The (non-)confessions of St. Ralph

Ralph Nader's new book makes it painfully clear that he has no idea how to build a left-wing alternative to the Democrats. But when you're pure of heart and unsullied by politics, who cares?

Published January 17, 2002 7:53PM (EST)

It's official: Green Party spoiler Ralph Nader gave the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 by stealing votes from Al Gore. "The Simpsons" tells us so: The Jan. 6 episode featured Homer's boss Mr. Burns at a meeting of Springfield Republicans, asking what new "unspeakable evil" the party can come up with. One rumpled fellow is waving his hand, ooh-ooh-oohing for attention like a schoolboy, but Burns dismisses him: "You've already done enough, Nader."

Ouch! Sucks to be Nader! The nation's foremost anti-corporate crusader lampooned by its foremost anti-corporate sitcom? It isn't fair. But the notion that Nader is to blame for Bush's presidency had hardened into fact for bitter Democrats even before Simpsons creator Matt Groening made it funny. In his new book, "Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President," Nader carps about it nonstop; an appendix features the full text of a self-righteous Nation essay by lefty actor, Nader backer (and husband of Susan Sarandon) Tim Robbins, who complains about being attacked at parties by Gore voters who snarl at him: "We hope you're happy now!" -- meaning now that he helped elect (is that the right word?) President Bush. They even harass his and Susan's children!

Now let's get this straight, Gore voters: Nobody should be attacking Tim Robbins' and Susan Sarandon's kids for their parents' support of Ralph Nader. At this point, let's be nice to them at parties, too, OK? I'm not being entirely facetious: Reading the Robbins piece made me cringe a little, because I've needled friends who voted for Nader in much the same way. In the days before and after the November 2000 election -- especially after the Florida deadlock made it clear that had just half of Nader's 96,000 Florida votes gone to Gore, the Democrat would have won the state, and the presidency -- there were lefties lining up to kick Nader in the pages of Salon: Todd Gitlin (twice), Joe Conason (also twice) and Charles Taylor; I myself couldn't resist a cheap shot at Nader and the "poor dumb Greens" in a less than stirring endorsement of Gore Nov. 6. It could have been a new Internet business model: Instead of paying them, we could have let writers pay us for the satisfaction of denouncing Nader's evil appeal.

Two things made me crazy about Nader and his Green Party groupies. First and foremost was their sanctimony. But a close second was the way the Green campaign represented the depressing fatal tendency of the American left to divide and conquer -- itself. Nader and his friends were nastier about Al Gore and Bill Clinton than even Bush was, and to me that reflected the circular firing squad mentality that's kept the left a comparatively marginal force throughout most of American history.

But even during that soothing frenzy of Nader-bashing during the otherwise unbearable Florida debacle, it occasionally occurred to me that my own ire, and that of my allies, could be an example of the exact same tendency. Why be such a Nader-hater? Some liberals seemed more outraged at Nader than, say, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose shocking halt to the Florida recount, we now know, did more to hand Bush the presidency (if you believe, as Newsweek and the Orlando Sentinel reported, that Florida Judge Terry Lewis was prepared to order the counting of overvotes, which favored Gore) than Nader's quixotic candidacy.

A year after the shouting, I had to at least consider the possibility that Nader-hating was my version of the way the powerless (and that certainly includes the American left) typically respond to their plight: by lashing out at something small they have some control over -- Nader and the Greens' appeal -- in order to forget the bigger things that they can't change -- the way Bush won the White House, the way Gore lost it. Certainly Nader wasn't all wrong in his critique of the Democrats: Their failure in the past year to block Bush's agenda, especially his budget-busting tax cut, seemed to prove his point about their wimpiness, though Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle may have gotten a spine for Christmas.

