Apparently, you can go home again – if your name is Ralph Nader and your political home, anyway, happens to be Portland. So on August 4, Nader returned to the scene of his greatest moment during the 2000 presidential campaign. Last year, Nader packed 12,000 people into the city’s Memorial Coliseum, an event that made the national press and, more decisively, the Democratic Party finally take notice of his campaign. On this hot August night, 7,500 people contributed $10 each to witness the launching of the consumer advocate’s latest venture: “Democracy Rising.”
The Portland event, which included a day-long teach-in and a $500-a-plate fundraising dinner, was the first in what Nader hopes will be a coast-to-coast “Power to the People” tour. “Believe that you can alter the course of events and in one gigantic arena after another, Americans are going to come,” Nader urged the gathering. “They’re going to learn there are a lot of people like themselves who believe that things can change.”
Nader described Democracy Rising as a kind of self-help group for the political empowerment of the nation’s disenfranchised. “This evening we’re starting a new model of civic organization,” Nader said at a press conference prior to the rally. “There’s too much alienation, too much apathy, too much resignation about [citizens] having any say about the way this country is run. This is what the struggle is about: The resurgence of the civic culture against the domination of the corporate culture.”
It was an odd show in many ways, starting with the venue: the Rose Garden, the glossy sports arena owned by Microsoft panjandrum Paul Allen and subsidized by the people of Portland. The event itself was part carnival, part sermon. Nader challenged audience members to meet his goal: 1 million people each giving $100 and volunteering 100 hours to grassroots progressive causes.
Despite its focus on issues of economic and environmental justice, the Nader campaign didn’t attract the attention of many African-Americans. Part of this is certainly Nader’s own fault. He never talks much about race, and Portland – one of America’s whitest cities – perhaps isn’t the best place to begin organizing. But actor Danny Glover did his best, pointing out how the Democratic Party has failed blacks, from welfare reform and the drug war to the death penalty and education. Never a scintillating speaker, Nader’s speeches are rarely short and crisp or infused with poll-tested political rhetoric. He spoke for about an hour, rambling across a wide terrain of issues including poverty, pollution, global-trade pacts, national health care and energy.
Although Nader has been badgered and vilified over the past year, he remained coolly defiant about his presidential campaign. “I was under the impression that Al Gore won the election,” Nader quipped. “I thought that’s what they believed. All of this talk really comes down to one issue. They don’t think the Democratic Party should be challenged from the progressive wing.”
But his laid back, slightly pedantic style seemed to appeal to the young audience. “Nader is the Mister Rogers of American politics,” says Brianna Lewis, a sophomore at the University of Oregon. “His attraction is his sedateness. It lends him a gravity and integrity that’s lacking in the political scene these days. That’s what a lot of young people are looking for.”
“You just have to ask yourself, is anyone else doing this?” Nader said. “That’s really the comparative measure.” But precisely what Nader was doing remained somewhat obscure. The Portland “civic festival” occurred the very same week that the Green Party announced plans to establish itself as a national political party. Yet Nader remained craftily mute about the party and its political future.
The deeper Nader gets into the realm of electoral politics, the more uncomfortable he seems. It is this studied ambivalence to politics-as-usual that is his calling card. Says Lisa Mei Yan, a Green from Tualatin, Oregon, “What Nader’s saying is if you don’t like the government, become the government.”