Four years ago, as Americans snored through the early round sparring between presidential candidates George W. Bush and vice-president Albert Gore, insurgent Ralph Nader, an old-fashioned anti-monopolist, had a virtual monopoly on glamour and glitz as movie and TV stars primped and preened for him in a series of rock-concert-like rallies.
This time out, the Hollywood trendoids and Left-liberals have deserted Nader for the lugubrious Democrat John Kerry. The only pop culture star still in the Nader camp is the great proto-punk singer Patti Smith, which makes delicious sense, for Smith is at once radical and deeply reactionary. She took a long break from her career to nurse her dying husband and raise their children. “There’s no job harder than being a wife and a mother,” says Smith. “It’s a position that should be respected and honoured, not looked upon as some sappy alternative.” Take that, Hollywood feminists!
Like Smith, Nader’s latest presidential campaign blends unimpeachably American radicalism with a dignified conservatism. Scorned by office-hungry liberals in 2004, Nader is making explicit appeals to conservative and Republican voters.
And those appeals are paying off. On May 11, Nader was endorsed by the Ross Perot-founded Reform Party, whose 2000 standard-bearer was the populist conservative Pat Buchanan. Is Reform a party for schizophrenics? Not at all. For Nader has just released an extraordinary open letter.
Addressed to American conservatives, the letter reveals just how much the populists of Left and Right have in common in an age in which neo-conservatives and neo-liberals have embraced economic globalism and pre-emptive war.
Nader opposes the Iraq war and occupation as profoundly anti-conservative actions. He understands war to be a great uprooting force, cleaving families as fathers and even mothers are shipped across the world to serve as fodder while their children are shoved into daycare centres. Brave American boys are coming home from Iraq in flag-draped coffins, dying for … nothing. The administration’s last-ditch justification of the Iraq war fiasco – that we are “bringing democracy” to the Middle East – is the sort of world-saving hubris that once rained death and disaster on Vietnam.
Like many conservatives, Nader opposes the USA Patriot Act, the draconian “anti-terror” law that effectively repeals half of the bill of rights. He chides Bush for overriding our “precious traditions of local self-rule” in education and trade policy, and for sacrificing national sovereignty on the altar of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organisation. He rues “federal deficit spending as far as the eye can see” under Bush, the biggest spendthrift in the White House since an earlier truculent Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bush and Kerry say nary a discouraging word about the handful of corporations that control the vast majority of television and radio stations and newspapers in the US. In fact, executives of Clear Channel Communications, the homogenising monster that owns more than 1200 radio stations, are significant Bush donors. Nader, unbeholden to the media monopolists who beam witless smut and moronic celebrity-worship into the homes of compliant Americans, attacks the corporate media as “subversive of family values, parental discipline and wholesome childhoods”. He’s the only candidate in the race with the guts and the sense to tell Americans to turn off the damned idiot box.
Bush and his acolytes pride themselves on their indifference to such recherche objects as books, especially about American history; the neo-conservatives who dominate his foreign-policy apparatus are loath to admit that a place called America even existed before September 11, 2001. Yet it did, and no matter how hostile the Wolfowitzes and Rumsfelds may be to the old America, its timeless foreign policy precepts were handed down by a rather nobler president named George – Washington, that is – in his farewell address of 1796. Washington cautioned posterity against “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty”. Our “true policy”, he wrote, is “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the world”. I rather doubt that he’d have made an exception for Israel.
When the incumbent president was in his infancy, the grand figure of mid-century American conservatism, Ohio senator Robert Taft, “Mr Republican”, was telling his colleagues: “We simply cannot keep the country in readiness to fight an all-out war unless we are willing to turn our country into a garrison state and abandon all the ideals of freedom upon which this nation has been erected.” Taft, of course, was unwilling to do so; Bush manifestly desires such a garrison state, with its hypertrophied military budgets, its contempt for domestic liberties and its upraised middle finger to the American past.
Bush stands at antipodes from the best traditions of American conservatism. So does Kerry, whose differences with Bush on foreign policy are so minor as to be detectable only by, perhaps, the Hubble Space Telescope. In the 2004 presidential race, Nader is the conservative candidate, if by conservative we mean a defender of human-scale communities, traditional liberties and a prudential and peaceful foreign policy.
Bush is the candidate of the military-industrial complex, Kerry is the choice of Hollywood, and both are raising millions on Wall Street. Nader, by contrast, speaks for Main Street USA.
BILL KAUFFMAN’s “Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive” has just been published by Henry Holt. He can be reached at: email@example.com