Not long ago, I was driving home from my office, fiddling with the radio dial, when I came across a familiar voice. It was Ralph Nader, consumer advocate extraordinaire, taped before a live audience at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s fair last June in rural Amherst, Wisconsin. Nader, as those who have heard him know well, always demands a lot from his listeners as he describes how corporate power is destroying democracy. So it was more than a pleasant surprise to hear Ralph show a lighter touch. The audience laughed again and again at his jokes and asides.

Decrying the shrinking of the TV soundbite on the evening news from an average of eighteen seconds in the seventies to just six seconds today, he predicted the coming of the “soundbark.” “When they say, ‘Mr. Nader, what do you think of the latest Federal Reserve interest rate [hike]?’ I’ll go like this: ‘Nyahh.'” Assailing corporations for turning Washington into an “accounts receivable,” he called for the creation of a “taxpayer appreciation day,” when big business would give thanks for all the subsidies and giveaways it has received from the public till. Citing the ancient Greek physicians’ maxim that “a human body is more likely to tolerate colliding against a flat, yielding surface than a sharp, cutting edge,” he chided General Motors for failing to design their cars conscientiously, pointing out that car makers took decades to install seatbelts even though they had been invented for pilots in World War I.

Throughout the speech, Nader reinforced a serious message: We need a renewal of civic culture to combat the dominant corporate culture. For a while now he’s been effectively conveying the point by stealing a page from antipoverty advocates who put the emphasis on children. “More and more, corporations are raising our kids,” he declares. Companies now start marketing directly at children as early as age 2. The average youngster, he points out, watches thirty hours of television a week, with three pernicious effects: They learn that violence is a preferred solution to life’s problems, they are taught to value cheap sensuality in everything from sex to self-image to food, and they become addicted to entertainment that shortens their attention span. “What is wrong with a society that allows its most precious resource to be exploited?” he asks. “If there was a child molester in the neighborhood, would it be enough to tell parents to lock the doors?”

When we “grow up corporate,” as he puts it, we never stop to think that any of this could be different–that we could control the resources of our commonwealth like the public airwaves and lands, that we could demand safer and less-polluting products, that we could have public financing of elections so money doesn’t nullify our votes, that labor could win strengthened rights to organize, that consumers could band together to challenge monopolistic practices and industries, that poverty among children could be eliminated. But despite what we’re up against, Nader is the ultimate anticynic. “If you were in a big lifeboat and the ship had just sunk and there’s a big storm coming and you had to get to the island to save everybody in the lifeboat, and here you are rowing away and you look back and there’s some guys who aren’t rowing, they’re listening to some music on their radio, what do you think you’d say?” he asked his Wisconsin audience. “Oh well, to each his own? You’d say, pick up those oars!” The crowd cheered.

For all his accolades–Life has called Nader one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century–few realize that he is more than a consumer advocate. His call for a revival of civic culture represents a full-blown philosophy of life. “This is truly one of life’s greatest gratifications,” he says, “to work a democracy into a strengthened posture for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” In this age of hypermaterialism and shallow politics, Nader’s message is more relevant than ever.

The question is whether his emerging 2000 presidential campaign will be, too.

The official word from Nader, who was the Green Party’s 1996 candidate and who got nearly 700,000 votes running a noncampaign that confused and angered many supporters, is that he has not made up his mind about running again and won’t announce his intentions until January. Speaking at a meeting of the Association of State Green Parties last June in Connecticut, he promised he wouldn’t limit his fundraising as severely this time. And he said he would make at least three major appearances in every state where he is on the ballot before next summer is through, with more selective targeting of key states in the fall–“if I run.”

In an interview in mid-November Nader continued to maintain that no final decision had been made. But according to both a senior Green activist who met with him at length last June and a former Nader’s Raider still close to him, Nader is privately saying he will run. “I’m not using the word ‘if’ because I’ve heard him be definitive,” says the first source. “It’s not if but when. The question becomes what kind of campaign because it takes two to tango. During our meeting, we addressed some of the issues from ’96: Is he going to run an active campaign, and will he work closely with the Greens on a daily basis? He said yes and yes.” Two concrete indications of Nader’s intent: He allowed the California Green Party to place his name on its March 2000 primary ballot (a decision that had to be made by this November), and he convinced Native American activist Winona LaDuke to again be his vice presidential candidate after she had announced that she didn’t want to run again.

