On the Road With Ralph Nader

On the Road With Ralph Nader

On a spectacular spring day at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about 1,500 college kids are sitting by the lake outside the student union, drinking beer, listening to bands and waiting for


On a spectacular spring day at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about 1,500 college kids are sitting by the lake outside the student union, drinking beer, listening to bands and waiting for Ralph Nader to show up and explain why he’s running as the Green Party candidate for President of the United States. A woman with purple hair finishes playing the acoustic guitar, and a gaggle of Green Party activists troops onstage. The campus rep to the county board grabs the microphone, and someone announces it’s his birthday. He begins to giggle uncontrollably. “Uh-oh, I guess the cookie is crumbled,” he says. Another young Green Party member, who is running for governor of Wisconsin, introduces Nader, telling the crowd, “He’s been fighting for your rights since before you were born–since before I was born, for sure.” So far, this presidential campaign stop brought to you by Wayne’s World.

Then Nader steps up to the mike, tall and gaunt, looking like Abraham Lincoln in his dark, rumpled suit. The whole stage seems to tilt forward under his relative weight. Next to this crew, his presence is overwhelming. As a sailboat glides by behind him, Nader invokes the civil rights and antiwar movements of the sixties. He praises the students for “the antisweatshop movement that’s sweeping the country” and for recent protests against the IMF and the WTO. “After a long slumber, student activism is waking up,” he says, and gets a rousing cheer.

Soon he’s in full swing, nailing applause lines as he attacks corporate power. After decades of fighting for consumer protection, he says, today he finds that corporate lobbyists in Washington have made his job nearly impossible. “Commercial interests have congealed into giant economic interests” with such political clout that “the two parties have merged into one corporate party, with two heads and different makeup.”

This anticorporate message bears some resemblance to the one that electrified voters briefly when John McCain delivered it during the Republican primary. But Nader’s public-interest track record (he is frequently referred to as the most respected man in America) and the depth and breadth of his knowledge put other presidential candidates to shame.

“When do these corporations begin to lose credibility? They fought Social Security, Medicare, auto safety. They fought every social justice movement in this country,” he tells the crowd, which is by now roaring its approval. “It’s time for us to band together and strengthen this new Green Party here in Wisconsin and around the country.”

Nader explains that he’s running with the help of local grassroots activists, which is nice. But you can’t help wondering about the future of the Republic if it’s in the hands of the goofballs on stage with him in Madison–a bunch of nervous kids. Still, Nader’s speech is so inspiring, and the reaction he produces is so strong, you get the feeling something big might be happening. Afterward the crowd gives him a standing ovation.

Nationwide, Nader has some older and weightier supporters. Paul Newman and Phil Donahue have contributed to his campaign. So have other liberals and progressives from New York to Hollywood, including two generations of idealists who got their start as “Nader’s Raiders” in his citizen-action groups. So far he has raised $876,000. And he has pulled ahead of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, polling about 7 percent of prospective presidential votes. If he does that well nationally in November, the Green Party will qualify for about $12 million in public general-election funds, making it a much more formidable political force. The goal of his campaign, Nader says, is to build a nationwide network so that “in 2004 or 2008 there could really be a credible challenge to the major-party candidates.” Meanwhile, if he gives the Democrats enough of a scare, he says, labor unions, consumer groups, environmentalists and other progressive interests can capture the attention of their representatives again.

But what has really focused national media attention on Nader’s campaign is the fact that he could cost Al Gore the election. He doesn’t seem to mind. Speaking to a group of about 100 middle-aged professionals at a Madison fundraiser in the home of an alumnus of Nader’s Public Citizen, Nader says: “A funny thing is happening in the Democratic Party. Every time they win, they say it’s because they took Republican issues away. And then when they lose, they say it’s because they are not appealing to the Republican voters. We want them to say they lost because a progressive movement took away votes.” This gets a big cheer. It tells you something about Madison progressives that they applaud the idea of making Al Gore lose. But if the People’s Republic of Madison is prepared to overthrow the two-party system, is the rest of the country ready for this?

As Nader took his quixotic campaign on the road this summer, bumping through all fifty states in rental cars, the news has traveled fast behind him: If he continues to pick up steam, particularly in California (where major media outlets are speculating that he could draw 9 or 10 percent), he might be a spoiler for the Democrats. This has begun to cause some real consternation, even among his friends. In Los Angeles, left-wing Democrats helped raise $30,000 for Nader at a recent event. Still, “about one-third to one-half of the people milling around were saying ‘a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,'” says host Stanley Sheinbaum. People might be moved by Nader’s message, but “then they’re not sure what to go out and do,” Sheinbaum added.

