Nader: A Personal View
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.)
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.