Ralph Nader, Conservative Wannabe

Michael Pugliese debsian at pacbell.net
Sun Aug 6 21:56:24 PDT 2000

The Weekly Standard Magazinehttp://www.weeklystandard.com/magazine/mag_5_43_00/brooks_feat_5_43_ 00.asp

Feature July 31, 2000/Vol 5, Number 43 Ralph Nader, Conservative Wannabe America's most famous corporation hater has a surprising idea of who should support his presidential campaign. By David Brooks "I read The Weekly Standard," Ralph Nader confesses, leaning across the table with that deadly serious look of his. "You guys need to think bigger." I take a swig of my Diet Snapple and fumble about for an appropriate response. We were supposed to have our interview at Nader's campaign headquarters, but at the last moment his press secretary called to say that he hadn't yet had lunch and would I mind meeting him somewhere where he could eat. I was going to suggest a few restaurants, but Nader had already picked one: the cafeteria of the National Education Association. It turns out you can walk into the NEA building on 16th Street, go into the cafeteria, and get a cheap lunchtray meal subsidized by compulsory union dues. It's the most frugal lunch in our part of Washington, so no wonder Nader knows about it. And no wonder he wants to meet there with a journalist; the man knows how to reinforce his public persona. No one takes any notice of Nader when he walks in. He sits right down and starts talking, and never does get up to get lunch, so I guess that accounts for his famous gaunt look and his hollow cheeks. I don't have to wait very long to find out what Nader means when he says we at The Standard should think bigger. He means we should be supporting him in this year's presidential race. It's a little implausible at first, but Nader has clearly thought about this a lot, and he makes a long, detailed case that he is the true conservative candidate. The essence of his case is that the major threat to conservative values right now comes not from global Marxists or countercultural leftists; it comes instead from nihilistic corporations like Time Warner that poison our children's culture with violent rap lyrics and soiled sensuality. It comes from the commercialization of life, which undermines family values, upsets communities, and trivializes virtue. It comes from corporate lobbyists, who instead of working for an honest day's pay finagle millions in corporate welfare out of money-mad politicians. It comes from international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF that inflict suffering on poor nations for the sake of big banks and nationalized industries. "Every major religion in the world," Nader says, going full throttle, "has warned us of the evils of commercialism." Nader proceeds to list some of the conservative leaders he has worked with in the past: "Bill Bennett, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, Grover." The "Grover" he is talking about is Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. This isn't just an argument Nader trots out when he's sitting with the likes of The Weekly Standard. Nader talks about conservatives a lot. During interviews with local media, he talks about his conservative values. I heard his running mate Winona Laduke interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio the other day and she went out of her way to make a pitch to conservative voters. Nader accepted the Green party nomination for president in Denver on June 25, and the first group he addressed in his speech, in the third paragraph, was conservatives. "These are also conservative goals," he declared. "Don't conservatives, in contrast to corporatists, want movement toward a safe environment, toward ending corporate welfare and the commercialization of childhood?" And in truth, Nader does radiate some conservative values. He certainly dresses conservatively. The Green party convention may have been a gathering of the Birkenstock brigades, but you almost never see Nader out of his gray suit, white shirt, and red tie. His lifestyle is about as parsimonious as the most comstockian sort of conservative could want. He doesn't have any of the sensual vices (except for a secret weakness for strawberry shortcake). He doesn't go in for countercultural excess. Nader announced recently that if he had been serving in Congress at the time, he would have voted to impeach and convict Bill Clinton. We all know people who vote right and live left, but Nader votes left and lives right. And Nader's argument about conservative values is plausible. Conservatives, he says correctly, have never been as corporatist as the Republican party with which they are now allied. The interests of big business and the ideas of conservatives often conflict. This is a point a lot of conservatives have also made, especially during the fight against communism in the Soviet Union and China, when the business types wanted to trade with any tyranny that paid its bills, while conservatives wanted to topple and disarm all of them. And Nader really does compel one to ask certain questions: Is rampant commercialism now the biggest threat to conservative values? Has the Right become too cozy with the corporate types who are funding the GOP? Is the Nader candidacy more than just the last gasp of the granola Left? Could there actually be a new populist movement forming that joins left and right populists against both the corporatist media and the corporate donors who now fund both major parties? I went out to a Nader 2000 rally at the University of Minnesota to look for answers. And I must say, if Nader is persuading any conservatives to join his cause, they didn't show up at the event here. The place was awash with Spartacus Youth, vegans, white suburban Rastafarians, proud lesbians, "Free Leonard Peltier" activists, no-growth crusaders, Saddam sympathizers, public transit militants, Castro groupies, bearded, cabinet-making communards, and IMF-loathing anarchists with pierced cheeks and perfect teeth (all that bourgeois orthodontia gone to waste!). It was a