Ralph Rising

Photo by Greg SkinnerI. SEATTLE MAN


Longtime consumer advocate, corporate critic, economic democrat and public citizen Ralph Nader has emerged from last weekend's national convention of the Green Party with a new identity, combining and transcending all the rest. Nader is now the leader of the New New Left -- the Post-Seattle Left more particularly.

It's not just that Nader, in his speech accepting the Green Party's presidential nomination last Sunday, extolled and identified himself with the Teamster-and-Turtle coalition that first emerged during last fall's anti­World Trade Organization demonstrations: He had, after all, addressed and championed it at the time. It's not just his five-minute campaign biopic, which repeatedly intercut images of Nader's life, presented in rapid-fire MTV-like succession, with shots of the masked demonstrators and club-swinging cops of last November. It's something deeper -- that Nader has come to personify the spirit of Seattle in both its aspects.

For there were really two objects of protest in last autumn's demonstrations. The first was the dismantling of democracy, and of democratically created social and political rights, at the hands of global capital. The second was the corruption of the entire civilization by market forces -- the Commodification of Fucking Everything; COFE, for short. It's COFE that puts corporate logos on every object and idea, that makes life-and-death health-care decisions a matter of dollars-and-cents calculations, that trivializes the public sphere and intrudes into the private sphere so that all our preferences can be targeted by marketers.

That Nader is among the foremost critics of corporate globalization is hardly news. But slowly, over the past few years, Nader has also become COFE's leading scourge (though in Nader's COFE, the F is unvoiced). Thus the frustration of life spent on hold ("When I want to hear classical music late at night," he says, "I call United Airlines") becomes a function of the corporate appropriation of time itself. COFE, he argues, has also commercialized childhood: "The old-model corporation," he told Green delegates Sunday in his acceptance speech, "never sold directly to kids, except maybe bubble gum. They let parents decide what to buy for children. Today, the corporations are electronic child molesters -- subjecting children to violence and low-grade sensuality." Where conservative cultural critic William J. Bennett sees only a decline in values, Nader has located a plausible culprit: It's COFE, along with overlong workdays, that shrinks the role of parents, and magnifies the role of media, in children's lives.

Similarly, it's hard to say which offends Nader more about the Gore-Bush debates planned for the fall: the fact that the candidates intend to exclude Pat Buchanan and him from the proceedings, or the fact that they're sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. "This is the people's election," he boomed at a Sunday press conference. "They should seize it back from the Democratic and Republican parties and their corporate sponsors."

Democracy for sale, literally.

Nader, in sum, isn't simply running for president this year, advancing a list of alternative programs for discrete crises. Rather, he is attempting to answer a fundamental question that gnaws at his countrymen even when they prefer not to think about it: What has become of us? At 66, graying, gaunt and ever indignant, Nader seems to oscillate -- awkwardly, clumsily -- between the roles of corporate critic and secular prophet.

Nader may not be up to this new role, for his skills and inclinations are not those of a movement leader, let alone of a prophet. (Prophets need not be warm, but they need both an empathetic capacity and a touch of the poet, qualities altogether missing in Nader.) He most certainly will not win the White House; he probably can't establish the Green Party as a permanent force in electoral politics. But he will place post-Seattle progressivism squarely on the American political map. His candidacy is the continuation of the Battle of Seattle by other means.


NO LESS SURPRISING THAN THE TRANSFORMATION of Ralph Nader is the transformation of the Greens. Partly as a result of Nader's candidacy, partly due to the changes in the progressive movement since Seattle, they are no longer a party concerned primarily with matters ecological. They have become primarily a party of economic justice.

This is to some extent the result, however, of the rightward drift, or gallop, of the Democratic Party. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the Greens have moved into the space traditionally occupied by the party of the New Deal, the Great Society, or even Clinton's health-care plan. So long as the Democrats were the party of unmet social needs -- even infinitesimally so -- there wasn't really much space to their left. With Al Gore, however, the Democrats have a nominee who doesn't even mention universal health care despite projected surpluses of $2 trillion.  

So the Greens have moved over and settled in. Throughout their convention, speakers referred to their politics as "blue-green" -- the blue in question being the collar color of workers. Such long-standing concerns as the preservation of the Earth and opposition to genetically engineered "Frankenfood" were sounded throughout the convention, but calls for a living wage and union rights won some of the loudest cheers at the convention. Nader's own emphasis on economic issues sped this transition along.

