Future chroniclers of this year's U.S. presidential election might want to consider "Untrue at Any Volume" as an all-purpose, catchy title for the proceedings, at least as regards the two main candidates. For, adding to the usual haze of false promises and feigned sincerity is the ghostly, blast-from-the-past presence of Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate for the republic's highest office and a tireless proponent of that rarest of political commodities, the truth.
The great thing about Nader is that he just won't go away. Since 1965, when he skewered General Motors in the best-selling book Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader has been a fixture on the American political scene, however wavering and spectral. Sometimes (as when his Public Interest Research Groups spearheaded the environmental campaigns of the early 1980s) he comes into sharp relief, sometimes (as during the past decade or so) he fades away to near-invisibility. Always he is the perpetual unwelcome guest, Banquo asking for seconds.
Which makes his current manifestation all the more fascinating. Dismissed by The New York Times two short months ago as a nice but dangerous folly, a vote-splitting mistake, Nader's support has remained constant nationwide (somewhere between 3 and 6%, depending on polls) and climbed in key swing states like Wisconsin. Last week, a celebrity-strewn rally at Madison Square Garden in New York saw 13,500 raucous fans fork over US$20 apiece to hear left-leaning Hollywood stars such as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon weigh in on his side. Michael Moore, the filmmaker who moulded his own criticism of the auto industry into the low-budget satire of Roger and Me, told the crowd not to worry about weakening Democrat chances by voting with their hearts. "The lesser of two evils," Moore said, "you still end up with evil."
The Green Party position, radical in these buttoned-up times, is that the Republican and Democrat candidates are indistinguishable at the level where things really matter, namely the extent to which their respective campaigns, and possible administrations, are beholden to corporate and institutional financing. Now jowly, grey-haired and a little haggard, no longer the energetic college-boy crusader of the Sixties, Nader has a wry, inspiring wisdom about the political system. He's the quintessential cynical optimist: hoping for the best, expecting the worst. And his tireless demands for reality, his quiet mastery of the policy issues, put the other candidates to shame -- or would, if they'd only let him in on the nationally televised debates.
("You've got to love these people," Nader said recently to Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. "They think the American electoral process is a gated community.")
None of that quite solves the problem of the split vote, however. The situation that confronts certain American citizens this November is in some ways a classic instance of what strategy theorists call the "double-bind." In its more familiar guise, it's known as damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't. Since the days of the great Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, effective power-seekers have known that the most efficient way to dominate an opponent is to make all of his available choices self-defeating. This works best when you achieve "strategic envelopment": such complete mastery of a situation that you get to determine the very terms of debate or action.
Ideology is a form of strategic envelopment; so is an electoral system ruled by war chests and television access. Tactics, Sun Tzu said, can never defeat strategy. To defeat strategy you must adopt new strategy -- invent new rules, not simply continue to play by the existing ones. Hence subversion, infiltration, passive aggression, guerrilla raids. If you can't move laterally, frustration and failure are inevitable.
Thus the problem for third-party supporters. If citizens follow their consciences and choose Nader, they may end up skimming enough Electoral College votes from Al Gore to allow George W. Bush to complete his bloodline buyout of the White House. If they refrain from voting, or vote for Gore, Nader's essential voice is silenced, and they get a president only marginally better than the right-wing alternative.
Or maybe much worse. Matters of finance and policy aside, Gore, the man who once claimed he invented the Internet, has shown himself oddly unfamiliar with the notion of truth-conditions. As philosophers know, statements are valid only if redeemable in the hard currency of shared sensory experience, otherwise known as the realm of fact. You can't go on saying anything at all and expect to be taken seriously. By the same token, you have to actually say something, not merely stand there and appear to be doing so.
In a recent article called A New Refutation of the Very Possibility of Al Gore, reprinted in November's Harper's, the satirist Crispin Sartwell gives new meaning to the idea of wasting your vote, and incidentally clarifies the split-vote issue with admirable neatness. "Consider, as a thought experiment, a speech by Al Gore," Sartwell writes. "He is not really there, and he is not saying anything; he is nothing and he is saying nothing. Al Gore is a kind of hole or vacuum that expresses the essence of nothingness."
Thus, Sartwell says, "this election poses itself as a question: Will we trip over Al Gore's abysmal foot into the infinite void, falling eternally into dimensionless nonbeing? ... Consequently, a vote for Al Gore is a vote not only against the universe in which we happen to find ourselves; it is a vote against the very possibility of any universe, of even a single merely possible lepton."
The implication is clear. In a two-party deadlock, the liberating alternative strategy is not political but existential. Citizens of America, vote Nader. People everywhere -- the universe itself -- will thank you.
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