In certain precincts of American political culture, the mere mention of the name Ralph Nader still provokes scowls. Many Democrats remain convinced that Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000 cost Al Gore the White House and ushered in the calamitous reign of George W. Bush. The obsession with Nader is at first puzzling: blame for Bush’s ascendancy can be traced to many other sources. Gore’s campaign was timid and bungling, but in any case he won the election and was only denied office by wholesale Republican electoral fraud in Florida and by the scandalously partisan Supreme Court decision that ended the recount there. Yet Nader is a convenient target. His ideological rigidity, his insistence that there was no difference between ‘Gush’ and ‘Bore’, his disdain for the politics of compromise and coalition – all recall the sad sectarian history of the American left. Nader resurrected this tradition when he predicted that a Bush victory would galvanise progressive activists. ‘Both parties do the same thing, one covertly, one overtly,’ he told a Green Party gathering in 2001. ‘Which one is going to get more people mad? Which one is going to get more people organised?’ The questions depend on a familiar leftist cliché – the worse things get, the better they get.
But if Nader’s dismissal of the Democrats was unconvincing during the Bush years, there are grey moments these days when his perspective seems on the verge of vindication. There is still a significant difference between the parties, but the Obama administration’s renewed love affair with finance capital, in the teeth of the ineptitude and corruption on Wall Street, breathes new life into Nader’s critique of two-party politics. The manifest failure of presidential leadership and a dispiriting return to politics as usual suggest that this is an appropriate time for a reconsideration of Nader, who deserves to be remembered as more than the man who spoiled Gore’s chances of the presidency. Before his forays into electoral politics, he gave consumer advocacy a political edge, with a systematic and far-reaching assault on corporate-sponsored dangers to the public good. He also founded and funded dozens of nonprofit organisations, committed to causes ranging from environmental protection to pension rights. Yet along with the litany of seatbelts fastened, lives saved and citizens’ groups organised, anyone assessing Nader’s importance must also come to terms with him as a political thinker. His critique of corporate capitalism may not be theoretically sophisticated, but it is coherent and powerful – and very American. Indeed, his provincial Americanism may be both a strength and a weakness: he has never been able to bring foreign policy into focus, or to link it with his domestic policy concerns; but he has also resisted the neoliberal cult of globalisation and insisted on the authority of the nation-state to protect its citizens from the corrosive power of free-flowing capital.
Nader offers a humane version of the petit bourgeois worldview: neither socialism nor social democracy but egalitarian market individualism, pitting Main Street against Wall Street. He is a capitalist down to his bootstraps, but he wants to end the rigged game. He is against monopoly, for competition and entrepreneurship. He has tremendous faith in transparency, in posting congressmen’s voting records on the internet and publicising the sources of their campaign contributions. He also has faith in the people: he doesn’t divide them into classes but defines them en masse as citizens. He believes that when they are informed of systemic injustice, they will rise and reclaim control of their government. In short, he is a populist as well as a capitalist, whose hopes for democracy are grounded in a demanding conception of citizenship.
Nader’s vision is thoroughly at odds with the world of contemporary American politics, a world where crimes of finance capital go unpunished, where corporations are too big to fail, government is too supine to resist their demands for subsidies, and too many liberals are too enthralled by Obama’s historic election to hold him accountable for his policies. Despite mass unemployment, populist outrage now is confined to a right-wing fringe, who confuse Obama’s tepid mishmash of corporatist measures with socialism.
In this grim atmosphere, Nader seems like a throwback to the distant past. His intellectual lineage can be traced to the progressives of the early 20th century, middle-class reformers who aimed to tame plutocracy with democracy by asserting the claims of public good against the excesses of private gain. His ancestors include such muckraking journalists as Henry Demarest Lloyd, whose Wealth against Commonwealth told the sordid tale of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, as well as politicians such as William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette and even (for a while) Woodrow Wilson, whose New Freedom campaign of 1912 proposed to renew entrepreneurial opportunities through anti-trust and regulatory policies. He recalls a certain kind of populist progressive: distrustful of big business but also of big government, except as a regulator of last resort, more wary of concentrated power than Theodore Roosevelt and other nationalist progressives for whom bigness was inevitable and sometimes beneficent. Yet whether progressives wanted to break up monopolies or merely regulate them, they shared a common outlook that merged managerial efficiency and moral uplift.
Nader’s progressive sensibility, that reformist blend of manager and moralist, has survived disappointments and exile to animate his latest project, a work of fiction meant to be a blueprint for democratic transformation. The story begins when the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, appalled by the failure of the federal government to respond to Hurricane Katrina, travels to New Orleans to pitch in with the relief effort. A ‘composed elderly grandmother’ somehow recognises him and says: ‘Only the super-rich can save us!’ Inspired by her outburst, Buffett assembles a group of progressive billionaires to pool their resources and return America to its proper owners, the people. Since the billionaires take to calling themselves the Meliorists, Nader has apparently abandoned the self-defeating dogma that the worse things get, the better they get: he aims instead to chart incremental progress towards an alternative politics.