And clearly the metastasizing Enron scandal proves Nader right about the corrosive effects of corporate control on both parties. Sure, the Bush administration seems like a wholly owned subsidiary of Enron: The company's lavish financial patronage helped the up-from-failure president's son launch a political career at 48 and become president six years later, and its ties to the Bush Cabinet rival those between al-Qaida and the Taliban. But generous Enron donations to Democrats are blunting the scandal's partisan edge. CEO Ken Lay played golf with President Clinton and advised Al Gore on energy deregulation. The corporation gave Democrats $532,000 in "soft money" during the 2000 election, Republicans $623,000. Perhaps the most powerful advocate of an Enron bailout -- something no Bush administration figure publicly backed -- was a Democrat, former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who unsuccessfully lobbied his old department, as chairman of Citigroup, to intervene with bond-rating agencies to stop the downgrading of Enron's status (and massive losses for Citigroup) last November.

So I resolved to read Nader's new book, and revisit his 2000 campaign, with an uncharacteristically open mind. What was he trying to say last year, while I kept my fingers in my ears and chanted "Spoiler!" so I wouldn't have to hear him? I never even considered voting for Nader. Could his book convince me that I was ... wrong?

Parts of "Crashing the Party" remind you of what's best about Nader: the reach of his intellect and activism over the last 40 years, from auto safety to bank redlining in the inner city to pay equity for women. Even the most vicious attacks on Nader in 2000 had to begin by acknowledging the legislation he's inspired, the groups -- Public Citizen, the Public Interest Research Groups, Multinational Resource Center, Consumer Project on Technology -- he's helped found.

And for political junkies, the book is sometimes a surprisingly fun read, despite Nader's preternatural lack of playfulness. There's a hilarious section on the strange role of Warren Beatty, who flirted with a presidential run himself, then flirted with backing Nader, and then disappeared, but not before giving Nader some cash, some political advice and some cosmetic tips. He told the gaunt activist to insist on direct lighting for TV appearances, since lighting from above or below tended to make the lean, mean Green look like a character in a horror movie. Thanks, Warren.

He also revisits his crusade to get the corrupt Commission on Presidential Debates to give him a podium. Nader's level of outrage is in this case appropriate to the topic at hand: the way the two parties wrested control over the debates from the League of Women Voters, and subsequently rigged the rules to protect their lackluster candidates from serious questions and third-party challengers. The worst abuse was Nader's being denied entrance to the debates even as an audience member, even when he produced a ticket. It won the Green Party candidate some of the most sympathetic and high-profile media coverage of his campaign, although there's been no serious subsequent challenge by the media to the CPD's disgraceful reign over the debates, which will likely continue in 2004.

Complaints about the media dominate "Crashing the Party," and some are on target. The New York Times ran several vituperative lead editorials attacking Nader for his presidential bid, and they embarrassed the paper, making it seem at once like a house organ of the Democratic Party and profoundly anti-democratic. At the time even Nader-haters found the editorials remarkable and offensive, and Nader is on the money when he blasts the Times for its crude arrogance (it was the crudeness that was remarkable; the Times' arrogance is usually expressed much more subtly and seductively).

But much of his grousing about the media is unfair. He grows tiresome as he recites supposedly major events and pronunciamentos the Times and the Washington Post failed to cover. The fact is, with a few exceptions -- his campaign to join the debates; media wizard Bill Hillsman's great spoof of MasterCard's "Priceless" ads; the sold-out, inspiring Madison Square Garden rally in October 2000 -- Nader ran a lackluster campaign. And who'd have thunk it? Globalization was finally on the map as a political issue that year, there was a consumer product safety scandal in the news thanks to the Ford/Firestone tire tragedy -- an auto-safety scandal, for God's sake, tailor-made for the author of "Unsafe at Any Speed" -- plus a looming energy crisis. Meanwhile, Bush and Gore were more tweedledum and tweedledee than any pair to run for president in American history. Nader should have thrived, but his campaign never caught fire, and blaming the media misses the point.

In fact, I'd argue that Nader got more coverage than he deserved, given the Green Party's lack of national stature, his single-digit poll numbers throughout 2000 and his own lack of elective experience. A Lexis-Nexis search of "Ralph Nader" and "Green Party" for Jan. 1, 2000, through Election Day turns up almost 8,000 news and magazine stories; the supposedly neglectful New York Times alone ran 250 articles that at least mentioned Nader and his Green candidacy, as opposed to only 33 about Pat Buchanan's Reform Party bid. That's despite the fact that Buchanan made two earlier runs for the Republican presidential nomination, and his Reform Party predecessor, Ross Perot, had in 1996 drawn 8 percent of the vote plus federal matching funds, compared with Nader and the Greens' less than 1 percent that same year.