In his acceptance speech, when he laid out his ideas for a public welfare system against which to measure the U.S. today, he cited the European welfare states of the post­World War II period -- in other words, the creation of social-democratic, not green, parties and movements. At another point, a reporter asked him what issue he'd most want to inject into the American discourse, as Ross Perot did the deficit. There were three such issues, he said: universal health care, the public financing of campaigns, and efforts to reduce income inequality, by making union organizing easier and repealing the 1947 anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Hardly the Green Party greatest-hits list of just a few years back.

Indeed, one measure of how far the Greens have evolved was the contrast between their priorities and those of visiting Green parties from other nations. The delegate from the Mexican Green Party, for instance -- the 25-year-old Arnold de Ajager -- defended his party's decision to back right-wing presidential candidate Vincente Fox over socialist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the upcoming election with an argument that would have been unimaginable coming from an American delegate. As mayor of Mexico City, de Ajager said, Cardenas had allowed the development of open space as housing for the poor. In the new vision of the U.S. Greens, housing for the poor would clearly be a defensible use of such space. (De Ajager also defended the endorsement by saying the main goal in the election was to defeat the entrenched monopoly power of the PRI -- and this did resonate with U.S delegates, for whom dislodging what they term the "duopoly" of Democratic and Republican control over U.S. elections takes precedence over any other issue.)

In short, American Greens are no longer the kind of party that Petra Kelly -- an American living in Europe -- first conceived when she founded the German Greens two decades ago. Then again, Kelly assumed that Germany's powerful Social Democratic Party would obviate the need for another, somewhat further left social-democratic party. American Greens can't make even remotely the same assumption about the Democratic Party today.

By other measures, change has come slowly to American Greens. Their convention was almost entirely white and middle-class. Identifiable union members were almost nowhere to be found. It was still possible to look to your left and see four guys in a row (strangers, it turned out) sporting ponytails. The Green practice of "twinkling" -- showing approval by raising your hands and shaking them, derived from a Quaker method of ascertaining assent without shattering the silence -- was much in evidence. As the presentations at Green conventions grow more populist and raucous, twinkling is looking stranger and stranger. (Why one would twinkle through Jim Hightower's uproarious stem-winder of a speech was a complete mystery, but hundreds did.) By Sunday, convention leaders had clearly told the twinklers to stow it during Nader's televised speech, when, to the non-initiate viewers at home, it might appear that the party consisted of people awaiting the Hale-Bopp comet. (The party still needs to work on its club cheer, the god-awful "Go, we, go!" This is Nader's tin-eared reworking of "Go, Ralph, go!," which he felt underplayed the responsibility of the collective.)

While the Greens have their share of able political technicians (the Texas Greens, for instance, collected 74,000 signatures to qualify Nader for the ballot in just 75 days, no small feat for any group with few members and no money), their overall political skills remain badly underdeveloped. The Greens' idea of a press conference is to trot out a dozen speakers, least important first, so that by the time their featured attraction reaches the podium, the press has long since fled. Increasingly, however, the Greens are picking and choosing their election races with an eye to avoiding conflict with Democrats -- at least, decent Democrats. Party strategists noted how they'd prevailed upon prospective candidates to shun races in closely contested districts. Only a handful of Greens are running in swing House districts this year, most against the expressed wishes of their party. (Indeed, New Mexico Greens closely followed Dr. Daniel Kerlinsky -- who had won nomination as an unsanctioned write-in in a district where the party feared tipping a race to the GOP -- around the hall, passing out leaflets disavowing his candidacy.)  

Nader's own staffers passed through the convention taking pains to distinguish themselves from the Green hoi polloi. Where the Greens wore T-shirts, some of them tie-dyed, Nader's guys wore black suits only -- the Blues Brothers plunked down at a Dead concert. But by the standards of a regular political campaign, Nader's operation is still struggling with the basics. Though Nader decided to run nearly a year ago, he's raised just $1 million since early winter -- only a third of which is matchable by federal funds. The campaign is in better order now, but it has lost precious time, for instance, to reach out effectively to campuses before summer break.

Ultimately, the campaign's strengths and weaknesses are those of the candidate himself. Ralph Nader has been one of the great Lone Rangers of American politics -- the young lawyer who fought ä General Motors and won, an advocate, an author, a speaker.

