What Makes Ralph Nader Tick?


All strategy issues aside, should anyone really vote for Ralph Nader, the man? Hardly a day goes by when the guy isn’t accused of lying, accepting support from Republicans, or worse. And those accusations come not only from his opponents but from people on the left we are accustomed to trusting. I and others have addressed many of these attacks. But one is worth careful scrutiny. Many pundits have diagnosed in Ralph Nader what they see as a debilitating character flaw-a flaw that all by itself should disqualify him from the race. As they see it, Nader is a true “megalomaniac,” a “Lone Ranger for Righteousness,” a self-centered man with a “tin ear” motivated by “pure egotism.” Or, as Calvin Trillin so thoughtfully summed it up in The Nation, a “creep.” By reducing Nader to these terms, they seek to disqualify him as candidate worthy of our vote.

Ironically, this election is all about ego, but not Ralph Nader’s. Remember Howard Dean, impaled by the media and the Democratic Party on his own ego quirkiness? Now we are essentially down to three guys. One struts across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a borrowed flight suit to remind us that the war in Iraq is really a “mission accomplished.” Another has some differences from the first but does everything he can to minimize them, while he runs around as the white knight proclaiming he will save the country from Big Bad Bush.

And then we have Ralph Nader, running on little support, addressing important issues about the Bush administration that Kerry is unwilling to confront (like the need to end the war, not “win the peace”), taking a stand for what he and many others believe is the right direction for the country. And all the while, he endures the scorn of his former allies when, at 70, he could have called it a day.

So who, really, is on an ego trip? Not the jump suit. Not the white knight shadowing the president. According to the left press, it’s the guy who built this brilliantly effective group of organizations and has now lost his legacy on the stupidest strategy to garner accolades ever devised.

Evidence that Nader is on an ego trip rests on three theories. First, since we know he can’t win, it must be his misguided ego that’s got him running. Second, he’s alienated his Green Party base by running as an independent and damaged his own legacy by showing callous disregard for the impact of such a run. Third, he ignores even his closest allies who counsel him not to run. So many supporters of yore plead “not this time.” And he may have received more public counsel about the dangers of his running to the future of the country than anyone in history. Shunning it all, Nader forges ahead.

Isn’t that the very definition of arrogance?

But a look behind this “blindingly obvious” conclusion suggests there is more to it. The first reason is bogus. If we can’t find an easy explanation for his campaign, look harder. Don’t blame it on his ego. None of the important political reporters we depend on for so much of our understanding of politics has put serious effort into analyzing Nader’s candidacy. We see cheap jabs over substance.

The second reason is also false. Nader made clear that he couldn’t wait for the Green Party to decide if it was going to field a candidate because invaluable time would be lost. Therefore, if he were to run at all, he had to do so as an independent. He first stated this in an open letter to the Green Party and then in response to a question posed at the National Press Club at the end of February in response to his announcement to run:

The problem is one of timing. The Green Party convention is in June, and the decision as to whether they will have a presidential candidate and under what conditions will be made then. And that is too late for meeting the ballot access deadlines of many states.

So we have to pursue our independent course of action, elicit many volunteers-young, middle-aged, older people-who will learn if they don’t know now how to get signatures that are verifiable on their clipboards in shopping centers and street corners in order to meet the deadlines
So the Greens’ timing is their problem. But Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer chides Nader for not building a third party in the intervening years between elections. “Building a new party … is the task of lifetimes, not months or years, and it isn’t a process that can be short-circuited by celebrity presidential runs.” Henwood hits the nail on the head here: celebrity runs won’t, in the long term, be the winning ticket. But, we must ask, who should build that party? In running, Nader has helped the Greens and might again indirectly if he inspires them to get serious about doing what Henwood suggests, being consistent over lifetimes. Meanwhile, if we want more than celebrity runs, that’s not a shortcoming of Nader’s. In running against the tide Nader has-once again-done more for this cause than most people. If we are going to heed Henwood, we should look to ourselves to build that party. Maybe we’ll ask Nader to run again, if that makes sense to us and to him. But it’s wrong to berate an individual for doing something other than building a party in between runs when he puts such a gigantic effort into those runs, pointing out a path for the rest of us. (And he did try to build the Greens after 2000, by helping with dozens of fundraisers.) If you don’t want people voting for Nader because you think a Kerry win is important, fine-argue that. But to argue we shouldn’t vote Nader because he did something else for four years besides build a party obscures the important issues we face.

