Nader: A Personal View
by William Greider
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 post-industrial 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 exposes, 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.
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 t 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 exposes 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.)
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
William Greider is The Nation's national affairs correspondent
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