Ralph Nader’s utterly predictable announcement that he will indeed run for president again as in independent candidate summons forth a certain amount of schadenfreude among Republicans, as well it should. After all, it was liberal Democrats, along with a fawning and credulous media, that blew up Nader’s fame beyond all legitimate proportion back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Back in those heady days of regnant liberalism, the surest way for an ambitious chairman of the House Subcommittee on Lawn Chair Design was to invite Mr. Nader to a hearing to excoriate the flimsiness of chaise lounges beneath the klieg lights of the TV cameras, with lawsuit to follow. It is therefore only cosmic justice—usually a liberal wisp—that Nader should have cost the Democrats a national election as he arguably did in 2000. Democrats have only themselves to blame for the Nader hydra.
Yet at a further remove there is something more than a little pathetic about Nader’s latest run, namely, the reflection on how far he has fallen. At one point in the late 1960s and 1970s Nader’s national popularity was such that he routinely ranked high in opinion polls as a favorite choice for president. Had he run for office as a Democratic candidate in the 1970s, he might have gone far. Indeed, such was Nader’s reputation that in 1976 President-elect Jimmy Carter invited him to Plains, Georgia for several hours of talks about government reform. It is doubtful that John Kerry would today invite Nader to drop by for any other purpose than fitting him out with a pair of cement shoes.
Kerry needn’t worry much. It is doubtful Nader will get even 1 percent of the vote this year (he got about 3 percent in 2000), and most of those will be votes that would otherwise be cast as write-ins for Noam Chomsky.
The appeal of Nader was always that he somehow stood above or beyond politics, that he was somehow a better or more virtuous person than the power- and attention-grubbing partisan politicians that fill up the public stage. But increasingly Nader looks like the worst of a partisan politician—partisan for only himself—without the mitigating virtue of partisan accountability. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (a possible Kerry running mate) rightly called Nader’s new run “an act of total vanity and ego satisfaction.”
Here the words of Henry Adams come to mind: “The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self; a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies; a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes; one can scarcely use expressions too strong to describe the violence of egotism it stimulates.”
In other words, Nader has succumbed to the personal corruption of his own massive publicity and power in much the same was as an ordinary politician. The lesson is that you don’t have to be elected to anything to succumb to the political disease—an “activist” can be afflicted just as severely.