How Ralph Nader Won

The excitement generated by Ralph Nader's presidential bid is worrying those who hope to see Al Gore elected, encouraging those who want to build a strong third (or second!) party, and inspiring those who think he just might win.

by Sam Smith

It was just another morning. I drifted into the purgatory between sleep and NPR, my bifurcated mind struggling towards daylight as Cokie Roberts explained with patronizing certainty to a gratingly cheerful host why the system was still under control and why Ralph Nader would prove to be no more than a mild case of political heartburn.

I slipped back into a dream. Things were happening of the sort that don't show up in news conferences. The sophisticated corruption of one candidate and the frat boy corruption of the other were deeply eroding voter interest in either. Supporters and news commentators didn't help with their implications that the pair enjoyed sovereign moral immunity – telling voters that “everybody does it” when really only a small handful could get away with it.

There had also developed what a psychologist might describe as the obverse of mass psychosis, a biologist might call a virus of virtue, or a physicist might call a phase transition of the soul. If you were in none of these professions, however, maybe it felt most like those moments when you turn the car around in a driveway, finally admitting you have taken the wrong road. More and more Americans had that feeling.

Where it began, nobody knows; there were too many bubbles when the pot started to boil.

There was, for example, the bar where a voter first said the words that would become an election year fad – a beer glass lifted to the toast, “This one's for us” – and everyone at the table responding in kind, first with their beer and later at the election booth.

There were the union leaders who publicly toyed with the idea of endorsing Nader as a way of putting pressure on Gore, but whose temporary political tactic became a lasting political principle in the minds of many members.

There was the farmer looking at the box of cereal in the supermarket and realizing how little some other farmer had received for what went into that box.

There was the teenager who would say later: “I told my friends, like let's start a revolution and they were like Ônah, we've got too much homework' and then one day someone was like Ôhow?' and so we started.”

There were the posters cropping up at colleges around the country announcing post-election parties with popular bands, the admission to which would be a ballot stub or an “I Voted” sticker.

There was the Christian fundamentalist who realized that it was sometimes better to disagree with an honest politician and than agree with a dishonest one.

There was the black mother who had voted Democratic all her life realizing that it was Democrats who had taken away her income support and sent her son 200 miles away to a privatized gulag for a minor drug infraction.

There was the liberal who had listened to Democrats tell him for eight years that Clinton was the best president their political party could ever hope for. And so he left the party.

There was the man who told a reporter, “I guess my apathy just ran out.”

There was the couple who wrote the Green Party, “Our families have been union organizers, civil rights activists, peaceniks all our live ... and we voted the Democratic ticket. We agreed with Mr. Nader, but believed Ôhe can't win.' É It needs to change and the change begins with us, so after all these years, we will vote the Green Party ticket. Every journey begins with that first step.”

There were the voters tired of being called Clinton-haters simply for expecting their president to play the game straight.

Things weren't meant to happen quite like this in the Third Way about which the media wrote incessantly, but as the Nader campaign was learning, perhaps there was a Fourth Way as well. Or maybe it was really just the First Way back again. A way with real, if uncomfortable, coalitions of mutual interest rather than with a false consensus created by the pornography of propaganda.

Nader and the Green Party somewhat belatedly noticed that the crowd running ahead of them was their own campaign. They came to realize that it wasn't so much a better platform they had to offer, but a better way of thinking about and dealing with such things, a way that had once been a natural part of American democracy but which had been systematically destroyed by a politics maniacally devoted to creating anger, division, and demons. Alone among the candidates, Nader had the courage, decency, honesty, and imagination to help it happen. He found himself becoming less and less the didactic instructor, and more and more the dependable relative helping to put the family together again.

It wasn't that issues weren't important, rather that they could not be resolved in a country in which there were only winners and losers, pariahs and power- mongers, the badly defeated and the totally unrestrained. Nader repeatedly promised not to trim his arguments, but he also promised not to use divisive, manipulative, and corrupt means to accomplish what his arguments could not.

When a reporter asked him whether he wasn't too radical for America, Nader described himself as a moderate of a time that America had been long promised but which had not yet come.

As the campaign went on, America slowly began rediscovering itself, feeling better about itself, and being less angry with others. It was no longer obsessed with hidden dangers but began thinking about long-concealed possibilities. It could even think of the future and smile.

The voters didn't agree with Nader on many things but he was the one in the race who had kept the country's faith throughout his life and even, when in the wrong, hadn't used lies to get there. To more and more people, Nader was only a first step but an absolutely necessary one.


And so on election day America gave itself another chance, using nothing more revolutionary or sophisticated than a change of heart, and a trust in instinct over propaganda, self-interest over spin, decency over power, and a vision that now saw the future as a frontier rather than as a mandatory sentence É

It was just another morning.

Cokie Roberts was gone now and the gratingly cheerful host was interviewing a sports writer about baseball, and I lay there wondering whether anyone would go to the stadium if ball games were as predictable as politics, if Cokie Roberts could explain to us just exactly how they would turn out, if the system always won.

I reached back and tried to retrieve my dream from the purgatory between sleep and sound. As I picked up the pieces, I noticed something different about them – different, say, from the time when, in my morning mind, I had blended a traffic update and Silvia Paggioli's report and saw Serbians advancing down Connecticut Avenue. This time, my dream was totally without fantasy. All it required to be true was for people to think something they had not thought for a long time, to decide that the past was over, to refuse to be hustled and cheated anymore, to try a new road, to think and dream for themselves – just as was supposed to happen in a democracy – and then to tell others what they had thought and dreamt, giving the others courage to try the same thingÉ

It was just another morning.

I got up and wrote it down so I could pass it on. The news said the weather would be variable. Maybe politics still could be as well.

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