Nader’s goal: to get at least 5 percent of the vote. That’s the threshold third parties have to cross in order to receive a proportional share of public funding for the next presidential campaign. The $12.6 million coming to the Reform Party’s presidential candidate for the 2000 general election was triggered by Ross Perot’s 8 percent showing in 1996. If Nader and the Greens succeed, it would guarantee the Green Party millions in public funds for 2004, which would give a huge boost to lower-level Green candidates as well. It would also raise the party to the same level as the Reform Party in the national eye. And it’s not an unrealistic goal, as he got just under 1 percent of the vote in 1996, when only one out of seven voters knew he was running.

Not waiting for a formal announcement, a core group–including Carol Miller, co-chair of the New Mexico Green Party and recent Congressional candidate; Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Alliance for Democracy; and Mike Feinstein, a Green member of the Santa Monica City Council–is already hard at work on an unauthorized basis, having formed a National Committee to Draft Ralph Nader for President, opened a bank account and set up a Web site at to sign up volunteers and raise money. “What I want is to build a Green Party,” says Miller. “I don’t think we can guarantee that he is going to win a four-way race,” she adds with a laugh, “but if Bush implodes, anything is possible. I want someone who knows how to build a movement–people’s movements, citizens’ movements, bringing in young people. That’s worth a lot to me, to have something after the election.”

Does this make any sense? It’s always made a certain sense. Nader is one of the few progressives with enough public standing to enter the celebrity sweepstakes of presidential politics. And Ralph is to backbone what most politicians are to waffles. His message cuts across the simple labels of left and right, capable of reaching conservative home-schoolers anxious about rampant commercialism, small-business people angry about special privileges for big corporations, unionists upset about jobs disappearing overseas and anybody who knows someone whose life was saved by an airbag, as well as hard-core enviros, consumer activists and other progressives. He retains a strong following among seniors who have followed his whole career, and he still draws a respectable showing at his many campus speaking gigs. Two months ago I saw Nader speak to an active group of ex-Perotistas at the American Reform Party’s national convention in Washington. At the end, they gave him a standing ovation, with several people chanting, “Run, Ralph, run!”

The time certainly seems ripe for an independent progressive-populist campaign. Three converging forces–the public’s continuing dissatisfaction with the major parties, the growing power of disaffected citizens to band together quickly via the Internet and the twenty-four-hour-a-day need of our tabloidized media system for fresh stories to tell–have combined to boost third-party politics closer to the political mainstream. That, plus the unexpected election of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota governor last fall, has made the impossible seem possible. Polls show that anywhere between a third and a half of the public would like to see more choices on the ballot than just George W. Bush and Al Gore. And if all the reporting on Pat Buchanan’s and Donald Trump’s Reform Party moves is any indication, Nader is likely to draw a good deal of free media attention as well.

In addition, Buchanan’s decision to seek the Reform Party’s nomination may shake up the presidential election in an unexpected way. “The Reform Party’s nomination of Buchanan would open up more space for a polar opposite, like Ralph, to get engaged,” says Steve Cobble, the former political director of the Rainbow Coalition. First, if Buchanan is indeed the Reform nominee, siphoning hard-right votes away from the Republican candidate, it takes some of the edge off the argument that Nader would merely “spoil” the Democrats’ presidential hopes. Second, an aggressive Nader-Green campaign could offer a clearheaded alternative to Buchanan’s xenophobic populism. For while the two men may agree about who the villains are in the trade wars, they disagree about many of the solutions. Not only could Nader inject critically needed arguments into the national debate; his candidacy would inevitably put pressure on Gore’s and Bradley’s instinctive centrism.

Finally, there is a pragmatic logic to a serious Nader candidacy that could even appeal to some Democrats–at least the Congressional branch of the party. A strong progressive-populist campaign can reach very effectively into the growing ranks of nonvoters, who are disproportionately lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and bring them back to the polls. That is the lesson of victories like Paul Wellstone’s in 1990 and 1996, Bernie Sanders’s in 1990, and even last year’s Washington State initiative to raise the minimum wage to the highest level in the country. In every case, voter turnout rose significantly.

Pollster John Zogby, who has built his reputation on figuring out who is likely to vote, says, “You will see an increase in those who call themselves liberal or progressive if there’s a credible Green Party candidate [in the race]. For example, that was seen in New York with Ralph Nader in 1996.” And once those voters are in the polling booth, they are likely to vote Democratic down-ballot. Indeed, Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has credited his narrow 1994 re-election to the turnout boost from the Greens’ gubernatorial candidate, Roberto Mondragon, who got 10 percent of the vote that year. For these reasons, Congressional Democrats hoping to retake the House might think twice about attacking a Nader bid.

