To the relief of many, Ralph Nader did not run again for president in 2012. He decided instead to do what he does best. He wrote another book. It is called The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future, published this month by HarperCollins. Nader has been doing this regularly for nearly fifty years and his latest has the same intensity and well-informed outrage of his youth. Nader’s unique character and critical intelligence became a popular model for civic idealism. His activist techniques have been copied by striving citizens around the world.
I go back a long way with Ralph. As a young reporter at The Washington Post decades ago, I wrote a lot about Nader’s earliest ventures as the self-invented reformer. I once referred to him in print as the “lone ranger,” and he never quite forgave me. The label was a cheap shot, he complained, because it promoted his celebrity, which undermined his true purpose—showing average citizens how they too could take responsibility for country and community, fulfilling the Jeffersonian ideal of self-government.
Still, reporters and editors loved the story of a single-minded crusader who goes up against power. Nader spread his influence across numerous fields by creating a galaxy of small organizations that were not much more than letterheads. But Ralph staffed them with adventurous young people like himself—willing to challenge authority by producing shocking, fact-filled investigations. Nader turned these young recruits loose on government agencies, powerful corporations and huge public scandals like the toxic substances in air and water. Politicians responded to the bad press. The texture of American politics was altered in a thousand ways, most dramatically by forcing greater transparency on once-secret affairs of government.
His new book reads to me like an enjoyable collection of golden oldies—updating issues he has championed for decades, renewing complaints that will be vaguely familiar to any old heads who have long been around legislative politics and corrupted government. Fundamental Tax Reform. Give Science and Technology Back to the People. Get Corporations Off Welfare. Create National Charters for Large Corporations. Crack Down on Corporate Crime. Reduce Our Bloated Military Budget. Invent New Rules for Reform. And so on for eight more chapters.
It seemed like a nostalgia trip. Yet after all these years I found myself impressed all over again. One has to feel awe for Nader’s intellectual energy, for his tenacity and stubborn optimism. Yet Ralph himself did not sound nostalgic. He sounded indignant as always. He is not obsessed with frustrations or disappointments from the past. He is making fresh arguments set in the present.
For many of his propositions, the book failed to convince me, and not because I necessarily disagree with his goals. Ralph doesn’t really try to explain why good ideas never got off the ground or why his Jeffersonian conception of small-d democracy ultimately failed to hold on to its power. As I recall, Nader never did have much to say about ideology or have a well-grounded theory of political power and how it works. His engine has always run on his idealism, but his faith in the potential of ordinary citizens seems to have been shaken.
In a closing chapter, “Enlist the Enlightened Super-Rich,” Nader seems to suggest that billionaires with good intentions can save us. He wishes for a “plutocratic cultural revolution,” in which rich guys like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates will disperse their fortunes for the public good, sort of like latter-day Carnegies and Rockefellers. This is a sorry footnote to Nader’s career as a reformer, a sign that he may have given up on Jefferson.
I wanted more reflection and analysis. Ralph wanted to expose the bad guys again. “We all keep trying,” he told me in a personal note. Yes, exactly. It dawned on me that Nader has written a book everyone under 30 (or even under 40) should read. They weren’t present the first time around, when Ralph was creating a movement. These are new ideas for many of them, who will be shocked by the hard facts Nader is reporting (or re-reporting). Many younger people do not know the story of that energetic reform era, nor how it was suffocated by the corporate-financed counter-reformation. It will be very good for the country if Nader’s revelations shock a new generation. This book is a subversive primer that should be read in every high school civics class.
For more on the connection between politics and activism, read Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite on why “movements need politicians.”