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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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If you're cynical about Nader's ability to do what he set out to achieve, he turns that back on you. The cynicism in the end is not about his candidacy but about his vision: that as citizens we can get serious about our democracy and take our government back.

About the Author

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

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At a Quaker meeting house in Burlington, Vermont, over beans and carrot cake, there's a long discussion of labor's decline. Nader cuts things short: "The problem is we progressives sit around the table, and we have such a brilliant diagnosis of the problem. The appetizer comes, and we're still diagnosing. The entree comes, and we're still diagnosing. The carrot cake comes, and we're diagnosing. What are we going to do? That's what we're here for, right?" This turns the discussion around.

Matteo Burani, a 24-year-old organizer with the Northern Forest Alliance, offers to set up an e-mail list. Justin Sturges, a youth recruiter for People Over Profit, explains how to go to the county courthouse and become a notary so you can register people to vote. After a slow start, the group of about thirteen volunteers has appointed organizers and traded contact information, and has a plan to get out petitions.

Incredibly, Nader seems to be enjoying his marathon trip around the United States. Even when we get lost looking for the hotel in Maine and drive around the airport from 1 am until 2, he stays relaxed, telling jokes. His nephew, who is driving, gets impatient. Nader says we could ask for directions at one of the other hotels. "That's one thing they know--where the competition is." No one pays attention. He suggests it again later. "But that would be taking the easy way out, as Nixon used to say," Nader says, laughing. He denies that it gets to him, this moving around the country nonstop, on the way to all fifty states. "It does seem to take longer and longer to get to fifty," he admits at around 1:30. This is state number thirty-eight. He's slumped in the front seat, looking tired. "Why aren't we at fifty yet?"

It's a big deal for the Greens having Nader as their standard-bearer, I point out. "I suppose so," he says, sounding thoughtful. "People have this tremendous capital--reputational capital, and what do they use it for? Why not spend it?"

It reminds me of the Chinese proverb he quotes in speeches: "To be and not to do is not to be at all." What Nader has decided to do is to run for President. For now, he's dedicating himself to it completely, but he'll need to persevere after the campaign if he really wants to build the Green Party. We're rolling along the dark highway, just Nader, his two staffers and a lone progressive journalist, and it occurs to me what he's been saying about making this grassroots movement grow. I think, my God, this is what it is--it's just us. It's a sobering thought.

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