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On the Road With Ralph Nader | The Nation

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On the Road With Ralph Nader

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Over the course of one week of his tour in early June, Nader delivered his pro-citizenship message to hundreds of people at campaign stops in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Unlike Bush and Gore, he does not promote himself as the solution to the nation's problems. In speeches aimed at a broad majority of Americans, he reminds people that they are the solution.

About the Author

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive magazine.

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He tells stories from his own New England childhood, featuring lessons learned from his civic-minded dad. At New England town-council meetings, he says, it seems there's always one or two people who do all the talking. "When I was growing up," he says, "we had someone like that in town. His name was Mr. Frentz. People used to point him out when he was walking down the street: 'There he goes--that's him!' It was as if we had the town idiot, the town drunk and the town citizen." This line gets a big laugh. "My father used to tell us, instead of pointing at him, we ought to be pointing out the people who took a dive."

Today, it's harder to be the town citizen, Nader says, because people are working all the time. He gets the most rapt attention from his middle- and working-class audiences when he talks about their shrinking leisure time. "Have you ever thought about how corporations are shifting their costs onto your time?" he asks, provoking hoots of approval with a riff on endless phone trees and "hold" music played by the airlines.

Nader says people work 160 hours more each year than they did twenty years ago: "What a way to live! Who designed this economy?" The answer, of course, is corporate America. And the solution is a renewal of civic life. Nader has a specific blueprint for rebuilding democracy: "All it takes is 1 million people putting in 100 hours a year and raising about $100." Why this particular formula? "$100 million is a lot of money--it raises you to the level of the two major parties," he says. "And with a mobilized group of citizens 1 million strong, you'd overwhelm their constituency."

In Maine, where the nation's first clean-elections law has encouraged a new crop of candidates to run for office, Nader's program seems entirely plausible. At the Green Party's state convention in Bangor, activists hammer out a platform that includes statewide universal healthcare and a living wage, and a crowd of about 350 hangs on Nader's every word. In Portland, a $20-a-head fundraising breakfast at the Mesa Verde restaurant is jammed. All of the money raised goes to the state Greens. "He is so generous about helping us," says Morgen D'Arc of the Maine Green Party. "Already it's helping us sign new people up." At the breakfast, however, Nader struggled a bit with questions on race: The Mesa Verde restaurant owner was disappointed that he wouldn't address a query on the Hispanic vote. An African-American grad student felt that he ignored blacks. When someone asked about Native American rights, he referred the issue to his absent running mate, Winona LaDuke.

Besides the challenge of persuading people to "move from voting based on fear to hope," as LaDuke puts it, the Nader campaign also faces organizational hurdles. Some insiders grouse that the organizing effort should have started earlier and focused more on integrating Nader's campaign with the Green Party. At the Greens' nominating convention in late June, Nader seemed aloof from the party, which itself appeared to be a motley group with an obsessive focus on hemp. On the other hand, his campaign has motivated the Greens to reach out to new people, gathering signatures to meet ballot requirements in thirty-one states so far.

In some ways, this is the perfect moment for Nader's organizing project-cum-campaign. Voter disaffection is at an all-time high, and McCain helped prime audiences for a critique of money-saturated politics. All this will help Nader in his quest to break out beyond the core of the Green Party, beyond the young, white Ivy Leaguers who have flocked to him over the years.

One sign of his campaign's potential came after he pushed labor to flex its muscles. On a cell phone in the car as he traveled through New England, Nader made calls to union leaders, telling them, as he later repeated to an audience of elderly residents at a retirement home in Maine: "Go to the Democrats and say, 'You cannot win without us. You've struck us down on NAFTA, you've struck us down on the WTO, you strike us down on trade with China, and you're going to lose our support.'"

The Democrats need labor, he explains. "You need to say, 'Our steel and auto workers are going to stay home, just like they did in '94, when the Republicans won the House,' and then add the following: 'We are seriously considering publicly endorsing the Nader candidacy.' Who do you think will blink first?"

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