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
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
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
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."