Cover story Matthew Power goes on the road with the never-ending presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, where futility is in the eye of the beholder.
Matthew Power goes on the road with the never-ending presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, where futility is in the eye of the beholder.
On the day after the United States congress passed an unprecedented $700 billion bailout of the collapsing financial industry, Ralph Nader - tireless consumer advocate, scourge of both Wall Street and K Street, scapegoat of the American Left, quadrennial presidential candidate - held a campaign rally in the echoing lobby of an abandoned bank in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was his fourth official run for the presidency in as many elections. A large banner, reading Nader-Gonzalez 2008, was hung before the empty vault, and a sign marked "safe deposit boxes" pointed unreassuringly down a darkened stairwell. A dusty chandelier hung over the lectern, and a single red balloon had drifted up from its blue and white mates tied to a chair, resting against the peeling paint of the ceiling.
The rally's setting may have been an unintentional allusion to America's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, or perhaps a clever piece of low-budget political stagecraft, but there were few present to appreciate such subtleties. Fifty or so people filled half of the folding chairs set up by campaign volunteers, or picked at the fruit and pastries laid on a table to one side. There were a few families, a clutch of college students, a scattering of geriatric hippies. After a few independent candidates for state and local offices took their turns stumping for votes, Nader himself walked to the lectern - at 74 a stooped, greying figure in a dark suit, with a voice so slow and deep it sounds like a 45rpm record played at 33. Half the room stood to give him an ovation; even among those who would come out on a Saturday morning to hear him speak, it seemed sentiment was divided.
Nader spoke forcefully, without a teleprompter or notes, infuriated at the current bailout plan, which he calls "Socialism coming to the rescue of Capitalism." "I warned of this for twenty years. It was deregulation that started it. And you can thank Bill Clinton, working hand in glove with the Republicans. Washington had Wall Street over a barrel. They could have gotten them to agree to anything." There was scattered clapping, hoots of approval, most vociferously from his own campaign volunteers manning a table at the back.
Nader laid the blame equally on Wall Street and the government - two villains, in Nader's view, whose unholy alliance represents everything wrong with contemporary American life. Instead of using the crisis as a chance to extract concessions from the finance industry, Nader argued, the government has used "Chicken Little" tactics to scare Americans into approving the publicly-financed bailout with no public hearings. "Instead of 13 colonies under King George the Third, we're 50 colonies under King George the Fifth. And this is taxation without representation!" Nader's voice echoed off the empty bank's high ceilings, like a prophet of economic doom.
In 2000 Nader was derided as a spoiler by angry Democrats; in 2004 he was treated as an enemy and a traitor. Now he is running again, wandering the ravaged wilderness of American electoral politics. He has become a pariah in the truest sense of the word: abandoned by many allies, ignored by the press, a world away from the enormous rallies that cheer Obama and McCain. The lifelong champion of liberal causes is loathed today by many on the left (if they think of him at all). But he won't stop running.
The winner of this election will inherit two wars, an economy in tatters and a looming environmental crisis. At 89 per cent, the number of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track has never been higher, and America's standing abroad has rarely been lower. President Bush, who has all but disappeared from the nation's airwaves, has some of the lowest approval ratings in history. All signs - barring unforeseen events - point to an expansion of Democratic congressional majorities and a decisive Obama victory: he may be the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win the White House with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
What can a third-party candidate achieve in such a climate, with no hope of winning and little chance to meaningfully alter the dynamics of the race? Nader cites polls that show him winning more than five per cent of the vote in some swing states, though he has not polled more than three per cent in national surveys for more than a month - and the Democrats evince not a whiff of concern for his impact on the race. With Barack Obama filling stadiums and galvanising Democrats like no one since John F Kennedy, what keeps Ralph running? I set off to follow his campaign as it swung through the Democratic strongholds of New England, hoping to find out.
