With the end of the McCain and Bradley campaigns after their disappointing showing on March 6th, the path has been cleared for Ralph Nader's emergence as an opposition candidate in the 2000 election. No one believes that Nader has a shot to actually capture the White House, but his candidacy could bring issues of social justice and real institutional reform to the table in the way Bill Bradley hoped to. Nader's run for the Presidency also offers the Green Party an opportunity to raise its profile nationally. The real question is how receptive Americans are to 'reform'. Its a word that strikes a chord in the cynical heart of the average American, but is it simply another meaningless catch phrase like 'family values,' a concept that is so amorphous that no one could rightly said to be against it? Or has the meaning of the term 'reform' come to symbolize something even darker? Unfortunately, it seems the word "reform" is in danger of being hijacked by the right, symbolizing a mindless faith in the market against the "intrusions" of the state.
John McCain's candidacy was a wet dream for the legions of third rate-thinkers who populate the endlessly proliferating political talk shows, websites, and news-weeklies. And it's no wonder: no one had played the outsider this well since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Turnout for the Republican primaries in Michigan and New England set records and spanned the political spectrum. Even formerly archconservative pundits like Arianna Huffington "sensed" this underlying current in American politics. People, it seemed, wanted a candidate to provide real "reform".
Unfortunately, reform in the post-watergate era has come in two varieties, neither of which promise much hope for progressive policy making. Jimmy Carter was a Sunday school teacher--literally. He won because he had something called character: something that Nixon and Clinton had none of, but McCain was apparently oozing with. The average American probably could not tell you where any of these men stood (or stand) on the major issues, but you can bet who would probably win a three-way race. The notion of reform has been posited in the attributes of an individual ("he's an honest guy") and not in any prescriptions for problems that are produced at an institutional level.
The second definition of reform has a far darker overtone. This is reform as oxymoron: i.e. "welfare reform". It is the vestigial resentment of the Reagan revolution, the kind of reform that appeals to the greatest minds of the 12th century. This kind of reform appeals to those who romanticize the pre-welfare state1950's, when Donna Reed was in the kitchen and minorities were in their place. Boy, we sure could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. Reform in this context as framed by the right-wing becomes associated with "rolling back big government" and supply-side economics. The Republican Revolution of 1994 may be history, but it's effects on the English language linger.
Right-wing "reformers" are more swayed to the magical cure-alls of the market than by stories of brutal struggles by unions and civil rights groups that brought about actual, honest-to-goodness reform. The massive increase in poverty and social problems caused by the globalization of capital and the undoing of the fabric of the Great Society is made unthinkable; the disadvantaged become irrevocably "other" to the suburban voter. Institutional change becomes impossible to conceive of, and so personal responsibility and traditional values become the political code for "progress."
This is not to say that the average American is stupid, or deceived by some sinister, closed-door assembly of fat white guys drinking cognac. Its just the negativity generated by our society has been rather effectively channeled against "big government" and corrupt bureaucrats instead of concentrated corporate power. We have become a nation of delusional cynics instead of a polity of informed skeptics.
Unfortunately, it is easier for opportunists to prey on cynics than skeptics. Government, no matter how vital a service it provides, is always inefficant, and thus the tax rates that fund it, are always too high. Falling test scores provoke politicians to advocate vouchers and increased local control, despite the fact that every country with higher test scores has a more centralized educational system than the US. Even Social Security, our most prized entitlement, has not been safe from the privatization craze. Oil prices soar, and we ask for cuts in the gas tax instead of programs to develop renewable energy sources. Congress passes a long overdue minimum wage increase as part of a bogus legislative package that surely will be vetoed. All of these suggest that progess has become more a matter of lip service than sensible policy and that reform is government acting more like a business than an agent of distributive justice.
So where do these trends leave the candidacy of Ralph Nader and his adopted army, the Green Party? Did McCain strike a nerve with the American voter that Nader can seize upon? Even getting the issue of campaign finance reform, which even the insipid George W. Bush can no longer oppose (openly, at least), to be the focus of decision double-zero would be a substantial accomplishment by the fringe candidate. Is "reform" really a concept burning in the hearts of the American electorate, or is it simply the right-side of the fence for any candidate to be on this spin cycle? Unfortunately, on the national level, it looks like the latter.
Nader can realistically hope to raise the profile of the Green Party. What is at stake is not so much garnering the vaunted 5%--which would make the party eligible for federal matching funds next election--but in making the Green Party a force in state and local politics, where it has demonstrated an ability to win. So run, Ralph, run, but let's not hold our breath. If miracles are to come, they are going to take time--and not a little hard work.