In 2006 the Atlantic magazine asked a panel of “eminent historians” to name the 100 most influential people in American history. Included alongside George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain and Elvis Presley was Ralph Nader, one of only three living Americans to make the list. It was airy company for Nader, but if you think about it, an easy call.
Though a private citizen, Nader shepherded more bills through Congress than all but a handful of American presidents. If that sounds like an outsize claim, try refuting it. His signature wins included landmark laws on auto, food, consumer product and workplace safety; clean air and water; freedom of information, and consumer, citizen, worker and shareholder rights. In a century only Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson passed more major legislation.
Nader’s also the only American ever to start a major social or political movement all by himself. The labor, civil rights and women’s movements all had multiple mothers and fathers, as did each generation’s peace and antiwar movements. Not so the consumer movement, which started out as just one guy banging away at a typewriter. Soon he was a national icon, seen leaning into Senate microphones on TV or staring down the establishment from the covers of news magazines.
What lifted Nader to such heights was the 1965 publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” an exposé of the auto industry’s sociopathic indifference to the health and safety of its customers. In little more than a year Congress put seat belts in every new car and created the forerunners of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Washington’s rapid response affirmed Nader’s belief that people provided with critical facts will demand change and that sooner than one might expect politicians, however listless or corrupt, will give it to them. This faith in the power of ideas and of public opinion — in the educability of people and thus in the viability of democracy — distinguishes Nader from much of what remains of the American left.
For nearly 30 years Nader largely abstained from electoral politics while turning out a steady stream of testimony and books. But his influence waned. By the late ’70s the linked forces of corporate and cultural reaction we memorialize as the Reagan Revolution were gathering force. In 1978 Nader lost a pivotal battle to establish a federal consumer protection agency as key Democrats, including Jimmy Carter, whom Nader had informally blessed in 1976, fled the field.
In Reagan’s epic 1980 sweep the GOP picked up 12 Senate seats, the biggest gain of the last 60 years for either party. Nader had done his best business with Democrats, especially the liberal lions of the Senate; men like Warren Magnuson, Gaylord Nelson, Birch Bayh and George McGovern, all swept out to sea in the Reagan riptide. In the House, a freshman Democrat from California, Tony Coelho, took over party fundraising. It’s arguable that Coehlo’s impact on his party was as great as Reagan’s on his. It is inarguable that Coehlo set Democrats on an identity-altering path toward ever closer ties to big business and, especially, Wall Street.
In 1985 moderate Democrats including Bill Clinton and Al Gore founded the Democratic Leadership Council, which proposed innovative policies while forging ever closer ties to business. Clinton would be the first Democratic presidential nominee since FDR and probably ever to raise more money than his Republican opponent. (Even Barry Goldwater outraised Lyndon Johnson.) In 2008 Obama took the torch passed to Clinton and became the first Democratic nominee to outraise a GOP opponent on Wall Street. His 2-to-1 spending advantage over John McCain broke a record Richard Nixon set in his drubbing of George McGovern.
Throughout the 1980s Nader watched as erstwhile Democratic allies vanished or fell into the welcoming arms of big business. By the mid-’90s the whole country was in a swoon over the new baby-faced titans of technology and global capital. If leading Democrats thought technology threatened anyone’s privacy or employment or that globalization threatened anyone’s wages, they kept it to themselves. In his contempt for oligarchs of any vintage and rejection of the economic and political democratization myths of the new technology Nader seemed an anachronism.
His critics would later say Nader was desperate for attention. For certain he was desperate to reengage the nation in a debate over the concentration of wealth and power; desperate enough by 1992 to run for president. His first race was a sort of novelty campaign — he ran in New Hampshire’s Democratic and Republican primaries “as a stand in for none of the above.” But the experience proved habit-forming and he got more serious as he went along. In 1996 and 2000 he ran as the nominee of the Green Party and in 2004 and 2008 as an independent.
The campaigns defined him for a new generation, but he never stopped writing. His latest book, “Unstoppable” argues for the existence and utility of an “emerging left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state.” The book is vintage Nader and ranks with his best. The questions it poses should greatly interest progressives. The question is, will any read it.
