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 get the message and give it 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 explained.
He was conducting a “newsmaker” press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Friday before moving on to Massachussetts, where he planned to deliver more than twenty speeches 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 camera was a documentary film maker. Nader stood at the podium and read from a lengthy speech describing the corporate dominance of politics, the stranglehold exercised on dissent by the two-party system, the presidential candidates packaged like soap and cars, 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 be 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. He returns the favor by discussing “the rage that many in our nation feel towards 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 might 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 new 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 else left to blame. If Obama does not turn the page as he promised, if the Congressional majority does not step up forcefully, then we may fairly conclude Nader was right. The decay of democracy is deeper than we wished to believe.
The hard warning Nader poses is not about himself but about how the left and other elements of the old Democratic coalition will respond to their new situation. Nader is not optimistic. “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 in politics. His conviction was that third-party campaigns could help mobilize a popular counter-force to leverage the Democrats and break up the two-party monopoly. For many reasons, he failed in this, 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 has his presidential candidacy accomplished in the meantime? 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 issue of civil liberties as meaningful as access to voting. He brought young people into clean politics and helped them develop their skills. What else? “We kept the progressive agenda alive for the future.”