Nadar was ahead of his time

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 expos? 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 Nader was quoted as saying he wouldn't be a spoiler and 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.

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