I’m a little embarrassed to say that I have only just recently watched An Unreasonable Man (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492499/), the excellent film documentary about the life and career of Ralph Nader. The movie was released in 2007, after all. What can I say? I don’t watch a lot of movies. But this one was very much worth viewing, however belatedly, and I want to record five reflections on the documentary and Nader’s extraordinary contribution to American history in the context of the Age of Obama – a period that grants rich validation to Nader’s decision to challenge the nation’s major corporate party duopoly.
“A Record That Would Have Been the Envy of Any Modern American President”
First, An Unreasonable Man is useful viewing for anyone who wants to understand how Ralph Nader became a big name in American public life long before his notoriety as a “spoiler” presidential candidate. The list of Nader’s accomplishments on behalf of consumer and worker rights and citizen’s democracy in the 1960s and 1970s is remarkable. As public interest historian David Bollier notes in the documentary, Nader during these years “built a legislative record as a private citizen that would have been the envy of any modern president.” The record includes:
* The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act
* The Occupational Safety and Health Act
* The National Automobile Highway Traffic Safety Act
* The Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act
* The Consumer Product Safety Act
* The Safe Water Drinking Act
* The Clean Water Act
* The Nuclear Power Safety Act
* The Clean Air Act
* The Freedom of Information Act
* The Whistleblower Protection Act
Working Within the System
Second, I am struck by the historical absurdity of criticizing Nader for refusing to work within the American political system. Working assiduously within that system was the essence of Nader’s activism for the first two-plus decades of his career. He and his big cadre of activists prolifically compiled reports, talked to mainstream journalists, raised funds, lobbied legislators, drafted legislation, supported bills, and formed mutually supportive relationships with a number of major party politicians, chiefly Democrats. Nader jumped major party ship only after Washington and the Democrats moved so far right under the influence of Big Business that such “reasonable” activism no longer garnered policy victories for consumers and citizens.
Nader kept his efforts within the two-party system as long as it was capable of granting popular gains. Even after stepping outside the duopoly, his focus has been fairly traditional, seeking basic reforms to protect consumers, workers, citizens and the environment – democracy and the common good – against rapacious corporate power and concentrated wealth.
Two Ugly Haters
Third, belated congratulations are due the documentary’s makers for giving the mean-spirited red-baiting liberals Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin free reign to assassinate themselves in blaming Nader for the failure of Al Gore’s miserably centrist presidential campaign in 2000. Alterman (who has also been a vituperative critic of Noam Chomsky and the late Alexander Cockburn) and Gitlin come off as bitter, sputtering haters in An Unreasonable Man. They do this entirely on their own. If they’d used half the energy they spent spewing contempt at “spoiler” Ralph to push Gore to run the sort of elementarily populist campaign that would have handily defeated George W. Bush, they might have seen a different election outcome in 2000.
Racist Voter Disenfranchisement Oddly Ignored
Fourth, I think it’s a shame that An Unreasonable Man says nothing about the critical role that the ethnic cleansing of blacks from Florida’s voting rolls played in Bush’s victory. The filmmakers are correct to note that Gore ran a terrible, conservative campaign through no fault of Nader’s, losing even his own home state (Tennessee) and the incumbent president’s (Arkansas). They are right also to observe that other candidates and parties (including even a marginal Marxist-Leninist sect) received enough votes to tip the official final Florida count in Bush’s favor. Still, as Greg Palast and others have shown, Florida’s Republican Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered local elections officials to scrub nearly 100,000 voters from the registries on the grounds that those voters were felons. Most of these voters were black and Democrats and most were actually legally entitled to vote in Florida. That certainly cost Gore far more than Bush’s 537-tally margin in Florida.
A Blunt Lesson About Power
Last but not least, I am struck by how completely the Age of Obama has (like the corporate-friendly Clinton era) validated Nader’s decision to challenge the major party duopoly. Look what happened in the years 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010. First, the Democrats took the U.S. House of Representatives (in the fall of 2006). Two years later, they took the White House and the Senate, riding a giant wave of popular disgust at the abject plutocracy, imperialism, and racism of the Bush-Cheney regime and the G.O.P. By the end of January of 2009, the Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, achieving their newfound power in the outwardly progressive but carefully elite-calibrated names of “hope” and “change” and the promise of universal health insurance (also the keywords and top policy pledge of corporate Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign). Nader ran in 2008 (I registered one of his six votes in Iowa City’s “progressive” 24th precinct), but with no possible real or imagined “spoiler” impact amidst the great, purportedly progressive Obama tsunami.
What did it all deliver for the American people in the way of progressive change? The liberal-left commentator William Greider put it very well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” (emphasis added).
