Ralph Nader, who ran as the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000. (Photo credit: Don LaVange)
My recent article, "The Vanity of Perfectionism," has stirred up some anger, in part, because of my choice of the word "vanity" to describe some behavior that I have witnessed on the American Left in people who sit out presidential elections or cast ballots for third-party candidates who have no chance of winning.
So, let me explain what I was driving at. The central point of the article was that Americans, especially on the Left, need to get realistic about elections and stop using them as opportunities to express disappointment, anger or even personal morality. Through elections, Americans are the only ones who can select our national leaders, albeit in a limited fashion.
The rest of the world's people have no say in who's going to run the most powerful nation on earth. Only we can, at least to the extent permitted in the age of Citizens United. The main thing we can still do is stop the more dangerous major-party candidate from gaining control of the executive powers of the United States, including the commander-in-chief authority and the nuclear codes, not small things.
So, when we treat elections as if they are our moment to express ourselves, rather than to mitigate the damage that a U.S. president might inflict on the world, we are behaving selfishly, in my view. That's why I used the word "vanity." U.S. elections should not be primarily about us.
U.S. elections should really be about others -- those people who are likely to feel the brunt of American power -- Iraqis and Iranians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, Vietnamese and Cambodians, Palestinians and Syrians, etc., etc. Elections also should be about future generations and the environment.
Whether we like it or not, the choice this year looks to be between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. People were free to run in the primaries to challenge these guys and, indeed, Romney faced a fairly large field of Republicans whom he defeated. Progressives could have challenged Obama but basically chose not to.
I believe it is now the duty of American voters to assess these two candidates and decide which one is likely to inflict less harm on the planet and its people. One of them might even do some good. We can hope.
If you do your research and decide that Romney is that guy, then vote for him. If it's Obama, vote for him. (Before you make your decision, I would recommend that you read Romney's book, No Apology, a full-throated neocon manifesto, which he claims that he wrote himself.)
In my view, everything else that Americans do -- throwing away their votes on third parties or sitting out the election -- are acts of vanity. Maybe it's moralistic vanity or intellectual vanity or some other kind of vanity, but it is vanity. It has no realistic effect other than to make the person feel good.
I've known people who say they have always voted for Ralph Nader or some other third-party candidate. Thus, they say, they are not responsible for whatever the United States does to other countries. But that attitude, too, is vanity.
Instead of doing something practical to mitigate the harm that the U.S. does in the world -- by voting for the person who might be less likely to overuse the U.S. military or who might restrain the emission of greenhouse gases -- these folks sit on the sidelines basking in their perfection. They won't make a call.
The hard decision is to support the imperfect candidate who has a real chance to win and who surely will do some rotten things but likely fewer rotten things than the other guy -- and might even make some improvements.
I know that doesn't "feel" as satisfying. One has to enter a morally ambiguous world. But that it is the world where many innocent people can be saved from horrible deaths (though not all) and where possibly actions can be taken to ensure that future generations are left a planet that is still habitable or at least with the worst effects of global warming avoided.
Has That Technique Ever Worked?
Though the choice of the word "vanity" may have been the most controversial part of my article, the bulk of it addressed another issue. Has the Left's recurring practice of rejecting flawed Democratic candidates actually done any good? Was it preferable for Richard Nixon to defeat Hubert Humphrey; Ronald Reagan to beat Jimmy Carter; and George W. Bush to elbow past Al Gore to the White House?