Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential nominee, may be the decisive factor in the November election. In closely contested states—Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—Nader is likely to receive three to five percent of the vote, mostiy from Al Gore’s electoral base. That is not much, but it may be enough to hand the election over to George W. Bush.

Nader insists that his real objective is not to win the presidency (which he knows is impossible), but to build an enduring third party and a “progressive political community” that will challenge the two-party system entrenched in Washington. Nader’s campaign taps into a growing desire for an alternative to the vacuous, centrist policies of the Democrats and Republicans. Modeling Ins movement on the Populists and Progressives at the turn of the 20th century, Nader seeks to restore participator,” democracy and to end the stranglehold of corporations and big money on American polities. He looks back to the 1960’s, and many of his ideas resemble the best elements of the New Left—slashing attacks on big business, opposition to American interventionism, and support for local civic activism.

Instead of embracing the leftist mantle, however, Nader insists that he is the only truly “conservative” candidate in tire race. Absurd as this sounds, there is a grain of truth in it. He is a ferocious critic of globalization and its faceless corporate culture, and a staunch opponent of NAFIA, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Nader argues that the greatest threat today to “traditional values” does not come from Marxism or even countercultural leftism; rather, he insists the most revolutionary force is that of global capitalism, which undermines national sovereignty, community, and the family. Like traditional conservatives such as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, Nader laments the “commercialization” of culture and the emphasis on individual gratification.

As part of the unending campaign to smear Pat Buchanan, David Brooks (among others) has tried to raise the alarm that Nader’s message could signal an alliance between the populist left and the Buchananite right. Brooks is wrong (as usual). Despite Nader’s opposition to economic globalization, he and Buchanan have little in common: Nader is not a populist but an elitist leftist who champions the regulatory state. His solution to the problems of corporate plutocracy and government corruption is to embrace Western European-style socialism: He wants public financing of elections; universal health care and daycare; the nationalization of leading corporations; confiscatory taxation of “the rich”; and an increase in the minimum wage to $12.5O an hour (if the Greens want to end economic growth, that is the surest wav to do it). Like all leftists, he has never met a government spending program he didn’t like.

Then there is the Green Party. Composed primarily of environmental extremists, animal-rights zealots, and burnt out hippies who want to legalize marijuana, the Greens are a bizarre collection of moral anarchists and vegetarians, culturally to the left of the Democrats (if that is possible) on issues such as abortion, gay rights, and feminism.

Despite their similar positions on trade and the need to restrain corporate power, Nader and Buchanan will never form a coalition for one reason: Culture, not economics, is the driving force of politics. For most leftist populists, the choice is not between Nader or Buchanan, but between Nader or Gore, because abortion, women’s rights, and gay and sexual liberation is ultimately more important to these voters than national identity and state sovereignty.

Nader’s workview can be distilled to one simple idea: Business is evil. Although his message resonates with white middle-class students on college campuses, it is too narrow and superficial to serve as the foundation of an enduring political movement.

Nonetheless, the Democrats are making a strategic error by ignoring him. They believe that, as election day approaches, Nader’s supporters will lose their nerve and vote for Gore. Instead, Nader may do to the Vice President what Ross Perot did to George Bush in 1992: appeal to enough disaffected voters to damage—perhaps fatally—Al Gore’s bid for the presidency.