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1.5.04

Pragmatic Naderites

The "Nader debate" (should leftists vote for Ralph Nader or for Al Gore/John Kerry) is usually framed in terms of idealism vs. pragmatism. Voters choose Nader because he represents their ideals, while they choose Gore/Kerry because he has a chance of actually winning and implementing some fraction of their ideals. I think this is a more or less accurate picture of the situation on the right -- what might be called the "Toomey debate" after the hard-right challenger in Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary. But for some strains of leftism, it seems that the "Nader debate" really ought to be a choice between two forms of pragmatism.

Right-wing ideologies, especially Christian fundamentalism, lay claim to an absolute truth. Homosexuality is wrong, period. Taxes are evil, full stop. Voting for a more centrist candidate is a betrayal of principle in a way that, say, paying $1.00 for a soda when you'd prefer to have it for free is not.

The far left originally laid claim to a similar absolute truth -- consider Marxism's claim to discover the true underlying structures of society. Doubtless many contemporary leftists still hold this sort of position. But there has been what might be called the "discursive" or "cultural turn," in which a part of the left began to be concerned with how all knowledge, not just "false consciousness," is socially constructed. Modern leftism is characterized, in part, by rejection of the liberal "marketplace of ideas" with its assumption of the possibility of neutral and accurate knowledge. Theories began to be justified not based on how accurately they represented the truth, but on how politically efficacious they were -- promoted, for example, because they are "disruptive" or "unruly" toward the existing social structures. For example, deep ecologists cling to the "old" climax/equilibrium ecology in preference to the "new" complex systems/disturbance ecology because the latter is considered too easily coopted by capitalism*. All far left positions, then, are chosen pragmatically.

Does this mean that leftists have no excuse not to vote for Kerry? Not at all. Pragmatic arguments can be made in favor of a Nader vote -- for example, it strengthens the two-party system and thus lessens the chance of ever implementing more of the leftist program. But it does help to move us away from the tired idealism/pragmatism version of the debate.

*I prefer the "new" ecology on scientific grounds, but it strikes me -- as well as many leftists -- as less less cooptable by capitalism. For one thing, there's a sort of homology between ecological climax and the equilibrium ideas of classical economics. Further, the very unpredictability posited by the new ecology, which is often cited as a weakness because it prevents us from making strong claims about the environmental damage to be done by certain actions, seems to counsel a stronger implementation of the precautionary principle.

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