Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, May 06, 2002
Ralph Nader responds at length today in Slate to a devastating critique by a poster in the Fray (the Slate comments area) of Nader's claim to be responsible for the current Democraitic majority in the Senate, citing the close victory of Maria Cantwell of Washington.

The most interesting thing about Nader's response is that it exists at all. This is, after all, Ralph Nader, one of the most prominent leftist voices in US politics for a generation, answering at length a critic who is not even identified by his full name. The fact that Nader even felt called upon to write it is remarkable. Although Slate itself is obviously run by one of the most powerful corporations on Earth, this exchange indicates the power of independent voices on the Net, and says something also about the rising popularity of blogging.

As a self-declared advocate of all things good and decent, one would expect Nader to welcome the Brave New World where an unknown with nothing behind him but a strong argument can force a legendary figure like Nader to an answer. In principle, I suppose he does, but as the victim of this particular Fisking, Nader shows plainly that his affection for real-life empowerment is highly limited. Especially when that real-life empowerment is exposing his own dishonesty and shabby arguments.


The anonymous RonK's extravagant exaggerations in the Fray deserve a reply only because they are communicated to the unwary. As far as anyone knows, RonK was not in the room with my associates, Sen. Harry Reid and his staffer, unless he has access to some secret technology. So, RonK, my response to your prefatory "unless I am very much mistaken" is that you are.

After starting with a gratuitous insult to RonK and his 'unwary' readers (how dare we doubt the truth of Saint Ralph), Nader attacks RonK and again cites Senator Reid as allegedly agreeing with Nader's statements about the Cantwell election. But Nader cites only a private conversation to this effect, not any public statement.

RonK is also a pop psychologist. He aspires to reading minds, Jim—a trait that should provide him with a lucrative avocation. He probes the question of "what is the meaning of us?" "Us" I meant to mean "us"—me and my two associates who responded to Sen. Reid's invitation to meet. I was not claiming responsibility for Cantwell's win; I was merely referring to the numbers and the conditional "If the Democrats want to play the selective what-if game, then. ..." RonK then becomes the political statistician slipping on his premises and sprawling to his conclusions. According to exit polls, about one of three of our votes said that they would not have voted at all if the Green Party slate was not on the ballot. Cantwell wins by about 2,300 votes, loses none to the Greens because there is no Green candidate, and the Nader/LaDuke ticket received about 103,000 votes. Go figure.

Another ad hominem shot at RonK, folllowed by laying out the statistical basis for his claim that the Green vote was responsible for Cantwell's victory. In laying out that argument Nader simply assumes that Green presidential voters, with no Green senatorial candidate on the ballot, must have voted for Cantwell. Neither here nor elsewhere does he address a single one of RonK's 5 specific arguments showing that the spillover from Nader to Cantwell was probably less, perhaps much less, than these numbers suggest.

Instead, RonK confronts his audience with an even shakier tier of hypotheticals, which presumably serve as his premises. Maybe he is a comedian. He overthinks! His next sally encroaches on the land of absurdum. A third-party competitor should be held responsible, he thinks, if he thinks that candidacy cost the least-worst major candidate his victory.

Whatever happened to political competition, diverse agendas, a focus on the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands undermining our modest democracy, and voter choice? Does America belong to just two parties? He should read the history of 19th-century third parties, only one of which won the presidency (the Republican Party in 1860) and view their many contributions that alerted and aroused both citizenry and politicians and pressed for needed reforms and changes (abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, the right to form trade unions, the populist-progressive farmers' revolt, and more).

After some more ad hominem, Nader responds to RonK's argument that "In most accepted systems of ethics, equity and liability, an actor is responsible for the reasonably knowable consequences of his discretionary acts. Nader refuses the weight of this responsibility. He insists instead that his self-aggrandizing performance be judged according to the what-if's of an alternate universe, one with different choices." Or he at least indicates some interest in responding. But hey, why demonstrate that an argument is false if you can instead just label it as "absurdum". That's a lot easier. Did you notice that Nader never actually gives a coherent answer to this argument either? Silly you, stop overthinking!

Nader cites historical examples of reforms championed by minor parties, ands suggests, improbably and without the slightest show of evidence, that his critic is unaware of this history. (Nader's Olympian presumption that if RonK or anyone else really does believe in truth, justice, and the American Way without supporting Nader, ignorance must be the explanation for that contradiction is repeated several times.) But look at the changes Nader himself cites. The only one actually accomplished through a third party was the abolition of slavery. In that instance, the Republicans had little choice but to field their own candidates - both major parties were firmly opposed to abolition. The other reforms listed were all accomplished through the established parties; although they were advocated by outsider parties, they weren't carried out until major parties adopted them.

Nader supposedly ran to build a strong progressive movement. Where exactly is the recent evidence that the effective way to do this is a media ham rushing around the country running a third party campaign? Only 3 such campaigns since WW II have drawn really substantial votes. The most successful one in terms of votes was the Perot campaign of 1992, and a decade later the Reform Party is pretty much dead. The only ones that actually won states and electoral votes were the campaigns of George Wallace (1968) and Strom Thurmond (1948), both run to support a cause which has since deservedly landed in the garbage dump of history.