And nothing, or close to it, to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people (soon to be known as “the 99 %”), who never crashed the economy but who suffered most from the economic collapse and were left to ask “Gee, where’s my bailout?”
From the beginning, as predicted by Nader and many of us on the officially marginalized Left, “our first black president” has belonged to Wall Street and corporate America. He was really and above all just the nation’s next green president – green as in big money, not environmental concern. Consider his first year in the White House – a study in the triumph of corporate-imperial conservatism. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with his chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel’s advice: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling, its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?), its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed [in economist Michael Hudson’s words] by avowed enemies of Social Security” (Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskin Bowles), and numerous other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to Obama’s record-setting corporate and financial backers), Obama’s “change” presidency quickly epitomized the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”
Questions for Seriously Progressive Democrats
All of which reminds me of some good questions Ralph Nader suggested for seriously progressive Democrats to ask “their” party in June of 2001:
* “Are your differences with Republicans tweaking at twigs or going to the trunk or roots of the issues? The [deregulatory] Citigroup banking legislation of 1999 comes to kind. So does the so-called Freedom to Farm Act and the notorious Telecommunications Act of 1996.”
* “Are your basic differences in position papers or party planks backed up by an intensity of advocacy, and expenditure of political capital, a willingness to turn off funders?”
* “Does the party have a clear commitment, by its actions, to a pro-democracy agenda?”
* “How does the party react to its own progressive wing?”
“He Wanted to Help Us Out, to Quell the Mob”
In his important book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told a remarkable story from the early spring of 2009. Three months into Barack Obama’s supposedly progressive, left-leaning presidency, popular anger at Wall Street was intense and the nation’s leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive in the wake of the financial collapse and recession they had created. The new president called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread. As Suskind notes:
“They were the CEOs of the thirteen largest banking institutions in the United States…. And they were nervous in ways that these men are never nervous. Many would have had to reach back to their college days, or even grade school, to remember a moment when they felt this sort of lump-in-the-throat tension.”
“As some of the most successful men in the country, they weren’t used to being pariahs… [and] they were indeed pariahs. The populist backlash against the financial sector—building steadily since September—was finally beginning to cause grave discomfort on Wall Street. As unemployment ballooned and credit tightened, the country began to look inward, toward the origins of the panic and its disastrous consequences.”
In the end, however, the frightened captains of high finance left the meeting pleased to learn that Obama was firmly in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor—Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama told the nation’s top bankers. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”
For the banking elite who destroyed millions of jobs in their lust for profit, there was, as Suskind put it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’”
As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t—he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
“When the bankers arrived in the State Dining Room, sitting under a portrait of a glowering Lincoln,” Suskind notes, “Obama had them scared and ready to do almost anything he said…. An hour later, they were upbeat, ready to fly home and commence business as usual.”
The administration’s corporatist record has continued well into Obama’s second term.I will spare readers all the details here (feel free to consult my articles posted since mid 2010 on my Web site www.paulsteet.org for an at least partial running record).
“Can the [Democratic] Party Defend the Country Again the Extreme Wing of the Republican Party?”
Which brings me to another one of Nader’s 2001 questions for progressive Democrats: “Can the party defend the country against the extreme wing of the Republican Party? The events of the 1990s,” Nader commented, “would seem to answer a resounding ‘no.’”
So would the events of the current millennium! Ever since the epic mid-term election victories of the “Tea Party”-energized Republicans in late 2010, of course, Democrats and their many “liberal” supporters have been blaming those dastardly Teapublicans for blocking the president’s “progressive agenda” to lift up the nation’s hard-working majority against the wealthy Few. But that agenda is a marketing myth, rolled out for quadrennial electoral purposes, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime (in a study of the Clintons) description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens elaborated:
“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It’s no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise the voters too much.”
Had the Democrats actually made policy and otherwise behaved in accord with their purportedly progressive views – views sincerely held by the nation’s working class majority – the GOP would never have scored so well in 2010. The Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves and their deep pockets funders for their abject failure to act in alignment with majority wishes – a failure that creates a vacuum of popular anger that skilled and well-funded right wing media and political operatives are always ready to exploit.
Why do many respectable pollsters give the incredibly unpopular arch-plutocratic and revanchist Republican Party a serious shot at taking back the U.S. Senate in the fall of 2014? The dismal de-mobilizing dollar Democrats’ cringing captivity to American politics “bankrollers and backers” and their state-capitalist “reserve tag” must be counted as a major part of the explanation. As Nader noted in 2001, “Harry Truman observed long ago that faced with a choice between two conservatives, the voters will opt for the real thing.”
