voters, redistricting dozens of Texas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan congressional seats in raw power grabs. They brand all who oppose them as allies of terrorism.
That doesn't even count global warming, which (as sources from Fortune magazine to The New York Times and a Pentagon study have recently warned) now brings the potential for melting polar ice caps. This election may decide the very habitability of our planet.
How can Nader know this and still run? He says he'll raise the otherwise buried hard issues. He says he'll bring disenchanted citizens back into politics. He offers Byzantine explanations of how he'll actually help defeat George Bush by raising fresh subjects and approaches, opening up "a second front of voters against the regime," and offering an alternative for moderate Republicans.
But he can raise the issues on his own, as he has throughout his life. He can do it without his every critique of the "two-party duopoly" driving people away from voting for the Democratic nominee. He can do it without offering the illusion that a purely symbolic vote will do anything to get Bush out of office.
Nader once recognized that progressive politics gathers its strength from the breadth of citizen movements. Now he acts, with an almost messianic fervor, like a Lone Ranger intent on holding on to his own moral purity whatever the pleas of his compatriots and whatever the cost to the planet. By denying the real choices we face, he betrays the best of his legacy.
In 2000, the Nader vote made the difference in both Florida and New Hampshire, and his support in states like Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and even California forced Al Gore to divert time, money, and resources away from other close races he might well have otherwise won.
As a leader in the conservative group Concerned Women for America recently told The Washington Times, the Bush ticket may be in trouble, and they need Nader "to draw Democratic votes away from the Democratic candidate."
We don't have to be true believers. But we're faced with as critical a choice and challenge as we've experienced in our lifetime. It's too bad that by prizing his own righteousness over the risks of his actions, Ralph Nader has just made that challenge a little bit harder.
Paul Loeb is an author and AlterNet columnist.