Magazine article Dissent

Ralph Nader and the Will to Marginality

Magazine article Dissent

Ralph Nader and the Will to Marginality

Article excerpt

A CLASSIC BOOK of social psychology analyzes a flying saucer cult of the 1950s. This small band of Americans believed that on a particular date soon to come, the world would be engulfed by a flood of biblical proportions-but also that, on the very same day, flying saucers would arrive and rescue the true believers. Researchers infiltrated the group and waited to see what would happen.

Came the designated day, the landscape remained dry, no saucers landed, and how did the believers respond? A number of them fell away. But as in similar cases of millenarian prophecy over previous centuries, there remained a core of fanatics who, having already turned their lives upside down to conform to the prophecy, took courage from the support they found in their group. They stuck to their guns, reinterpreted the data in such a way as to justify the commitments they had already undertaken, and intensified their proselytizing efforts. If reality was going to be in such poor form as to disconfirm their belief, they would find a way to make belief and reality match. If they could win converts in a second round of proselytizing, they would confirm the wisdom they had demonstrated in the first.

Thus does the book that emerged from this research, When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, published in 1956, anticipate Ralph Nader-except that Nader has more data at his disposal and therefore must be counted as more reckless in his disregard for the all-too-real world in which George W. Bush and his crowd have taken power over every important institution of American politics in behalf of preventive war, plutocracy, environmental meltdown, cultural rollback, and a judiciary that ratifies all the above.

Pyromania or Self-immolation?

Nader's narcissism has metastasized to such proportions that he came forward all alone to announce his candidacy without being able to brandish a single one of the celebrities who surrounded him in 2000 and gave him a certain cachet with the young-not Michael Moore, not Tim Robbins or Susan Sarandon, not Patti Smith. The Nation urged him not to run. Howard Dean urged his followers not to bolt from the Democrats. This time around, Nader cannot even offer the Green Party, whose national nomination he disdained to seek (though he is free to try to avail himself of their positions on many state ballots). So much for his argument four years ago about third parties and their indispensability in American history and in politics today. To the struggle against "corporate-occupied territory," Nader now offers only himself, the one-man crusader who whines that his critics want to deprive him of a fundamental right, the right to run. La troisieme -partie, c'est moi. he has gone into flying saucer territory. Will he headquarter his campaign in Roswell, N.M.?

The difference-maker of 2000 again declares himself the one-man answer to "the two-party duopoly," a status quo in which "both parties flunk . . . one with a D-, the Republicans; one with a D+, the Democrats." This year he adds a new enemy: "the liberal intelligentsia" who, he admits, tried to talk him out of his intent to run as an independent this year. The term is code for activists who disagree with him. Over the months leading up to his February announcement, Nader consulted many environmentalists and consumer advocates-some of them groomed by him in past decades. Back when he approved of these people, he did not pigeonhole them; he viewed them as the people's tribunes, the indefatigable heroes of a popular movement. Now these doubters are demoted to the status of pixel-pushers.

All in all, Nader's announcement ratified his position as an unforgettable figure in American history, but whether his candidacy is pyromania or self-immolation isn't yet clear.

The Remnant That Does Not Save

How consequential Nader's decision will prove to be is, of course, unknowable. Florida, New Hampshire, and New Mexico are only three of the states where even a badly weakened Nader might make a difference comparable to his decisive margin in 2000. …

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