For many Democrats who came of age after 2000, Ralph Nader is a crank who cost Al Gore the presidency. But Nader deserves a more honored place in the progressive pantheon. Over the years, Nader has understood the stranglehold of corporate power on democracy as well as anyone, and throughout his career he has creatively organized counterweights. In the heyday of postwar reform, the 1960s and 1970s, Nader-inspired groups prodded and energized Congressional allies to enact one piece of pro-consumer legislation after another. As both a journalist and senior Senate staffer in that era, I can attest that nobody did it better than Nader. Since then, Nader has been a prophet, often without honor in his own coalition.
I should add that I go back a long way with Ralph Nader. When I was in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, Bob Walters, a journalist friend in common, asked if I would like to meet Nader. Sure, I said. Walters advised that he’d pick me up, for lunch, on the corner of Washington’s Connecticut Avenue and S Street in his car. He arrived in a Corvair—the very model that put Nader on the map with his exposé, Unsafe at Any Speed—with Nader sitting uncomfortably beside him braced against the dashboard. We parked and walked to the restaurant, a Middle Eastern favorite of Nader’s.
In those years, Nader and I both had offices in the National Press Building. One day, two fire engines arrived. Nader had been testing the safety of electric blankets by dousing them with water.
My late wife, Sharland Trotter, was for a time an editor and writer at Nader’s Center for Responsive Law, where she wrote a scathing and well-documented critique of the National Institute of Mental Health. (Another early Nader’s Raider was a graduate student named Paul Starr, who wrote a prescient book, The Discarded Army, on the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Starr went on to co-found The American Prospect with Robert Reich and me.)
I briefly worked for Nader in 1975 and helped him engineer reforms of the Congressional seniority system, via a detailed dossier tallying which committee chairs had voted how many times against the majority position of the Democratic Caucus. Nader’s proposal, to have committee chairs elected by majority vote, carried the day, and three doddering, right-wing Dixiecrat chairs lost their jobs.
Nader grasped that power is defeated only by counter-mobilizations of power. Those strategies could include the publicity and shaming of corporate malefactors (the auto industry), the exposé of captured government agencies (serial investigations by the first generation of Nader’s Raiders); ongoing monitoring of public institutions like the Food and Drug Administration (the Public Citizen Health Research Group); creation of citizen watchdog groups expert at investigation and lobbying (Public Interest Research Groups), novel proposals for reform (federal chartering of corporations), and much more.
For two decades or so, Nader’s efforts helped mobilize citizen power to keep corporate power at bay. But with the counter-revolution stimulated by the infamous Lewis Powell memo of 1971 and increasingly after the election of Ronald Reagan, America’s business class rediscovered its latent power as a ruling elite and invested massively in politics. To Nader’s great frustration, the golden age of consumer advocates working with congressional committees and investigative reporters to reform capitalism came to a close. More and more Democrats, as well as Republicans, were captured by Wall Street. Public agencies such as the FDA, rather than being counterweights to business, became enablers and allies.
That, and not an outsized ego, was behind Nader’s decision to run for president as an independent in 2000. Democrats, on balance, had ceased being the party of regular people. While there were still plenty of progressive Democrats in Congress, the presidential Democratic Party was a second corporate party.
Historians will argue about whether Nader actually tipped the election to Bush. Weighing on the opposite side of that debate is the fact that Gore ran a terrible campaign and was probably pushed (intermittently) to a more robust stance by Nader’s entry; he might have done even worse if Nader had not been in the race. At the time, I had urged that if Nader was determined to run, he would have more visibility, more constructive effect, and less risk to Gore by running in the Democratic primaries, as independent Bernie Sanders is likely to do in 2016.
In any case, Nader’s frustration with the corporate capture of both parties has only increased since 2000, and with good reason. In his most recent two books, Nader imagines how things might be different.
His 2011 novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us, is a utopian vision. In it, Nader fantasizes that more of the super-rich, in the manner of Warren Buffett, are seized by an attack of conscience and band together to pursue radical reforms of the sort that Nader commends to the country. The fictionalized Buffett, in 2006, convenes a gathering of seventeen billionaires on Maui (!) that includes George Soros, Ted Turner, H. Ross Perot, Sol Price, and liberal insurance magnates Peter Lewis and Bernard Rapoport (both Prospect benefactors, and both recently deceased). The improbable group resolves to battle for progressive causes. (The Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy progressive donors and trade unionists, is a bantam version of Nader’s fantasy and with some of the same players. God bless the Alliance, but it has not changed the political views or goals of the ruling class.)
