Ira Carmen, a professor at the University of Illinois, has theorized that political preference is genetic–not that there’s a genetic disposition towards liberalism or conservatism, but rather that there’s a genetic disposition towards moderation or extremism. As he noted, “a substantial number of ex-communists sat on the editorial board of the National Review. Can there be genetic antecedents linking hard-core conservatism and hard-core liberalism?” (17)
I can’t speak to the scientific soundness of his hypothesis, but I do know that in developing my own political beliefs, I passed from extreme leftism to extreme conservatism with very little time–perhaps a year or two–spent as an apolitical moderate. Several other right-wing bloggers, such as Daniel and Proph, report the same progression from one extreme to another.
I offer this observation in order to preface a statement that may seem surprising to anyone who’s been reading this blog: in the year 2000, I was a passionate supporter of Ralph Nader and a Green Party volunteer (though I didn’t actually vote Green, because I wasn’t old enough to vote). And, although much of my erstwhile support for socialism and feminism is repugnant to me now, I still do sympathize with that youthful refusal to compromise with what I thought to be intrinsically evil. That same refusal led me to write in a candidate in yesterday’s presidential election, because I simply couldn’t support Romney’s lukewarm stance on pro-life and pro-marriage issues.
As I reflect on what’s transpired between the 2000 and 2012 presidential elections, I can’t help but feel that such extremism is sometimes tactically beneficial. In the long run, didn’t Ralph Nader ultimately get much of what he supported? Sure, he had the immediate effect of aiding Bush’s election, but Bush’s reign was probably a boon to the Left. Nader himself predicted in 2000 that ”a bumbling Texas governor would galvanize the environmental community as never before.” In reality, Bush radicalized not just the environmentalists but also the feminists, the civil libertarians, the LGBT activists, etc. Hatred of Bush poured money into their coffers and provoked a lot of formerly listless supporters into action.
Meanwhile, the Naderites and their supporters, many of them now disillusioned by the Green Party, brought grassroots organizing tactics and idealistic rhetoric into the Democratic Party. They began to experiment with grassroots social media tactics, especially during Howard Dean’s ill-fated campaign. Democratic politicians who protested Bush gained powerful positions in the party–among them Barack Obama, who in 2004 was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention because of the publicity he was gaining by speaking at antiwar rallies during his Senate campaign. The end result is that we now have a “community organizer” president who has instituted universal health care, tacitly allowed for the legalization of marijuana, promoted green energy, abolished “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and financially subsidized the sexual revolution by giving free contraception to all. Sure, he hasn’t always lived up to Nader’s ideals of participatory democracy–he prefers to make his own laws through executive orders, rather than abide by the normal constitutional channels–but not many progressives seem to mind a benevolent dictator, as long as he’s on their side.
Obama’s victory in 2008 could always be attributed to factors beyond his control, like McCain’s disastrous choice of Sarah Palin as VP and the poor state of the economy at the end of Bush’s last term. But in 2012, he won despite a persistently bad economy, despite his own lackluster debate performances, and despite savvy and well-funded opponents. Moreover, progressives prevailed in the ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage and drug legalization. It seems clear that his victory reflects genuine support for the progressive agenda.
I’m not saying there’s a direct causal connection between Ralph Nader’s presidential run in 2000 and Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012. Our country has been on a leftward trajectory since the 1960s, after all. But after Bush’s win in 2000, it looked like the leftward trajectory might at least be on pause. It was the Naderites and progressives who helped get it started again.
I am, it seems, perpetually out of step with the times. To be a Nader supporter in 2000 and a Rick Santorum supporter in 2012 seem like equally hopeless positions. But at least my experience as the former shows that perhaps there is hope for the latter.