What he hasn't been is a man for collective action. Author/activist Ronnie Dugger presented him to the convention Sunday as "a one-man social movement."

And that's just the problem.


BETWEEN TWO OF THE TOWERING figures of the civil rights movement of midcentury, there was an existential rift. Attorney Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandated the desegregation of Southern schools, always contended that through court cases alone, he and his colleagues could have ended the reign of Jim Crow. He was not overjoyed when a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr., organized the first mass movement to overthrow segregation, and ended the reign of Jim Crow in the streets and the Congress rather than in the courts.

In a sense, Ralph Nader is attempting a late-career change from Thurgood Marshall to Martin Luther King. Until the last several years, Nader worked at recruiting 10 good young lawyers and researchers; building a mass movement was unnecessary if not unnatural work. The significance of his natural work is incontestable -- he's promoted auto safety and seat belts, and persuaded the government to set up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. All told, more than a million people owe their lives to Nader's campaigns for a safer world. And he achieved all this by marshaling the facts and presenting them to courts, Congress, the media. It was, in a word, brain work, and it's not without its romance: The image of Nader, plunking away at his ancient Underwood as the night wears on, is the stuff that myths are made of.

But not movements. For that, Nader needs a range of skills he doesn't seem to have. At the most rudimentary level, he abhors pressing flesh: Introduced for his acceptance speech, he strode to the podium without shaking any hands. Earlier, he had walked right past the leaders of the California Nurses Association, the only union to have endorsed him, without acknowledging their presence.

Nader rightly inveighs against the trivialization and personalization of political coverage. But it is a matter of some political consequence when his own combination of aloofness, arrogance, shyness and disdain undercuts his message. His wit can often be quite winning: Asked at a press conference how he could win, he gave a list of reasons, including more and better press coverage that could eventuate if "the mass media determines that their best reporters shouldn't be bored to tears by covering the drab and the dreary" campaigns of Bush and Gore.

But another exchange that inaugurated his first convention meeting with the press revealed what can happen if the mass media don't send their "best reporters." The conference opened with a question on the execution of Gary Graham in Texas two days previous. Nader responded without referring to Graham by name; rather, he talked of his opposition to capital punishment, which went all the way back to the '50s, and he concluded by noting, "We should apply capital punishment to corporate charters" -- wresting the discussion back to an issue with which he felt more comfortable. The hapless reporter then asked a follow-up -- "So you'd like to see capital punishment abolished" -- to which Nader snapped, "Of course, since I'm opposed to it. It's Aristotelian logic."

I can't think of any other public figure who's displayed such manifest contempt for the questioner at a press conference since former AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who was deposed by his colleagues partly because of his inability to talk to or through the media. But Nader's answer wasn't merely ill-tempered; it was bloodless, a statement of policy in response to a particular human tragedy, very much like the answer Michael Dukakis gave to CNN's Bernard Shaw when asked what he'd do if his wife were raped. Nader is comfortable talking about ideas, but talking about people and talking through metaphors -- two ways to put some flesh and feeling on ideas, to stir a crowd's emotions as well as its intellect -- leaves him almost visibly pained.  

Indeed, Nader's rhetorical instincts are often appalling -- no huge matter to a lawyer writing a brief but a major impediment to a public figure who wants to inspire a crowd. His 110-minute convention speech was just such a flubbed opportunity. Clearly, this was a crowd waiting to explode -- with admiration for Nader, with self-satisfaction at having put the party at least tenuously on the map. The explosions inevitably came, but Nader did his damnedest to keep them muffled. Applause lines were buried so deep an archaeological expedition couldn't find them; one long stretch was so devoid of applause lines that the crowd finally deemed Nader's catalog of left-wing periodicals -- The Nation, The Progressive and so on -- sufficient grounds for cheers. Punch lines were needlessly punched down: At one point, Nader took a line in his written text, addressed to students -- "If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you" -- and rendered it, "If you haven't turned on to politics, the lesson of history is, politics will turn on you." Keep this man away from the Gettysburg Address.

