Katie Darkworth, a middle-aged, well-dressed Ohioan, dashes over
to the easily recognizable, lanky figure walking through the airport
in his rumpled blue suit. "Ralph Nader," she says enthusiastically,
"I'm voting for you. I'm a registered Democrat, but I'm not voting
for either Gore or Bush."
Nader thanks her and shakes her hand. That, in itself, is unusual.
Although the renowned consumer advocate now running for president
as a Green Party candidate has public recognition and respect that
would make any politician envious, Nader tries to avoid being identified
in places like airports. He is slow to shake hands with potential
supporters and proudly declines to be photographed kissing babies.
Clutching his file folders and newspapers, he's more at home with
serious policy talk than idle chit-chat.
Though privately witty and amiable and publicly supremely self-confident,
seem shy and certainly averse to dramatic self-promotion. "Turn down
the klieg lights," he said disapprovingly at the start of a rally
in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during a mid-September campaign swing through
the upper Midwest. "This is not show business, after all."
Compared to George W. Bush--all smirk, no substance--or Al Gore,
with his contrived bonhomie, Ralph Nader is the anti-politician.
Yet many voters this year are drawn to his straight talk and principles.
After nearly 40 years as a gadfly and consumer advocate who shunned
electoral politics (until a symbolic presidential bid in 1996),
Nader has now concluded that citizen groups have lost their ability
to win without a drastic change in American politics.
By running for president, Nader hopes to build a new civic movement,
a mobilization of a million citizen-activists who will not only
make the Green Party an electoral force, but also revive the grassroots
energy of past movements in America--from the anti-slavery abolitionists
to the agrarian populists, the women's suffragists to the civil
rights marchers. "This campaign is not about leaders producing followers,"
he told a crowd of 12,000 at the Target Center in Minneapolis on
September 22. "This campaign is about leaders producing more leaders.
This campaign is about thinking, not slogans and photo opportunities.
It is important to have beliefs, but it is important first to have
There is widespread popular support for much of Nader's core message--curbing
corporate power, providing universal health insurance, taming globalization,
public financing of campaigns, making public higher education free
and strengthening environmental protection. Despite his limited
funding and exclusion from the presidential debates, Nader was drawing
high single digit support over the summer. After Gore's August transformation
into a populist (thanks partly to Nader's threat), Nader's support
dropped, though a September Harris poll gave him 6 percent of voters
nationally. His relative success reflects his personal appeal, liberal
discontent with Clinton and Gore, and the popularity of his program.
But there are still serious doubts about his strategy even among
those who admire him, agree with his policy goals and hope for a
new anti-corporate movement.
As Nader criss-crossed Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota on his
"Non-Voter Tour," he packed auditoriums consistently with 1,000
to 2,000 people in Milwaukee, Madison, Ann Arbor, East Lansing and
Flint--and he probably would have done so even without the help
of celebrities like former talk show host, Phil Donahue, a longtime
friend and admirer, or film and TV personality Michael Moore, who
once worked for Nader. While students swelled the campus audiences,
the crowds--especially in Minneapolis and Flint--also included unemployed
workers and middle-aged investors, farmers and nurses, spiked-haired
youth and balding lawyers. There were some alienated drop-outs as
well as independents and even a few Republicans, but most were disenchanted
progressive Democrats, supporters of figures like Jesse Jackson
or Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The typical Nader campaign speech is a rambling free association
for an hour or more through a kaleidoscopic variety of issues, moving
quickly from campaign finance reform to government regulation, military
contracts, corporate subsidies, income inequality, environmental
degradation, civic education, corporate crime, workers rights and
much more. But there is a consistent theme: "This election is all
about power, the concentration of power in the hands of a few."
Corporate power has corrupted politics and culture, destroyed jobs,
created inequality, and undermined the rights of citizens and workers
around the world, Nader says. The two-party system in the United
States is a "fraud," he insists. "They are not essentially different
parties, but one corporate party with two heads and different makeup."
Nader inveighs against a host of corporate misdeeds, including
"corporate managed dictatorial trade" (popularly known as "free
trade"), "environmental violence" (as he says "pollution" should
be seen), "corporate welfare as we know it" (like the public subsidies
to the Texas Rangers' stadium that made Bush rich) and "brutalizing
commercial culture" (that turns kids into a "generation of spectators").
He attacks "corporate crime" (that takes a far higher toll than
street crime annually in death, injury and money lost from occupational
disease, faulty products--like tires--and consumer rip-offs) and
"corporate extremism" (in both political influence and business
practices, such as redlining and usurious lending rackets). He denounces
corporate agribusiness (destroying family farms and the environment),
corporate control and abuse of public property (from the airwaves
to the national forests), pharmaceutical companies (overcharging
for drugs often developed at public expense) and military contractors
(producing unneeded "gold-plated weapons systems"). The list goes
The answer, he insists, is developing "people power" to challenge
corporate power, and the "key reform" is to adopt public financing
of elections to minimize corporate financial influence on politics,
"the boulder on the highway to justice."