Though it would chagrin Nader to admit it, there's no doubt his celebrity, not his compelling political agenda, won him much of the national media attention he got -- that, plus the fact that as the race tightened closer to Election Day, the Gore campaign took off the gloves with a drive to convince lefties that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush. Political reporters everywhere were suddenly trailing the possible spoiler, but he couldn't turn the new attention into votes. His poll standing started to fall and in the end, he won a disappointing 2.6 percent -- enough to tilt the election to Bush, but far less than his goal. Nader's failures in 2000 -- to run a compelling campaign, and to achieve what many said was his real aim, the 5 percent of the vote that would get the Greens matching funds from the Federal Election Commission -- has a lot to say about the sorry state of the left. But it says even more about Nader's own shortcomings as the limping left's would-be leader.

For 30 years the American left has mostly been a freak show of clashing grievances in search of a persuasive agenda and a dynamic leader, and inevitably finding neither. In some ways, of course, activist left-liberalism was a victim of its own success: Advocates for labor, consumers, minorities and the poor helped end child labor, win the eight-hour day, achieve voting rights, abolish legal segregation, extend new health and welfare programs to the needy, pass groundbreaking clean air and water legislation, mandate seat belts, airbags and highway mileage standards -- the list could go on and on. All those reforms took the edge off the misery of the poor, blunted capitalism's worst abuses, robbed muckrakers of vast acres of muck and made the nation safe for complacency.

But the left colluded in its own defeat and ongoing irrelevance. In one telling passage, Nader notes that the last president to back a progressive social policy agenda was none other than that great lefty, Richard Nixon, who proposed a host of reform legislation including a national minimum income plan as an alternative to welfare and a comprehensive health insurance proposal. Nader fails to mention that the left helped defeat both, believing it could win more for the poor by holding out. Instead it won a backlash against the poor and against the ineffectual Democratic Party by working-class Democrats, which led to the election of Ronald Reagan.

Nader correctly charts the way business began to fight back in the early 1970s, against laws (signed by Nixon) establishing the Occupational Health and Safety Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This no doubt made a difference: Jimmy Carter's 1976 post-Watergate victory represented the last gasp of New Deal/Great Society liberalism. But while aggressive political counterpunching by big business helped, so did the Democrats' -- and the Democratic left's -- incompetence. By the end of the 1970s, the energy crisis, runaway inflation, rising welfare rates, crumbling schools and inner cities and the failure of foreign policy that led to the Iran hostage crisis convinced Americans that Democrats and so-called big government couldn't manage a changing world. That ushered in the Reagan-Bush era, which may ultimately turn out to be the Nixon-Reagan-Bush-Bush-probably not poor Dick Cheney era, with the Carter and Clinton years turning out to be mutant flashes in an otherwise solid two generations of Republican dominance. Time will tell.

What's already clear is that Nader has no clue about how to challenge Republican dominance in any lasting way. He has some decent instincts about what's wrong with the left: He hates identity politics, for instance. That's partly because he's more partial to a class analysis of American inequality, but especially because in the last election, identity politics rose up and bit him in the ass, when women, gay and minority Democratic leaders pretty shamefully distorted his record to say he wasn't good on their issues, in order to help Al Gore.

But if they were wrong when it came to the letter of Nader's career and his record, they were on to something when it came to the spirit. Nader's rejection of the crass appeals of victimology by various Democratic constituencies reflected both his integrity and his arrogance. How dare Democratic Party feminists deny his strong record on women's rights, he says in "Crashing the Party." Why, "in the early 60s," he writes, "I started collecting material for a book on discrimination against women in the United States only to open the newspaper to discover Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique' did it better than I ever could. All this was years before Gloria came upon her life's mission." What a sensitive New Age guy, you first think, but it doesn't quite sit well: Is he staking a claim to being one of feminism's founding fathers? Needling Steinem for being late to her own party? There's something off about the preachy tone.

