Ralph Nader and the Abstention of the Left

When Ralph Nader entered the presidential sweepstakes as the candidate of the Green Party, I thought: At last, we will hear from the American Left on the vital questions of war and intervention. A well-known and much respected public scold, Nader, I knew, would get major attention, and in spite of my own political views, which are quite conservative, I have always given him a kind of grudging respect: here is one socialist who realizes that he is living in America, for godssake, not 18th-century Russia, and looks to William Jennings Bryan instead of Vladimir Illyich Lenin as a model to be emulated. As the heir of the old “progressive” movement that took root in the American West and Midwest, Nader, I thought, would represent all aspects of that tradition, which not only wanted to “bust the trusts” but also railed against the war profiteers who dragged us into two world wars. I anticipated rhetoric in the spirit of, say, Senator George W. Norris, Republican of Nebraska, whose speech against US entry into World War I underscored the distinctly anti-oligarchical flavor of the antiwar Left in those days. The warmongers were the men of the trusts, he declared,

“Concealed in their palatial offices on Wall Street, sitting behind mahogany desks, covered up with clipped coupons … coupons stained with mothers’ tears, coupons dyed in the lifeblood of their fellow men.” A GOOD QUESTION

With the entry of Nader, I imagined, we will hear once again the question posed by Senator Robert LaFollette, that icon of progressivism, on the eve of World War I:

“Shall we hind up our future with foreign powers and hazard the peace of this nation for all time by linking the destiny of American democracy with the ever-menacing antagonisms of foreign monarchies? [Europe is] cursed with a contagious, deadly plague, whose spread threatens to devastate the civilized world.”


Instead of apologias for “humanitarian” imperialism, a la Todd Gitlin, and the embarrassed silence of our congressional left-liberals, most of whom supported Clinton’s conquest of Kosovo, I felt certain that the voice of the Green Party would be raised against our bipartisan foreign policy of global hegemony. With Patrick J. Buchanan attacking the globalists from the right, and Nader assaulting their left flank, I was hoping that foreign policy would be an important issue in this presidential election: contrary to the predictions of the pundits, who claim that Americans could care less about the crimes of the US in Kosovo and Iraq – and would much rather keep it that way. Go Ralph go! The voice of a new LaFollette – I thought – is about to be raised, and the prospect was heartening. But, alas, it was not to be . . .


In a linguistic display of almost Clintonian evasiveness, the supposedly principled “progressive” cops out bigtime. In a February 23 interview with something called “Alternative Radio,” Nader serves notice that he has decided not to take any specific foreign policy positions aside from general blathering about “democratic processes,” and I quote:

Q: “People will want to know your views on sanctions on Iraq, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Chechnya and Kosovo. You’ve got to be prepared to answer those questions.”

A: “They’ll be answered in terms of frameworks. Once you get into more and more detail, the focus is completely defused. The press will focus on the questions that are in the news. If Chechnya is in the news, they’ll want to focus on that. We should ask ourselves, What kind of popular participation is there in foreign and military policy in this country? Very little indeed. We want to develop the frameworks. For example, do we want to pursue a vigorous policy of waging peace and put the resources into it from our national budget as we pursue the policy of building up ever-new weapons systems?”


Say what? Everybody knows Nader’s a policy wonk, but isn’t this taking it a bit too far? If US troops get into a firefight with Serbs on the Yugoslav-Kosovo border, does he really plan on answering the question of where he stands “in terms of frameworks”? And this business of how getting into detail “defuses” the focus is nothing but a crock – and shows a contempt for the language, as well as elementary logic, that one would expect of Bush or Gore: being in focus means getting down to the details. And what, exactly, is a mere “detail” in Nader’s considered opinion – the decimation of Yugoslavia, the murder of an entire generation of Iraqis, the prospect of a war for Caspian oil?


