On August 2, I read in The New York Times that Arianna Huffington — newspaper pundit and an Independent candidate for governor in my state’s 2003 recall election — said of Ralph Nader’s candidacy for president that “when your house is on fire, it’s not time to talk about remodeling.”
According to Huffington, the George W. Bush administration is a domestic disaster, Nader is a rambunctious housing contractor, and John Kerry is a fireman coming to our rescue.
Huffington is not unlike the majority of my peers. Many Yalies are dissatisfied with the way our country is run these days and want to see real change, a new administration, progress. Yet these alleged supporters of idealism and vision settle for — and vote for — much less. In actual elections, their allegiance lies with conformity, with first Al Gore and now, in 2004, with Kerry.
I don’t for a moment blame my peers who will vote, somewhat against instinct, for Kerry on election day. Sure, he doesn’t have the grassroots organizing power that Howard Dean demonstrated during the primaries, and the Bush team has been pretty successful with its portrayal of Kerry as a flip-flopper, but the argument for voting for Kerry over Nader makes a lot of sense: We love everything that Ralph Nader stands for — human rights, consumer safety, fuel efficiency, anti-globalization — but voting for him is too risky. We’d rather have Kerry than Bush.
To this very worthy argument, I have two responses. The first is that these voters may be absolutely right, but just as a Nader supporter has every right to strategically cast her vote for Kerry, a Kerry supporter must not ridicule those who vote for Nader, must not even blame us for a Republican triumph. My vote is my vote, and whether I’m voting in California or Florida nobody should tell me I’m responsible for a Bush victory unless I vote for Bush.
And that brings me to my second response, which is that there is no idealistic victory in an election where Nader and other minor candidates are kept off the ballot because they are strategic problems to other candidates. Instead of engaging Nader in debate as an opponent, Kerry tells us that we can agree with Nader, we just can’t support him. We can believe in democratic ideals, in risks, in changes, but we’re not supposed to vote for them.
This is a problem because it transforms our election process into a game of “Risk,” into a strategy instead of a debate over values and policies. Nader, to Kerry voters, isn’t a candidate that needs to be beaten, but is a pawn that needs to be tossed off the game board. Grassroots organizations are not spending their time persuading voters to support Kerry, but are instead actually campaigning to keep Nader off the ballot in key states like Ohio and Florida. We shouldn’t need to remind ourselves that our elections are supposed to be about choice.
In an election as close as the one in 2000, nobody really wins — half the country thinks that Bush didn’t win, we all know that Gore didn’t win, and we, the voters, feel the defeat the most. We feel it not only in our lagging job market and this festering mess of a war, but still more troubling is our attempt to rally support when neither the Republicans nor the Democrats feel particularly strongly about their candidates, but fiercely defend them out of desperate competition for the White House.
Here’s why I like Nader: he doesn’t set himself the inherently meaningless goal of the American presidency and then fit a philosophy into his running strategy. Instead, he’s doing in this election what he’s always done, which is, as he told interviewers this summer, to look “to the future.” Nader — an experienced, Princeton-educated lawyer — consistently looks to the future: he has organized lawsuits for consumer rights and safety, he was the original militant seat-belt advocate, according to an article he wrote for The New York Times on August 10 he even argued for more secure aircraft cockpits back in the ’80s when insurgents were hijacking planes to Central America.
Today’s voters look at a resume like that and say that Nader’s place is on a soapbox, not in the Oval Office. He’s too volatile to be president. We prefer a blander type, someone who won’t offend too many people.
The thinkers at our great country’s foundation, though, were every bit as offensive and multi-faceted as Nader. Benjamin Franklin, an inventor and scientist as well as a writer and a politician, spent much of his old age gallivanting around Paris with ladies of the night. Our founding fathers weren’t afraid of scandal, they were afraid of corruption. Even our most beloved presidents of recent years don’t come close to such a Renaissance man resume, but Nader does.
My point here is not really to encourage votes for Nader, and I know that whether he gets mine or not will probably have little outcome in this election. I’m writing this because we are all on our way to either demanding or taking part in good leadership in this world, and to fall into the mold of Bush or Kerry would be uninspired and could be disastrous. Nader isn’t a spoiler, he’s a role model. We should look at his career, recognizing his failures and emulating his triumphs, solving problems first instead of starting with our own goals and then considering public service as a tool to get us there.
Al Gore once said that he was raised to be president. His family was old political stock, he had a great education and a great career in the Senate and the Clinton White House. But no amount of grooming can turn a good kid into a great leader. We good kids of today have a lot to learn from Ralph Nader, whose battles begin with problems and end with solutions. That’s leadership. That’s a remodeler who can use a fire extinguisher.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.