The Reasons Why Nader Took a Stand
by Alan Maass
No one can say that the documentary An
Unreasonable Man sugarcoats the case against its subject.
The film opens with Ralph Nader mumbling
through a brief statement at a sparsely attended press conference
during his 2004 presidential campaign. Then comes several minutes
of vitriolic denunciations of Nader by three of the most unpleasant,
puffed-up and dishonest fixtures of the liberal firmament -- Democratic
"strategist" James Carville, author Todd Gitlin and
Nation columnist Eric Alterman.
If you aren't familiar with their complaints
on the subject, they are easily summarized: Ralph Nader, because
he ran for president in 2000 as a third-party candidate against
Al Gore and George Bush, is responsible everything bad that's
happened during the Bush presidency.
"Thank you Ralph for the Iraq war,
thank you Ralph for the tax cuts, thank you Ralph for the destruction
of the environment, thank you Ralph for the destruction of the
Constitution," Alterman spits out. "I just think the
man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different
country. He's done enough damage to this one; let him damage someone
"politically idiotic," "deluded" and "psychologically
troubled" are a few of the terms of abuse Alterman and friends
lob at Nader.
If only they managed a tenth of this kind
of venom when talking about Republicans. But instead, their sanctimonious
and humorless diatribes are directed at the man responsible for
seatbelts and airbags in cars, anti-pollution laws, any number
of workplace safety regulations -- and the most significant left-wing
electoral challenge to the two-party political system in a half-century.
Fortunately, An Unreasonable Man spends
the next two hours following Nader's history, and what emerges
plainly from the film's interviews with supporters and detractors
alike is that Nader's transformation -- from a reformer working
firmly within the Washington system to a renegade confronting
the two parties from the outside -- is wholly in keeping with
the commitment to democratic principles that motivated him his
whole political life.
The Democrats' claim that Nader was a
"spoiler" who caused Gore's defeat in 2000 is wrong
for any number of reasons -- not least, the fact that Gore won
both the popular vote and the election in Florida that would have
given him a win in the Electoral College, but the Democrats were
too timid to fight the Republicans' theft of the White House.
But Nader's real crime for Democrats is
that his campaign represented a popular challenge to the two-party
corporate-dominated system -- and the deeply engrained politics
of "lesser evilism" that convinces liberals and progressives,
time and time again, to support a Democrat who inevitably betrays
them without a second thought.
An Unreasonable Man documents Nader's
rise to prominence in the 1960s as a relentless crusader against
corporate abuses and political corruption, in the face of entrenched
opposition -- a history that makes the liberal insult that Nader
is an egomaniac seem particularly foolish.
The long list of laws Nader played a central
part in winning is remarkable -- the National Automobile and Highway
Traffic Safety Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Mine Health
and Safety Act, Freedom of Information Act, Occupational Safety
and Health Act.
As Nader acknowledges, these accomplishments
were made possible by the rise of mass movements that shook U.S.
society in the 1960s and early '70s. But as these movements went
into retreat in the mid-1970s, Nader's inside-the Beltway efforts
ran up against the rightward shift in mainstream politics and
the reassertion of corporate power.
The turning point was the presidency of
Jimmy Carter, who Nader considered an ally and advised during
the 1976 election campaign. Once in office, Carter dragged his
feet on promised regulations. When Nader's proposal for a Consumer
Protection Agency came up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled
Congress in 1978, corporations pulled out all the stops to defeat
it -- and Carter sat on his hands while it died.
With Reagan, the tide turned even more
sharply against Nader's agenda, but the impact of the era was
felt just as strongly on the Democratic Party. As Nader points
out in the film, he spent much of the next two decades trying
to pressure the Democrats to take up liberal issues, but the "party
of ordinary people" didn't want to cross big business.
"So when people say why did you do
this in 2000, I'm a 20-year veteran of pursuing the folly of the
least worst between the two parties," Nader says. "Because
when you do that, you end up allowing them both to get worse every
After a half-hearted Green Party presidential
campaign in 1996, Nader ran all out in 2000, amid renewed activism
around the global justice and other movements. The documentary's
footage of the Nader "super-rallies" -- which brought
together thousands, and then tens of thousands, of people in a
string of cities -- gives a sense of the excitement.
But the attacks from Democrats grew to
a fever pitch as the election approached. When the Florida vote
was decided for Bush -- without the Democrats fighting for a recount
that would have given Gore the edge -- the liberals blamed not
the incompetent Gore campaign that blew an election which was
theirs to lose, but Ralph Nader.
No slander was out of bounds. Investigative
journalist James Ridgeway describes Nader's enemies as "the
meanest bunch of motherfuckers I've ever come across" --
and it's worth stressing that he's talking not about some faceless
corporate behemoth or right-wing Republican fanatic, but the liberal
Democrats who Nader once counted as trusted allies.
When Nader ran again in 2004, his campaign
was snowed under by the "Anybody But Bush" hysteria.
Even the Green Party abandoned its commitment to an all-out third-party
campaign and rejected an endorsement of Nader's independent candidacy.
Nevertheless, as talk show host and Nader
supporter Phil Donahue points out, for all the venomous attacks
on him, the Democrats did precisely what Nader warned they would.
"They killed him for saying there's
not a dime's worth of difference between the two parties,"
Donahue says. "And then the Democrats spent the next four
years proving that he was right. The Democrats folded on the war.
They folded on health care and No Child Left Behind. They hid
under their desks."
The irony is that Nader's politics are
not nearly as radical as the challenge his presidential campaigns
represented. His positions on certain issues, such as immigration,
fall short of a left-wing alternative.
In fact, despite the experience of the
2000 and 2004 campaign, Nader still talks sometimes as if he hopes
the Democrats will take up his challenge to speak to "the
issues that really command the felt concerns and daily life of
millions of Americans" -- as if the problem with the Democratic
Party is a matter of the people in charge, rather than the institution
But what sets Nader apart is that he has
continued to try to act on his commitment to democracy and justice,
even when that put him at odds with the Washington system that
was once the center of his political universe.
The result is that Nader will be remembered
by history as not only the man who put seatbelts and airbags in
cars -- but who gave voice at a crucial time to the need for an
alternative to the corporate duopoly that dominates U.S. politics.
Alan Maass writes for Socialist Worker,
where this article first appeared.
Ralph Nader page