The Ralph Nader running for President this year is quite a different person from the driven crusader whom I first met as a young reporter, covering the advent of his public-interest movement three decades ago. The "new" Nader (if I can borrow a conceit of retread pols like Richard Nixon) still possesses the awesome idealism and informed anger, the same sweeping intellect and energy. No one would say mellow. But Nader's political focus seems deeper now and richer to me. He is less the public scold of the stereotype, more like an anguished humanist, angered by larger failures in our national life and reaching now for political changes that are more fundamental.
He became famous, issue by issue, as a freelance consumer advocate. Now he wants to talk about a "social wage" for Americans, about taxing wealth and restoring the public's control over public assets like the broadcast spectrum. These and other provocative ideas will probably be viewed as over-the-top radical by campaign reporters. For lots of citizens, if they actually get to hear him, what he's proposing may sound like common sense. Late in his career, Ralph Nader is thinking anew about the big questions, which I find appealing and promising.
The evolution may not be apparent to campaign audiences or the news media. Nader is like an intellectual pack rat who saves every important fact and idea, never forgets any of them and frequently retrieves long-ago insights to discuss a bewildering variety of subjects. He is not just uncharismatic but anticharismatic. The intensity sometimes exhausts listeners, who wish for shorter speeches, and it is a special handicap for any candidate in modern politics who is supposed to "stay on message," not educate citizens or engage them in a democratic dialogue. The "new" Nader will not be heard unless he disciplines himself to define a short list of big messages and stick to them--the big ideas he hopes to inject into the inert center of US politics. This is possible and terribly important, but Nader's self-discipline is still evolving.
Like everyone else, I was dazzled by the Nader story and his singular courage, but, younger and somewhat wise-ass, I kept a skeptical distance from his vision. "The Lone Ranger," I once called him, "a postindustrial version of Quixote." Nader pounded on me afterward for trivializing the citizen movement by promoting the false icon of celebrity. Why was I writing personality fluff when I could be out there investigating corporate power? The righteous scolding was familiar to everyone around him, yet it somehow encouraged our affection.
Nader's original idea was the romantic conviction that awakening individual Americans to become "public citizens" like himself could rescue democracy from the entrenched interests and restore the integrity of both government and the marketplace. His Jeffersonian idealism captivated (and flattered) the public and drew many idealistic young people into civic action. Nader's Raiders and his galaxy of public-interest organizations had enormous impact mainly from scorching factual exposés, a blizzard of stunning investigative reports on everything from unsafe cars to polluted rivers. The shock and public outrage won stronger regulatory laws and liberated some regulatory agencies from the captive grip of the industries they were meant to regulate. Nader's model was closely patterned after the "good government" Progressives of the early twentieth century, and he pursued many of the same issues--dirty meat, unsafe drugs, corporate power, corrupted government.
On one level, he succeeded brilliantly, reviving the idea of the self-empowering individual who forces his way into public decision-making. A strong new strand of citizen activism was implanted in the political culture. One cannot travel anywhere in this country (or Europe or Japan) without observing people who are following Nader's methods and ideals. Government was likewise changed at every level--forced to open its files to citizen inspection and account for itself in numerous new ways.
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Yet, in the larger sense, the idea failed utterly. It was overwhelmed by the counterreformation mounted by corporations and other interests, also undermined by the easy manipulations of TV-driven politics. The "public citizen" remains active in many forums and often wins, but represents sophisticated guerrilla warfare, not transformation. As Nader regularly observes, nearly every obstacle to authentic democracy that he originally confronted has worsened--the concentrated power of economic interests and their chokehold on government, the corrupting uses of political money and, worst of all, the sullen resignation of citizens at large. Nader is reacting to this reality now--running for public office but really campaigning on behalf of important ideas that both major parties consider untouchable. His focus, he agrees, has evolved into a deeper conception of the collective political action that is necessary for real change. "I grew up in the McCarthy era, when ideology was taboo," he explains. "The tendency was to be very empirical. Get the facts--dirty meat, unsafe cars--as the best way to arouse people and make something happen. I also had in mind the need to build new institutional structures, the fabric for democratic society, but first we had to arouse the public. Now things are so bad, the facts are so obvious, you've got to go back and face the structure of power itself. The media are full of exposés every day now. Nothing happens. The story falls off the cliff; three days later it's forgotten. That shows the poverty of our democracy. There are no longer any links from the exposure to the action."