As the Green Party candidate in 2000, Nader pitched his campaign as a real alternative to the "oligarchy" of two parties he claimed were merely flip sides of the same coin; "The biggest difference between the Republicans and Democrats," Nader was fond of saying, "is the speed at which their knees hit the floor when corporations come knocking." To his critics on the left, however, the campaign was little more than an exercise in ego and stubbornness, and they claimed Nader was risking a legacy he had spent decades building as a consumer advocate who could take credit for reforms like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. The New York Times editorial page went so far as to plead for Nader to abandon his campaign.
But Nader stayed in the race, seeking to garner five per cent of the vote nationally, a figure that would qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds and a guaranteed ballot line in future elections. He fell short, taking 2.75 per cent, while in Florida, the 97,000 votes for Nader dwarfed Bush's razor-thin 537-vote margin of victory. When a Supreme Court decision handed Bush the Presidency, many Democrats blamed Nader and his supporters, and his bid to lay the foundations for a viable third party in America tarnished the idea for years to come.
Nader's frequent argument in 2000 was that Bush and Gore ("Gush and Bore", as he quipped) were indistinguishable. It was his unique misfortune that the tide of history could not have made this argument appear more specious. The disasters of the last eight years - the war in Iraq, the erosion of civil liberties, torture scandals, the deregulation that led to the collapse of the financial markets, the loss of American standing in the world - could be laid at the feet of Ralph Nader, whose quixotic campaign had let Bush win.
Even among his fiercest supporters there was an unspoken sense in 2000 that Bush was the much worse option. On election night, I was at the National Press Club in Washington, where Nader held a series of press conferences as the returns came in. One of the telling moments of that surreal evening was the moment that the election was first called for Bush: a gasp and audible moan rose from his collected volunteers gathered around the television, as though they had just witnessed a violent car crash. But Nader himself never retreated from his claim of equivalence, and it would cost him dearly.
From the bank in Waterbury, Nader and his aides piled into an old Volvo station wagon (another comically apropos campaign prop), and drove to the domed State House in Hartford to hold a press conference. When they arrived, they discovered that a wedding party had already staked out the front steps to take photographs. The bride and groom weren't interested in a photo op with the candidate - it was unclear whether they even recognised who he was. "Tell them I'm in favour of weddings," Nader said to an aide.
So Nader held the press conference in the car park, an easy enough thing as only three journalists were in attendance, huddling with Nader in a circle against the brisk wind. A reporter with the Hartford Courant prefaced his question with an apology. "I've got to ask the spoiler one," he said. Nader dismissed the question with an impatient wave. He knows that despite his accomplishments, his role in 2000 will be the first sentence of his obituary, though he has claimed frequently that he does not care about his legacy. But the question is always asked, and Nader lays out a meticulous - and no doubt well-rehearsed - rebuttal.
"First, it's just factually wrong. It's been widely documented by your profession that the election in Florida was stolen by the Republican state government. And there were eight other candidates on the ballot in Florida that had vote totals that exceeded the margin between Bush and Gore. And most of all, 250,000 registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush." All valid points, but simple arithmetic and exit polls make it hard to deny that had Nader not been in the race, Bush would have lost the state and thereby the country.
Despite his factual certitude, Nader's first impulse in discussing 2000 is a sort of moral indignation. "No one owns votes," he says, frustrated. "I should say that Gore stole those votes from me." The other reporter in the State House car park was Antoine Faisal, a Lebanese journalist with the Arab-American paper Aramica. When he introduced himself, Nader replied in fluent Arabic, then turned to the other reporters and laughed, saying: "They don't have the word in Arabic for 'interview'." Nader, the son of Maronite Christians from Lebanon, is the first Arab-American presidential candidate, and he calls for a reversal of the United States's current policy in the Middle East: a rapid timetable for complete withdrawal from Iraq, a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine negotiated by peace movements on both sides, less militaristic bluster in dealing with Iran and complete American energy independence from the region.