These are not “details,” but major issues that cannot be evaded by appeals to “popular participation” and exhortations to “wage peace.” By reducing a moral question that transcends politics – what constitutes a just war? – to a question of pure process, democratic or otherwise, Nader thinks he can get away with in effect taking no position at all. This has certain political advantages, in solidifying his base of support in the Green Party and in the (generally pro-war) media. While the Green Party platform clearly states its opposition to all overseas interventions, the Kosovo war (and before that, the Bosnian intervention) was not a clear-cut issue with the dreadlocks-and-nosering crowd that makes up the party’s constituency and much of its activist base. Anything he says on the Kosovo issue is bound to get him into trouble, and so – like any politician of a more traditional stripe – it is best to say nothing.


Indeed, the whole question of Nader’s stance on the Green Party platform has come up before in the context of foreign policy and defense-related issues: In a May 7 [2000] interview on “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert asked him:

Q: “The Green Party platform says about defense spending: “We strive to cut the defense budget by 50% by the year 2000, from approximately $300 billion – aggregate spending – in 1996.” Is this your position?”

A: “Not that much. But [even former Reagan officials say the] defense budget can be cut by $100 billion. Look, our traditional adversaries are no more. Soviet Union is gone. Historically, we demobilized after our enemies have disappeared or have been conquered. We’re not doing that now. We have F-22s, tens of billions of dollars. Analysts in the Pentagon are opposed to it. B-2 bombers forced down the Pentagon’s throat while the global infectious disease efforts of the Pentagon, a great story, is starved for its budget.”


Not that much? Well then how seriously should we take the Green Party platform on the question of foreign intervention? The platform calls for a “pro-Democracy foreign policy,” and offers up a laundry list of Green policy prescriptions in slogan form::

  • “Support International, Multilateral Peacekeeping to Stop Aggression and Genocide .”
  • “No Unilateral US Intervention in the Internal Affairs of Other Countries.”
  • “Close All Overseas US Military Bases.”
  • “Disband NATO and All Aggressive Military Alliances.”
  • “Ban US Arms Exports.”
  • “Abolish the CIA, NSA, and All US Agencies of Covert Warfare.”
  • “End the Economic Blockades of Cuba, Iraq, and Yugoslavia.”
  • “Cut Off US Military Aid to Counter-Insurgency Wars in Columbia and Mexico.”
  • “Require a National Referendum of the Whole People to Declare War.”


Which, if any, of these positions does Nader agree with? We’ve already noted his dissent from the Green platform on cutting the military budget – Nader would cut it only by a third or so – but what else doesn’t he agree with? You’ll notice, by the way, that the Greens say they oppose only unilateral US military intervention, and – more ominously – start their list of demands by declaring their support for multilateral “peacekeeping to stop aggression and genocide” – precisely the language used by the Clintonistas to justify the subjugation of Kosovo. The Green Party leadership, for all its emphasis on grassroots organizing, stayed away completely from the antiwar protests during the Kosovo conflict, no doubt because a good portion of the Greenies were for what was, after all, an allegedly “humanitarian” war. The strain of international do-gooderism is very strong among the Greens, as can be seen in the following astonishing passage from their platform, which promises a “global Green Deal,” the first step of which is that

“The US should finance universal access to primary education, adequate food, clean water and sanitation, preventive health care, and family planning services for every human being on Earth.”


