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Raider without a cause

The third-party passion that Nader personified now resides within the Democratic Party.

July 22, 2007|Todd Gitlin

At a green party convention in Reading, Pa., on July 14, Ralph Nader provoked admirers and detractors alike when he declared that he is once again "considering" a run for the presidency.

This would be the 73-year-old activist's fourth third-party race. For a decade now and counting, Nader has presented himself as the outsider's outsider, as the reformer's conscience and as a sturdy crusader against a corrupt party system -- meaning, in effect, against Democrats, from whom he siphons votes (a fact amply noted by the Republican donors who boosted his Green Party campaigns in 2000 and 2004).

As Nader's advocates do not weary of pointing out, American third parties have often been the vehicles in which those excluded from the two-party system (such as the abolitionist Republicans of the mid-19th century and the Socialists of the early 20th) hitched a ride. The idea is that when the major parties duck the urgent and transforming issues of their time, outsiders will fuse their passion and ideals into a battering ram. They are likely to lose in the end, but they will be influential.

There's some truth to that argument, and especially to the idea that their self-sacrifice is both inevitable and, at times, somewhat effective. A rhythm of outsider assault followed by accommodation runs through American history. The moral declaimers aim to upend the table but eventually find seats there -- if not for themselves then for their ideas, as espoused by their better-behaved, more accommodating cousins. The Socialists and Progressives, for example, were rarely elected, but their ideas were critical to the New Deal. And many of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's anti-federal attitudes found their way into Ronald Reagan's programs.

What Nader refuses to recognize, however -- indeed, what he is intensely committed to not recognizing -- is that political reform movements today are not what they were. The world has changed. The energy and moral vigor of outsiders has now taken up residence inside the Democratic Party. There, it is a force -- a recruiting channel, a source of funds, a well of campaigners, a lobby, a debate center.

In the language of the book that serves as something of a manifesto for the latest generation of practical rebels -- written by bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga -- they have "crashed the gates." Now that they're inside, they can take credit for party victories without sacrificing their independence or integrity. They have both influence and momentum.

This is because they have learned from the triumphs of the mobilized right. While liberal and leftist activists pitched camp for years outside their natural party (largely because the Democrats were divided, first over civil rights and then over the Vietnam War), the conservative movement decamped for the Republican Party with an eye to winning elections and governing. First they laid claim to the party in the Goldwater crusade of 1964. Then, after the Nixon interregnum, they roared back still more conclusively, with religious zeal, when Reagan was elected president in 1980. They bounced back yet again, ripe with experience and passion, in the George W. Bush election of 2000. Not only were they fortunate to have standard-bearers with the common touch and moralist auras, but they benefited from enfeebled oppositions that they successfully saddled with an elitist reputation.

Now, the fervent activists of the so-called netroots have taken a page from the conservative playbook. They have stormed into the Democratic Party and become one of its indispensable segments. First visible in the anti-impeachment effort of 1998, then in the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean, and most recently in the decidedly more successful Democratic mobilization of 2006, the netroots number in the millions, united, organized and empowered by the power of the Internet. Their numbers are compounded by their fervor -- they are, in the main, activists.

They do differ from their conservative counterparts in several respects. They do not benefit from a media apparatus -- the talk shows and Fox News -- so, informally, they have devised their own, largely online (much as the right earlier cultivated the use of direct mail).

Moreover, they are not an ideological machine fused around a core program or a simple set of slogans. Many are liberal, but some are centrist. The Iraq war is their most galvanizing cause, but they do not all agree about how exactly to extricate the country from it. Many are in their 30s, but many are older or younger. Whereas the Republicans can bumper-sticker their appeals with "lower taxes" and "family values," the Democrats' netroots are all over the place. Where the movement conservatives have long coordinated their tactics and stay relentlessly "on message," the left-of-center netroots have learned to play catch-up.

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