There is a riddle today in American politics. Why does Ralph Nader run for president? Is it, as some contend, to prepare the way for a progressive third party? Nader is running as an individual and the party supporting him, the Reform Party founded by billionaire Ross Perot to advance his own political ambitions, is not progressive. Neither are the right-wing Republicans who are funding and working for Nader’s campaign efforts in Michigan, Oregon, and other states.

Does Nader, who has so eloquently denounced the corruption and cynicism of American politics, believe that accepting extensive support from the political right is not cynical and corrupt? Does he think he can use them without being used by them? After the “Patriot Act,” the conquest and occupation of Iraq, the White House partnership with robber barons Halliburton and Enron, and the threat of more to come, does he really believe what he is saying — there is no difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush?

Principles that are blind to changing social relationships and real-life class interests become dogmas. Individuals and groups who apply such principles become sectarians, seeking to impose their will on society. Often such individuals and groups isolate themselves or end up, as Nader is today, objectively aiding the forces that they say they oppose.

Running candidates, forming coalitions, even boycotting elections are never questions of principle but always questions of strategies and tactics within a larger framework of principled working-class and socialist politics.

If, like Nader, you do not have such politics, you run against “corporate privilege” with money and other aid from sectors of big business and the ultra-right who want a Bush victory. They want Bush not because Kerry is an opponent of their class system, but because they understand that they can expand their wealth and class power and weaken working-class interests much more with Bush than with Kerry. They know that because they already have gained so much in tax cuts, military contracts, and attacks on labor with Bush, compared to the previous Clinton administration.

Besides helping to elect Bush, its most important effect, Nader’s campaign undermines genuine movements in the direction of a real third party of the broad left.

Historically, parties organized around individuals, even when their politics and bases of support were much better than Nader’s today, didn’t develop beyond the individual and the campaign. Examples are Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party of 1924 and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party of 1948.

On the other hand, third parties as different as the Prohibition Party of the late 19th century and the Communist Party USA in the 1920s and ’30s had important aspects of their programs enacted into law — the former through a national policy, prohibition, that failed miserably, the latter through Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, and other New Deal social legislation that made a great contribution to American society. But they accomplished this by building mass organizations and educating people, by keeping one foot outside the political party system and one foot in it.

Nader is not running a third-party campaign in any serious way. His campaign can only strengthen reaction and demoralize progressives. He is not running a principled campaign. His inflexible principles, disregarding actual conditions, are dogmas, and his acceptance of aid from corporate/ultra-right forces for a campaign to fight the influence of big business and the right is very crass opportunism.

I would solve the riddle of Nader’s campaign by saying that he is objectively a ringer, in the tradition of the shadow candidates that political machines fund in primaries and elections to take votes away from candidates they wish to defeat. If Nader can get beyond his ego, show some responsibility to the people who have supported him and his progressive campaigns over the last four decades, he will withdraw his candidacy and join the campaign to end both the Bush administration and the right-wing Republican control of Congress.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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