gathering of the alternative-weekly Left, with a few middle-aged progressives and one Ayn Rand loner sprinkled in. There were about 1,500 people thronging the hall, and as always in such company one is impressed by the fact that, while leftists have lost a lot of their fire these days, one thing they have not lost is their passion for sandal-wearing. The place was stuffed with toe exhibitionists. Nine of the 16 people in my row wore sandals, and that's not counting the guy in clogs. Nader was only 45 minutes late to the event, which is a miracle of promptness by his standards (left-wing speakers like Nader and Jesse Jackson are expected to be late, because promptness is a sign of bourgeois repression). So we sat around watching a slide show of nature scenes and listening to a small band play bluegrass and Bob Dylan tunes. Then a Green party activist got up and said Nader makes two requests of his audiences. First, don't take pictures: "The flash bulbs really bother his eyes and his focus on his words." Second, try not to applaud. That too is distracting. Instead, we were told, do the "Twinkle" or "Quaker Clap." This is performed, we learned, by raising your arms skyward and shaking your hands and fingers from the wrist. The Nader campaign must be serious this time because it has a campaign video. Unfortunately, the video has a little of the Reunion Tour aroma that pervades the entire effort. There are clips from The Mike Douglas Show. There's a shot of Nader in dialogue with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. There's a clip of him guest-hosting Saturday Night Live back in the Dan Aykroyd/Garrett Morris days, and a snippet of him speaking at a No Nukes rally back when Jackson Browne was on rock's cutting edge. Nonetheless, the video got the crowd going. They were flapping their fingers in the air like a bunch of frenzied Quakers, and a few even forgot Nader's sensitivities and began applauding and screaming. Then the hall went dark and Nader made his entrance. Part of the attraction of seeing Nader these days is to find out whether the guy can actually campaign. He is pulling about 7 percent in national presidential polls, so if he can actually keep up the momentum he could be a significant factor in the fall. He claims that this year, unlike in 1996, he is actually going to work hard to raise money and win votes. The verdict from the first 15 minutes of his appearance at the rally is that Ralph Nader is the worst campaigner in the history of American politics. The sympathetic crowd is in a frenzy, and Nader slouches into the room, his shoulders hunched and his hands thrust in the pockets of his suit jacket. He doesn't smile; he is almost incapable of smiling. And I am beginning to give some credence to the rumors that he intentionally crumples his suit to make himself look authentic. I wouldn't be surprised if he has an aide who keeps a heap of perfectly un-ironed suit jackets in a garbage bag and hands one to Nader just before he goes onstage. Instead of opening his talk with an attempt to bond with his audience, Nader recalls a toxic waste battle he fought in Minnesota back in 1970. This leads to a short history of toxic dumping law, and suddenly you feel you're not at a political rally but in the middle of a lecture on the evolution of American regulatory reform. Nader then jumps chaotically through a series of regulatory matters, and when you hear him begin a passage with the observation "Most people haven't been exposed to a history of corporate chartering . . ." you begin to fear the worst. Sure enough, he launches into a short description of how corporations have been chartered, but soon he is off on other arcana. I prick up my ears when he suddenly declares, "Some of you are going to be dealing with the ethical problems of humanoids." He means robots with human-like brains, an issue I haven't heard Bush or Gore discussing. "I don't think we're more than 35 years away from humanoids," Nader predicts. At the moment, it seems that a humanoid has captured the Green party nomination for president and is about to bore us unto submission. The audience is longing for Nader to be good, and so far he's awful. But then, gradually, something strange starts to happen. He starts to get good. He's talking about the commercialization of the culture. "Everything is for sale, everything is monetized. We're seeing the logoization of our children!" This gets the crowd finger waving. Then he actually tells a personal story. He says that he was a car nut when he was 5 years old. He saw all the car ads, memorized the different makes and models, and loved all the car companies. "I was growing up corporate," he confesses. His parents took him to the 1939 world's fair and he fell in love with the General Motors exhibit. "I was running around shouting, ‘GM! GM!' Little did they know." If there are any Freudians here, they are probably reaching for their notebooks, but the rest of the crowd is laughing and finger wagging. It is almost as if Nader opens with a dull 15 minutes to prove he is not a packaged politician, because once he gets going on corporate greed, he's quite a good speaker—funny, impassioned, filled with soundbites and Quaker Clap-inducing riffs. "The top 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 95 percent of the population," he shouts. "The lords of the manor in medieval France would have drooled with envy at such inequality." Then he goes after the CEOs. "They don't say the pledge of allegiance at corporate shareholder meetings!" he accuses (though of course we didn't say it here). Then he goes after sprawl. "Have you ever seen a commercial showing a car stuck in traffic?" he asks. A bearded survivalist is standing up and shaking his wrist so hard I think his hands are going to fall off. "Bush and Gore are following the marching orders of their corporate paymasters," he roars, in fine populist fettle. Nader has a funny riff on Al Gore's incremental approach to nationalized health care. He's got an extended joke on what it's