Ralph Nader and the Nadir of Politics

November 1st, 2000
By Naomi Klein

The United States is supposed to be a culture driven by the worship of success. And yet it seems there is one man for whom success is universally unacceptable: Ralph Nader.

Mr. Nader is scolded for his popularity among voters. Ex-friends call him vain, reckless. He should quit, and instruct supporters to vote for Al Gore.

The man who was exiled to the margins for this entire campaign—barred from the debates, blacked out from the news—is now at the dead centre of the race.

No wonder there are threats being made against Mr. Nader’s advocacy group, Public Citizen, headed by Joan Claybrook. "How many progressive congressmen will be prepared to take Joan Claybrook’s telephone calls?" demands Jack Blum, counsel to Americans for Democratic Action.

It’s an empty threat. Mr. Nader has said repeatedly he is running for president precisely because public-interest influence is dead: You need a six-figure donation to buy the ear of Washington politicians. It was this crisis in democracy that led advocacy groups, including Public Citizen, to organize a massive protest during last November’s WTO meeting in Seattle. "If you won’t listen to us at the table," they said, "you will listen to us in the streets."

But as the protests spread, the demonstrators were criticized for lacking a vision, a concrete plan. This was true, and one response has been the Nader candidacy and the Green Party platform: an alternative plan to the expanding power of multinationals and a strategy to parlay street force into political muscle.

The response? Ralph Nader and his friends are now too visionary—they are fundamentalists, without an understanding that politics is about practical decisions. In effect: Shut up and vote Gore.

I am not one of those myopic Naderites who denies that there are any differences between Democrats and Republicans. I think a Bush presidency would be disastrous. What I object to is the idea that votes are so spineless that Ralph Nader has it within his power to snap his fingers and save Al Gore’s sorry butt.

In Portland, Ore., last week, Joseph Lieberman—described by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of "the most pro-business Democrats"—interrupted voters drinking their soy-milk lattes to warn them they were going to wake up with a nasty hangover if they voted Nader and got Bush. Mr. Gore, in Nader hotbed Madison, Wis., told crowds that Big Oil wants people to "vote for Ralph Nader."

If these messages don’t go over too well, it might be because in August, when Mr. Gore was laying down his platform, these constituencies enjoyed no such attention. In fact, the 10,000 people who protested outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles got a very different picture of the Democrats’ attitude toward them. On Aug. 14, the LAPD fired rubber bullets at a crowd of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, many of them Nader supporters. From the balconies of the Staples Center, the Democratic Party faithful watched the action unfold, seemingly unconcerned. I remember: I almost got shot. In the days that followed, there was not a word of condemnation from inside the party about this astonishing use of force, and certainly no recognition that the protesters might have a point or two.

I suspect that most of the people who were there that night, in body or in spirit, won’t be voting at all next week, so disillusioned are they with electoral politics. Some of them will vote for Ralph Nader.

If Mr. Nader listened to his critics and renounced his much-despised success, I doubt he would send these voters running into the outstretched arms of Al Gore. Instead, he would send them away from the process entirely, this time with an even deeper cynicism about the possibility for political change.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.