The Marathon Man

The Marathon Man

Ralph Nader is a man of political substance trapped in an era of easy lies.

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Ralph Nader is a man of political substance trapped in an era of easy lies. He pierces the fog of propaganda with hard facts and reason, but the smoke rolls over him and he disappears from public view. A lesser man might go crazy or give up. Nader instead runs for president again, as he is doing this year, campaigning in fifty states and addressing crowds wherever he finds them, smaller crowds this time but still eager to feed on his idealism. Ralph is not delusional. He knows the story. He is stubborn about the facts and honest with himself.

“I believe in I.F. Stone’s dictum that, in all social justice movements, you’ve got to be ready to lose. And lose and lose and lose. It’s not very pleasant, but you have to accept this if you believe in what you’re doing,” Nader explains.

He was conducting a “newsmaker” press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on October 24, before moving on to Massachusetts, where he delivered twenty-one speeches on twenty-one topics in twenty-one municipalities in one day, in hopes of earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Five or six reporters showed up at the Press Club event (including several old admirers). The only cameraman was a documentary filmmaker. Nader stood at the podium and described the corporate dominance of politics, the stranglehold exercised on dissent by the two-party system, the packaging of presidential candidates like soap or cars and the failure of left-liberal progressives (including The Nation) to demand conditions on their support for the Democratic candidate.

“The hypocrisy of liberals, which may in some ways be unconscious, is empowering the forces that are destroying our nation,” Nader asserted in an even-tempered voice. “The left in this country has been successfully cowed by the Democratic Party,” he continued. “The votes of progressives are taken for granted by Democrats…. By allowing ourselves to be manipulated, we have demonstrated that we have no moral substance. We have no line that can never be crossed, no stance so sacred and important that we are willing to stand up and fight back.” So long as progressives are willing to settle for the “least-worst” alternative, they will remain ignored and excluded from power, he suggested.

This kind of talk from Nader drives some people to rage against him. His strategy, critics observe, was flawed and lacked the follow-through to build a movement. Nader returns their scorn by discussing “the rage that many in our nation feel toward liberals.” Barack Obama, he insists, does not intend to alter anything fundamental about the causes. “This rage is a legitimate expression of very real betrayal,” Nader explained. “The working class, most of whom do not vote, watch Democratic candidate after Democratic candidate run for office promising to support labor and protect jobs and then, once elected, trot off to Washington to pass the corporate-friendly legislation drawn up by the 35,000 lobbyists who work for our shadow government.”

Whatever you think of Nader’s jeremiad, it is exceedingly timely. Democrats are on the brink of losing their old excuses for timidity and retreat. If the election produces stronger majorities in Congress and a president who has promised big change, Nader’s analysis will be tested in the clearest terms. For the first time in thirty years, the Dems will have nobody left to blame. If Obama does not turn the page as he promised, if a Democratic Congress does not step up forcefully, then we may fairly conclude Nader was right. The decay of democracy will have been proven to be deeper than we wished to believe.

Nader is not optimistic about how the old Democratic coalition will respond to its new situation. “I see a lot of anger around the country, but I don’t see it organized,” he said. “Anger that’s unorganized has no power.” The rationale behind his serial campaigns for president was always about this vacuum. His conviction was that third-party campaigns could help mobilize a popular counterforce to leverage the Democrats and break up the two-party monopoly. He failed in this–for many reasons, as he frankly acknowledges.

“The question usually asked,” he said, “is, Has there been a pull or a push on either political party? I’m sorry to say there hasn’t been any indicator of that–which to me means people’s resignation to politics as usual has deepened further.” Both major parties are deeply skewed in their allegiances to corporate power, and Nader believes this unnatural condition must be altered to reverse the decline and decay of society. He thinks this will happen sooner or later, but probably not in the way he has approached it. “My personal preference is a grassroots movement,” he said. “But more likely it’s going to be some billionaire–a progressive or liberal billionaire who makes it a three-way race. If people get used to voting outside the two parties, then things can change.”

So what did his presidential candidacy accomplish? Nader offered a modest list. His presence encouraged others to run independently for public office and showed them ways to do it. He identified the many barriers to ballot access for third-party candidates as an important civil liberties issue. He brought young people into clean politics and helped them develop their skills. What else? “We kept the progressive agenda alive for the future.”

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