Commentary Magazine


Crashing the Party by Ralph Nader

Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still run for President by Ralph Nader
St. Martin’s Press. 352 pp. $24.95

Ralph Nader has been a troublemaker from the start. As a young lawyer in 1965, he earned his anti-establishment stripes by attacking General Motors over the Corvair, a car that he famously pronounced “unsafe at any speed.” Over the next several decades, he battled corporate America and the federal government on issues like atomic energy, food and water safety, and the practices of the insurance industry, launching various “public interest” groups along the way. Nader’s liberal zeal and tenacity—Time called him the country’s “toughest customer”—made him an inspirational figure among Democrats.

Until, that is, he ran in the 2000 presidential election as the candidate of the Green party. Stumping across the country, Nader made clear, to the horror of many of his longtime admirers, that he was targeting his biggest foe yet. It was not capitalism, a system he had previously described as flawed but now portrayed as inherently evil. It was, rather, the Democratic party, for capitalism’s corporate “monsters,” he insisted, controlled the government itself, including the White House of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Crashing the Party, Nader’s account of his unusual foray into national politics, is part memoir, part manifesto. As a high-school student, Nader tells us, he had been riveted by stories about turn-of-the-century muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens. His father often took him to watch trials at the county courthouse. “In my youthful idealism,” he writes, “being a lawyer always meant representing the downtrodden, fighting for just causes, and laboring as a voice of dissent.”

In the heady days of the 1960′s, Nader was confirmed in his faith that, given sufficient political will and government funds, America could be radically transformed. Federal intervention could ameliorate—even solve—the country’s consumer, environmental, and racial problems. Socially-conscious journalists pushed an ever-more ambitious agenda for change, and citizens began to take part in politics as never before. The U.S., as he saw it, was finally becoming a real democracy.

But even as progress was taking hold, Nader argues, a backlash was forming. In 1972, leading CEO’s created the Business Roundtable to undermine and combat reform. This lobbying group soon became a shadow government, overwhelming the country’s elected officials. The Carter administration managed to pass a few paltry laws helping labor, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, the Democrats lost their resolve. “Neo-liberalism” was born, another term for liberal flight. As money from corporate America poured into the parly’s coffers, Nader writes, Democrats retreated from their “progressive roots and then into an electoral tactic that argued for defeating Republicans by taking away their issues and becoming more like them.”

With the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton and funded by Wall Street entrepreneurs like Michael Steinhardt, the capitulation of the Democrats, as Nader sees it, was sealed. As President, Clinton was indistinguishable from a Republican. “The boy wonder from Arkansas,” Nader complains, pushed through both NAFTA and the WTO—“corporate-inspired systems of autocratic government” whose passage represented “the greatest surrender of local, state, and national sovereignty in U.S. history.” To this indictment, Nader adds that Clinton did nothing to protect the environment, failed to pass a program of national health insurance, undermined civil liberties by signing three crime bills, aided the malefactors of the telecommunications and agriculture industries, and handed over control of Congress to the Republican party.

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If Nader is withering on Clinton, he is even more severe on Al Gore. Gore’s campaign failed, he argues, because the Democratic nominee was not more like, well, Ralph Nader. As a do-nothing Vice President whose specialty had been collecting corporate campaign contributions, Gore was crippled from the outset, unable to stand up to Bush or big business. Though he spoke in favor of the environment, small farmers, fair trade, and consumer protection, his record utterly belied his words.

Nader’s own campaign was intended to offer an alternative to the corrupt system in which both of the major parties are now so deeply complicit. Like Henry Wallace in 1948, whose example he cites, Nader proudly called for universal health insurance, a higher minimum wage, and large cuts in the military. He denounced the corporate exploitation of the third world that goes by the name of globalization. Disdaining to point to imaginary foreign threats, he insisted that America could do far more for its national security by coming to the assistance of countries struggling against poverty and disease. To this end he decried American sanctions against Iraq and, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declared that the U.S. was “taking sides” and thus could not act as an honest broker.

Why did his campaign not succeed? As Nader sees it, the country remains in deep denial about its economic plight. Politicians are partly responsible for this state of affairs, but so too is the increasingly corporate-minded press. Assailing numerous journalists by name for failing to understand the importance of the issues he raised, Nader complains that they depicted his campaign as a kind of freak show. Their aim: to suppress legitimate dissent.

For all his gloom, however, Nader still believes that a significant mass of nonvoters is ready to follow a progressive third-party candidate. As he presents it, his campaign was just the first small stone in the avalanche waiting to bring down the Democratic party.

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As the subtitle of his book declares, Nader’s campaign was based on the assumption that he, and he alone, could “tell the truth and still run for President.” But this is more a tribute to Nader’s vanity than an accurate assessment of his own candidacy. Even a cursory glance at his memoir shows it to be filled with self-serving myths about the Democratic party and, more important, about the American political and economic system itself.

For a start, consider Nader’s condemnation of the Clinton administration for failing to challenge big business and the Republicans on economic policy—and thus supposedly failing the poor and the middle class. The fact is that Clinton had a number of successes on the economic front precisely because he was able to curb the usual tendencies of the Democratic party, especially on deficit spending. He made it possible for Alan Greenspan to hold down interest rates. As a result, unemployment dropped to historic lows. The child-poverty rate sank. The budget went into surplus.

Even if Clinton had wished to confront the GOP, what would such a strategy have possibly accomplished, apart from stalemate? Following Nader’s economic prescriptions would have made Clinton into another Jimmy Carter. It was no accident that Clinton was the first two-term Democratic president since Harry Truman.

Similarly, Nader’s suggestion that the centrist Democratic Leadership Council has exerted a destructive influence on the Democratic party bears no relationship to political reality. The main reason Clinton and Gore were able to win the 1992 race against George Bush, Sr. was that they had convinced enough Americans they would not go down the party’s old tax-and-spend road; they would not press for ambitious new social programs; and they would pursue a tough-minded foreign policy. (Leave aside what they actually did once in office.)

Still more pernicious, because of its apparent influence on today’s street-rioting Left, is Nader’s demonization of American capitalism. Corporations in the U.S. undoubtedly have great power and influence, but as the Enron debacle has shown, even the best-connected of them is hardly able, as Nader would have it, to direct government policy at will. Indeed, it was because Enron had made such large campaign contributions that the Bush administration took a hands-off attitude when the energy giant went under.

Nader’s assault on globalization is no less misguided. Like most protectionists, he glides over the fact that countries like China, India, and Mexico have seen their standards of living soar as a result, in large part, of free trade. His notion that rapacious corporations are simply exploiting the suffering masses abroad is a relic of J.A. Hobson and other Marxist theorists of imperialism.

But then, for all his pretensions to clairvoyance about where America is headed, Nader offers an agenda with a rather musty smell about it. In his addled, noisy, and tedious memoir, he has tried to provide a roadmap to the future. Instead, he has created a compendium of the blinkered policies that have condemned the radical Left to political oblivion.

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About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.




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