Though people such as Buffett and Soros do exist, Nader is enough of a realist to have written this account as fiction. The problem is that too few plutocrats are class traitors. It’s a mark of Nader’s exasperation with the blockage of American democracy that he turned both to the novel and to the paradoxical premise of the wealthy rediscovering noblesse oblige. But from Nader’s long experience, that utopian future of elites seeing the light is as plausible today as ordinary politics getting America back on track.
In his latest book, Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, Nader returns to non-fiction but continues the theme of paradox. His story is that liberals have much to learn from conservatives, that conservative principles are at odds with corporate domination of democracy, and that many ad hoc alliances are possible and sensible. As Rand Paul’s rise suggests, libertarian conservatives are opposed to government invasion of privacy and violations of the Fourth Amendment. Other Nader examples include the case of the proposed Clinch River Breeder Reactor, blocked in 1982 by a coalition of environmentalists and anti-boondoggle conservatives. The costs of the proposed reactor had mushroomed (pun intended) from $400 million to an estimated $8-9 billion. Another example: the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill of 2003, limiting money in politics (until the Supreme Court intervened). A further case of left-right collaboration is the successful effort by left and right to require more transparency at the Federal Reserve.
If liberals and principled conservatives grasp their true areas of common interest and act on them, Nader argues, they will be Unstoppable. His examples are provocative, but in the end, the book is probably more valuable as a reminder of just how far conservatives have strayed from their principles.
“I have not met a conservative who calls himself a corporatist,” Nader writes, “but I have met many a corporatist who masquerades as a conservative—the better to forge a false communion with authentic conservatives as a way to increase the power of the corporate state.” Much of the book pays tribute to Americans whom Nader lauds as authentic conservatives, including Senator Robert Taft (he supported public housing and federal aid to education), economist George Stigler (who first wrote about “regulatory capture”), and even Milton Friedman (who supported a minimum guaranteed income).
The only problem is that most of these worthies lived in the mid-20th century, and it is hard to find their like today. The genuine conservatives of our own era whom Nader invokes are anti-government first and anti-corporate second, if at all. Despite his efforts to make a case, Nader is intellectually honest about how difficult it will be to bring this alliance off. He quotes Ed Crane, former president of the Cato Institute, which is more libertarian than corporatist, unlike most of today’s right-wing think tanks. “I’m anti-corporatist but anti-statist first,” Crane tells Nader in a friendly email exchange. “You have it the other way around. Almost all the dishonesty and damage put forward by corporations is facilitated, indeed made possible, by that state.”
And there’s the rub. There are too few principled conservatives of the sort Nader prizes to make left-right alliances a central organizing strategy for reform, just as there are too few left-wing billionaires. The second part of Crane’s assertion is a whopper. Corporations are capable of plenty of damage and dishonesty, thank you, with no help from the state (except to the extent that they have captured the state.)
Other conservatives whom Nader partially embraces, from Pat Buchanan (for his anti-free-trade views) to Grover Norquist (who opposed federal bailouts of Wall Street and the PATRIOT Act), disagree with Nader far more than they agree with him, and are often instruments of corporate power. For every example Nader cites of a left-right alliance that actually changed policy, he cites several others that should have come together, but didn’t.
Nader’s hope for left-right alliances, like his quest for left-wing billionaires, is, in the end, more than a little wishful. That doesn’t mean, however, that this is a silly book. On the contrary, it is filled with wit, knowledge of history, and useful insights about the nature of power in America. Even though his examples of liberals and conservatives getting together to defeat corporatism may seem to be one-offs, some of them are genuinely important. If the PATRIOT Act is ever seriously reformed, it will be precisely the result of a left-right alliance. And it is hard to imagine reversing the idea of the corporation as citizen without the support of conservatives concerned about the fate of American democracy.
It is heartening that Nader, at age 80, is still biased towards hope (if occasionally fantastic hope) more than cynicism, despite accumulating evidence that would turn a Candide into a cynic. That said, the young Nader had it right the first time: Progressive change will come, if it comes at all, mainly from mobilizing regular people to fight the power of concentrated wealth, not from renegade billionaires, not from principled conservatives. Of course, we’ll take allies wherever we can find them.