Though it's against his nature to do so, Nader should talk candidly about himself in campaign speeches and reflect on his experiences as a reformer. It's a compelling story that both humanizes him and gives people a framework for understanding how much the political system has decayed. His own frustrations and evolving ideas could provide the central text of his candidacy.
As I read American history, third-party presidential candidates do not attain power themselves, but they can move national politics in new directions if their message draws the kind of popular support that threatens the entrenched order. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas were beacons who motivated the New Deal. George Wallace gave the Republican Party its "Southern strategy," winning on race and white working-class resentments. Ross Perot convinced both parties to get serious about ending the federal deficit. The power center will naturally choke on nearly everything Nader says, but if his support grows to double-digit percentages, politicians will look more closely to see if there's anything they can borrow, if only to protect themselves from the threat of wayward voters.
Nader will talk, certainly, about globalization, the environment, consumer rights and other familiar themes, but he is also addressing provocative questions of power usually identified with left-labor politics. Reviving democracy, for instance, requires more than getting the dirty money out of campaigns with full public financing of federal elections. Nader regards the restoration of labor rights as a central element of the struggle of ordinary citizens to reclaim political power. He also demands the creation of "audience channels" in TV and radio that would give civic groups, unions, churches and other voices regularly scheduled access to address the larger public via the publicly owned airwaves. In recent weeks, Nader has walked three picket lines for local living-wage campaigns, and he has proposed a national living-wage law. But he also seeks to educate Americans on the need for a "social wage" alongside better incomes--universal single-payer healthcare, paid leaves for infant care and family illnesses, a national daycare system like those in Europe and other family guarantees provided by government or employers. Tax justice, he suggests, requires a levy on financial transactions, wealth and pollution, so that taxes can be reduced on work and families. There's more, nearly all of it taboo to contemporary politics.
Nader is an idealist but not a fool. He well understands that what he is attempting this year is only one stroke in the long, difficult political struggle to reconnect ordinary people with the power to govern. His effort may fizzle, since the test will be swift and brutally concrete: Do any voters respond? As Nader's poll ratings begin to creep upward (now around 7 percent nationwide), many fear that his campaign simply threatens to defeat Al Gore, and they are enraged. Others assume that in a close race, the Nader vote will evaporate on Election Day as disenchanted Democrats lose their nerve. Either way, this is the trap that centrist politics has built for us, and it is why important new ideas usually get smothered in the crib.
It's also why I'm voting for Ralph and for the potential impact of his voice, his ideas. I wish to protest the captive impotence that conventional logic imposes, but also the New Democrat consolidation that Gore represents--a business-first party that will selectively defend social guarantees against the other business-first party, but a party that wins by playing to the fears of insecure people without addressing the deeper sources of their pain. What I would like to see is a season of white-knuckle fear among the Democratic establishment. I do not wish for Gore's defeat, but, frankly, that outcome could do much to halt the party's rightward drift and break open future possibilities. (George W. Bush, meanwhile, is trying to put a friendlier face on his party, nudging it toward moderation with symbolic, Clintonesque gestures that make it harder for Gore to demonize Republicans as hard-right frothers.)
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In short, I do not think the Democratic Party (or the political system) is going to heal itself, not without the mobilization of forceful dissenters in the one arena that threatens incumbents--their own elections. A risk-free vote for me, I admit, since the District of Columbia, where I live, is certain to go Democratic, but many others will enjoy the same luxury of choice if the outcome in their states (Texas and New York, for example) seems assured. At a minimum, Nader's candidacy should frustrate smug assumptions about captive voters. At best, he can put some real ideas back into play.