I won’t go into the economics of that particular plank, except to ask: shall we send the Green Party the bill? The real point I want to make is that when the War Party makes its argument in “humanitarian” terms, as they did not only in Kosovo but in Indonesia, the Greens are peculiarly susceptible to this kind of doubletalk: there is a hint of what the problem is in Nader’s remark about the need to increase the role of the Pentagon in fighting “infectious diseases” worldwide. But here, again, we hear an echo of the same line being put out by the War Party in South America, where an accused war criminal, retired general Barry McCaffrey is routing billions in military aid to Colombia’s notoriously corrupt central government in his capacity as Clinton’s “drug czar.” Utilizing the language of the Therapeutic State, McCaffrey and the Clintonistas have been able to sell a deepening US involvement in Colombia’s hundred-year civil war to an increasingly skeptical Congress. Oh, it’s all part of the “war on drugs” – now there’s your “preventive health program” for the Third World! Why wouldn’t the Green Party, or Ralph Nader, endorse US aid to the Colombian government – in the name of “humanitarianism,” of course. If the drug scourge can be likened to an epidemic, and considered as just another infectious disease, then why shouldn’t Nader endorse it, both at home and abroad? After all, we’re doing it for the children. . . .


Now look, to be fair, Nader has taken a good position on nuclear arms, but then again so has George W. Bush, of all people: it was Ronald Reagan, you’ll remember, who initiated the most radical rollback of nuclear arms, the INF treaty, and Dubya clearly wants to be seen as the heir to that tradition. Besides, without another superpower face-off on the horizon, the whole issue of nuclear disarmament – however important it may be – is not in the least bit controversial, as the Republican effort to outflank the Democrats on this question makes clear enough. Nader seems to have some idea that his critique of corporate power can and should be applied to foreign affairs, but only in the very vaguest sense:. As he put it in his interview with David Barsamian on “Alternative Radio”:

“What kind of popular participation is there in foreign and military policy in this country? Very little indeed. Corporations are very much involved in a lot of these foreign policy and military policy issues. In fact, one might say they are most involved compared to anyone else in military policy budget through the Pentagon, with huge amounts of money going to unnecessary weapons systems, even by conventional military analysts’ opinions.”


But vaguely utopian calls for “popular participation” in the formulation of American foreign policy – how, exactly, would that work? – do not add up to a critique. He echoes the Eisenhowerian phrase about the “military-industrial complex,” but is strangely silent on the role of this very same complex in dragging us into war overseas. In a remarkable [August 31] 1996 interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” Nader stubbornly resisted his otherwise sympathetic interviewer’s attempts to pin him down on the foreign policy question:

SCOTT SIMON: “Aside from the issue of trade, North American Free Trade Agreement, of course, you’ve been outspoken in your opposition to that, what do you see as- as the principal foreign policy issues that confront the United States?”

RALPH NADER: “Well, I’m not taking positions on specific issues ’cause I don’t want to lose the focus of this campaign on strengthening democracy and curbing the abuses of corporate power, so I’m not speaking out on the immigration referendum, Haiti, Middle East, Bosnia. You know, if you take too many positions, especially positions on things that you have not worked on, you lose entirely the focus.”

SIMON: “But – but that’s not a small issue, the Middle East. I mean, it’s not like. . . .”

NADER: “Nor is Bosnia . . .”


NADER: “. . . nor is the – Russia, nor is hundreds of issues, but I’m not that type of candidate. Unlike politicians, I don’t know enough about every subject under the sun to make a public statement on it.”

SCOTT SIMON: “I don’t think anyone would dispute the ferocity of your intelligence and your dedication, but- but should you have a position on the Middle East and Bosnia before you put your name on the ballot for president?”

RALPH NADER: “No, it’s not that kind of campaign. Basically it’s a campaign to help build the Green Party for the future beyond November. Obviously it’s not a campaign about winning in November, it’s a campaign about building and about pushing the two-party, or three-party, candidates to take positions on structural issues relating to the dismantling of our democracy and the supremacy of global corporate power over our institutions.”


Beyond a somewhat ambiguous position on Iraqi sanctions – he appears to be against them – no one knows what Nader’s foreign policy views are, since he has consciously avoided making any public comment. This year in particular – in the wake of a disastrous war in Kosovo, and another one looming on the horizon – his silence is a kind of complicity – especially in the context of his stated intention of building the Green Party as a “progressive” alternative. What kind of a progressive movement is silent on the subject of war and peace? Only one that has been completely neutered and Soccer-Mommed to death.


