Not long ago, while fiddling with the dial on my car radio, I came across a
familiar voice: that of Ralph Nader, consumer advocate extraordinaire, speaking at an event in Michigan. Now as anyone who has heard him can attest, Nader always demands a lot from his listeners as he details how corporate power is destroying democracy. So it was a more than pleasant surprise this time to hear him showing a lighter touch.
Decrying the shrinking of the TV sound-bite on the evening news from an
average of 18 seconds in the 1970s to just 6 seconds today, he predicted
the coming of the "sound-bark." "When they say, Mr. Nader, what do you
think of the latest Federal Reserve interest rate [hike], I'll go like
Assailing corporations for turning Washington into "accounts
receivable," he called for the creation of a "taxpayer appreciation day"
when big business would give thanks for all the subsidies and giveaways it
has received from the public till.
And citing the ancient Greek physicians' maxim that "a human body is more likely
to tolerate colliding against a flat, yielding surface than a sharp, cutting
edge," he sarcastically chided General Motors for failing to conscientiously
design their cars; in particular, he pointed out that car makers took decades to install
seat-belts, even though they had been invented for pilots in World War I.
If this sounded as though Nader were a candidate for something, that's
because he is, though precious few are in on his secret. But
Nader has assured close associates that he intends to run a serious
campaign for president next year, under the Green Party banner, and that he
will announce in January.
Throughout his Michigan speech (which had been taped live last summer),
Nader hammered away at his central message: that what America needs is a
renewal of civic culture to combat the now-dominant corporate culture.
"More and more, corporations are raising our kids," he declared. Companies
now start marketing directly at children as early as age 2, he pointed out, and the average youngster watches 30 hours of television a week, with at least three pernicious effects: They learn that violence is a preferred solution to life's problems; they are taught to value cheap sensuality in
everything from sex to self-image to food; and they become addicted to
entertainment that shortens their attention span.
"What is wrong with a society that allows its most precious resource to be
exploited?" he asked. "If there was a child molester in the neighborhood,
would it be enough to tell parents to lock the doors?"
When we "grow up corporate," as Nader puts it, we never stop to think that
any of this could be different -- that we could control the resources of
our commonwealth like the public airwaves and lands, that we could demand
safer and less-polluting products, that we could have public financing of
elections so money doesn't nullify our votes, that labor could win
strengthened rights to organize, that consumers could band together to
challenge monopolistic practices and industries, that poverty among
children could be eliminated.
But despite all of this, Nader is the ultimate anti-cynic. "If you were in
a big lifeboat and the ship had just sunk and there's a big storm coming
and you had to get to the island to save everybody in the lifeboat, and
here you are rowing away and you look back and there's some guys who aren't
rowing, they're listening to some music on their radio, what do you think
you'd say?" He asked his Michigan audience. "Oh well, to each his own?
[Pause.] "You'd say, 'Pick up those oars!'" The crowd cheered.
Life magazine has identified Nader as one of the 100 most influential
people of the 20th century, yet most citizens know him only as a consumer
advocate. In fact, his call for a revival of civic culture represents nothing less than a full-blown philosophy of life.
"This is truly one of life's greatest gratifications, to work a democracy into a strengthened posture for the greatest good for the greatest number of people," he says.
In this age of hyper-materialism and shallow politics, Nader's message is
more relevant than ever. The question is whether his emerging 2000
presidential campaign will be relevant, too.
The official word from Nader, who got nearly 700,000 votes as the
Green Party's 1996 candidate despite running a non-campaign that confused
and angered many of his supporters, is that he has not made up his mind about
running again and will not do so until January.
But when he spoke at a meeting of the Association of State Green Parties
last June in Connecticut, he promised that he wouldn't limit his
fund-raising as severely this time around, and that he would make at least
three major appearances in every state where he is on the ballot before the
summer is through, with more selective targeting of key states in the fall
-- "if," he added, "I run."
According to sources close to Nader -- one a senior Green activist who met with
him at length last June, the other a close associate who is a former "Nader's
Raider" -- Nader is privately saying that he will indeed run.
"I'm not using the word 'if' because I've heard him be definitive," says
the first source. "It's not if but when. The question becomes what kind of
campaign because it takes two to tango. During our meeting, we addressed
some of the issues from '96: Is he going to run an active campaign, and
will he work closely with the Greens on a daily basis? He said yes and yes."
Two concrete indications of Nader's intent: He allowed the California Green
Party to place his name on their March 2000 primary ballot (a decision that
had to be made by this November), and he convinced Native American activist
Winona LaDuke to again be his vice-presidential candidate, even though she
had earlier announced that she didn't want to run again.