It is unclear whether Nader's unelectability frees him from the need to compromise his positions, or whether his refusal to compromise is what makes him fundamentally unelectable. If the positions of McCain and Obama have been carefully tailored to appeal to broad majorities, Nader has no such problem. He is technically running for president, but he has no chance of ever enacting the policies he espouses. So his candidacy is not about politics as such, but is in a way an extension of his life's work as a public advocate. He hopes airing his ideas in the theatre of presidential politics will influence policy, and that the threat of losing voters to the left will prevent the Democrats drifting to the centre. Nader's run is good political theatre, but Obama - while not the socialist McCain imagines him to be - does not seem cut from the same cloth of hesitant moderation that made Al Gore and John Kerry so uninspiring to left-wing voters. Still Nader's position affords him a frankness that one rarely sees from major party candidates - perhaps nowhere more so than in his discussion of Arabs and Muslims in the United States.
In an electoral season that has turned the words "Arab" and "Muslim" into slurs, with an increasingly less discreet Republican campaign to depict Obama as a dangerous outsider because of his Muslim roots, Nader is the only presidential candidate to have made an appearance at a mosque. "I was in front of the Grand Mosque [in Washington DC] because millions of Muslim Americans have been marginalised by Obama and McCain," Nader explained. "McCain because he's so belligerent toward Islamic countries, Obama because he doesn't want to have any association with Muslims, because he had a Muslim father and he thinks that it's a negative in America to be associated with Muslim Americans. Even George W Bush stood in front of the Grand Mosque after September 11 because of the bigotry and hatred toward totally innocent Muslim Americans. He went to the mosque to express the proper sentiments of tolerance and understanding. But not Obama, not McCain. What's the message to Muslim Americans, who already suffer indignities and racial profiling? The message is 'you're a second-class citizen.'"
Faisal asked Nader what he would do if elected - at which point Nader interrupted him to say inshallah - to empower the Muslim community? Nader did not equivocate. "I would repeal the elements of the Patriot Act that have been used so discriminatorily. I would not snoop on them without judicial approval. I would reach out to them." This would include elaborating for the American people the genius of Islamic civilization, its art and music. Even hummus. "When I was a kid, if my mother offered hummus to a friend of mine, they would have said 'what is that gooey stuff?' now people love hummus."
The next stop on the campaign is a fundraiser at a nearby restaurant that offers supporters a chance to have an "intimate conversation" with the candidate for $100. Nader leaned against a pool table, the sounds of a baseball game coming from the restaurant's bar, and talked to the dozen or so supporters who turn up. Matt Zawisky, Nader's campaign staffer, tells me that they are on track to raise $3 million, which seems like a lot of money until you consider that the Obama juggernaut raised $5 million per day in September. Between them Obama and McCain will spend well over a billion dollars on their race to the White House. Nader has no such resources, so he has to make do with what's available. A handful of reporters, invariably local, show up at his campaign events. He's gotten only a single article in The New York Times all year, when he announced his candidacy.
As the donors mingled, Zawisky, in a blue suit and trainers, was given the difficult task of trying to wring a little more money from Nader's supporters. He began by asking if there was anyone in the room who could donate the maximum amount allowable: $2300. In return they would get the satisfaction of helping spread the word about the campaign, along with a signed copy of Unsafe at Any Speed, the 1965 book that assailed the lax safety standards at General Motors and launched Nader to national fame. Nobody raised a hand, and there was an awkward silence in the room. Zawisky dropped the figure to $1000, conducting what he called a "reverse auction". Still nothing. For $500, a donor gets a copy of the Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man. Again, nothing. He asked if anyone would bid on a game of pool with the candidate. Zawisky peppered his pitch with anecdotes from the Life of Ralph, and worked his way downwards, finally selling several "Nader 08" T-shirts emblazoned with the campaign's mascot, the buffalo (a symbolic counterpoint to the elephant and the donkey) for $50 each.
Zawisky had the harried, exhausted look one might expect of someone who has volunteered to give the exact same fund-raising speech at hundreds of events in all 50 states. (Connecticut is number 42.) Zawisky met Nader over a decade ago, and has been working with him ever since on political campaigns and advocacy projects. He does not have the glaze-eyed credulity of the zealot, but he believes deeply in Nader's message, and believes that a presidential campaign is the best way to bring their cause into the national spotlight - even if very few rays of attention fall on their efforts.
