On the Road With Ralph Nader
In short, Nader doesn't think progressives have much at stake in the Bush/Gore contest. "The two parties are in the process of crumbling," he says. "They have no constituency at the grassroots. They're hollow, fossilized parties that happen to hurl millions of dollars at each other, mostly on thirty-second TV ads. So in the next five years, you're going to see a major third party arise. I hope it's the Green Party."
Indeed, the most relevant question for progressives may be whether Nader can build a majoritarian movement to rival the Democrats. From the looks of the Green Party, it's an uphill climb. "Reviving and extending democracy in this country will be no easy task," says Green Party member and veteran antinuclear activist Guy Chichester, introducing Nader at a press conference in Concord, New Hampshire. (No kidding. Aside from working press, I count only five spectators at this event.)
After the press conference, Nader meets with about nine Green Party organizers and tells them how to collect the 3,000 signatures he needs to get on the ballot in New Hampshire. "Don't get discouraged. There are people who are busy, who will brush by you," he says. "If every week you have a tally, then you can see how fast it's growing." For a moment he seems like Dan Aykroyd playing Jimmy Carter on Saturday Night Live, patiently telling a constituent how to fix her postage machine. It doesn't get more grassroots than this.
Next, Roy Morrison, a colleague of Chichester's, gives me a ride over to the Concord Monitor, where Nader is meeting with the editorial board. At Morrison's side is Richard Grossman, pre-eminent historian of corporate power in America and, like Morrison, a frizzy-haired radical. The car is so crammed with stuff, including a paddle for the kayak strapped to the roof and the bottles of water Morrison uses to fill his radiator, that the national reporter tagging along from the Detroit News and I have to sit cross-legged on the back seat. ("This is pretty weird," the Detroit reporter whispers to me.)
Along the way, Morrison elaborates on the idea that activists who have been turned off by presidential politics could support Nader. "You're asking people like Richard and me to commit our lives to this. We're not going to do that if it's just a political campaign," he says. "We're not about that. We're about real social change." Grossman adds, "We can stop toxic dumps and protest corporate giveaways until the end of time. At what point do we go for the jugular? We're hoping the Nader campaign is it."
At the Monitor, four men in ties are sitting around a conference table, including the 50-ish editor and a young Yale grad with a crew cut who knows Nader from covering politics in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. Nader tells them he decided to launch his campaign when he realized that great investigative stories were being published, but to no effect. "Time magazine did a cover story on how the credit-card industry and banks were pushing through a bankruptcy bill," he says. "Here's this major magazine piece, brilliantly done, and nothing happens.... That's when you know you have an underdeveloped democracy and an overdeveloped plutocracy," he says.
After the meeting, the Monitor runs an editorial in the Sunday paper extolling Nader and excoriating corporate power. "This was John McCain's message: Take the government away from the corporations and give it back to the people," the editors write. "But when it came to delivering the litany on corporate sin, McCain was an altar boy." Nader, they conclude, is "the real thing."
New Hampshire is the state that handed McCain his primary victory, and Nader's message resonates here, not just with hippies and radicals but with some conservatives and establishment types. In the State Senate, after Nader gives a speech three legislators approach him, glowing, to shake his hand. All three got their start in one of his Public Interest Research Groups, and they want to tell him how he changed their lives.