IF ONE political figure looks prophetic these days, it is Ralph Nader.
The Enron collapse is having a ripple effect on the rest of Wall Street, reflecting years if not decades of corporate balance-sheet abuses, insider enrichments at the expense of workers, pensioners, and communities, and bipartisan regulatory defaults.
President Bush's new budget cuts outlays for children, hospitals, worker training, and spending on the needy. A serious prescription drug program is nowhere in sight. Regulatory agencies - including the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Enron era - take major hits.
Even education spending, the signature program of this compassionate conservative, lags inflation. All these cuts mock the disingenuously liberal themes of Bush's State of the Union Message last week. The Democrats, meanwhile, have little to offer except to scold the president for running a small deficit - during a recession and a war.
Nader's latest book is jauntily titled ''Crashing the Party,'' which Nader indeed did. To read the book is to be reminded both of the unique and prescient role Ralph Nader has played in American life for four decades and just how right he has been about the bipartisan capitulation to concentrated corporate power.
In mid-1960s, the 31-year-old Nader burst on the scene with a scrupulously researched book, ''Unsafe at Any Speed.'' His ostensible subject was auto safety, about as tame and broadly appealing a consumer issue as one could imagine. But his subtext was the cynicism of the automakers, especially kingpin General Motors, which knew how to make safer cars but didn't and escaped public and regulatory scrutiny.
Soon Nader was a household word, having launched a public-interest movement with the proceeds of a lawsuit he won after GM clumsily tried to smear him. And soon, Congress passed legislation requiring seat belts and other safety measures that have probably saved a million lives.
Nader's trademark was to mount a fairly radical critique of unregulated capitalism in an idiom that did not seem radical at all. Seat belts! He was no socialist. His ideal was more that of his hero, Louis Brandeis, a genuinely competitive market economy that lived up to its promises.
Nader applauded corporations as creators of wealth and of jobs. But he understood they had to be leashed in their other role - as poisoners of the air, the water, the workplace, the innocent consumer, and the political commons. The worst menace of concentrated corporate power, Nader understood, was not economic but political. The years have proven him right.
The various public interest groups and corporate accountability projects that Nader organized in the 1960s and 1970s used the power of aroused citizens, their elected officials, and newly energized regulatory agencies, to restore some balance between corporate power and a democratic society. By 1970, Nader was releasing investigative reports at a furious pace, working with effective liberal legislators, a still lively labor movement, and a friendly press that still sided with the underdog.
Even Richard Nixon signed scores of Nader-inspired laws that protected consumers and restrained corporate abuses.
But corporate America had had a bellyful. In the 1970s, big business resolved to reclaim its dormant political power, and the political balance shifted. In the 1980s, corporate America roared back and never let go.
Much of Nader's newest book is a memoir of his campaign, but a lot of it is an explanation of why he decided to run: The book documents how big money has come to dominate both parties and how the Democrats since 1980- with some notable exceptions - have ceased to play an effective opposition role to the corporate agenda. In short, how democracy has withered.
The quest for corporate sovereignty over the sovereignty of the people is an affront to our Constitution and our democracy, he writes. Indeed, in their largest and most transnational form, the global corporations reject allegiance to nation or community.
I didn't vote for Ralph Nader. I feared his candidacy would just elect Bush, and it may well have. But as Nader points out, the election was Gore's to lose. And future elections will be the Democrats' to lose as long as they run tepid campaigns with stiff, poll-tested candidates captive to the same corporate agenda.
Nader is now in his late 60s. In some quarters he is dismissed as a scold. But he is far more alert to the true public issues than most politicians. And when American democracy revives, with or without the Democrats, it will owe much to America's most valuable and uncorrupted public citizen.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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