It may be political jealousy - or simply disappointment that the Democratic nominee isn't farther to the left - but the widespread adulation of Obama seems to have gotten under Nader's skin, and he reserves his harshest words for the Democratic candidate. "He's got a great speech and it can be summarised this way: 'Hope. Change. Hope. Change. Hope. Change.'" Nader swung his head from side to side like a metronome. "Am I hypnotising you yet?"
Obama's impressive internet fund-raising - his campaign claims 3.1 million individual contributors - doesn't impress Nader, who points out that big money donors still make up the bulk of Obama's record haul: "Obama has raised more corporate money, by far, than McCain. He's outspent him two to one." But perhaps Nader resents the cold shoulder he's received from the Democratic campaign: 20 times in 2007 he tried to meet with Obama, but was rebuffed. "They don't want to hear what I have to say," says Nader. "Like why are you so against impeachment of a president you think has committed high crimes and misdemeanours? You were a Constitutional Law lecturer at the University of Chicago!" But the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, like much of Nader's platform, is political poison to mainstream candidates. When Nader announced his candidacy, Obama told reporters, "my sense is that Mr Nader is somebody who, if you don't listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you're not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work."
Nader didn't do much to close that rift over the summer, when he told an interviewer that he thought Obama was "talking white" to win the election. The Obama campaign condemned the remark as divisive, but Nader was unapologetic. He claims that Obama is trying to "not threaten the white power structure", to appear as a safe choice in order to get elected. "I didn't mean that he should 'talk black'," says Nader. "I meant that he should talk justice." That is the role Nader has set for himself, to be the unbending goad of the liberal politician's conscience, to push them toward his notion of "justice". But his own inflexibility is precisely what has driven them away.
Nader's deep anger at the Democratic Party animates that evening's rally, at a high school auditorium near the University of Connecticut. In his view, Democratic candidates have taken the votes of progressives for granted for decades, because as long as a Democratic candidate is slightly better than the Republican, he'll get their votes. "He doesn't have to give you anything. Every four years they shave off some from the right and get more money from the corporations. Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry. It hasn't been a very good winning strategy. The Democratic Party has become very good at electing very bad Republicans," an audacious taunt that suggests Nader, at least, has no regrets about Florida.
When Nader finishes he calls Zawisky up to drum up donations, the same pitch as earlier that day. Their routine is a political campaign as travelling medicine show, and whether the ideas Nader offers are a cure-all for the body politic or snake oil sold by a huckster may depend on the listener. Nader is not charismatic in any traditional sense, but the vision he has for a just society, however impracticable, is deeply attractive to certain people. His friends and associates speak with reverence about his monastic determination and unwavering moral compass, and it is these qualities that have made his advocacy so successful and his political career such a failure.
The crowd thinned out as volunteers walked around with red buckets, collecting pocket change. During the wide-ranging question and answer session after his speech an angry questioner took the microphone. "Bush is the worst president ever," he declared, "and Gore is an environmental activist. How do you reconcile that with your claims from 2000?" But Nader never gives ground on 2000, and he's not about to concede now that things might have been very different. He ran against Gore as he was then, Nader said, not the man he's become. "Unlike you," he shot back acidly, "I am not possessed by retroactive clairvoyance."
But he has tried to mend fences with Gore, in his own way. When Gore's global warming exegesis An Inconvenient Truth was published, Nader stopped by a bookstore where his former opponent was doing a reading, and stood in line to get a copy of the book signed. One can only imagine the expression on Gore's face when he looked up, pen in hand. As Nader tells it, "he was very cordial. He knows why he lost. He wrote a very nice inscription. I congratulated him, and said, 'How does it feel to be free?' He said 'wonderful.' So basically he was a better person. It does show that people when they have the power to get something done, they're more cowardly, and when they are free they can speak out."
Nader, in fact, feels he did Gore a favour of sorts: "He's become very rich, on the board of Google. They gave him stock options, and he's done very well." When Gore lost to Bush, he had a net worth of $800,000. Today his personal fortune is estimated to be well above $100 million. "I don't get credit for that, though," Nader added. After the rally, David Haseltine, a student volunteer with the campaign, prepared an empty classroom to meet with new recruits. It's not an easy time to be a campus organiser for Nader: "The Obamamania is pretty fervent," Haseltine told me. "When people say Nader is unelectable, I tell them we're working on something bigger, long term, to build an opposition to the two-party establishment. They don't understand why anyone would want to do that."