I’ve seen it again and again all my politically cognizant life in the U.S. Every two and especially every four years, the Democratic Party tells leftists and progressives to get in line behind the party’s candidates so as not to be “spoilers” – misguided and self-righteous folks who value moral and ideological purity over the properly practical and pragmatic necessity of keeping the nefarious Republicans out of elected office. In one scenario, acted out in 1980, 1984, 1988, and (with some help from Jeb Bush and the U.S. Supreme Court) 2000, the Democrats run such a mealy-mouthed, business-compromised, and otherwise inadequate campaign and candidate that the Republicans prevail. In the other scenario, as in 1976, 1992, and 2008, corporate-friendly Democrats take the White House only to govern so conservatively as to alienate and demobilize their own base and open the door to the ever more hideously reactionary Republicans again.
As wealth and power have continued to concentrate further upward regardless of which major business party holds the White House and Congress – bringing us to a New Gilded Age of astonishing, mutually reinforcing inequality and plutocracy – the stern Democratic Party command that liberals and lefties must not be “spoilers” starts to sound like the boy who cried wolf. Remember: in the parable, the wolf does come, but the boy’s record of insincerity means that he is unable to rally a defense.
“To Destroy the Multitude” – Sound Familiar?
We’re screwed either way. The two business parties today are very much as Upton Sinclair described them in 1906: “two wings of the same bird of prey.” Listen to this passage from Ignatius Donnelly’s speech to the People’s Party national convention on July 4th, 1892:
“We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. …”
“The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down….The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty…”
“We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them….Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform….They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires…” (emphasis added)
Does this not sound hauntingly familiar today, very much like a statement the Occupy Movement might have issued before it was crushed by a coordinated federal campaign of repression directed by the viciously corporate-neoliberal and arch-imperial Obama administration?
No Stand for Social Progress
No wonder millions of registered voters sit out the quadrennial big money-major party-big media-candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas,” which have become “yet another method of marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky on the eve of the 2004 elections). As New Deal president Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in a letter he drafted to be read to the Democratic National Convention in 1940 when he learned that his party’s conservative delegates were scheming to deny him the progressive Henry Wallace as his running mate:
“The Democratic Party has received the support of the electorate only when the party, with absolute clarity, has been the champion of progressive and liberal policies and principles of government. The party has failed consistently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of the those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values…until the Democratic Party…makes overwhelmingly clear its stand in favor of social progress and liberalism, and shakes off all the shackles of control fastened upon it by the forces of conservatism, reaction, and appeasement, it will not continue its march to victory.”
The Democratic Party made no such stand even at its liberal “Great Society” peak in 1965-66, when the briefly waged “War on Poverty” was quickly demoted to a skirmish, sacrificed to the massive taxpayer expense of Washington’s criminal “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s term at the time). Fully fundable in prosperous post-WWII America, A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King’s social-democratic 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans would have ended poverty and provided a decent living for all Americans in 10 years. It was killed in its cradle without even a side glance of regret by the supposedly liberal and progressive Democratic Party, something that opened the door for the resurgent reactionary Republican Party of Richard Nixon (a Keynesian social-democrat compared to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and then, above all, Ronald Reagan. “If the Freedom Budget had been successful,” the socialist scholars Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates have recently reminded us, “a majority of voters would not have responded positively when to candidate Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter when the conservative hopeful asked the American people, at the conclusion of a televised 1980 debate: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go buy things in the stories than it was four years ago?’” The “Reagan [counter-] Revolution” that ensued escalated the trend towards harsh inequality and plutocracy, already well underway in the Carter years.
If the systemic change required to end poverty, lessen inequality, and preserve livable ecology was unthinkable to Democrats at the corporate-liberal height of the New Deal era (the mid-1960s), it is pointless to pursue those objectives through alliances with Democrats in the current New Gilded Age, when both of the dominant business parties have moved to the right of the populace. If the Age of Obama has not made that clear once and for all, then perhaps nothing else will.
The harsh reality is hardly the fault of Ralph Nader, led by his experience in the neoliberal era to the logical conclusion that promising one’s vote in advance to the corporate Democrats only helps push the whole political order further to the business-directed starboard – to the delight of ravenous corporations and right-wing Republicans alike, with disastrous consequences for the common good and what’s left of popular governance.
Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, September 2014, www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810). Street predicted the abject corporatism (and imperialism, objective white- supremacism, police-statism, and eco-cidalism) of the Obama administration in many early publications, including most notably Barack Obama and the Future of America of American Politics (Paradigm, June 2008).