It’s a question because on top of all the hurdles facing even celebrity authors today, Nader is estranged from much of his natural readership. It goes back, of course, to his third race for president, the one that gave us George W. Bush, John Roberts, Sam Alito, the Iraq War and a colossal debt. Democrats blame Nader for all of it. Some say he not only cost Al Gore the 2000 election but did it on purpose. Nader denies both charges. Both are more debatable than either he or his critics allow.
In 1996 I served as counselor to President Clinton and met often with Nader to discuss that campaign. Early on he told me he wouldn’t be a spoiler. Judging by his message and schedule and the deployment of his meager resources, he was true to his word. In 2000 his allocation of resources was little changed: He spent 20 days in deep blue California, two in Florida; hardly a spoiler’s itinerary. But he was in Florida at the end and his equation throughout of Gore with Bush — “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” — outraged Democrats.
The Democrats’ dismissal of Nader in 2000 was of a piece with our personality-driven politics: a curmudgeon on steroids; older now and grumpier; driven by ego and personal grievance. But Nader always hit hard; you don’t get to be the world’s most famous shopper by making allowances or pulling punches. The difference was that in 2000 Democrats as well as Republicans bore the brunt of his attacks. What had changed? It says a lot about the Democratic Party then and now that nobody bothered to ask the question, the answer to which is, a whole lot.
Between 1996 and 2000 the Wall Street Democrats who by then ruled the party’s upper roosts scored their first big legislative wins. Until then their impact was most visible in the quietude of Congress, which had not enacted any major social or economic reforms since the historic environmental laws of the early ’70s. It was the longest such stretch since the 19th century, but no one seemed to notice.
In the late ’70s, deregulation fever swept the nation. Carter deregulated trucks and airlines; Reagan broke up Ma Bell, ending real oversight of phone companies. But those forays paled next to the assaults of the late ’90s. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had solid Democratic backing as did the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. The communications bill authorized a massive giveaway of public airwaves to big business and ended the ban on cross ownership of media. The resultant concentration of ownership hastened the rise of hate radio and demise of local news and public affairs programming across America. As for the “modernization” of financial services, suffice to say its effect proved even more devastating. Clinton signed and still defends both bills with seeming enthusiasm.
The Telecommunications Act subverted anti-trust principles traceable to Wilson. The financial services bill gutted Glass-Steagall, FDR’s historic banking reform. You’d think such reversals would spark intra-party debate but Democrats made barely a peep. Nader was a vocal critic of both bills. Democrats, he said, were betraying their heritage and, not incidentally, undoing his life’s work. No one wanted to hear it. When Democrats noticed him again in 2000 the only question they thought to ask was, what’s got into Ralph? Such is politics in the land of the lotus eaters.
The furor over Nader arose partly because issues of economic and political power had, like Nader himself, grown invisible to Democrats. As Democrats continued on the path that led from Coehlo to Clinton to Obama, issues attendant to race, culture and gender came to define them. Had they nominated a pro-lifer in 2000 and Gloria Steinem run as an independent it’s easy to imagine many who berated Nader supporting her. Postmortems would have cited the party’s abandonment of principle as a reason for its defeat. But Democrats hooked on corporate cash and consultants with long lists of corporate clients were less attuned to Nader’s issues.
Democrats today defend the triage liberalism of social service spending but limit their populism to hollow phrase mongering (fighting for working families, Main Street not Wall Street). The rank and file seem oblivious to the party’s long Wall Street tryst. Obama’s economic appointees are the most conservative of any Democratic president since Grover Cleveland but few Democrats seem to notice, or if they notice, to care.
There’s much talk lately of a “populist” revival but few can say what a populist is. Like “liberal”and “conservative,” it’s a word best used with conscious imprecision. As apt to indicate a sensibility as a theory, it’s often just an epithet, the conjured image being one of class envy and fist-shaking anger. But populism can be civil; Huey Long was a populist, but so was Will Rogers. It has conservative as well as liberal elements. Populists espouse traditional values. They loathe bureaucracy, public or private. They seldom raise taxes and never on the poor or middle class.
