Ralph Nader looked vigorous, sharp and confident when he appeared on Meet the Press to announce that he was running for president. I hope I'm that full of beans when I'm 74, not that that will be anytime soon, but sheesh, man, I wanted to shout at the screen, where's your dignity? Do you really want to go down in history as the world's most irritating vanity candidate? It's getting hard to write those pieces that heap praise on Nader for all his great service to humanity — safer cars, safer water, safer factories — and beg him to please, please stick with his day job. Every time he runs, those glory days are four years longer ago. Those students from Prairie View A&M in Texas, who walked seven miles to their Republican-gerrymandered polling place in order to early-vote for Barack Obama, weren't even born when Nader was in his prime.
Ralph Nader has a perfect right to run for president. And anyway it's hard to imagine that he will have the same effect in 2008 he had in 2000 — which, he told Tim Russert, was very little, because the Republicans stole the election, which Gore rightfully won. Be that as it may, we've all had a seven-year crash course in just how much difference there can be between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. In 2000, Nader got 2.7 percent of the vote. In 2004, he got 0.36 percent — that's fewer than four voters in 1,000. If Hillary gets the nomination, Ralph might pick up the hard-left sexist vote, always a valuable demographic, but if it's Obama versus McCain? Not enough difference between the candidate who opposed the war from the start and the one who wants to stay for 100 years? Between the one who wants to insure everyone (well, almost everyone) and the one who doesn't see much of a problem with healthcare as is? The pro-choice one and the one who voted 113 out of 117 times against reproductive rights? Oh, I forgot, Naderites never denied that the parties differed on abortion. They just didn't care, and they probably still don't. These people would not vote Democratic if Nader wasn't running; they'd choose another protest candidate or stay home.
Here's what I don't like about Ralph running: His run is all about Ralph and his right to run. In the eight years since 2000, he's built no movement and mobilized no support. As I write, the Green Party nomination is up in the air — Nader and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney are the top contestants. But the Green Party today is embroiled in factional feuds and backbiting: It's hard to imagine it could provide Nader with even as much backup as it did in 2000. What is the point of popping up every four years to tweak the noses of the Dems? Beyond scoring him a few extra invitations from the Sunday talk shows, it's hard to see how Ralph's Lone Ranger candidacy is going to reach the citizenry. Compared with John Edwards (whom Nader liked enough to support in the primaries), Nader is invisible. If he had wanted to reach a mass audience he could have run in the primaries like Dennis Kucinich — or, for that matter, Ron Paul — and gotten a ton of free airtime and a chance to show directly his superiority over the other candidates. That he passed up that opportunity but will howl if excluded from debates between the eventual nominees makes him seem vain and petulant.
The left loves to talk about the need for mass movements, yet in the electoral arena it offers mostly tiny, hapless third parties and futile symbolic runs by political celebrities who have no real interest in governing — campaigns that ignore the basic laws of electoral math because who needs to kiss a baby when we are just so right on the issues? When I dared suggest that Cindy Sheehan didn't have much chance of beating Nancy Pelosi — because whatever Pelosi may be in the comment section of AlterNet, in the real world she's a powerful and popular politician — I got clobbered by the true believers. It was as if I was the only child in the theater who refused to clap for Tinkerbell. But here we are, months later, and where is Sheehan? Well, last week she and Tiffany Burns, her campaign manager, were in Cairo, to support members of the Muslim Brotherhood facing trial by military tribunal. Yes, yes, I know — even misogynous fundamentalists who want to turn Egypt into a theocracy deserve civil rights, although I'm not sure I'd go halfway around the world to make that point. But you have to admit, Cairo is an odd place to pursue votes in California's 8th District.
For decades it's been an irony of U.S. politics that the grassroots movement has been on the right: Conservative evangelicals and movement conservatives have been using the tactics developed by the left in the 1960s, branching out through neighborhoods and churches and schools while also steadily taking over the Republican Party precinct by precinct. They may fuss and fume, but they know nobody's perfect: If John McCain is the candidate, James Dobson is not going to mount an independent run so that creationists get a real choice in November. Now, finally, the Republican coalition may be reaching its natural limits, even as Obama has sparked something like a grassroots movement on the left. He's not as far to the left as Nader by a long shot, but if the majority of Democrats had wanted Ralph's politics they could have voted for John Edwards, and they didn't. Maybe someday we can have a real conversation about why the candidate who embodied the white-working-class-man-friendly economic populism that The Nation has promoted for years fell flat, and the woman and the biracial, multicultural man have inspired huge crowds of supporters. It was not supposed to happen this way. As Bill Fletcher wrote in The Black Commentator, "Edwards, much like Kucinich (in both the 2004 and 2008 Kucinich campaigns), fell prey to the historic 'white populist error' ... that unity will magically appear by building a campaign that attacks poverty and corporate abuse, supports unions and focuses on the challenges facing the working class, but ignores race and gender." Is identity politics, long blamed for the Democratic Party's low fortunes, now riding to its rescue? For Nader, who famously scorned "gonadal politics," that would be ironic indeed.Katha Pollitt writes for publications including The Nation, where this column also appears. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org