I saw Ralph Nader yesterday, indefatigable as ever.
He was on tour for his new book, and his first work of fiction, "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us."
The plot is about how seventeen famous billionaires, like Warren Buffett and Ted Turner, all of a sudden come to their conscience and spend some of their money to bring about the anti-corporate and pro-democracy changes that Ralph Nader has spent his life campaigning for.
This is a Hail Mary pass for progressive change, and it is an expression of Nader’s frustration-even desperation-at our inability to tackle what he rightly calls "the permanent corporate government" in Washington.
His approach, in the book, is about as top-down as you can get, though he says it’s top-down, bottom-up-the billionaires spend the money so that people at the grassroots can effectively organize.
He seems to have lost hope in the labor movement and the environmental movement and the citizen’s movement and the broad civil rights movement getting together or a new progressive movement rising up organically.
Throughout most of his career, Nader acted on a theory of social change that centered around establishing citizen groups in Washington and across the country that could act as a counterforce to the corporate powers.
Then, when that didn’t succeed, and when the Democratic Party became increasingly corporatized, Nader ventured into third party presidential politics.
In 2000, he ran as a Green, and talked of establishing that as a durable third party that could act as centrifugal force against the Democratic Party moving ever rightward. But Nader became disenchanted with the Greens, and decided to go it alone the last two times.
And in a sense, he’s going it alone this time in this book.
Rather than rely on the citizen’s movement, rather than rely on the labor movement, or a unified progressive movement, Nader is relying on the George Soroses of this world to save us, as the title says.
"The progressive movement is good at documenting corporate power," he said in his talk in Madison, Wisconsin. "It’s good at diagnosing. It’s good at coming up with proposals. But that’s the end."
The problem, he says, is one of resources. "You cannot fight trillions of dollars in big business money with a few millions and expect to win."
The citizen movement, he said, is "totally amateurish" compared with how well organized and funded the corporations are. "This mismatch is a disaster," he said. "The progressive movement is going nowhere if it does not address the problem of resources."
Nor does he have hope in a new youth movement.
Nader was addressing a couple of hundred people in a classroom at the University of Wisconsin, but there weren’t many students there. Maybe that was a good thing, since he was harshing on them.
"If people are too busy updating their personal profiles on their facebook page," they won’t engage in civic action, he said.
"The screen is the opium of the masses," he said. He added that we have a whole generation living a virtual existence, and we haven’t come to grips with the negative consequences of that.
He also criticized today’s students for their weak grasp of U.S. history. For them, "The Vietnam War is like the Peloponnesian Wars."
Nader had some sharp criticism for Barack Obama, too. "It’s very sad to see the continuity between Obama and Bush," he said, rattling off "Afghanistan, renditions, No Child Left Behind, and the faith-based initiative."
But he’s not surprised that Obama is doing the bidding of the corporate establishment. "In 100 ways, he signaled he was their man" during the campaign, Nader said. "Did ever talk about corporate crime, even when Wall Street was collapsing?"
Nader said Obama "learned too much from Bill Clinton" about the need to compromise with corporate power. And he said that Obama’s personality is not right for the times. Unlike FDR, Obama "does not like conflict," he said. Instead, he wants to please.
There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these days. Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He’s dented it more than anyone else in America. But he knows it’s still chugging, even more strongly than ever.
Nader understands that he’s losing. He understands that we’re losing-we who believe in democracy, we who care about justice.
But if our only hope is with a handful of billionaires, we’re in a lot worse shape than I thought.