The best template of populism remains the career of William Jennings Bryan. Like Jefferson and Jackson, Bryan railed against big banks. He thought it in the nature of big businesses to oppress small businesses and to corrupt government. He despised the gross income inequality of his day. His proposed graduated income tax left the lower and middle classes alone.
Bryan took the national stage decrying banks in his Cross of Gold speech and left it denying evolution at the Scopes trial. He didn’t become a Bible-thumper in old age, he’d always been one. And he never altered his view of banks. He reminds us that populism can be economic or cultural — the first tends to reform, the second to repression — and that both species may abide in the same person. For a century the parties divided populism between them; Democrats ran the Cross of Gold speech at Republicans. Republicans ran the Scopes trial at them. Then Democrats decided to let Republicans have both cultural and economic populism. It was some gift.
Populism encompasses not just Bryan’s late 19th century agrarians but their close relations, the early 20th century urban progressives and countless descendants of each. Jefferson and Jackson are called fathers of both populism and the Democratic Party. Jackson and Bryan are the only Democrats other than FDR to be nominated three times for president. All populists share common traits: love of small business; high standards of public ethics; concern for individuals, families and communities; suspicion of elites and of all economic trusts, combinations and cartels.
Some recent populist talk is owing to the election of two liberals, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. (Liberals taking Massachusetts or Manhattan didn’t used to be news.) It’s unclear how well they and other Democratic liberals can tap populist sentiment. In any case, Democrats are late to the populist dance. Mass protests of corrupt oligarchies have roiled global politics for a decade. In America the Tea Party has been crying crony capitalism since the Bush bailout and Obama stimulus. Income inequality’s so bad Mitt Romney wants to raise the minimum wage.
Even the Democrats’ tardy me-too-ism seems insincere, less a churning of policy than a freshening of message. In 2009, when he had the votes in Congress, Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage. Not till late 2013 did Democrats press the issue. Why then? As the New York Times reported, “they found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014.” If there’s a true populist revolt on the left it is as yet invisible to the naked eye.
Meanwhile the populist revolt on the right persists. In 2010 the Tea Party declared open season on GOP incumbents. It has since bagged quite a few. But Republicans don’t just fight over offices, they fight over ideas. It’s hard to track all the players in their endless policy scrum: Heritage, American Enterprise, Focus on the Family, Club for Growth, etc. Rand Paul pilfers Democratic issues like a fox stealing chickens while dynasty star Jeb Bush grapples with such timeless questions as whether there can be such a thing as a conservative social program.
Democrats aren’t even having a debate. Their one think tank, the Center for American Progress, serves their establishment. (Its founder, John Podesta, once Clinton’s chief of staff, is now counselor to Obama.) The last real primary challenge to a Democratic senator was in 2006 when Ned Lamont took on Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman. They say the GOP picks presidents based on seniority. Two years out, Republicans seem headed for a bloody knife fight while Hillary Clinton may be headed for the most decorous, seniority-based succession in either party’s history. (If she loses this time it will be to herself.)
If Democrats had caught populist fever they’d be reappraising their own orthodoxy and offing a few of their own incumbents. Owing only partly to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, they instead spend their days as Republicans do, in an endless search for new ways to help the rich pump money into politics. As public alienation deepens, polls show Democrats generally content with their party’s leaders. Of such stuff revolutions are not made.
Which brings us back to Nader’s book. It opens with a story of left and right banding together in 1982 to stop construction of Tennessee’s Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Authorized in 1972, by 1977 this “public private partnership” had spent $1.3 billion of public money ($4.5 billion in current dollars) on preconstruction costs. That’s when Jimmy Carter pulled its plug. Or thought he did.
In 1981 the Reagan administration revived it. It looked good to go until Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers convened an ad hoc coalition of liberals opposed to nuclear waste and conservatives opposed to wasting money. Its sublimely eclectic membership included the International Association of Machinists, the National Taxpayers Union and the Audubon Society. What happened next was Reagan and his allies in Congress got rolled. By 1983 the project was dead, this time for good.
