I HEARD Ralph Nader speak recently at the annual conference of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association at Hampshire College in Amherst. Nader did not give a campaign speech but debated the proper role of government with libertarian Republican congressman Ron Paul of Texas. He was vintage Nader, telling the political truth about a wide range of policy questions of interest to the organization's unusual mix of traditional New England conservatives, savvy, up-to-date activists and a bewildering variety of contrarians.
Outside the hall, members passed out fliers begging Nader to withdraw from the presidential race. But inside, even those of us upset by Nader's decision to run could not resist expressing our respect and gratitude for his life and work. When it comes to matters of democratic practice and the public interest, Nader, to steal Jesse Jackson's phrase, "keeps hope alive."
In 2000, I temporarily abandoned a lifetime of support for Democrats to back Ralph Nader. I did so in part because I had little respect for Vice President Al Gore.
Still, I was less anti-Gore than pro-Nader. I thought Ralph Nader had earned the right to be heard, and I thought he could make a positive contribution to the renewal of democratic politics.
A Nader campaign might help reinvigorate democracy by making clear to the public that beyond our current alternatives other forms of political action are possible and that there are available, right now, a wider range of practical policy options on almost every question than are even hinted at in our campaigns. I probably underestimated how bad a Bush administration might be.
Yet I did believe that, in the absence of vigorous, creative grassroots political work, the Democratic Party would lose control of the Congress big time.Now we are faced with the prospect of a second Bush administration, capable of enormous damage to our institutions and our social fabric, and a House and Senate possibly filibuster-proof.
It will be easy to blame the right for all this, but that only obscures the widespread civic irresponsibility, nowhere wider than among the smart people who so dislike the president.
The world has changed since 2000, partly through 9/11 and the nation's (not just the president's) option for war, partly through the paralysis of the public interest in Congress, in the Democratic Party, in the academy, and in the press. The Bush administration is engaged in a staggering transfer of wealth and power to American corporations and their affiliated elites, but they have been pretty open about it.
The flip side of their ruthless aggrandizement has been the failure of Congress to exercise its responsibilities and the failure of the rest of us to find ways to stop administration actions that are very harmful to our country.
One reason they have been able to get away with these policies is that so many of us have more or less ignored politics. Good citizens are hard to find. Ralph Nader is a very good citizen. He has always had two basic messages.
One is that politics is about power. Some have it, some don't, and those who have it tend to use it. If we want to have government at any level act on behalf of the common good or the public interest, then we must find ways to put power behind those ideas. If there are policies we don't like, it is almost always because someone else succeeded in getting some power, and we did not.
Thus the war: President Bush did not rush to war in Iraq. In fact he paused, at some length. We had plenty of time to speak up and to get enough power to force another option. We failed, and the American people, through the constitutional process, decided to go to war.
It is our war, not Bush's war, and its resolution is in our hands. That brings us, as all Nader commentaries do, to his second big point: Civic responsibility is a fact, not an option.
"Public Citizen" is the name of Nader's major organizational legacy. Public Interest Research Groups are another. Both call upon all of us to get involved in one or another cause. The public interest needs its think tanks and its lobbies, its networks for fund-raising, public education and civic action, and we have to provide them.
So, those who respect Ralph Nader should probably vote for John Kerry. But we also have to be truthful. Kerry will have a lot of IOUs, and whatever his intentions his range of choices will be limited by a conservative Congress and an electorate where only the private interests and ideological factions are organized. The right wing did not win because they paid everyone off.
They built good organizations, ran people for office at every level, and mobilized people as well as money and talent. The left has plenty of people and lots of talent out there, but it lacks leadership and organization.
Nader might have made better choices than running as a Green in 2000 and as an independent this year. But through a lifetime he has done many of the things that need to be done.
At Hampshire College, Nader said that government has the responsibility to protect the people, to serve the people, and to encourage the people. Government does that when those who govern respect the people.
And that happens only when the people respect themselves enough to speak up, get involved, and make politics a regular part of their lives. In recent history conservatives have been doing that better than the rest of us, but right wing extremism can be progressive opportunity.
So progressives should vote for Kerry, but they should listen to Nader and get to work.
© 2004 Globe Newspaper Company