But why would Nader risk his legacy? The man has made a mark that, I wager, could well be felt far into the future. If the human race survives, it’s a solid bet that issues of political power will still be with us for centuries. And safety-transportation, worker, consumer, and so on-will almost certainly continue to be a concern, however we get around. What a legacy.
And what a nasty dent some accuse Nader of putting into it. As Stephen Power reported in the Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2004 (before Nader’s announcement),

“organizations that have some connection to Nader are still reeling from the backlash caused by the perception that he threw the election to Bush. Concerning Public Citizen: The group, which Mr. Nader founded in 1971, lost 20% of its members after the 2000 election and saw a decline of nearly $1 million in contributions, or roughly 8% of its overall budget.

“Consider the Aviation Consumer Action Project, which Mr. Nader founded in the 1970s to advocate tougher airline-safety and consumer-rights measures. The group lost some of its biggest donors after the 2000 election, including a trial lawyers’ firm that has given as much as $10,000 a year.

“Similarly, the Center for Auto Safety, which Mr. Nader helped found in 1970 to act as a watchdog for motorists’ rights, lost about 5,000 members-roughly 25% of its membership-following the 2000 election. Since then it has gained 1,500 members, many of them new to the organization, for a net loss of 3,500”

Powers reports that these cutbacks have had real political impact, curtailing efforts to fight the regulatory battles needed to protect consumers. The Center for Auto Safety, for example, has been forced “to spend less time filing comments on various issues before the National Traffic Safety Administration,” and allows that government “agency to ‘green flag’ proposals that deserve public scrutiny. Because of the need to recruit more members, the center didn’t file comments when the agency, in response to legislation passed after the recall of 6.5 million Bridgestone/Firestone tires in 2000, proposed new tire-testing standards,” Powers notes. Worse, adversaries are delighted by the groups’ funding plight:

“I’m happy as can be,” says Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, a business-backed lobbying group in Washington. “I’m very much better able to reach that undecided voter and undecided legislator when the trial lawyers are on the other side than when it’s Ralph Nader or one of the other organizations purporting to represent the ordinary consumer.”

His run may be harming his legacy. But the argument that he must be on an ego trip because his run will damage it is farcical. Usually, those on ego trips make extraordinary and sometimes-comical attempts to preserve what they claim is their legacy. If someone is taking actions that potentially harm their legacy, I take it as a signal the person is risking a great deal for principles he stands for. We may disagree with his tactics, his strategy, and perhaps with his principles. But we cannot point to actions that harm someone’s own legacy and cry, “he’s on an ego trip.”

But regardless of concern about how one is personally viewed in the eyes of history, shouldn’t he at least have some regard for the very institutions he may be jeopardizing? As the New York Times reported on February 24, 2004, two days after Nader’s announcement:

Robert S. McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice, first became interested in tax policy working for Mr. Nader in the early 1970’s. Speaking of himself and other onetime acolytes of Mr. Nader, Mr. McIntyre said: “I don’t think anybody’s very happy about it. When everything we’ve worked for all our lives is being destroyed, it’s not very appealing.”

Why can’t Ralph Nader care about those organizations he champions-and the people working in them? It’s a valid question, but a deeper look reveals some interesting paradoxes. Either these organizations belong to Nader, live in the shadow of Nader, and will one day die with Nader-or they are independent groups, having gotten a helping hand from him or an inspiration, yet surely able to stand on their own without him. Those institutions will have to survive his gaffes, his mortality, and his runs for president. If they don’t, they aren’t viable as institutions. Public Citizen, most famously tied to Nader, has talked about taking his name off their letterhead. This might be a positive step in that direction.