Nader cites other issues, most culled from his own experience, on which left and right collaborated. He predicts convergence on topics ranging from civil liberties to defense, corporate welfare and open government. He assays 25 ideas he deems ripe for alliances and the strategies for forming them. He says all appeal to a growing populist movement. It’s this movement he calls unstoppable.
Nader’s belief in convergence isn’t the same as Obama’s naïve pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. He doesn’t say Democrats and Republicans can talk away their differences, only that some of them can work on issues on which they haven’t any. He concedes that doing even that much is hard for Republicans, for whom it often proves fatal to work with Democrats even on Republican ideas.
To many, Nader’s vision will seem naïve, as will the book’s very title. Surely a lesson of our time is that all progress is stoppable. Not long ago optimism was in vogue. Obama’s slogan then was “Yes we can.” Today it could be “It turns out we can’t.” His basic brief: “With an economy so broken, government so broke, politics so corrupt and Republicans so crazy, no one could do better, so quit whining: from now on, this is as good as it gets.” Better the Obama of 2008, or the Nader of today who insists “pessimism has no place in a democracy.”
Some of the ideas in “Unstoppable” may seem small bore: defending whistle-blowers, auditing defense budgets, loosening restrictions on standing to sue. Some need elaboration — encouraging community-based businesses, reforming government procurement — while others seem too long a reach: tying the minimum wage to inflation, getting Congress to do its constitutional duty on declaring war. But all relate to systemic reforms Democrats no longer espouse.
Democrats envy Republicans their knack for framing issues in foundational values: thrift, hard work, family, patriotism. Nader espouses values that form the very substratum of American culture. He often cites lessons learned as a child, listening to his dad talk politics in the family restaurant or tagging along with his mom to town meetings. He doesn’t tell these tales as politicians do, for mere nostalgic connection, but to make the case for community and small business, to defend families from the commoditization of privacy and the commercialization of childhood and, above all, to spark a revival of the grass roots, New England-style democracy of his youth. One may call such values liberal or conservative, or simply say they are rooted in American populism.
Republicans can talk values even while defending a corrupt status quo because, recent Tea Party convulsions aside, defending the status quo is their job. The Democrats’ job is to challenge the status quo; when they don’t do it, nothing they say sounds sincere. Nader’s words resonate because they’re rooted in a populist tradition and connected to a populist vision. Democratic rhetoric rings hollow because it’s no longer rooted in any tradition or connected to any vision.
What agrarian populists did best was battle cartels and advocate for a kind of homegrown communitarian capitalism. They busted price fixing railroads and granaries, fought for rural free delivery and established cooperative banks that still provide a third of all credit to rural America. Most amazing, they did it all via Congress amid the venality of the first Gilded Age. Powerful trusts were turning farmers into wage slaves and the world’s greatest democracy into just another corrupt oligarchy when Populists and Progressives rose as if from nowhere to stop them.
Parallels to our own time could hardly be clearer. Like invasive species destroying the biodiversity of a pond, today’s global trusts swallow up everything smaller than themselves. The rules of global trade make organizing for higher wages next to impossible in developed and undeveloped countries alike. Fights for net neutrality and public Wi-Fi are exactly like the fight for rural free delivery. Small businesses are as starved for credit as small farmers ever were. PACs are our Tammany Hall. What’s missing is a powerful, independent reform movement.
Republicans make their livings off the misappropriation of populism. Democrats by their silence assist them. Rand Paul is more forceful than any Democrat on privacy and the impulse to empire. The Tea Party rails loudest against big banks and corporate corruption. Even on cultural issues Democrats don’t really lead: Your average college student did more than your average Democratic congressman to advance gay marriage.
It’s hard for Democrats to see that their problems arise from their own mistakes. Obama called the 2008 recession “the worst since the Great Depression.” It wasn’t; by most measures — jobs, wages, exports — it was the worst since 1982. The valid comparison to the 1930s is that now as then all our vital institutions are broken. Our healthcare, banking, energy and transit systems are badly broken. Our defense policy is obsolete. Politics is a cesspool. Oddly, the one system working relatively well, public education, is the object of our only sustained reform effort.