like to be put on hold while trying to reach United Airlines reservations using the 800 number. He gets his second largest applause line of the night when he calls for the legalization of industrial hemp (the biggest comes when he says he should be included in the debates). He gets the crowd flapping their arms again with some outrageous stories of corporate welfare, the sorts of tales you normally hear at the Cato Institute. We're well over an hour into the speech now, and Nader is beginning to wrap things up. He tells about the plight of poultry farmers, which seems to be leading into the speech's conclusion. But as he is heading toward his wind-up, another thought seems to occur to him, and he takes a different tack, about the unfairness of the contracts the auto dealers make you sign when you're buying a car. Then he goes off on the Silicon Valley executives who are recruiting workers from overseas and so exacerbating the brain drain from developing nations. Now the speech is 90 minutes old, and Nader still has topics he wants to get into: his disgust with radio, which is dominated by music and entertainment, his opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act, his defense of estate taxes. As he goes on and on, it occurs to me that through all this, he really has only one idea: Corporate executives are evil. They are really evil. Totally evil. And if there is one more story out there that can prove again that they are evil, he is not going to sit down until he tells it. Finally, after speaking for about 100 minutes, he finishes. There is a big ovation—actual applause this time—and the moderator hops up to thank some of the people who organized the event. People are streaming out into the night, when Nader announces that he'll take questions, so a good many people turn around and sit down again. He takes question after question. Periodically, the moderator pops up to try to make some announcement, but then Nader is back at the mike. I confess that at this point I break all the rules of professional journalism. If you're covering an event, you're supposed to stay through the whole thing. But after nearly four hours in that chair, I can't take it any more. I get up and leave, with Nader still ranting about corporate greed as I head up the aisle and out into the night. The Nader campaign brags that it hasn't spent a single dime on polling and consultants. But it should. Nader has a fantastic 60 minute speech buried in his three hour spiel. If he gave that speech from now until November, he would revive populism in America and pull in 8 percent of the vote or more. As it is, he could still do well this fall. The process of globalization, which is wonderful for most Americans, hurts a few. Since the two major parties support free trade and globalization, it makes sense that some portion of the victims should flock to Nader and Pat Buchanan, opponents of globalization. Furthermore, there are liberals in this country who feel no attachment whatsoever to the new Democratic party, now that it has been corporatized by Ron Brown and Tony Coelho. These are white liberals, primarily, who loathe Wal-Mart, Disney, and corporate branding and who disdain the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (over lunch, Nader called them "techno-twits"). These leftists no longer hunger for socialist revolution. They no longer have much of an agenda at all. Neither does Nader. For all his venting about evil corporations, Nader has no program to dismantle them, though he says labor, management, and activist groups should cooperate through workers' councils, as in Western Europe. For all his tirades against the commercialization of culture, he has no solution, except to say there ought to be more channels like C-SPAN. But these leftists do believe that sometime in the future an agenda will take shape and there will be a progressive upsurge. Nader cannily bills his campaign as a step toward that vague and glorious renaissance. Over at May Day, the radical bookstore near where Nader spoke in Minneapolis, a clerk is heard complaining that Nader hasn't been a consistent anti-imperialist. Another clerk replies that he's still worth supporting because the revolution is a generation away in any case, and Nader at least is moving us in the right direction. Nader seizes on this sentiment again and again in the speech. He says that his campaign will be a success if it builds a data bank of progressives, if it strengthens progressive groups at the grass-roots level. He all but says that he is a mere John the Baptist figure, laying the groundwork for the next stage in the great revolution. Which brings us to why Nader is not a conservative, and why his appeals to conservatives ultimately fall flat. Nader, like left-wing revolutionaries through the centuries, is a secular monk. He may be ascetic, he may seem to have a conservative lifestyle, but his faith is in the earthly paradise that will be achieved the day after the triumph of the masses. His answers to the problems of evil and greed and commercialization are all legal and political. Utopia comes with the right laws. Conservatives through the ages, like Edmund Burke or the pope or, for that matter, Bill Bennett, Gary Bauer, and Russell Kirk, have seen some of the same problems of commercialization. But they tend to look to cultural or religious solutions. They tend to believe that capitalism needs to be embedded in a religious and moral framework that will restrain impulses and wrongdoing. While conservatives make religious and moral arguments, Nader always has a technical solution to moral problems. To be fair to Nader, sometimes the mundane technical solution—the seat belt or the breakaway rearview mirror—can improve lives. But if you spend four hours ranting to your audiences about a world consumed by evil and selfishness, as Nader does, you had better have something more to offer in its place than a brief history of corporate charters. ® By David Brooks

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