Further, it’s important to delineate responsibility for the groups’ plight. Many people withdrawing support are confusing the groups’ efforts with the man; their disapproval of the candidate should not translate into hurting the causes. It isn’t Nader’s responsibility to refrain from running simply because some supporters can’t see the difference between him and these groups.

Yet the fact remains: groups face funding challenges by being tarnished, fairly or unfairly, by his run. But principles have costs. When Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War, funding for civil rights dropped dramatically. No one today would suggest that his was a bad move. In the end, though he lost his life, we won. Today, as in ’66, ’67, ’68, it looks like we are losing. But how will history judge Nader 30 years from now? Favorably, I suggest because we value people who take stands that are right-even when they are costly.

But what about that third reason he’s obviously on an ego trip-acting unilaterally and unable to listen with his “tin ear” to the advice of his closest friends? Surely that is proof he has lost it. Yet it’s easy to mistake the question, has he heard me, with the very different question, does he agree with me? From day one it was clear he heard his opponents. It was also clear he didn’t agree. Clarity that goes against the grain of popular belief is not a character flaw.

Examples abound. Lincoln ran for president against the advice of friends. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood against more moderate voices counseling protestors to wait. The point is not to equate Nader with the importance of those individuals. To each their own stature. Rather, the examples illustrate a simple idea: disagreement with popular consensus may be a sign of arrogance-or of wisdom. Nader has taken on scores of battles that few believed at the outset he could influence. We are lucky that he stood his ground then. We should not ascribe arrogance when he is steadfast now.

If not ego, then what kind of trip is he on? One of the clearest indications is simply his own record. He presents himself as a passionately clear fighter for justice. Confidence and clarity are important attributes for accomplishing anything meaningful. In all the accusations of ego-tripping, not a single pundit that I have read has turned to Nader’s own record as a source to reveal the alleged flaw. It isn’t that his many books and organizations don’t provide a substantive record for determining the issue. It’s just that there isn’t anything there to suggest the guy is warped. Focused? Sure. Determined? Absolutely. A penchant for taking on the big fight as well as the good fight? Unerringly. But success does not an ego trip make.

dded to this is a lifestyle so frugal it has made Nader famous for wearing understated suits, a characteristic that has endeared him to many. And he is a man who praises others and puts them in the limelight, for example honoring Dennis Kucinich’s run as that of an authentic activist who has fought for justice for decades. Hardly the signs of egotism.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the unjustified criticism of Nader, Kerry’s character is left largely unchallenged by progressives. I believe this is a serious mistake.

Let’s for a moment take Kerry at his word as an honest man who sometimes changes his mind. He has:

o Voted for Bush’s No Child Left Behind act and then turned around and blamed Bush for under funding the program;

o Voted for Scalia and then later said that was a mistake;

o Voted for war against Iraq and then said he was misled;

o Argued for subsidizing tuition and then reversed that plank in his platform.

o Posted liberal platform planks on his website and then claimed he wasn’t a liberal.

Even if there is no malfeasance here, no intent to mislead or score political gain, at some point there is a question of judgment. Does Kerry have the wisdom to lead the country? A year into the Kerry presidency, if we are deeper in Iraq, if he appoints right wing anti-abortion judges, if he privatizes Social Security and “reforms” other programs, if he passes a Patriot Act II, if he imposes austere fiscal measures, we will look back and say well, the signs were all there before his election; how did we miss them?

Returning to Nader, what makes him run?

I never got the chance to ask Nader just what does make him tick-by the time I started writing, he was off and running, and for most of the time out of reach. Pundits like Robert Scheer have alluded to a Don Quixote complex. But for an answer I would eschew the surface similarities to Cervantes’ famous knight and instead look to a contemporary with whom Nader appears to have virtually nothing in common: the investor Warren Buffett.