The results are mixed. Despite its noble intentions, this 733-page book is a trial to read. The writing is by turns wooden, clumsy and risibly self-parodic. Moral outrage coexists awkwardly with managerial prescription, citizen action groups proliferate into a bewildering alphabet soup of acronyms, and foreign policy is not on the reform agenda. Yet Nader poses a genuinely interesting question: in a society ravaged by 30 years of free-market fundamentalism, might it be true that big capitalists can most effectively challenge the reign of capital?
Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut in 1934, the youngest of four children of Lebanese Christian immigrants. His father, Nathra Nader, worked at various factory jobs until he saved enough money to open a restaurant. A fierce egalitarian and individualist, Nathra Nader was also a parsimonious self-improver who used family dinners as occasions to educate his children. Ralph’s mother, Rose Nader, was politically engaged and persistent. She succeeded almost single-handedly in persuading Senator Prescott Bush to sponsor a dam for Mad River, which raged through Winsted. All was high purpose and serious business in the Nader household. Ralph hung out with the other smart kids, playing chess and poring over baseball statistics. He and his best friend did their homework listening to Yankee games on the radio, recalculating each player’s batting average after every time at bat. Young Ralph was on the way to becoming a strange and difficult man.
Nader’s work habits, ambition and obsession with detail got him to Princeton, where the number of dead birds on campus led him to demand an investigation into DDT (a decade before Rachel Carson), and then to Harvard Law School, where he scraped by, never unpacking his boxes, consuming huge meals of yankee pot roast and strawberry shortcake, disappearing on long hitchhiking trips, reappearing the night before an exam. What really engaged him were the issues of privacy and free speech he explored in the work of Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound. As his biographer Justin Martin discovered, Nader became obsessed with his own version of civil rights: ‘body rights’ – the right not to be killed or maimed. And the chief violator of these rights, in his view, was the automobile industry.
During his long absences from law school, he often hitched rides with truckers, who told him what happened to vehicles crashing at high speeds. Nader began to pursue the idea that automobile manufacturers could be held liable for unsafe design. Moving to Washington in 1963, he took a job as a part-time consultant for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant secretary of labour, who assigned him to prepare a report on car safety. The result was Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), a compound of eye-glazing charts, moral vitriol and wrenching anecdotal detail. Nader soon testified before Abraham Ribicoff’s senate subcommittee on highway safety. As he became a celebrity, General Motors fought back, hiring private detectives to follow him and prostitutes to entice him. (One such encounter took place in the cookie aisle of a Safeway grocery store.) Nader resisted temptation, sued GM and eventually succeeded in persuading Congress to require unprecedented safety features on all cars: shoulder straps, shatterproof windscreens, dual braking systems, air bags.
The next ten years were Nader’s golden age. He attracted patrician reformers from elite universities and put them to work investigating corruption and prodding Congress. Nader’s Raiders pushed for reform of the Federal Trade Commission, whose members had been spending their days drinking, napping and awaking fitfully to pursue such marginal offenders as Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Mostly the supposed regulators cavorted with the heads of the industries they were supposed to be supervising – the familiar Washington pattern that incensed Nader. He embarked on an extended honeymoon with the press and Congress. As the Washington Post’s Morton Mintz said, ‘his lifestyle gave him credibility.’ Why one should have to cultivate Calvinist habits, live in a bare rented room and work seven days a week in order to acquire ‘credibility’ as a critic of corporate capitalism remains a mystery. But in the public imagination, Nader became an ascetic superhero. It was a halcyon moment for critics of the corrupt bargain between big business and big government, with Nader’s Raiders serving as an effectual counterculture, wearing coats and ties, working 20-hour days, testifying before Congress, struggling ‘within the system’ to make it work more fairly and effectively. By the early 1970s, opinion polls showed the approval rating for big business practices was 47 per cent, while Nader’s was 80 per cent.
But a shift was already underway. In a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971, Lewis Powell (whom Nixon would soon appoint to the Supreme Court) urged the defenders of capitalism to retake the field from their critics by establishing think tanks, media outlets and university professorships – all of which could help move ‘responsible opinion’ to the right, and did. At the same time, Nader started to over-reach. His Congress Project, an attempt to publish a detailed profile of every member of Congress, was a case of trying to do too much too fast. The project’s sloppy research provoked mistrust in Congress. So did Nader’s tendency to turn on former friends such as Senator Ribicoff, when they failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for consumerist legislation. Carter’s administration seemed friendly, but Nader was constantly assessing former raiders who entered government and finding them wanting. Meanwhile, Lewis Powell’s agenda began to bear fruit. Legislation for a Consumer Protection Agency was defeated in 1978, the first sign that the corporate lobbyists were recovering their influence. A decisive right turn was underway.
