Tuesday December 7, 2004
The Guardian – UK
Fasten your seatbelts
by Julian Borger
… So, after a disastrous result this year, will Ralph Nader run for
the nation's highest office again? … Nader is now 70 but appears
to be in top form. …
He is one of the last true radicals in American public life and the man who single-handedly created the politics of consumer rights. But he is also, for many Democrats, the man who cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by running as an independent candidate and splitting the moderate vote. So, after a disastrous result this year, will Ralph Nader run for the nation's highest office again? Julian Borger asks him.
Defeat comes in many guises. There is the narrow loss the Democrats are now reeling from, made all the more bitter by their fleeting, deceptive, taste of impending victory on election day. Then there is the absolute, obliterating rout that Ralph Nader suffered on November 2, when even some of his diehard supporters seemed to abandon him in the solitude of the polling booth. From nearly 3% in 2000, his share of the national vote evaporated this year to a third of a percentage point, a political presence so vanishingly small that the Democrats are not even bothering this time to blame him for their loss.
You might think such a political annihilation would destroy the confidence of even the most thick-skinned politician. But Nader, one of the last true radicals in American public life, thrives on this kind of setback. In an interview at his Washington offices, he shows not a flicker of self-doubt or self-pity. He feels sorry instead for the American electorate and the liberals who deserted them. He fears they may be sick. "They became anyone-but-Bush," he recalls. "We called them viral liberals – liberals whose brain closes down to any kind of tactics, strategies and alternative ways of defeating Bush other than letting the Democrats decide. It was an absolute brain-closing – a state of being a political zombie."
Nader is now 70 but appears to be in top form. In a campaign office still buzzing with enthusiastic young volunteers, he lolls in a plastic office chair, doing what he never tires of – dissecting America's political culture in both amusement and outrage.
George Bush and John Kerry both took holidays after the election. Not Nader. He leapt immediately into his next battle – calling for a recount in Ohio. He thinks Kerry may have been robbed of the presidency there. The Kerry Democrats decided the day after the election that the Ohio margin was too great (more than 130,000) to challenge realistically. But in Nader's eyes they are just too gutless to stick up for themselves. "You don't concede something like that. We are the ones doing what the Democrats should be doing," he says contemptuously.
Asked whether he had taken any time off lately, Nader appears not to understand the question. He thinks for a moment and offers that he likes hiking and sees the occasional film. For Nader, there is nothing outside the ceaseless campaign. He has never been married or had children. He does not play brash, risky sports like Kerry, or hole up at a ranch like Bush. He has none of the usual politician's hinterland. His causes, the often lonely battle against the mega-corporations and their dominance of American politics, and his quixotic, four-yearly tilts at the presidency, are all there is. "It's a full commitment. That was decided a long time ago," he says, adding a favourite slogan: "The forces of injustice never take a day off."
Nader could once claim a legion of friends and admirers in the world of American progressive politics, of which he has been the patron saint for more than three decades. He single-handedly created the politics of consumer rights with his campaign against the ropy Chevrolet Corvair, and his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed revolutionised the car industry, forcing manufacturers to install seatbelts and stop building death traps.At campuses across the country Nader inspired young people to form their own public citizen's groups holding corporate America to account. Since 2000, almost all that extended family of fellow travellers has deserted him. Half opposed his presidential bid that year, accusing him of splitting the progressive vote and allowing Bush to reach the White House. Four years on, the other half of Nader's circle pleaded with him not to run. The Green party, which nominated him in 2000, turned cool on him, and even the liberal Hollywood elite made their excuses and got on board the Kerry campaign. "There were so many of them," Nader sighs. "Jackson Browne called apologetically … Susan Sarandon, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Paul Newman, Michael Moore – there was a real viral." The maker of Fahrenheit 9/11 campaigned fiercely for Nader in 2000 but this year joined the chorus of calls for him to stay out of the race. All this made no difference, of course. Universal opposition only encourages Nader. It simply reflects the depth of the rot he has to scrape out of the American body politic. "That is how corrupt the system is, that good people turn against you," he says. "Our political system is an idiocracy. It's the laughing stock of the western world."