Whether Nader's is the strategy to build that opposition, or whether such opposition is even possible, is far from clear. If anything, the results of the 2000 election have made the two-party system even more entrenched. No third-party candidate has received 10 per cent of the vote since Ross Perot, a billionaire who financed his own campaign, won 19 million votes in 1992 and helped put Bill Clinton in the White House. The electoral system makes it all but impossible for a third party to compete, which seems to be one rationale for Nader's perpetual campaign. The Nader candidacy becomes a negative feedback loop: Politics is about winning. A third party can't win under the present system. And therefore Ralph Nader becomes increasingly determined to run precisely because he cannot win, as if to demonstrate the futility of the thing he insists is not futile
Ten days later, Nader was in New York City, standing on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street. There are few places in America more symbolically freighted. Federal Hall was the nation's first capitol, where George Washington was inaugurated and the Bill of Rights was passed. A 12-foot statue of Washington stands on the steps, looking directly across the street at the flag-draped façade of the New York Stock Exchange. The two institutions from which Nader has spent his entire career demanding accountability, framed in a single streetscape.
It was another day of chaos and fear in the stock market, the Dow whipsawing 800 points. General Motors stock was trading lower than it had when a young Ralph Nader hitchhiked to Washington to testify about the company's safety record 40 years earlier. "Hercules teams", NYPD paramilitary squads with machine guns and body armor, stood guard by the subway entrance. Floor traders in mesh jackets stood outside the security gates, smoking. Tourists stopped and gawked, snapping pictures of the scene on the steps. A Fox News camera crew set up below Washington's statue.
A brass band finished up. There was a giant inflatable pig on the steps, and someone held a placard with another pig on it, this one behind bars. A huge banner read "Socialism Saves Capitalism", and a group called Billionaires for Bailouts, dressed in tuxedos, top hats and evening gowns, held signs that said "Thanks a Trillion" and "Just Give Us The Cash". A man wearing a striped prisoner's costume and the giant papier mache head of the secretary of the treasury, Henry Paulson, stuffed fake money into his mouth. Subtle it was not. At a podium in the middle of all this stood Ralph Nader, and he wasn't smiling.
"What we are witnessing," he shouted in his deep, slow voice, "is the corporate destruction of capitalism on the backs of taxpayers." He proposed a tax on stock derivative speculation that could raise $500 billion a year. "They could pay for their own bailout!" Nader's voice grew louder. "Wall Street divides the American people from control of their own wealth!" And then, in an ironic echo of Reagan's entreaty to Gorbachev: "Tear down this wall before the American people do it for you!"
The small crowd, almost all of whom were wearing costumes or holding banners and signs, erupted in cheers. But this was an event without an audience: the Nader supporters there were all participants in his demonstration, and everyone else - tourists, cops, media, stockbrokers - were watching it like any other sort of street performance. The traders on their smoke breaks, many of whom had just endured the worst few weeks of their careers, shook their heads and glowered. One went back through the security gate into the stock exchange, and then turned around, pumped his fist in the air and screamed "Free Market!"
It was a moment tailor-made for Nader, but it seemed to capture a tragic turn in his career: all his warnings about the collusion between government and corporations had come to pass, as global markets collapsed and belated government intervention failed. But what's the point of saying "I told you so" when there's no one willing to listen? Political campaigns are about one thing only: winning. And politics, at its core, is about the art of compromise. In that sense, Ralph Nader could never be a politician. He has framed his life as an epic battle against any sort of compromise, and this has made victory impossible. "Pessimism," Nader likes to say, "is a vain indulgence of quitters." But whoever wins on November 4 - and no matter how few votes Nader receives - one thing seems certain: he has no intention of quitting anytime soon.
Matthew Power's work has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Wired and many other magazines and newspapers. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.