Ralph Nader: Pariah or Prophet?
I can’t imagine why Ralph Nader would run again. He has been branded as an egomaniac, blacklisted by the media, plunged into debt by a Democratic Party machine that challenged his ballot access petitions and locked him out of the presidential debates. Most of his friends and supporters have abandoned him, and he is almost universally reviled for throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
I can’t imagine why he would want to go through this one more time. But when Nader hinted in San Francisco that he might run if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton became the Democratic Party nominee, I knew I would be working for his campaign if he indeed entered the race. He understands that American democracy has become a consumer fraud and that if we do not do battle with the corporations that, in the name of globalization, are cannibalizing the country for profit, our democratic state is doomed.
I spent the last two years reporting and writing “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” The rise of the Christian right—the most dangerous mass movement in American history—can be traced directly to the corporate rape of America. This movement, which calls for the eradication of real and imagined enemies, all branded as “satanic,” at home and abroad, is an expression of rage. This rage rises out of the deep distortions and dislocations that have beset tens of millions of Americans shunted aside in the new global marketplace. The massive flight of manufacturing and professional jobs overseas, the ruthless slashing of state and federal assistance and the rise of an unchecked American oligarchy have plunged many Americans into deep economic and personal despair. They have turned, because of this despair, to “Christian” demagogues who promise magic, miracles, angels, the gospel of prosperity and a fantastic Christian utopia. And the Republicans and the Democrats are equally culpable for this assault.
There are only two solutions left. We must organize to fight the corporate state, to redirect our national wealth and resources to fund a massive antipoverty campaign and curb the cycle of perpetual war that enriches the military-industrial complex and by extension the two political parties that dominate Washington, or we must accept an inevitable Christo-fascism backed by these corporations. Don’t expect glib Democratic politicians such as John Edwards, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama to address these issues. They are, as Nader understands, hostage to corporate money.
Nader, perhaps better than anyone else, has grasped the long, disastrous rise of the corporate state.
He and his small army of activists helped write citizen legislation in the 1960s and 1970s that gave us, among many bills, the Clean Air Act, the Mine and Health Safety Act and the Freedom of Information Act. He worked with and was courted by sympathetic Democrats. Presidential candidate George McGovern saw him as a potential running mate, but Nader refused to be enticed directly into the political arena. He was a skilled Washington insider, one of the greatest idealists within the democratic system.
But the corporations grew tired of Nader’s activism. They mounted a well-oiled campaign to destroy him. These early attempts were clumsy and amateurish, such as General Motor’s use of private detectives to try to dig up dirt on his private life; they found none. The campaign was exposed and led to a public apology by GM. Nader was awarded $425,000 in damages, which he used to fund citizen action groups.
Lewis Powell, who was the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and would later be appointed to the Supreme Court, wrote a memo in August 1971 that expressed corporate concerns. “The single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader,” the memo read, “a legend in his own time and an idol to millions of Americans. ... There should be no hesitation to attack [Nader and others].”
Corporations poured hundreds of millions into the assault. They set up pseudo-think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, which invented bogus disciplines including cost-benefit and risk-management analysis, all geared to change the debate from health, labor and safety issues to the rising cost of big government. They ran sophisticated ad campaigns to beguile voters. These corporations wrenched apart, through lavish campaign donations and intensive and shady lobbying, the ties between Nader’s public interest groups and his supporters in the Democratic Party. Washington, by the time they were done, was besieged with 25,000 corporate lobbyists and 9,000 corporate action committees.
When Ronald Reagan, the corporate pitch man, swept into office he set out to dismantle some 30 governmental regulations, most put into place by Nader and his allies, all of which curbed the abuse of corporations. The Reagan White House worked to gut 20 years of Nader legislation. And, once a fixture on Capital Hill, Nader became a pariah.
Nader, however, did not give up. He turned to local community organizing, assisting grass-roots campaigns around the country such the one to remove benzene, known to cause cancer, from paint in GM car plants. But by the time Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office the corporate state was ascendant. Nader and his citizen committees were frozen out by Democrats as well as Republicans. Clinton and Gore never met with him.