Many remain unpersuaded that Nader’s campaign will achieve more than helping to propel a Republican into the White House. Liberal pundit John Judis declared in The New Republic that Nader “betrays himself” by attacking the Democrats. It’s true that the Clinton Administration has lost ground on issues ranging from the environment to the minimum wage to Social Security, Judis conceded, but “the relevant question…is whether the Democrats are as responsible for these setbacks as the Republicans.” His answer is no. Without a Democratic administration applying the brakes, right-wingers in Congress would have done even more harm.

Nader turns this argument on its head. “When I saw that the Democrats couldn’t even defend this country against the baying pack of right-wing extremists in the Republican Party anymore, that’s when I said it’s time for a new progressive movement,” he says. “Can you imagine what Harry Truman or FDR would have done with the likes of Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay? They would have landslided them!”

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.

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.

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?”

Several days later, UAW president Stephen Yokich released the following statement: “We are deeply disappointed that Vice President Gore has failed to speak out [on China]…. It’s time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.” The statement stopped short of endorsing Nader, and it didn’t prevent the House from passing the China trade bill. But it sent a message that union leaders could heed Nader’s call to “play hardball” and reject the Democrats’ assertion that they have nowhere else to go. On June 14 the 31,000-member California Nurses Association officially endorsed Nader. And on June 22 Teamsters president James Hoffa nodded to Nader’s call, endorsing his position on trade and suggesting that he appear in the debates.

Reading three or four newspapers each morning as he rolls along in the passenger seat of his rental car, Nader tosses out commentary: “Look at this. Clinton’s dominating the media with this China trade thing. He’s in there every day. Can you imagine him doing that on an issue that’s important for people, not corporations? What a pimp he is.”

He’s equally unsparing of Gore: “I want to fight fer you?” he drawls. “Gore changes his clothes three times a day. He has absolutely no idea who he is.” (Nader, on the other hand, could make history wearing the same dark blue suit to all fifty states.)

But even if you accept Nader’s critique of the Clinton/Gore Administration–that it has abandoned principle to raise corporate cash–aren’t there still some crucial differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush? “The lesser of two evils beats the hell out of the greater evil,” says Representative Barney Frank, who is dismayed by Nader’s challenge. On gay rights, abortion and affirmative action, progressives stand to lose a lot if Bush wins, Frank says. And don’t forget the Supreme Court. “But Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott decide the nominations anyway,” Nader argues. Clinton has sought Supreme Court nominees who were acceptable to the Republican majority, withdrawing the names of liberals Mario Cuomo and Bruce Babbitt at Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Hatch’s behest. Nader expects Gore to do the same. Nor does he believe that Roe v. Wade is hanging by a thread; on the current Court a majority of Justices, including Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor, have declined to overturn it. In Congress, he contends, Democrats’ chances aren’t tied to Gore either: Nader insists his candidacy will draw disaffected progressives to the polls, which will help Congressional Democrats.

For people who still don’t buy it, there’s always Texas, where campaign staffers gathered 74,100 signatures (twice what they needed) to get him on the ballot. Texas could be a great state for Nader. Since Bush is a shoo-in there, Democrats don’t face such an agonizing choice: A vote for Nader won’t hurt Gore. Conversely, the stakes for Democrats casting a Nader vote are also lower in Gore strongholds like Massachusetts and New York.

National media attention continues to build, which will aid Nader in his toughest battle yet: breaking the two-party lock on the presidential debates. Nader has filed a lawsuit accusing the Federal Election Commission of violating campaign finance rules by allowing Anheuser-Busch and other corporations to fund the debates, which amounts to a corporate campaign contribution to the two major candidates. It’s a long shot, but a victory could mean a new, more open debate forum and a huge boost to Nader’s campaign.

In the meantime the journey continues, by rental car. Nader is at his best in Montpelier, Vermont, before an enthusiastic crowd of about 400, warmed up by their own independent member of Congress, Representative Bernie Sanders, who calls Nader “one of the heroes of contemporary American society.” Nader then gets personal, saying that, at 66, he has decided he wants to make it his contribution to try to start a movement.

He reminds the crowd that other historical movements also faced tall odds. “Think of the farmers in East Texas who in the late nineteenth century started the populist, progressive farmer revolt against the big banks and railroads,” he says. “They had nothing but their hearts, their minds and their feet. Do you think they gave up?” Think what it was like for the early abolitionists, he says, or for the suffragists, or the workers who formed the trade union movement. Conditions today are hardly any worse.

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.

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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