And, lest his talk accumulate some momentum, Nader had a digression for every point. He thanked the California Nurses for endorsing him, and gave a quick legislative history of bills they had backed in the California Legislature. He explained how the Labor Department calculates unemployment; distinguished between net and gross income; used political scientist Albert O. Hirshman's terms "voice" and "exit" to describe the relations of some groups to the larger society, without ever really explaining what the terms meant. At the very moment in his career when Nader could have crossed over into another country, could have become William Jennings Bryan or Eugene V. Debs, he methodically stripped the cadence, the crescendo, the magic, from the moment. Nader plainly does not believe in magic, but movements sometimes need it.


AND WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS for Nader and his movement?

The Nader people have hopes of putting together a band of outsiders -- angry students and workers, indignant campaign-finance reformers, the young and the restless. Nader's California point man Ross Mirkarimi says he's been in touch with what's left of the Bradley and McCain campaigns in California, and thinks he may well get their lists of supporters. Realistically, however, the campaign can count on few people of color, especially in light of African-Americans' loyalty to Clinton and the Democrats. Its core constituents are likely to be Teamsters and Turtles -- the blue-green alliance that formed in Seattle.

But how many blues will it actually lay claim to? The unions hurt worst by the free-trade deals the administration has promoted -- the Teamsters, who face competition from low-dollar Mexican truckers, and the United Auto Workers, which has seen its jobs relocated to dollar-an-hour plants on the Mexican border -- have refused to follow the rest of the AFL-CIO in endorsing Gore, and their presidents have had kind things to say, if not about Nader, at least about the idea of Nader. But the UAW's executive board is eager to endorse Gore despite the Nader flirtations of president Steve Yokich, and some close associates of Teamsters president Jim Hoffa have cases currently pending before the Clinton-Gore Justice Department. All this makes some potentially significant endorsements unlikely, though some number of rank-and-filers may go to Nader, particularly in key Midwestern swing states.

What keeps labor in the Gore camp when he has backed one noxious free-trade agreement after the next, and when Nader has the stronger position on ensuring the right to organize? "I don't hear [labor] people say they're going to vote for Gore out of anything but fear," says Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses, which have endorsed Nader. But fear can be well-grounded at times, and in this instance, the fear is that the primary strategic political goal of a Bush White House would be to go after labor in every way possible, since unions are the sine qua non of Democratic campaigns. The AFL-CIO's support for Gore, one former Federation official said at the time of the veep's endorsement last October, was less about Gore and more about the movement's fear that "if Bush wins, we're in a world of shit." Talk about a rock and a hard place: The linchpin of the Seattle coalition fears -- reasonably -- the consequences of a successful campaign by the personification of the Seattle spirit.  

Which likely leaves Nader with a hard core of young progressives, and a number of older progressives who will stick with him -- or not -- depending on how Al Gore is faring against W.


IT'S A NATURAL TENDENCY TO LOOK back at a third-party campaign and ascribe its relative success or failure to the campaign's ability to engage voters and occupy a political space all by its lonesome. Natural, but often wrong.

In fact, third-party candidacies frequently rise and fall depending on the dynamic in the race between the two major-party candidates. The vote for five-time socialist candidate Eugene Debs spiked in 1912 at 6 percent, my historian friend Jim Chapin argues, chiefly because the Republicans had split that year, nominating two candidates, ensuring the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and freeing up leftists to vote their conscience. In 1948, former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace was polling as high as 12 percent in March, but when Harry Truman began to conduct a progressive campaign (for universal health care -- it's been around that long) and was closing the gap with Republican front-runner Thomas Dewey, Wallace's vote toppled to a little over 2 percent.

In the accompanying interview, Nader himself acknowledges that it's easier to vote for him in a state that's lopsidedly for Bush or Gore than it is in a tossup state. The same dilemma confronts the Greens on every election day, and unless governments shift to a proportional-representation system of vote counting -- a transformation not high on the wish list of any leftists save the Greens -- the system of winner-take-all elections will confine them to the margins of American politics, as it has confined every third party for 140 years.

What Nader and the Greens do have the power to determine is their own message, and here, a remarkable transformation has already occurred. The Greens now call themselves blue-green, which, in old-time parlance, largely means Red. For his part, Ralph Nader has emerged as the scourge of the world capitalist system in its totality, a synthesizer, a seer despite himself. Cool and austere as an El Greco saint, he stands alone at the lectern, a force for justice who could become so much more of one if only he could find a way to touch his ever-respectful listeners.

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