Jackson Lears

  • Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! by Ralph Nader
    Seven Stories, 733 pp, $27.50, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 58322 903 3

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.

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