Nader's goal next year will be to get at least 5 percent of the vote: the threshold that third parties have to reach in order to receive a proportional share of public funding for the next presidential campaign. The $12.6 million in federal funds coming to the Reform Party's presidential candidate for the 2000 general election was triggered by Ross Perot's 8 percent showing in 1996.
If Nader and the Greens succeed, it would guarantee the Green Party
millions in public funds for 2004, which would in turn be a huge boost for
lower-level Green candidates. It would also lift the party up to the same
level as the Reform Party in the national eye, at the least. And it's not an unrealistic goal: Nader got just under 1 percent of the vote in 1996, when only one out seven voters was even aware that he was running.
Well in advance of Nader's formal announcement, a core group is actively
laying the groundwork for Nader's campaign. Members include Carol Miller,
co-chair of the New Mexico Green Party and recent congressional candidate;
Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Alliance for Democracy; and Mike Feinstein, a
Green member of the Santa Monica City Council. They've set up a National Committee to Draft Ralph
Nader for President, opened a bank account and set up a Web site to attract volunteers and raise money.
"What I want is to build a Green Party," says Miller. "I don't think we can
guarantee that he is going to win a four-way race," she adds with a laugh,
"but if Bush implodes, anything is possible. I want someone who knows how
to build a movement -- people's movements, citizens' movements, bringing
in young people. That's worth a lot to me, to have something after the election."
Does a Nader run make any sense? Of course. Nader is one of the few
progressives with enough public standing to enter the celebrity sweepstakes
of presidential politics. He is to backbone what most politicians are to
waffles. His message cuts across the simple labels of left and right,
capable of reaching conservative home-schoolers anxious about rampant
commercialism, small business people angry about special privileges for big
corporations, unionists upset about jobs disappearing overseas, and anybody who knows someone who's life was saved by an airbag -- as well as hardcore enviros, consumer
activists and other progressives. He retains a strong following among
seniors who have followed his whole career, and still draws a respectable
showing at his many campus speaking gigs.
Two months ago, I saw Nader speak to an active group of ex-Perotistas, at
the American Reform Party's national convention in Washington. At the end, they gave him a standing ovation, with several people chanting,
"Run, Ralph, Run!"
The time for an independent progressive-populist campaign certainly
seems as ripe as ever. Three converging forces -- the public's continuing
dissatisfaction with the major parties, the growing power of
disaffected citizens to band together quickly via of the Internet and
our tabloidized media system's 24-hour-
stories to tell -- have combined to boost third-party politics closer to
the political mainstream.
That, plus the unexpected election of Jesse Ventura last fall, has made the impossible suddenly seem possible. Polls show anywhere between a third and a half of the public would like to see more choices on the ballot than just George W. Bush and Al Gore. And if all the reporting on Pat Buchanan's and Donald Trump's Reform Party machinations is any indication, Nader is certain to draw a good deal of free media attention as well.
In addition, Buchanan's decision to seek the Reform Party's nomination
may shake up the presidential election in unexpected ways. "The Reform
Party's nomination of Buchanan would open up more space for a polar
opposite, like Ralph, to get engaged," says Steve Cobble, the former
political director of the Rainbow Coalition.
If Buchanan is indeed the Reform nominee, siphoning hard-right votes
away from the Republican candidate, it takes some of the edge off the
argument that Nader would merely "spoil" the Democrats' presidential hopes.
Also, an aggressive Nader campaign could offer a clearheaded alternative to
Buchanan's xenophobic populism. For while the two men may agree about
who the villains are in the trade wars, they disagree about many of the
solutions; Nader could inject critically needed arguments into
the national debate, and his candidacy would inevitably put pressure on
Gore's and Bradley's instinctive centrism.
Finally, there is a pragmatic logic to a serious Nader candidacy that
could even appeal to some Democrats -- at least the congressional branch of
the party. A strong progressive-populist campaign can reach very
effectively into the growing ranks of nonvoters, who are
disproportionately lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and bring them back
to the polls. That is the lesson of victories like U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) in 1990 and 1996 and U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) in 1990, and even of last year's Washington state initiative to raise the minimum wage to the highest level in the country. In every case, voter turnout rose significantly.
Pollster John Zogby, who has built his reputation on figuring out who is likely to vote, says, "You will see an increase in those who call themselves liberal or progressive if there's a credible Green Party candidate [in the race]. For example, that was seen in New York with Ralph Nader in 1996."
And once those voters are in the polling booth, they are likely to
vote Democratic down-ballot. Indeed, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of
New Mexico has credited his narrow 1994 re-election to the turnout boost
from the Greens' gubernatorial candidate, Roberto Mondragon, who got 10
percent of the vote that year. For these reasons, Congressional Democrats
hoping to retake the House might think twice about attacking a Nader bid.