Bitter towards his former allies, Nader insisted that Carter was no better than Reagan. But after Reagan took office, systematic deregulation began, and Nader was reduced to rear-guard defences of existing regulations. By the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration made clear that the Democrats had also moved to the right, along with much of the ‘liberal media’, led by the Washington Post and New York Times. Recoiling from the Democrats’ right turn and the corporate-sponsored banality of public discourse, Nader chose to embark on his catastrophic 2000 campaign. The Commission on Presidential Debates refused to allow him to debate against Gore and Bush directly. Since the commission was a creation of the major parties, their decision only confirmed Nader’s critique of political duopoly.
Nader focused most of his ire on Gore and dismissed Bush as beneath contempt. Many of his former devotees organised Nader’s Raiders for Gore and pleaded with Nader to withdraw. He refused, and even took to campaigning in Florida during the final days. Despite the centrality of Republican fraud in securing the state for Bush, Nader became a scapegoat for Democrats. ‘I will not speak his name,’ the strategist James Carville said. Nader himself remained unmoved; he ran again in 2004 and 2008. Along with these quixotic campaigns, he continued to sponsor citizen groups with agendas ranging from protecting Americans with disabilities to filing tort claims against polluting corporations. Beneath the radar of the mass media, these local efforts, in smaller or larger ways, resisted the rightward drift of national politics.
Meanwhile he was at work on Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! The book was published in 2009, after Obama’s election, but it is set in the middle of Bush’s second term. Nader seems to sense that it will be tricky for reviewers to classify. ‘In the literary world,’ he writes in an ‘author’s note’, the book ‘might be described as a “practical utopia”. I call it a fictional vision that could become a new reality.’ This is not ‘no place’; it is the United States at a particular historical moment. So Nader sidesteps the usual criticisms of utopia – that it’s static and dull – but invites a different set of criticisms, and strains credulity at every turn.
In January 2006, at Warren Buffett’s retreat in Maui, 17 retired rich people convene, among them George Soros, Ted Turner, Ross Perot, Paul Newman and the TV host Phil Donahue, as well as men who made their fortunes in less familiar ways: Jeno Paulucci (frozen vegetables), Max Palevsky (computer software), Sol Price (big-box retailing), Barry Diller (mass media) and Bill Gates Sr (corporate law). It is a New Deal coalition (Irishmen, Anglos, Italians, Jews) updated with one African-American man, Bill Cosby, and one Asian-American woman, Yoko Ono. (The supporting cast includes a host of awkwardly renamed figures from American public life: Brovar Dortwist as Grover Norquist, the anti-tax ideologue; Bush Bimbaugh as Rush Limbaugh, the radio ranter; David Roader as David Broder, the soporific Washington Post columnist.)
At their first meeting, the Meliorists draw up an agenda which they elaborate over the next several months. It includes the financing of a ‘sub-economy’ to promote renewable energy, affordable housing and other socially necessary investments overlooked by the corporate economy; congressional watchdog groups to demand responsive representation; and a Clean Elections Party, based on transparent contributions and committed to a legislative agenda that features public financing of elections, single-payer healthcare and an increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour. They constantly emphasise their ‘pay as you go’ approach: their proposals pay for themselves by cutting waste or through tax reform. Their fiscal conservatism embodies the business values that the American punditocracy reveres.
The billionaires’ media gambits include a slogan-spouting television parrot called Patriotic Polly; a series of Las Vegas-style Sun Goddess Festivals to promote solar energy; a campaign called ‘Everybody a Corporation’ to expose the legal advantages corporations enjoy, by offering ordinary people the opportunity to incorporate themselves; and a change in the language of the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, from ‘with liberty and justice for all’ to ‘with liberty and justice for some’. Yoko supplies the Meliorists’ logo, the ‘Seventh Generation Eye’, a symbol supposedly of American Indian origin that embodies the elders’ concern to chart the impact of their decisions seven generations hence.
The Meliorists’ propaganda offensive ignites a mass movement. Here Nader’s narrative becomes even less plausibile, as the Meliorists focus on the ‘voluntary associations’ celebrated by Tocqueville, the demise of which has become a major theme of American social commentary since Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Undaunted by the spectre of anomie, and ignoring the organising possibilities of the internet, they set the congressional watchdog groups to work promoting their agenda in bars, garden clubs, diners, grange halls, fraternal lodges, anywhere ordinary folk congregate. By late spring, the members of Congress are ‘about to experience the vivifying of the innate sense of fairness possessed by a majority of the people’. After organised activists prepare the way, ‘wave after wave of populist power, driven by a knowledge of all the abuses … and by a sense of destiny for future generations, will roll over Congress, the White House, and the corporate lobbying establishment.’ And sure enough, throughout the summer, a ‘veritable blizzard of activity involving tens of millions of Americans’ catches established power off guard.