Mistaking the nature of the crisis, Obama mistook massive fraud for faulty computer modeling and a middle-class meltdown for a mere turn of the business cycle. Had he grasped his situation he’d have known the most he could do by priming the pump would be to reinflate the bubble. Contrast him to FDR, who saw the systemic nature of his crisis. To banks Roosevelt offered only reform; financial help went to customers whose bad mortgages he bought up and whose savings he insured. By buying into Bush’s bailout, Obama co-signed the biggest check ever cut by a government, made out to the culprits, not the victims. As for his stimulus, it didn’t cure the disease and hefty portions of it smelled like pork.
Populist rage against the bailout and stimulus saved the Republican Party. In 2006 it had lost Congress, in 2008 the White House. Younger voters recoiled from its racial and religious politics. Middle-class decline had even devout Christians focused on family finances. That’s when Democrats handed over title to economic populism. Absent the bailout and stimulus it’s hard to imagine the Tea Party being born, Republicans retaking Congress or the government being so utterly paralyzed.
Liberals have spent the intervening years debating macroeconomic theory but macroeconomics can’t fathom this crisis. This isn’t just a slow recovery from a financial sector collapse, or damage done by debt overhang or Obama’s weak tea Keynesianism. We’re in crisis because of all our broken systems; because we still let big banks prey on homeowners, students, consumers and retailers; because our infrastructure is decrepit; because our tax code breeds inefficiency and inequality; because foreign interventions bled us dry. We’re in peril because our democracy is dying. Reviving it will take more than deficit spending and easy money. It will take reform, and before that, a whole new political debate.
Reading “Unstoppable” reminds one of Nader’s standing among the ’60s reformers who formed populism’s last great wave. The book is drenched in populist themes: distrust of big business and big government, faith in democracy and contempt for its corrupters, defense of all things small — towns, businesses, people — against the inevitable predations of all things big. Among its lessons for would be populists:
Populism isn’t about spending. Of Nader’s 25 proposals none costs any money. Eight actually save money. By cleaning up Reagan’s fiscal mess Bill Clinton made Democrats the party of fiscal responsibility. With the bailout and stimulus Obama handed the issue back to Republicans. Populists know we have a choice: change the rules or write the check. And they know which choice generally works best. If instead of a bailout and stimulus Obama raised the minimum wage, secured a public option, rescued homeowners and cut defense there’d be no budget crisis today and he’d be a folk hero instead of a punching bag.
Populists challenge big business. Apart from global warming, our most pressing problem is the mal-distribution of power, opportunity and income. In their denial, Democrats think they can compete with Republicans for Wall Street cash and still “fight for working families,” but on many issues — wages, credit costs, tax burdens — there really are two sides. Soon even the party’s base will ask which side it is on.
Populists stand up for small business. We think of small business as Republican. Not necessarily. In a 2012 poll of small-business owners, a majority picked Obama over Romney, a choice their Washington lobbyists were at pains to explain way. No constituency gets more lip service and less actual service than small business, which is why it’s always up for grabs. Nader’s small town, small business populism speaks to it like nothing else can. Small business has never been, or felt, more threatened. A party that earns its trust can govern a long time.
Populists care about ethics. So do voters. In two recent rounds of exit polls voters named corruption their top concern over jobs and the economy, this in the teeth of a “jobless recovery.” In 2008 Obama closed stump speeches with vows to “curb lobbyists’ power” and “change Washington’s culture.” Voters thought he meant to make it more honest. It turns out he only meant to make it more polite, and even in that he failed. His longest list of unkept promises is the one titled “ethics and open government.” Few among party elites have any sense of the price he has paid.
Populism changes with the issues and times. Ethics means even more to us than it did to the early populists. Technology has made privacy a populist issue. The bankruptcy of our foreign and defense policies elevates those issues. Populism is relevant to global warming. Its frugality fosters conservation. Its decentralization supports everything from local farms to distributed generation. Its anti-corporate ethos is a key to any credible effort to curb the influence of the fossil fuel industry.
