In a balanced, multi-party parliamentary democracy, Ralph Nader would have been a candidate for secular sainthood. He forced consumer protection - physical and financial - on to the public agenda in the 1960s, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars. He championed freedom of information laws that declared that public records belong to the people, not to those who compile them. His focus on corporate kleptocracy led to reforms - albeit temporary - in political campaign finance.
Instead, Mr Nader has become a nominee for villainy. His country is balanced all right. It hangs on the threshold of becoming a one-party state ruled by a clique of radical religious reactionaries. If Republicans succeed in this election, the Democratic party cannot survive, as rightwing field marshal Grover Norquist put it last month without hyperbole.
It may be unfair to blame Mr Nader for the Democrats' loss four years ago, even if he siphoned enough support from Al Gore to give Florida to the Republicans. After all, George Bush won by only three electoral college votes. Had Mr Gore won his home state of Tennessee, the presidency would have been his. So blame Mr Gore and the Democrats at least as much. No matter who bears the blame, the result has destroyed what Mr Nader has fought so hard for. Mr Bush has directed a counter-revolution that through tax and regulatory policy has restored the right of corporate America to profits over social responsibility. Not since Richard Nixon's paranoid rants has a president worked so hard to evade public review. The Freedom of Information Act, the people's window into public life, has been turned into a peephole.
In state after state, polls now show that Nader voters could provide the margin of victory for the Democrats. A second Bush term would lead to "tort reform", shorthand for reining in the one effective means for holding corporate America to account through litigation. It would complete the destruction of the income tax system, replacing it with a national value added tax that would fall most heavily on the poor. It would silence the few remaining watchdogs, turning America into a closed theocracy at war with all who differ with the administration. In such a reactionary tide, what remains of Mr Nader's progressive citadels would simply wash away.
Mr Nader owes it to his supporters, his principles and himself to withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind John Kerry. In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, his action could make a world of difference.
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.