Friday, March 30, 2007

Film Review: An Unreasonable Man

In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. This is one of the great mistakes of my life.

No one remembers now, but Ralph Nader was an amazing American. One of the real greats, up through the 1980s. His work attacking the lack of safety in American cars, particularly at General Motors and especially the Corvair, was groundbreaking. Unsafe at Any Speed, released in 1965, was a key book in the second period of great muckraking literature in American history. Nader built on that to attack American corporations and governmental agencies whenever they did not have the best interests of the American people at heart, i.e., all the time. He pushed for the Clean Air Act, OSHA, the EPA, and many other key pieces of environmental legislation. He created a team of young, hungry college students who researched perfidy in different federal agencies and industries, leading to massive number of new regulations designed to make the lives of Americans better and safer.

Ralph Nader is a great man. Ralph Nader is also a terrible man.

By the late 1970s, Nader's influence reached its high water mark. The key event was in 1978 when he did not win passage of a bill to create a consumer protection agency. The Reagan Revolution had begun. Jimmy Carter, a friend of Nader, would not spend the political capital on the bill. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidential election and he appointed people to head the new agencies Nader helped create who had spent their whole careers working against them.

In response, Nader turned to the Democrats hoping they would continue his fight. However, the Democrats were in a serious defensive mode that they are just coming out of today. Desperate to regain the presidency and hold on to power in American politics, they turned to big corporations for campaign donations and became lukewarm on current regulations and mostly opposed to new ones.

What is clear from the new documentary about Nader, An Unreasonable Man, is that he ran for president in 2000 because he felt personally disgusted by the Democratic Party. Despite his unbelievable claims to the contrary, Nader was happy to throw the election to Bush. The smug look on his face after the election and the arrogant words he spoke shows how self-satisfied he was with what he had done. He showed the Democratic Party that they could not ignore their left wing.

Nader correctly claims that the Democrats had completely marginalized their own base. He tapped into the frustration of many progressives, myself included, who were utterly disgusted with the Democrats under the Clinton era. The final blow was Al Gore picking the loathsome Joe Lieberman as his vice-presidential candidate. How could a good Democrat with ideals vote for that ticket? Sadly, I didn't understand the American political system very well at the time, even though I was 26 years old.

Remarkably, Ralph Nader also has very little understanding of the American political system. This is strange since he has spent his entire career inside the Beltway. His feelings and those of his followers are quite similar to what the right felt about the Republican Party in the 1950s and early 1960s. They considered the Republicans to be Democrats-lite and had a hard time voting for people such as Nelson Rockefeller. But they understood American politics. They knew that a third party was a stupid idea. What needed to happen was that they would take over the Republican Party. Beginning in the 1950s, particularly in southern California, they did just that. By 1964, they were able to nominate Barry Goldwater for president. Although they failed, most were satisfied enough with Nixon in 1968 and they were ecstatic about Reagan in 1980. Between 1994 and 2006, they dominated American politics and of course still control the presidency today.

I don't think that working from the bottom to take over the Democratic Party ever seriously crossed Nader's mind. They ask him about that in the movie--why didn't you run in the Democratic primary? He answered more or less that it was because he would be gone by February. For Nader, it's all about him. He wanted to be in the public eye all the way. Building a movement to take over the party did not mesh with his immediateist goals. Eric Alterman, one of the only Nader critics to be interviewed for the film, called Nader a Leninist, because he believes things have to get worse before they get better. I'm not sure if this is true exactly. I think that much of the Nader phenomenon was a hangover from the 60s. I went to see Nader speak in the fall of 2000 in Albuquerque. While the media focused on all of Nader's young supporters, probably 80% of the crowd was over 50. The ex-hippies came out for Ralph in a big time way. Few of these people really understood the two-party system. To them, and to me at the time, creating a third party was a legitimate way to conduct yourself. They were idealists in a time when idealism had little value in American political life.

What infuriates me about Nader of course is his actions in 2000. First of all, Nader never should have campaigned in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Iowa, New Hampshire, or other close states. He claims that he ran a 50 state campaign, but that is essentially a lie. When he could have focused on safe Democratic states like California or Massachusetts, or truly made it a national campaign by going to strong red states and campaigning in college towns like Austin or Chapel Hill, he worked as hard as he could to kill Gore in the end. And so he did. Nader and his supporters also pull out the tired claim that there were lots of reasons Gore lost. Eric Alterman puts that argument in the proper perspective. He says that, yes, the Gore campaign was a disaster. Yes, the party had moved too far to the Right, alienating its base. Yes, picking Lieberman for VP was a bad idea. But there was one man who could have prevented George W. Bush from winning the presidency and that was Ralph Nader. It's really hard to refute that point.

What has come of the Nader debacle and the Bush presidency is the rise of the Netroots. A new, younger, and meaner generation of Democrats is taking over the party. For these people, partisanship trumps ideology. After 6 years of this administration, I am fully in their camp. These people have learned the lessons of the New Right in a way that the 60s left never did. We are taking over the party from the inside, pushing progressive candidates, challenging perceived wisdom from party elites, and trying to do away with people like Joe Lieberman. I feel better now about the future of the party and the nation than I have since 1994. There is no room in this new paradigm for Ralph Nader and his supporters. He doesn't understand that, something proven by his absurd 2004 "campaign," if not long before. Would the Netroots have happened without the Bush presidency? I suspect the answer is yes, though in a different way. I think Republicans would have pilloried Gore in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Democrats would have suffered enormous losses in 2002. What would have happened in 2004? Who knows. Perhaps Gore's smart handling of foreign policy would have won him great support? Or perhaps Republicans would be calling Democrats traitors more often then they already do and they would have swept into office. Either way, the progressives in the Democratic Party would have organized to take it back at some point, much as right-wingers did with the Republicans in the 50s and 60s.

As for the film itself, it's pretty strong. It is clearly made by Nader supporters. Alterman and Todd Gitlin are really the only critics that get interviewed. But despite that, An Unreasonable Man, places Nader's career in context and reminds us of all the great things he did before he decided that he should blow up the Democratic Party. It's a bit long and lets some of the claims of Nader and his supporters, like that he wasn't focusing on the tossup states, go too unchallenged. But if you go into the film with a critical eye, it's quite good.