There is one and only one antiwar candidate in this race, and that is Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee. While the Green Party is a motley coalition of neo-hippies, animal rights activists, and tattooed Soccer Moms, the Reformers represent an authentic Middle American populism that has not forgotten its antiwar antecedents. Buchanan, like Perot – whatever their other disagreements – reflects the Middle American suspicion of foreign intervention: both men opposed the Gulf War. Buchanan has become the national spokesman for the so-called “isolationist” Right; i.e. the increasing numbers of conservatives who learned the lesson of Somalia, the occupation of Haiti, and the bombing of the Sudanese aspirin factory: for them, Kosovo was the last straw.


Kosovo was a turning point not only for the Right, but also for the formerly antiwar Left – which for the most part jumped on the bandwagon of Clinton’s “humanitarian” war, and, if anything, criticized him for his tardiness. The transformation of the Green Party of Germany – which entered the Social Democratic government of Herr Schroeder and captured the Foreign Ministry – from a party of peaceniks to the vanguard of the War Party (European branch) was dramatized at their national convention held during the Kosovo war. The so-called “radicals” – who insisted on adhering to the original antiwar principles of the Greens – succeeded in splattering Joschka Fischer, the Green Foreign Minister, with red paint during the debate on Kosovo – but the “realos,” the pro-war “realist” wing of the party, carried the day and voted to support the government. Will the American Greens go the same route? Time will tell. . .


Nader’s abstention on the foreign policy question is an indication that they might. Silence, in this case, is complicity. Nader’s silence keeps the whole question of our bipartisan foreign policy off the election-year agenda, and furthermore symbolizes the complete absence of the Left from any organized opposition to America’s foreign wars. Not since Vietnam have we heard from the Left on the question of whether we are a republic or an empire. While Pat Buchanan, the candidate of the populist Right, has written an entire book on the subject, Ralph Nader has nothing to say on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death.


While I support Buchanan, this stunning silence on the Left is disturbing, even deeply troubling. What has happened to the American Left? Are they led by eunuchs? Where is their sense of their responsibility to their leftist heritage? Certainly the spirit of Eugene Debs, the American Socialist Party leader who ran for President from a jail cell due to his opposition to World War I, is no doubt looking down on this spectacle and snorting with disgust.


I note, as indicative of the problem with the Greens, that the party has a number of caucuses: the Woman’s Caucus, the People of Color Caucus, the Youth Caucus, and the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Caucus. Identity politics reigns supreme here, as it has taken over virtually every leftist organization of any consequence. But the new form of political correctness does not seem to include opposition to war: in abandoning Marxism, the new identity politics of the Left seems to have also ditched the old anti-imperialism. While the Green Party platform pays lip service to noninterventionism, their candidate has taken a vow of silence on the issue – and there is no Antiwar Caucus of the Green Party to make sure that Nader sticks to the platform.


Now, in all fairness, Nader’s 1996 “no foreign policy, please” position may change, this time around – we’ll just have to wait and see. In any case, a stubborn refusal to comment on a sudden foreign policy crisis – say, if Kosovo blows before Election Day 2000 – could cost him his credibility. It could also get people (including his supporters) to ask a very pertinent question: Instead of running for President, why doesn’t Nader lower his sights and run for something like California insurance commissioner? Now there is a job made for Nader, our number one Public Citizen – and, what’s more, he would probably win. The incumbent, Republican Chuck Quackenbush, is in deep trouble because of alleged financial collusion with the very industry he was charged with regulating. It would be a feather in the cap of the California Greens, who have put most of their emphasis on local organizing and campaigns for city and county office – and there’s still time for Nader to drop out.


Just think, Ralph, of all the advantages. You wouldn’t have to be bothered with unimportant “details” like Kosovo and Middle East politics, and this would give you a platform to take on the broad, overarching questions – like how high to set insurance caps.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].