The two men could not be more different. Buffett, an amoral investor, selects his companies based on calculations of financial value and prospects, without regard to the political consequences of their actions. It matters not whether it is a company like Coke spreading tooth decay throughout the world, or defense contractors spreading sudden death on a mass scale. Nader, on the other hand, has spent a lifetime crusading to regulate these very rogues.
Yet these differences disguise a profound similarity-they have each racked up nearly half a century of outstanding success in their fields that reveals an underlying lesson: know-how and persistence pay. Buffett’s success is easily measured-he has achieved an average annual return on his investments topping 22%, over nearly 40 years, far outstripping that of any competitor. At the heart is elementary math: invest wisely for the long term and compound earnings will make you a fortune. According to calculations reported in BusinessWeek, February 5, 2004, if you had invested $10,000 in January 1968 through him, by the spring of 2004 your investment would have topped $35 million.

Though Nader’s principal focus is different-consumer advocacy and taking on industry titans-the principle is the same: 40 years of focus can turn what began as a hopelessly quixotic project into a major force. Precisely that principle of slow and steady is outlined in Nader’s book on his 2000 campaign, Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in the Age of Surrender: “Small political starts start small, as did the Green Party. In a big country it is not easy to start small unless the starters are willing to start incrementally.”

There is one other instructive parallel between Buffett and Nader. Both are not only persistent, but also persistent in the face of adversity. Mocked in the late 1990s for eschewing technology stocks, Buffett missed out on the boom, steadfastly maintaining the principle that he would invest only in businesses he understood, at prices he felt were low enough to provide a margin of safety in case things went wrong. Financial “analysts” and columnists ridiculed him, wondering if this aging knight of investing had lost his touch or had simply been left behind by fast changing times. Today, after he skipped the Internet’s boom and bust, no one regards this sage of capitalism as quixotic.
Buffett’s actions contain another important lesson for those in politics: while many investors have focused on short-term gains as measured by quarterly reports of companies (or worse, as measured by daily movements in stock price), Buffett has focused on the long term. Not, “will I win this time,” but “will I win in the next 20 years?”

Turning to politics, as long as we are focused only on whether we can win this year, we cannot hope to build a powerful presidential campaign. That will take years. As history shows, many successes start out as what are seen at the time as quixotic quests. For years Nader has also followed his own formula, incurring the wrath of enemies with whom he has done battle. Now he is accused of having lost his way, and his persistence in the face of adversity is called “arrogance.” It will be interesting to see how history evaluates his efforts after the reign of King George has passed.

This persistence points to an obvious question that I have raised before. Where could we get to if we decided to field a progressive candidate every presidential election for the next 50-plus years? That’s about the same length of time Nader has been a consumer advocate. In 13 straight runs we might get there. At the very least we could alter the political landscape, forcing the Democratic Party to pay heed to the left flank, and electing third party members to lower offices, shifting the political spectrum. In these fearful times it is hard to see the value of long-term persistence. But what if his run sparks a new party or invigorates an existing one dedicated to winning the highest office and the Congress for the values he and so many Americans espouse? That spark could be his most important contribution to the presidency. And what a cap to a legacy!

Critics of Nader’s candidacy argue that we live in a two-party system-and we have to accept that reality. But, just as a close look at the “fact” that the sun goes around the earth yielded a different answer about our place in the world, I cannot resist a quick look at that two-party-system maxim. We don’t live in a two-party system. We live in a system dominated by two parties. There is more than a semantic difference here. Despite access hurdles to getting on the ballot, despite media focus on the two parties, despite the lack of capital to finance a new party’s effort, there is nothing immutable about the number of parties this country has. We have a right and the ability to shift the spectrum. Whether we do it is not a question of the nature of an unchangeable reality but of political will-do we have the persistence to change it?

Barring a biotech miracle, Nader won’t run for the next 50 years. Yet his actions provide a clue as to a possible direction out of our predicament. The point is not to provide a definitive formula: work for 50 years and things will be golden. The future is uncertain. But this whole principle of persistence lies outside the current debate over the value of his run.

Next: What Makes Swing State Nader Voters Tick(ed)?: Selected Survey Results

GREG BATES is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case For Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at gbates@commoncouragepress.com.