While he dismisses Bush as "beyond the pale," Nader directs his
most withering criticism at Clinton, Gore and Lieberman. Nader says
Gore is a "political coward" suffering from "a serious character
problem" who has shown an "extraordinary subservience to corporate
power" and is "disgusting" in the way he panders to black church
audiences while doing so little for their communities. In his eyes,
Lieberman is an even more loathsome apologist for corporations.
Brandishing a recent issue of Business Week, whose cover
asked "Too Much Corporate Power?" ("yes," said three-fourths of
those surveyed), he taunts the Democrats: "This magazine is to the
left of the Democratic Party. Is the Democratic party making corporate
power the cover story of the 2000 campaign?"
Oddly, apart from some of the denunciatory rhetoric, much of what
was in the mainstream of the Democratic Party not so many years ago--and
is standard practice in most of Western Europe. His answer to poverty
is adoption of a "social wage," universal health insurance, higher
minimum wages, and free public higher education. He also wants more
public investment in transit, promotion of solar energy, reconstruction
of the cities (including affordable housing and community policing)
and a strengthening of trade unions. Like most European governments,
Nader advocates treating drug abuse as a health problem, not a crime,
and opposes the death penalty.
Nader's overriding attention to corporate power, class and broad
social democratic solutions has provoked some criticism that he
has ignored racism and issues of gays and feminists. On his Midwest
tour, especially in a Milwaukee press conference with some local
African-American and Latino leaders, Nader addressed some black
community issues, like police misconduct, the war on drugs, capital
punishment and environmental racism. But he also insists "it is
a mistake to concentrate on race and not class, or class and not
race. There's a mutually reinforcing vicious circle of race and
Typically, Nader adopts solidly progressive views on social policy
but emphasizes issues of social class and power. When asked about
gay rights, he says simply that he favors "full equal rights and
responsibility across the board." He rarely mentions abortion rights,
which he supports, "for the same reason that I don't talk about
rights to public accommodation--it's a settled issue." He argues
that Bush knows any attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade would
doom the Republican Party because popular support for abortion rights
is so strong.
Most criticism from liberals and progressives, however, is directed
at Nader's strategy, including his argument that the Democrats and
Republicans are virtually identical on most major issues (with the
exception of abortion and gun control). Assuming that one of them
will win, the argument goes, Gore is better than Bush. Nader (and
his advocates) offers a variety of disparate rejoinders: Voters
should vote their hopes, not their fears, and follow their conscience.
Or the party differences are just rhetorical and not really significant.
Or Gore will win anyway, so don't worry. Or Bush isn't Genghis Khan,
but a Republican moderate. Or if Bush wins, Democrats will put up
a more progressive fight than they will with a conservative Democratic
president. These arguments, taken together, are not completely consistent,
but there is arguable plausibility to most of them. They don't,
however, constitute a strategy.
Nader's conviction that the Democrats are now no different from
the Republicans grew out of his battles over the global economy.
"I think the real turning point was NAFTA and GATT, when they put
it to organized labor, which has been the cause of one Democratic
election after another," he says. "And when they refused to exert
any war-room mentality on behalf of public funding of public campaigns,
I knew it was over."
But the problem in each case was Clinton, not all of the Democrats.
On NAFTA and other trade legislation, the majority of House Democrats
have often opposed the president. Indeed, Nader at times praises
Democrats like North Dakota's Byron Dorgan or Michigan's David Bonior
and claims that House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt acknowledges
that Nader's campaigning might help the Democrats gain control of
the House. It often seems that Nader's real fight is with the conservative
Democratic Leadership Council, but he sees no hope for winning that
fight without the credible threat of liberals going somewhere else,
just as conservative Democrats can threaten to go to the Republicans.
At an editorial meeting of the Capital Times in Madison,
Nader talks about his encounter as a Princeton undergraduate with
longtime Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Hinting
at his own possible strategy, Nader recounts asking Thomas his greatest
accomplishment, to which Thomas replied, "having my agenda stolen
by the Democratic Party." Yet Nader, who argues the Democratic party
is irremediably corrupt, also talks about leading the Greens into
a "death struggle" with the Democratic party to determine which
will be the majority party.
While riding between campaign stops in Michigan, Nader talks at
length about how he
saw the campaign fitting into his long-term vision for American politics.
Although he argues that Democrats who share his views should think
strategically and vote for him in states where either Bush or Gore
is far ahead (say Texas or New York, respectively), Nader rejects
the corollary that people should vote for Gore in states where the
race was close. "If you ask me," he says, "I wouldn't vote for Gore
under any circumstances."