Likewise, he's somewhat sympathetic when he describes his anguish at the fact that black Democrats and their allies tried to impugn his civil rights record to promote Gore. He lays out his work on racial issues, from efforts to improve banks' lending practices in poor, minority neighborhoods, to clean up toxic brownfields in those same areas, even to make landlords eliminate lead paint (which still poisons too many low-income black children) from slum buildings. But then he kvetches, ungracefully, about how blacks don't care enough about the issues he deems important, harping instead on such things as police brutality and racial profiling.

His work to eliminate environmental racism, he writes, should have won him more black support: "The discrimination inherent in 'breathing while black' deserves at least equal attention to 'driving while black.'" Says who? I'm sure Nader has no idea how arrogant that sounds. He just doesn't get it: He can't pick the black community's issues, or anybody's issues; a successful political leader has to start from where people are, and try to reach them there.

But I can forgive Nader his confusion about how to handle the left's fractious interest groups and their shortsighted leaders, to whom almost no liberal (except maybe Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown) has stood up when running for office, and lived to tell about it. What I ultimately can't forgive is the sanctimony that makes Nader, and his prominent followers, the antithesis of what's needed to galvanize a cross-class, cross-race, broad-based American left.

Nader's supporters are worse than he is, but in the book he seems blind to their insufferable self-righteousness. He affectionately quotes his buddy Michael Moore haranguing college students, warning that if they vote for Gore as the lesser of two evils "you're going to have a miserable life!" We see Susan Sarandon express sadness, not anger, when her friend Gloria Steinem attacks Nader; with probably unconscious condescension she suggests the feisty feminist is scared to buck the Democrats: "I would ask Gloria ... to stop being so frightened," she says. The enlightened Tim Robbins also sees fear paralyzing Gore voters. "It's a frightening threshold to cross," he says of his decision to join the Greens, "but an essential one." The book helped me formulate exactly what I can't stand about so many Nader backers: They exude an inner certainty that deep down they're better people than the rest of us -- braver, happier, smarter, more full of integrity, probably better friends, better parents, better lovers. Maybe Robbins is right: They frighten me.

Nader himself is more admirable, but there's still something off in the way he tried to make himself over as a political leader. He seems to be doing a rather stiff impression of a politician, rather than actually being one. (Gore wasn't much better.) Early on in "Crashing the Party," there's a perhaps unintentionally revealing chapter in which Nader describes his father driving him around their Connecticut town, showing him the community institutions -- libraries, schools, public buildings -- built by the wealthy. He was raised to make that kind of individual contribution, he tells us, rather than to be a politician. There's a term for that kind of civic leadership, of course, and it's noblesse oblige, though Nader never uses the words. Noblesse oblige wasn't all bad; it was certainly better than the ethic of selfishness and entitlement embraced by so many of the wealthy today. But it's the kiss of death for a politician. Nader can't help the way his innate elitism shows through. I know he's of Lebanese ancestry, but he often seems like a Yankee WASP (and he doesn't add to his populist street cred by referring regularly in the book to old friends and supporters from his Princeton and Yale days).

Just as damningly, Nader's discomfort with the personal touch that leadership requires fairly jumps off the page. He himself stiffly puts it this way: "Running for president requires a level and intensity of political ego that I do not find congenial." It's not exactly ego he lacks -- the book confirms that much of Nader's pique at Clinton and Gore arose from their failure to meet with him as requested; he perceives Gore's offer to talk by phone as an insult. He's got plenty of ego, and is entitled to it; what Nader really dislikes is the sweaty, messy, hands-on business of politics -- and he confesses as much.

Before his big Madison Square Garden super-rally, he admits: "I have a visceral aversion to addressing very large audiences as if they were a crowd. In college, I read books on crowd psychology, how speakers mesmerize masses with tested propaganda cant, verbal incitations, and the more silent language of gestures and voice modulations. I dislike these methods." He approvingly quotes Noam Chomsky, who wouldn't go on television to debate the Vietnam War because its sound-bite format favored the right, letting it win the debate with formulations like "Peace through strength." So he doesn't like speeches to big crowds, and he doesn't like TV sound bites. What does he like? He says he liked the fact that raising money as the Green Party candidate for president, "nobody I called wanted anything in return, which frequently would have been the case were I running as a Democrat." Of course, that would have been the case if Nader had any prayer of political success, in any party -- that's what politics is about. People want something, and they turn to politics, and politicians, in order to get it. But our hero seems to prefer political failure -- it keeps his hands clean, and it's better for his soul.