And yet, the first thing many people, including sympathetic activists, undoubtedly think when they hear that Nader is running for President is: not again. Especially after his failure to mount a real campaign in 1996. Nader himself does not dodge the charge. “More people might have voted for me last time but didn’t know if I was running,” he told me. “We weren’t on the ballot in many states,” he adds (twenty-two plus Washington, DC, to be precise). “And there wasn’t a campaign.” The implication: This time will be different.

For starters, there won’t be any shyness about filing as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission or raising money. While several decisions have yet to be made–about whether to cap the size of contributions à la Jerry Brown’s $100 limit in ’92, or whether to make the effort to obtain matching funds during the primary period–sources close to Nader say they hope to “break through seven figures” easily, which would allow them to hire full-time regional organizers and assist with ballot access. A larger budget to pay for campaign ads is under consideration, though Nader is very concerned not to let the fundraising tail wag the dog. “I want to see volunteer-hour-raisers, not just money-raisers,” he told me. He will also resist releasing his tax returns–a voluntary step not required by law–arguing that the FEC’s financial disclosure forms are more than sufficient and that income taxes ought to remain private.

Not all Greens are united around Nader’s emerging campaign. One criticism comes from those who question whether he is really their best messenger. They remember his telling columnist William Safire that he didn’t want to get into “gonadal politics,” and they complain that his anticorporate focus gives short shrift to other parts of the Green platform that affirm feminism and gay rights. According to Steve Schmidt, chairman of the Greens’ platform committee, when the issue of his statement to Safire came up last June at a national meeting of Green state parties, Nader professed his commitment to the continuing struggle against discrimination and for civil rights. But “whether that satisfies some of the people who feel the Green candidate should go more into that issue remains to be seen,” Schmidt says. “Some people think we should be an amalgam of single issues writ large. But the Green Party national platform, which Ralph is on record as strongly supporting, is comprehensive. I think Ralph is right to focus on the core of the platform–reviving civic democracy, a broad-based political movement built from the grassroots and citizen participation.” Still, with Nader focusing mainly on topping 5 percent, it’s likely he’ll try to stick as much as possible to his civic versus corporate agenda in ways that some progressives will undoubtedly find alienating.

A second, more muted concern among some Greens is that Nader has waited too long to announce his candidacy, limiting the potential party-building effect of his running. “It’s a huge missed opportunity,” says one activist who worked very hard on the 1996 campaign but is sitting this one out. “The point is not Ralph or the presidential campaign; the point is to build the Green Party–to bring in new people. If you want to fundamentally change the landscape, you need people coming in earlier who will raise funds, hold meetings and learn skills so they will be in for the long haul. If he had announced two years before the election, we would have had a great opportunity to build a blossoming infrastructure. Instead, they’re going to have to hire petitioners.” On the other hand, people close to Nader point out that the Greens can still build their own locals with or without his official candidacy. In fact, while not a candidate, Nader has made several trips to help Green candidates get elected in locales ranging from New Jersey and Connecticut to California and New Mexico.

Yet the concern over what his late entry means for the Greens is just one symptom of a deeper complaint made by many veterans of progressive politics about working with Nader: He’s a lone wolf, and he’s never worked well in coalitions. “If you’re on his side, you’re in fine shape,” says one top veteran of the antiglobalization movement. “If you decide to put less emphasis on the campaign, for whatever reason, but you still share his long-term goals, he can treat you like the enemy.” This leader points to a serious break between Nader and the AFL-CIO over how hard to fight the GATT treaty and also questions whether Nader can bring together blue-collar whites with African-Americans. Still, pressed to say if Ralph should run or not, this person says yes. “We need a progressive running. If it’s a choice between Ralph or nobody, a lot of us who have reservations on other fronts will say, Hooray! But if he doesn’t run hard, that could become very dispiriting.”

In the end, whether the emerging Nader campaign meets or exceeds expectations this time around depends entirely on Ralph. Even though grassroots volunteers can have a huge impact on the vitality of his campaign, only he can decide how hard to push which issues, how hard to fundraise, how integrated with party-building his effort will be. After all, campaigns–even unconventional, alternative campaigns–are still primarily driven from the center outward. And there is an inexorable logic pushing Nader further into the electoral arena. Thirty-five years after he essentially invented public-interest activism, his non-electoral endeavors are frequently blocked by corporate lobbying and trumped by big money’s domination of politics. It makes sense for him, as he reaches the pinnacle of his career, to appeal directly to the same natural majority that he has indirectly championed for so long, and to use the leverage built into the federal election laws to launch one more institution of countervailing citizen power, the Green Party, into permanent orbit. The moment is his. And the chance won’t come again.