He acknowledges that if he were voting in the district of a progressive
Democrat congressman, like Rep. Henry Waxman of California, he would
support Waxman. Then again, if there was a Green candidate, even
a weak one, he said he would vote against his longtime ally. "There's
an overriding goal here, and that's to build a majority party,"
he says. "If you're going to build a new party, you go all the way."
"I hate to use military analogies," he continues, "but this is
war on the two parties. After November we're going to go after the
Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. We're going
to beat them in every possible way. If [Democrats are] winning 51
to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes.
They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad. They've
got to lose people to be put under the intense choice of changing
the party or watching it dwindle."
Is his goal to reform the party? "That's their option," he says.
"They can dwindle us by really taking our issues and implementing
them. That's the kind of competition I want. If they want to have
a massive drive on corporate crime and take that issue away from
Nader is willing to sacrifice progressives like Russ Feingold in
Wisconsin or Wellstone, though he also believes that the Green threat
will give them bargaining power within the Democratic Party. "That's
the burden they're going to have to bear for letting their party
go astray," he says. "It's too bad. It isn't that we haven't given
them decades, and they got worse and worse. It isn't like we have
a choice. Every four years they get worse."
But can the Green Party really become more than just an irritant
to the Democrats? Currently the party consists of an association
of state parties, some independent state parties, and a small Greens/Green
Party USA that are trying to settle their ideological differences--plus
the Nader campaign apparatus. Nader, however, is not a member of
any Green Party and doesn't intend to join (a stance shared by Michael
Moore). "I don't want to get involved in intraparty disputes," Nader
says, claiming he can build the party better by attacking corporations
and opponents and trying to recruit good people. "I can't stand
the loss of time that's involved there. If I was a Green Party member,
I'd have to take sides internally. I want to focus it externally
on the adversaries."
In Nader's vision, the Green Party can succeed by recruiting a
million people who each contribute $100 a year and 100 hours of
their time to build a "civic action" party that fights on issues
in between elections, allying with labor and community groups and
building storefront offices to help consumers. It sounds appealing,
but there are probably fewer than a million highly active members
in all existing progressive organizations. They're all flawed, Nader
responds. Community groups have been "self-limiting" because they
shun electoral politics, he argues, and electoral efforts like the
New Party rely too much on building up from the local level without
a national presence. In any case, he says, "if the level of discontent
that I see around the country doesn't amount to a million people
willing to make a modest commitment, then we don't have what it
takes in this country. I want to put it to that test."
"The only way you can fight corporate power is on all fronts,"
Nader says. "It's no more possible to fight just as an environmental
or consumer group. You've got to grab away the media from them with
a media strategy. You've got to fight them electorally. You've got
to fight them with international mobilizations. You've got to fight
them the way we beat the MAI [Multilateral Agreement on Investment]
on the Internet. You've got to fight them with shareholder actions
... [and] with repealing Taft-Hartley. Every conceivable way, that's
the only way it can be done."
While Nader doubts the Democrats can be reformed, he also argues
that the Greens will indirectly help progressive Democrats. "If
this party is capable of internal reform," he says, "then everything
we're doing is helping the dissidents and the rebels, because they'll
say in year 2002 that Gephardt may lose the House because of Green
Party candidates. Think of the different kind of struggle where
the progressive forces in the Democratic Party going up on Capitol
Hill can tell the corporate Democrats that they're going to lose
voters because they have a place to go."
Nader hopes that in districts where one party now rules with little
contest, the Greens can enter and become the major opposition party.
That's certainly a possibility in both heavily Republican suburbs
or heavily Democratic inner city districts, but it is not an easy
recipe for victory in either case.
Though Nader has picked up endorsements from individual celebrities
on the left, including Jim Hightower, Susan Sarandon, Studs Terkel,
Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Willie Nelson and Barbara Ehrenreich,
few major progressive organizations have backed him (the California
Nurses Association, the United Electrical Workers and a few union
locals are among the exceptions). In most cases, even though they
may agree with Nader, most progressive leaders remain unconvinced
that the Green Party strategy holds much hope. Even some of Nader's
backers think his main value may be in nudging the Democrats to
adopt watered-down versions of Nader's ideas, much as Democrats
stole in the past from Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace or other leftists.
Some voters are simply beyond such calculations about strategy
or third party prospects. They are disgusted with their choices
and hope only to register a shout of protest at the polls. Others
may calculate that in a lopsided race in their state, there's nothing
lost in any case by casting a vote for Nader, the anti-politician
who is saying what most politicians are unwilling to say. "I've
always voted Democratic," says Phyllis Walker, president of a public
employee union local in Minneapolis, who is still angry at Clinton
about NAFTA. "I've always voted the lesser of two evils. I'm tired
of voting my fears. I'm voting what I believe. Ralph Nader is the
only person talking about issues important to working people. He's
not a politician."
With luck, more politicians will start talking like him.