“We tried every way to get the Democrats to pick up on issues that really commanded the felt concerns and daily life of millions of Americans,” Nader says in the new documentary about his life, “An Unreasonable Man,” “but these were issues that corporations didn’t want attention paid to, and so when people say why did you do this in 2000, I say I’m a 20-year veteran of pursuing the folly of the least worse between the two parties.”
The Clinton administration pushed through NAFTA, gutted welfare, gave up on universal healthcare, deregulated the communications industry and abolished federal aid to families with dependent children. It further empowered the growing corporate state and exacerbated the despair that has fueled its allies in the Christian right.
“For 20 years,” Nader says in the film, “we saw the doors closing on us in Washington, on our citizen groups and a lot of other citizen groups, and what are we here for? To improve the country. We couldn’t get congressional hearings, even with the Democrats in charge.”
There is a fascinating rage—and rage is the right word—expressed by many on the left in this fine film about Nader. Todd Gitlin, Eric Alterman and Michael Moore, along with a host of former Nader’s Raiders, spit out venomous insults toward Nader, a man they profess to have once admired, the most common charge being that Nader is a victim of his oversized ego.
This anger is the anger of the betrayed. But they were not betrayed by Nader. They betrayed themselves. They allowed themselves to buy into the facile argument of “the least worse” and ignore the deeper, subterranean assault on our democracy that Nader has always addressed.
It was an incompetent, corporatized Democratic Party, along with the orchestrated fraud by the Republican Party, that threw the 2000 election to Bush, not Ralph Nader. Nader received only 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000 and got less than one-half of 1 percent in 2004. All of the third-party candidates who ran in 2000 in Florida—there were about half a dozen of them—got more votes than the 537-vote difference between Bush and Gore. Why not go after the other third-party candidates? And what about the 10 million Democrats who voted in 2000 for Bush? What about Gore, whose campaign was so timid and empty—he never mentioned global warming—that he could not carry his home state of Tennessee? And what about the 2004 cartoon-like candidate, John Kerry, who got up like a Boy Scout and told us he was reporting for duty and would bring us “victory” in Iraq?
Nader argues that there are few—he never said no—differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. And during the first four years of the Bush administration the Democrats proved him right. They authorized the war in Iraq. They stood by as Bush stacked the judiciary with “Christian” ideologues. They let Bush, in violation of the Constitution, pump hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into faith-based organizations that discriminate based on belief and sexual orientation and openly proselytize. They stood by as American children got fleeced by No Child Left Behind. Democrats did not protest when federal agencies began to propagate “Christian” pseudo-science about creationism, reproductive rights and homosexuality. And the Democrats let Bush further dismantle regulatory agencies, strip American citizens of constitutional rights under the Patriot Act and other draconian legislation, and thrust impoverished Americans aside through the corporate-sponsored bankruptcy bill. It is a stunning record.
Bush is the worst president in American history. If Gore, or Kerry, had the spine to take him on, to challenge corporate welfare, corporate crime, the hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate bailouts and issues such as labor law reform, if either had actually stood up to these corporate behemoths on behalf of the working and middle class, rather than mutter thought-terminating clichés about American greatness, he could have won with a landslide. But Gore and Kerry did not dare to piss off their corporate paymasters.
There are a few former associates in the film who argue that Nader is tarnishing his legacy, and by extension their own legacy. But Nader’s legacy is undiminished. He fights his wars against corporate greed with a remarkable consistency. He knows our democratic state is being hijacked by the same corporate interests that sold us unsafe automobiles and dangerous and shoddy products. This is a battle not for some unachievable ideal but to save our democracy.
“I don’t care about my personal legacy,” Nader says in the film. “I care about how much justice is advanced in America and in our world day after day. I’m willing to sacrifice whatever ‘reputation’ in the cause of that effort. What is my legacy? Are they going to turn around and rip out seat belts out of cars, air bags out of cars?”
These corporations, and their enraged and manipulated followers in the Christian right, tens of millions of them, if left unchecked will propel us into despotism. The corporate state has rigged our system, hollowed out our political process and steadily stripped citizens of constitutional rights, federal and state protection and assistance. This may be the twilight of American democracy. And it is better to stand up and fight, even in vain, than not to fight at all.