Nader's campaign pledge to drain the sea of corporate cash from party politics, withdraw from Iraq and slash the defence budget attracted 7% support in the volatile opinion polls. He walked into the Kerry HQ on May 19 and offered a non-aggression pact. If Kerry left Nader alone, Nader would spend 90% of his campaign time attacking the president. He would take the economic populist approach and focus on Bush's immersion in big-business interests – a line mainstream Democrats generally shy away from for fear of accusations of class warfare.
Nader refused to bow out of the swing states, but insisted he would not cost Kerry votes. Instead, Nader's participation would boost the leftwing turnout and both men would gain. To this day, Nader insists it was a good deal. "I said 'If I get a million voters out, you'll get 65% of them. Once they get in the voting booth they are going to want to be with a winner.'"
To Democrats the logic seemed counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. They remembered Florida, where Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes while Nader took 97,000 votes. At the May meeting, Kerry kept his thoughts to himself. Nader emerged thinking they had had a "noncommittal but cordial" session and describing Kerry as "presidential". Meanwhile, Nader's enemies on the left were gathering. Three pro-Kerry groups emerged over the summer dedicated to keeping Nader off the ballot in as many states as possible. The ballot war was nasty, a struggle of attrition fought in the courts over signatures and the technicalities of state law. After Florida in 2000, it was the next step in the transformation of American elections into a gladiatorial battle between rival armies of lawyers.
For both sides, means justified ends. Toby Moffett, an old friend and disciple of Nader's who has long since parted ways ideologically, spearheaded the ballot access campaign against him. He says it had to be done. "I talk about it without any glee because we lost the greater battle. It's a ridiculous little asterisk of history. But I think we had a role in the ballot challenges. We distracted him and drained him of resources," Moffett claims, but adds: "I'd be less than honest if I said it was all about the law. It was all about stopping Bush from getting elected."
Nader accuses his foes of "constitutional crimes" for their efforts to keep him off state ballots, accusing them of intimidating his signature gatherers with spurious threats of jail terms. "Not in a hundred years has anyone received the kind of ballot-access attack that we received," he said. "We showed that by stressing the Democratic party, the mucus, the pus and the political bigotry all came out."
Under pressure, and short of signatures supporting his candidacy in key states, Nader made some compromises of his own. He sought and won the nomination of the Reform party, a quirky and faction-riddled group united principally by its antipathy to immigration. He also accepted signatures collected by Republicans only too happy to help his cause. Nader insists that the Democrats' tactics left him little choice.For Moffett and many of Nader's former admirers, his presidential campaigns have been an ego-driven vanity project that has sullied the legacy of decades of activism. "At the end of the day, it really appeared to be all about him. That's what people will remember. It's a very sad thing," Moffett says.
A handful on the left hold a more charitable view that, long after the unpleasantness of the past two elections is forgotten, Americans will have reason to think Nader whenever they strap on a seat-belt. "Nader's admirable accomplishments as a whistleblower and exposer of corporate greed will be remembered in history as far more important than his presidential aspirations," Howard Zinn, America's pre-eminent radical historian, argued in an email exchange.
Nader himself professes not to be very interested in his legacy. His eyes are instead on the next fight. After contesting Ohio, he plans to assemble an anti-war coalition that will seek to impeach Bush for leading the country into war on false pretences. After that, the 2008 presidential race beckons, and another opportunity to infuriate mainstream liberals. Nader says he has not made up his mind whether to run for the nation's highest office once more.
If he is asked by enough people, he will consider it, but whether he does or not, he argues, someone will have to raise a banner to the left of the Democrats. "If every four years the progressive agenda is not placed before the electorate, then it atrophies," Nader says. "You have to keep the flame alive."