The progressive movements of the past 40 years which were real successes (civil rights, anti-war, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism) were all built from the ground up without running their own parties. None of them except the civil rights movement even had one dominant national leader; none had a dominant national organization. All owe their policy successes primarily to building up sufficient popular support that the Democratic Party adopted their cause. (The key civil rights bills were supported crucially by liberal Republicans back when that phrase wasn't an oxymoron.)

RonK next accuses by asserting broad factual error. He asserts without being at all factual—thereby inviting readers into his bottomless pit of deception. He moves to a presumed list of recent Republican-Bush moves as if the Democrats would have done just the opposite with action, not rhetoric. (For a list of performances by Clinton-Gore under the heading "Wouldn't President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney Have Done the Same?" see Appendix D from my book Crashing the Party).

In the next paragraph, we find out just how unreliable RonK is. He engages in "broad factual error" and makes statements "without being at all factual". But it isn't specified just what all these falsehoods are - Saint Ralph tells us they exist and that is enough. Heck, RonK is so bad he even has his very own "bottomless pit of deception". Where can I get one of those? I know, buy Nader's latest book.

The crux of this confusingly-worded argument is whether the "election" of Bush over Gore makes a difference. But of course, it is Nader and not RonK who is being dishonest here. Obviously Gore is cautious and the need to raise huge campaign chests means that almost any serious candidate will avoid a direct attack on corporate power, but there is still a large difference between the parties. In fact, the differences are larger than was shown by the campaigns. Both parties promised a tax cut and new Medicare improvements. There was enough money available in 2000 to do both, and Gore probably would have. Bush focussed on passing a tax cut, actually larger than the one he campaigned on, which has eaten up the entire surplus, leaving no money for the Medicare package he campaigned on, which hasn't been heard from since the campaign. At the same time, the intensely regressive Bush scheme delivered no real tax relief to the vast majority of Americans. On the positive side, at least Bush's tax cut did leave no money for his harebrained Social Security proposals.

RonK tells us that he suspects that Sen. Cantwell would have "in a heartbeat" sacrificed her Senate seat for a Gore presidency. He forgets she worked at Real Networks. [Discussion of single payer health care snipped.]

At last a paragraph that doesn't open with an ad hominem attack. Showing he has command of multiple fallacies, Nader instead opts for the non sequitir. Of course, the real point here isn't Senator Cantwell's opinions, since Nader never claimed to be devoted to her, even if he does now claim to have elected her. The real question is the impact of Nader's campaign on the larger goal of progressive action and a better society. This isn't even a remotely close call. Since nothing can actually be done in the Senate without 60 votes, or even more if you need to override a veto, the Democratic majority there is nothing but a brake, a weak one at that, on the right wing initiatives of the Bush government. Gaining the White House is so much more valuable than a narrow Senate majority that no reasonable comparison can even be made. You can bet that not one of the right wingers who are running the White House today, thanks to Nader's efforts, would be stupid enough to trade that for a razor-thin Senate majority.

RonK unmasks his empty rhetoric with his conclusions: "and you know what's good for us, better than we do ... right, Ralph?" That's just what you spent e-mail time doing. What I do is urge others to advance justice as citizens in the arena of deliberative democracy. Always looking for better ways to make cars safer, air cleaner, water purer, corporations more accountable, government more accountable, and have the future a little more foreseeable—all within democratic processes. Someday a book may be written showing a correlation between the quality of communications and their ease of transmission. Letters written years ago between politicians, for example, were much more thoughtful than in recent years because they were rarer events and took longer to get there. E-mail is at the other extreme, quick, cheap, and too often thoughtless. RonK can be advised to think a little more before his fingers fly on the keyboard. For this, he should read a sobering new book, titled Silent Theft, by David Bollier, about our society's commons or commonwealth and how corporations are appropriating it installment by installment. He will receive valuable information about commonwealth that will give thoughtfulness a chance to ponder how a society protects its common assets (public airwaves, public research and development, public lands, public works, and public space).

In his closing paragraph, Nader unmasks his own empty rhetoric with incoherence and condescension. Obviously, he should think a little more before his fingers fly on the keyboard.

Nader feels that the current Democratic Party is too timid and has too little interest in the needs of the poor. This is, of course, substantially true. He claims to believe that the huge number of Americans who don't vote would rush to the polls to elect any candidate who put forward a traditional liberal agenda, which is clearly false, and I suspect he knows it. To justify his desire to run, he put forward the claim that there is no real difference between the parties, another obviously false claim. And knowing that this claim draws the widespread skepticism it deserves, he put out after the election the story that he didn't actually throw it to Bush, which is even more obviously false. And he does all this while loudly announcing that what separates him from other politicains is his fearless truthfulness, even bragging about it in the subtitle of his new book.

Nader's hypocrisy and dishonesty were well covered in a recent book review by Matt Welch