Back in the spring of 1975, I was co-editor of my high school newspaper. I would be heading to the University of Illinois in the fall, and though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to raise some hell in the service of the public good. Like Woodward and Bernstein, maybe. Or better yet, like Ralph Nader.
He was unequivocally my hero and a giant influence. So, when I heard he was coming to Harvey, Ill., a suburb near mine, to speak about nuclear power, I lobbied my high school newspaper advisor to send me as a sort of special project. My advisor ended up sending me and a classmate to his talk.
At the event, I found myself riding in an elevator with Nader, absolutely shaking with nervousness, dying to ask him a question, afraid my voice would crack…and then I asked him. Something. I don’t think it was entirely stupid, but I’m also not sure my voice didn’t crack. And he calmly, politely, respectfully answered my question in detail and he thanked me for asking. I will always remember that.
I ended up getting a B.S.in journalism and took a job in Washington, D.C. with a consumer organization now called the Center for the Study of Services. It publishes Consumers’ Checkbook Magazine in several cities (including Chicago) that can be described as sort of a version of Consumer Reports—except it rates local services like plumbers, roofers, health care providers. Think Angie’s list—only with valid survey research techniques, no advertising, and exhaustive research.
Anyway, I had a mind to go to law school (like Ralph had)…but things didn’t turn out like I planned. I have continued to support organizations like Illinois Public Interest Research Group—the network of PIRGs is one part of Nader’s legacy. As are any number of other public interest groups, not to mention seat belts, which begat air bags. (Remember when the auto industry screamed about installing seat belts and told us safety doesn’t sell?) And although the accountability for Chevrolet’s lethal problems with switches on its Cobalt models has come late, that it has come at all is largely traceable to Ralph’s work long ago.
Unfortunately, the debacle that was the 2000 presidential election is also part of his legacy. I have almost (or maybe have) lost friends because of my, um stridency, about how wrong it was for him to run, and how wronger yet it was to vote for him.
A couple things before continuing: Nader had every right to run. Nader voters had every right to register a protest vote. And I have every right to call him and them out for participating in what I still believe was a kind of vain, more-progressive-than-thou, self-absorbed exercise. And don’t even get me started about the vote trading schemes.
It’s impossible to know whether the final outcome of that 2000 mess would’ve been different had Nader not been in the race. We ended up with Alfred E. Newman as nominal president, Dr. Strangelove as puppet master and Rummy as whatever he was for a variety of bad reasons.
But apart from that, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as betrayed or disappointed by a public figure as I did by Ralph when he ran that campaign. I feel like he betrayed himself, too.
For one, it was a top-down, media-only, superficial exercise. His previous accomplishments had all been the product of long, arduous, ground-up work. This was akin to a celebrity candidacy, with no real organization, little advance grunt work, no real plans for governing, and truth be told, no sincere interest in actually wanting to be president.
No, I can’t know that–but evidence suggests it’s true. He could very easily have won local, state, or Congressional races at any point during his career. Many supporters wanted him to. But for most of his life he stayed out of electoral politics, and for good reason: He could stay clean and exercise more influence by pressuring government and corporations from the outside.
During his presidential run in 2000, he paid lip service to the idea of building a legitimate third party in the Green party. I didn’t believe him for a second, and indeed, he did little regarding a third party over time.
If he had gone about it differently: Building local and state organizations (like he had the PIRGs), helped to get Green party candidates elected to state and national legislatures, and then gone on to run for the presidency in good faith, I’d be down with it. But he didn’t.
I can understand why he might have gotten frustrated or even bitter about the state of politics and the United States in general. I wish he had figured out a way to deal with it without running what was, in the end, a destructive, petulant and gratuitous campaign. I only wish it had been benign.
The tough thing was, we needed folks like Nader the crusader to help keep the government and giant corporations honest, not on a symbolic stump for the presidency. So I was heartened to hear him on the radio just awhile back talking about his recent book “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance To Dismantle The Corporate State.” He made great points about common ground between the right and left that is there to be cultivated on corporate subsidies, civil liberties and privacy and other issues. He found such common ground in interviews with the likes of Grover Norquist and Ed Crane of the Cato Institute. Neither Tea Partiers nor Occupiers like big bailouts or big corporate subsidies. It’s a start.
The interview ended with me thinking, “He’s back.” I plan to read it. As for 2000—I don’t think I can forgive. But I’m hoping to forget.