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No one can say that the documentary An Unreasonable Man sugarcoats the case against its subject.
The film opens with Ralph Nader mumbling through a brief statement at a sparsely attended press conference during his 2004 presidential campaign. Then comes several minutes of vitriolic denunciations of Nader by three of the most unpleasant, puffed-up and dishonest fixtures of the liberal firmament–Democratic “strategist” James Carville, author Todd Gitlin and Nation columnist Eric Alterman.
If you aren’t familiar with their complaints on the subject, they are easily summarized: Ralph Nader, because he ran for president in 2000 as a third-party candidate against Al Gore and George Bush, is responsible everything bad that’s happened during the Bush presidency.
“Thank you Ralph for the Iraq war, thank you Ralph for the tax cuts, thank you Ralph for the destruction of the environment, thank you Ralph for the destruction of the Constitution,” Alterman spits out. “I just think the man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He’s done enough damage to this one; let him damage someone else’s now.”
“Wicked,” “megalomaniac,” “politically idiotic,” “deluded” and “psychologically troubled” are a few of the terms of abuse Alterman and friends lob at Nader.
If only they managed a tenth of this kind of venom when talking about Republicans. But instead, their sanctimonious and humorless diatribes are directed at the man responsible for seatbelts and airbags in cars, anti-pollution laws, any number of workplace safety regulations–and the most significant left-wing electoral challenge to the two-party political system in a half-century.
Fortunately, An Unreasonable Man spends the next two hours following Nader’s history, and what emerges plainly from the film’s interviews with supporters and detractors alike is that Nader’s transformation–from a reformer working firmly within the Washington system to a renegade confronting the two parties from the outside–is wholly in keeping with the commitment to democratic principles that motivated him his whole political life.
The Democrats’ claim that Nader was a “spoiler” who caused Gore’s defeat in 2000 is wrong for any number of reasons–not least, the fact that Gore won both the popular vote and the election in Florida that would have given him a win in the Electoral College, but the Democrats were too timid to fight the Republicans’ theft of the White House.
But Nader’s real crime for Democrats is that his campaign represented a popular challenge to the two-party corporate-dominated system–and the deeply engrained politics of “lesser evilism” that convinces liberals and progressives, time and time again, to support a Democrat who inevitably betrays them without a second thought.
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AN UNREASONABLE Man documents Nader’s rise to prominence in the 1960s as a relentless crusader against corporate abuses and political corruption, in the face of entrenched opposition–a history that makes the liberal insult that Nader is an egomaniac seem particularly foolish.
The long list of laws Nader played a central part in winning is remarkable–the National Automobile and Highway Traffic Safety Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Mine Health and Safety Act, Freedom of Information Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act.
As Nader acknowledges, these accomplishments were made possible by the rise of mass movements that shook U.S. society in the 1960s and early ’70s. But as these movements went into retreat in the mid-1970s, Nader’s inside-the Beltway efforts ran up against the rightward shift in mainstream politics and the reassertion of corporate power.
The turning point was the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who Nader considered an ally and advised during the 1976 election campaign. Once in office, Carter dragged his feet on promised regulations. When Nader’s proposal for a Consumer Protection Agency came up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1978, corporations pulled out all the stops to defeat it–and Carter sat on his hands while it died.
With Reagan, the tide turned even more sharply against Nader’s agenda, but the impact of the era was felt just as strongly on the Democratic Party. As Nader points out in the film, he spent much of the next two decades trying to pressure the Democrats to take up liberal issues, but the “party of ordinary people” didn’t want to cross big business.
“So when people say why did you do this in 2000, I’m a 20-year veteran of pursuing the folly of the least worst between the two parties,” Nader says. “Because when you do that, you end up allowing them both to get worse every four years.”
After a half-hearted Green Party presidential campaign in 1996, Nader ran all out in 2000, amid renewed activism around the global justice and other movements. The documentary’s footage of the Nader “super-rallies”–which brought together thousands, and then tens of thousands, of people in a string of cities–gives a sense of the excitement.
But the attacks from Democrats grew to a fever pitch as the election approached. When the Florida vote was decided for Bush–without the Democrats fighting for a recount that would have given Gore the edge–the liberals blamed not the incompetent Gore campaign that blew an election which was theirs to lose, but Ralph Nader.
No slander was out of bounds. Investigative journalist James Ridgeway describes Nader’s enemies as “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers I’ve ever come across”–and it’s worth stressing that he’s talking not about some faceless corporate behemoth or right-wing Republican fanatic, but the liberal Democrats who Nader once counted as trusted allies.
When Nader ran again in 2004, his campaign was snowed under by the “Anybody But Bush” hysteria. Even the Green Party abandoned its commitment to an all-out third-party campaign and rejected an endorsement of Nader’s independent candidacy.
Nevertheless, as talk show host and Nader supporter Phil Donahue points out, for all the venomous attacks on him, the Democrats did precisely what Nader warned they would.
“They killed him for saying there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties,” Donahue says. “And then the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right. The Democrats folded on the war. They folded on health care and No Child Left Behind. They hid under their desks.”
The irony is that Nader’s politics are not nearly as radical as the challenge his presidential campaigns represented. His positions on certain issues, such as immigration, fall short of a left-wing alternative.
In fact, despite the experience of the 2000 and 2004 campaign, Nader still talks sometimes as if he hopes the Democrats will take up his challenge to speak to “the issues that really command the felt concerns and daily life of millions of Americans”–as if the problem with the Democratic Party is a matter of the people in charge, rather than the institution itself.
But what sets Nader apart is that he has continued to try to act on his commitment to democracy and justice, even when that put him at odds with the Washington system that was once the center of his political universe.
The result is that Nader will be remembered by history as not only the man who put seatbelts and airbags in cars–but who gave voice at a crucial time to the need for an alternative to the corporate duopoly that dominates U.S. politics.