In the end, though, the book's most shattering revelation is that Nader and the Green Party have absolutely no idea how to build a left-wing alternative to the Democrats, and no feel for the issues that would move them toward majority. Toward the conclusion of "Crashing the Party," as he surveys the political landscape for hopeful signs, he tells us that youth will be the vanguard of any new movement, and notes that America was founded by comparative youngsters: Thomas Jefferson was 32 in 1776, he points out, James Madison 35, and George Washington "was only 44." Of course, they were actually geezers, since life expectancy in 1776 was only 35. It's a small point, but it's typical of the way Nader lacks a convincing analysis of what's necessary for leftward political change.

A more damning omission in the book -- and one that should disqualify Nader from running for president again -- is its complete neglect of foreign policy. There's exactly one citation under "foreign policy" in the index, and that points to a section in which he urges the Defense Department to take the lead in infectious disease eradication. I'm not kidding. There are no entries under "terrorism," "Israel," "Iran" or "Iraq," though his indexers missed a reference I found to "cruel" U.S. sanctions against Saddam Hussein's nation. To be fair to Nader, foreign policy got relatively scant attention by Bush and Gore during the 2000 campaign, a stunning omission, in hindsight, thanks to the wisdom bestowed on all of us, left right and center, by Sept. 11. But he hasn't used the last four months to formulate a platform either. Asked by Fox's Bill O'Reilly how he'd respond to the terror that killed 3,000 Americans, he spent most of his time fulminating against "autocratic ideologues" and "corporate greed mongers" in the U.S. who he thinks have taken advantage of the threat to restrict our liberties and profiteer.

Finally, "Crashing the Party" never takes on what I believe is the most damning argument against his cause: That in a non-parliamentary, winner-take-all system, there's nothing a third party can do but play spoiler to the mainstream party that's closest to it ideologically. Again and again, he quotes left-wing Democrats who admire his history of activism begging him to run in the Democratic Party, and he rejects their advice with little respect or reflection -- he's so convinced of the rightness of his cause. He doesn't even consider the fact that a strong showing in the primaries might have forced a chastened Al Gore to bargain with Nader and support some of his causes.

In that scenario, however, Nader would have had two obvious problems. The first is the fact that his campaign failed to identify one or two crucial issues worth compromising to achieve. The campaign amounted to a tedious assortment of grievances and complaints, with some good ideas and some nutty ones side by side. To be fair, the Greens are great on campaign finance reform and reducing obstacles to voter participation -- but on those issues, Gore at least said the right things, and the most serious obstacle has been the GOP. Nader's book only underscores the party's failure to develop coherent, persuasive programs and policies. It features three pages on legalizing the hemp industry, for instance, but nothing substantive about how to reform the welfare system; it's got lots of references to opposing educational testing and developing a democracy curriculum for the public schools, and nothing about teacher shortages, crumbling school buildings and unconscionably high dropout rates. And the Greens don't have a platform they could have bargained with Gore about: Befitting their holier-than-thou approach to politics, they offer voters a list of 10 "key values" rather than a series of planks and positions, including "ecological wisdom," "feminism," "nonviolence," and, um, "future focus and sustainability."

The second problem with a scenario in which Nader ran as a Democrat and tried to bargain with party leaders is that he would have had to leave the safety of his clean Green sanctuary, in which "nobody I called wanted anything in return." He'd have had to haggle and compromise, maybe even get his hands dirty; noblesse oblige won't take you far in Democratic primaries. Maybe most important, he'd no longer be the revered party leader who always has the last word; he'd be just another Democrat with a sharp mind, a way with words and his own brand of charisma, who'd have to convince others he was right in order to get his way. Until Nader decides he'd rather be effective than pure, he won't amount to anything more than a bumper sticker specially designed for the holier-than-thou.

By Joan Walsh

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