Tuesday, February 25, 2003

In Defense of Ralph Nader
First in an Ongoing Series

"Thanks Ralph." "God Bless Ralph Nader." "Happy, Ralph?"

Dripping with sarcasm and contempt, these phrases are representative of a common enough sentiment among Democrats. You would think that Ralph Nader is personally destroying the country.

The funny thing about these types of comments is that they are almost exclusively found at the end of some outraged piece about what a Bad Man George W. Bush is.

Actually, I lied. There's nothing funny about them. They're cheap. Cheap to the point of childish petulance. And they make me angry.

Why? Simple. Because they are based on the idea that Ralph Nader's run for the Presidency was motivated purely by egomania -- as opposed to genuine conviction and a desire to make things better -- which is an obscene slander against a man who should be honored by people who believe in the ideals of the Democratic Party, and indeed, those of the United States.

Here's a question for every smart, well-informed Democrat: What do you hate about the American people? Deep down, what makes you angry about the general electorate? How do you reconcile the fact that the Democrats have been getting spanked since the early seventies with your firm belief that Democratic ideas are better, smarter, and more beneficial to the people?

I'll tell you what. You think that too many of the people are too ill-informed, too easily persuaded by special interests, and too damned lazy to actively make this country the better place you think it can be.

And you know what? You're right.

That's why vilifying Ralph Nader is so inane.

From the beginning, from the very beginning, of his career, Ralph Nader has put forth more effort than any other person to try, not so much to do good things for the people, but to try to get his fellow Americans to be able to do it themselves.

The underlying theme of every political action he's participated in, every article he's written, every speech he's given is active citizenship.

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Nader's work understands that he does not want to impose reform upon people so much as educate and motivate them enough to do it for themselves, and to make sure that the tools are in place for them to do so.

This can be seen throughout his career:

- From his first foray into public life with the publication of Unsafe At Any Speed, one of the driving principles behind his work has been exposing, with rigorous documentation and analysis, abuses of the public trust. Nader has displayed a deep conviction that if people are shown what is wrong, they will take an interest in correcting it.

- When, early in his career, he formed the group that would later be dubbed "Nader's Raiders" (a term which he initially fought against, as it tended to put the focus on him rather than the group's work), he did not form it into an organization devoted to him, but rather recruited smart, capable volunteers who were given the tools and the training to pursue corporate and government wrongdoing on their own. He used the fame and credibility he had gained with Unsafe at Any Speed to help them, but from the beginning he encouraged them to operate without his close supervision, to come up with their own ideas and strategies and to confront those in power and deal with the public themselves. He said himself that he saw the idea behind the Raiders as "a social innovation that will produce just and lasting benefits for the country as these young people generate new values and create new roles for their professions." [italics added]

- Another central theme running through his career is forcing supposedly democratic organizations to actually function in a democratic manner. This can be seen is his attacks on the Teamsters leadership in the late 70's. At the time, the Teamsters union, while supposedly a democratic organization, was in fact controlled by a relatively small group that used their authority to prevent dissidents within the organization from acquiring power, and therefore were able to remain the heads of the union. In this manner, the voice of the rank-and-file was effectively silenced. Through extensive legal action, the Professional Driver's Safety Council (PROD), led by first Joan Claybrook and then Arthur Fox, two close Nader associates, was eventually able to give the rank-and-file a much more significant voice in Union matters.

The other major sector where Nader has fought for greater democracy is in corporate governance. Since the early 70's, Nader has fought to bring executive-level management under the direct control of the shareholders, which is, in theory, the way corporations are supposed to operate. This battle is exemplified by his 1984 article Reforming Corporate Governance, which discusses the weakening of power of corporate Boards of Directors in favor of the Chief Executives. This weakening is a direct threat to shareholders, who, having less and less say over the operation of the corporation they supposedly own, are constantly in danger of being defrauded by Executives. The relevance of this issue was made excruciatingly clear last year, with the downfall of Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Tyco, and all the other corporate busts that enriched executives while leaving the shareholders holding the bag. In the article (which, again, was written eighteen years before this latest round of corporate scandals), Nader proposes a series of reforms that would both give corporate Boards of Directors more power over executive management, and give shareholders more power over the Boards of Directors. This would have the effect of preventing major defrauding of the shareholders, while making corporations more financially sound, as the people whose money is at risk (shareholders) would be the people with the authority.

- The fundamental principle behind his third party run in 2000 was to encourage the growth of grassroots political activism. As politics becomes more and more a game of money, where the most accurate predictor of electoral success is not your record on issues but the amount of money you spend in your campaign, it is becoming harder and harder for the people to actually choose who they want to represent them in the government. The whole idea behind grassroots activism is democracy at its best- average people working towards a common political goal. Regardless of how one feels about the Republicans and Democrats, it is impossible to deny the fact that there are a broad range of issues on which a significant portion of the American people have opinions that diverge from those represented by the two major Parties. Is there anyone undemocratic enough to argue that those opinions have any less right to representation than those endorsed by the Parties?

And yet, outside of the two major Parties, it is virtually impossible to gain access to the government, access which is supposed to be the right of every American.

At its core, grassroots activism -- true grassroots activism, as opposed to manufactured grassroots activism -- is supposed to remedy that.

Again, the underlying theme here is one of supplying tools and education to people so that they can enact change that benefits them. Grassroots activism is supposed to give voice to those that have significant disagreements with both of the major Parties. And that was Nader's primary motivation in accepting the Green Party's nomination for President: To encourage thought and action independent of the two Parties. And surely no one would argue against the righteousness of that cause.


Whether or not Ralph Nader caused George Bush to be elected is an issue I will discuss in a later post. For now, though, I would like to see the immediate cessation of the "Nader is an egomaniac who just wants personal power" theme. It is incorrect, unfair, and extremely damaging to the work he does and the ideas he promotes, which anyone who labels themselves a Democrat should consider extremely carefully. He is not right about everything, but he has worked harder for principles which are fundamental to the Democratic Party -- and for less personal compensation -- than anyone else in the last fifty years.

Any Democrat who would dismiss Nader's service out of pique does a disservice to both their credibility and their ideals.

Edit: I should have pointed out in an aside that the other major goal of Nader 2000 was to hit the Democrats with a stick large enough to make them listen. The only reason I didn't mention this was that I intend to address it later, when I will talk about whether or not Bush is in the White House because of Nader.

Update: Reader Jim E. makes some very good points in the comments section, which need to be addressed (even if he does try to provoke me by repeating the phrase "Thanks, Ralph"). I'll address these and other points tommorrow (possibly Thursday, depending on classes...) in the second part.

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