And yet, the first thing many people, including sympathetic activists, undoubtedly think when they hear that Nader is running for president is "Not again" -- especially after his non-campaign of 1996.
Nader himself does not dodge the charge. "More people might have voted for
me last time but didn't know if I was running," he told me. "We weren't on
the ballot in many states," he adds. (Twenty-two, plus the District of
Columbia, to be precise). "And there wasn't a campaign."
The implication: This time will be different.
For starters, there won't be any shyness about filing as a candidate with
the Federal Election Commission or raising money. While several decisions
have yet to be made -- about whether to cap the size of contributions, à la
Jerry Brown's $100 limit, or to make the effort to obtain matching funds
during the primary period -- sources close to Nader say they hope to easily
"break through seven figures," which would let them hire full-time regional
organizers and assist with ballot access.
A larger budget to pay for campaign ads is under consideration, though
Nader is very concerned not to let the fund-raising tail wag the dog. "I
want to see volunteer-hour-
told me. Nader also will still resist releasing his tax returns -- a
voluntary step not required by law -- arguing that the FEC's financial
disclosure forms are more than sufficient and that income taxes ought
to remain private.
Not all Greens are united around Nader's emerging campaign. One
criticism comes from those who question whether he is really their best
messenger. They remember his telling columnist William Safire that he
didn't want to get into "gonadal politics," and they complain that his
anticorporate focus gives short shrift to other parts of the Green
platform that affirm feminism and gay rights.
According to Steve Schmidt, chairman of the Greens' platform committee,
when the issue of his statement to Safire came up last June at a national
meeting of Green state parties, Nader professed his commitment to the
continuing struggle against discrimination and for civil rights. But "whether that satisfies
some of the people who feel the Green candidate should go more into that
issue remains to be seen," Schmidt says. "Some people think we should be
an amalgam of single issues writ large. But the Green Party national
platform, which Ralph is on record strongly supporting, is comprehensive. I think Ralph is right to focus on the core of the platform-reviving civic democracy, a broad-based political movement built from the grass roots and citizen participation."
Still, with Nader focusing mainly on topping 5 percent, it's likely he'll
try to stick as much as possible to his civic vs. corporate agenda in
ways that some progressives will undoubtedly find alienating.
A second, more muted concern among some Greens is that Nader has waited
too long to announce his candidacy, limiting the potential
party-building effect of his running. "It's a huge missed opportunity,"
says one activist who worked very hard on the 1996 campaign but is
sitting this one out. "The point is not Ralph or the presidential
campaign; the point is to build the Green Party -- to bring in new people.
If you want to fundamentally change the landscape, you need people
coming in earlier who will raise funds, hold meetings and learn skills
so they will be in for the long haul. If he had announced two years
before the election, we would have had a great opportunity to build a
blossoming infrastructure. Instead, they're going to have to hire
On the other hand, people close to Nader point out that
the Greens can still build their own locals with or without his official
candidacy. In fact, while not a candidate, Nader has made several trips
to help Green candidates in locales ranging from New Jersey and
Connecticut to California and New Mexico.
Yet the concern over what his late entry means for the Greens is just
one symptom of a deeper complaint made by many veterans of progressive
politics about working with Nader: He's a lone wolf, and he's never
worked well in coalitions. "If you're on his side, you're in fine
shape," says one top veteran of the antiglobalization movement. "If you
decide to put less emphasis on the campaign, for whatever reason, but
you still share his long-term goals, he can treat you like the enemy."
This leader points to a serious break between Nader and the AFL-CIO over
how hard to fight the GATT treaty, and also questions whether Nader can
bring together blue-collar whites with African-Americans. Still, pressed
to say if Ralph should run or not, this person says yes. "We need a
progressive running. If it's a choice between Ralph or nobody, a lot of
us who have reservations on other fronts will say, Hooray! But if he
doesn't run hard, that could become very dispiriting."
In the end, then, whether the emerging Nader campaign meets or exceeds
expectations this time around depends entirely on Ralph Nader himself. Even
though grass-roots volunteers can have a huge impact on the vitality of
his campaign, only he can decide how hard to push which issues, how hard
to fund-raise, how integrated with party-building his effort will be.
Campaigns, after all -- even unconventional, alternative campaigns -- are
still primarily driven from the center outward. And there is an
inexorable logic pushing Nader further into the electoral arena.
Thirty-five years after he essentially invented public-interest
activism, his non-electoral endeavors are frequently blocked by
corporate lobbying and trumped by big money's domination of politics.
It therefore makes sense for him, as he reaches the pinnacle of his career, to
appeal directly to the same natural majority that he has indirectly
championed for so long, and to use the leverage built into the federal
election laws to launch yet one more institution of countervailing
citizen power -- the Green Party -- into permanent orbit.
The moment is his. And the chance may not come again.