It pains us to watch Democrats bungle populist issues. We see Rand Paul corner the market on privacy and the scrutiny of defense budgets and wonder why no Democrat rises to expose his specious rantings. We yearn for a new politics but worry that our democracy, like that Antarctic ice shelf, has reached its tipping point. For things to improve Democrats must come up with better ideas and learn how to present them. So why don’t they?
One reason is that today’s Democrats think politics is all about marketing. While Republicans built think tanks Democrats built relationships with celebrity pollsters. When things go awry one pops up on TV to tell us how they “lost control of the narrative.” Asked to name a flaw, Obama invariably cites his failure to “tell our story.” Judging by his recent book, Tim Geithner thinks failing to tell his story was the only mistake he ever made. People don’t hate the bailout because Tim Geithner gives bad speeches. They hate it because their mortgages are still underwater.
Democrats must learn that policy precedes message; figure out what you believe, then how to tell people about it. A good idea advertises itself.
Democrats must also learn to argue history. They chortle when Michele Bachmann credits the founders with ending slavery or Sarah Palin forgets who Paul Revere rode to warn. Yet they let the right turn our founding myths into pulp propaganda with nary a reply from any but academics. In “Unstoppable” Nader enlists Jefferson, Adam Smith, Friederich Hayek and a raft of others to buttress his case and reclaim valuable ground.
Democrats think the power of money is greater than the power of ideas. Nader thinks that with the right ideas you can win even if outspent 100-to-1. Every year Democrats further dilute their ideas to get the money they think they need to sell them. The weaker the ideas, the more ads they need, the more money it takes, the weaker the ideas. As you can tell from their ads, they’ve been at this a long time.
They don’t believe in ideas because they don’t believe in people. Obama wasted years dickering with Republicans who wished him only ill. He should have talked to the people and let them talk to the Republicans.
One reason we know voters will embrace populism is that they already have. It’s what they thought they were getting with Obama. In 2008 Obama said he’d bail out homeowners, not just banks. He vowed to fight for a public option, raise the minimum wage and clean up Washington. He called whistle-blowers heroes and said he’d bar lobbyists from his staff. He was critical of drones and wary of the use of force to advance American interests. He spoke eloquently of the threats posed to individual privacy by a runaway national security state.
He turned out to be something else altogether. To blame Republicans ignores a glaring truth: Obama’s record is worst where they had little or no role to play. It wasn’t Republicans who prosecuted all those whistle-blowers and hired all those lobbyists; who authorized drone strikes or kept the NSA chugging along; who reneged on the public option, the minimum wage and aid to homeowners. It wasn’t even Republicans who turned a blind eye to Wall Street corruption and excessive executive compensation. It was Obama.
A populist revolt among Democrats is unlikely absent their reappraisal of Obama, which itself seems unlikely. Not since Robert Kennedy have Democrats been so personally invested in a public figure. Liberals fell hardest so it’s especially hard for them to admit he’s just not that into them. If they could walk away they might resume their relationship with Nader. Of course that won’t be easy.
Populism isn’t just liberalism on steroids; it too demands compromise. After any defeat, a party’s base consoles itself with the notion that if its candidates were pure they’d have won. It’s never true; most voters differ with both parties. Still, liberals dream of retaking Congress as the Tea Party dreams of retaking the White House: by being pure. Democratic elites are always up for compromise, but on the wrong issues. Rather than back GOP culture wars, as some do, or foreign wars, as many do, or big business, as nearly all do, they should back libertarians on privacy, small business on credit and middle-class families on taxes.
If Democrats can’t break up with Obama or make up with Nader, they should do what they do best: take a poll. They would find that beneath all our conflicts lies a hidden consensus. It prizes higher ethics, lower taxes and better governance; community and privacy; family values and the First Amendment; economic as well as cultural diversity. Its potential coalition includes unions, small business, nonprofits, the professions, the economically embattled and all the marginalized and excluded. Such a coalition could reshape our politics, even our nation.
Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.