As the 2006 midterm elections near, politicians manoeuvre desperately to catch the populist wave. Congress quickly passes all the key legislation, and soon even the president accepts the Meliorist agenda. It will ‘free the conservative movement from its commercial shackles’, he tells his astonished advisers, sounding more like Edmund Burke than George Bush. On the last Friday of September, in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, he signs the Meliorist legislation, noting that ‘not a cent of tax money was involved’ in their extraordinary campaign. In Washington, Patti Smith and Patriotic Polly join in a spirited rendition of ‘The People Have the Power’ before a chanting, swaying throng. ‘It’s truly a Hollywood ending,’ Paul Newman says, ‘except it’s real.’
So what are we to make of this fantasy? The problems begin with Nader’s assumption that a huge reservoir of popular outrage is waiting to be channelled in progressive directions. The outrage is there, but its political potential at present is more reactionary than progressive. Nader’s hopes rely on a sentimental populist reading of American history, articulated by one of the Meliorists’ opponents: ‘You know how Americans are. They take it and take it and take it, and then they explode and tear it all down if their rulers cling rigidly to greed as their sole creed.’ This scenario is wildly exaggerated, but it does resonate faintly with a few episodes in American history – including the Obama campaign of 2008. But that insurgency has ended in disappointment, and longings for transformation now flourish mainly on the right.
Even as he oversimplifies the progressive potential of the citizenry, Nader underestimates the corporate counterattack. He constantly emphasises how unprepared the established powers are, and how inept their attempts to demonise the Meliorists, but he also fails to see that capital can be mobilised for reactionary as well as progressive purposes. Any time a corporate CEO warns that the Meliorist agenda will discourage investment and bring on a ‘bad business climate’, the warnings are dismissed, by everyone from Soros to the president. Throughout the Meliorist campaign, the stock market slides steadily south. Yet there is never any talk of job losses or shrinking assets among ordinary folk, many of whom are invested in the market through their pension plans. Wall Street and Main Street are more interdependent than Nader thinks.
On foreign affairs, Nader’s outlook is muddled to non-existent. The Meliorists’ evasion of foreign policy, supposedly a tactical decision, allows Nader to ignore a military industrial complex with an insatiable appetite for government contracts and overseas bases, as well as to overlook the marriage between consumer culture and empire – what the historian William Appleman Williams called ‘empire as a way of life’. Nader’s more humane American economy would still be based on consumer demand, fed by multinational corporations in need of foreign resources, markets and investment opportunities. It is impossible to isolate over here from over there.
Nader’s isolationism reinforces his nostalgia. There are times when Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! invokes the gee-whiz atmosphere of a Frank Capra movie. Through the Popular Front haze, one can discern a generous and decent man, projecting his benign fantasies from the past onto the future. The question remains: who would want to live in that future? Probably not many people, in part because Nader cannot keep his personal obsessions from shaping his vision of citizenship. It is a vision based on relentless action, will and discipline – entirely compatible with the mythos of the self-made man. While George Soros waits for his team to report on their progress creating citizen action groups, he fidgets impatiently, eager to have the data on his desk. Nader comments: ‘That’s what successful, self-made people of wealth are like … They are chronically averse to procrastination – one definition of an entrepreneur is someone who never does anything today that could have been done yesterday – and that trait alone gives them a major advantage over their competent but slower-paced peers.’ If this sounds like a motivational seminar at a Holiday Inn, that scene is not as remote from Nader’s vision as his admirers might imagine.
Nader does not expect all citizens to be Soros, but he does expect them to keep busy. ‘How many of you are spending a hundred hours a year – less than two hours a week – on watchdogging your congressman?’ a Meliorist supporter bellows in Oklahoma. Popular sovereignty comes at a price, paid in the currency of time. Many of the low-wage people Nader wants to organise work long hours and do multiple jobs; does he really expect them to review Congressman Dildo’s record in the few waking hours they have with their families? For Nader, such questions are irrelevant. His notion of citizenship is part of a broader agenda of systematic self-discipline. ‘How many of you earn more than $25,000 a year and spend at least a thousand dollars a year on coffee, soft drinks, candy, alcohol, tobacco and so on?’ a fund-raising organiser asks. Nader cannot imagine a citizen based on any model but his own. A solitary ascetic makes a great political activist but a poor utopian thinker. In the end, Nader’s vision recalls Oscar Wilde’s remark, when he was asked for his opinion of socialism: ‘It would take too many evenings.’ If we are ever to achieve a more humane social order, it will have to begin with the recognition that politics is meant to serve life, and not the other way around.