What Makes Ralph Run?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

September 10, 2000

One by one, people who have admired and respected Ralph Nader for decades are coming out and attacking him. For many loyal Democrats and liberals, his apparent willingness to put George W. Bush in the White House (by taking votes as the Green Party presidential candidate that presumably would go to Al Gore otherwise) is a sign that he has become unhinged or unprincipled—or both. Others recoil at his relentless attacks on global trade. And there are those who wonder if Ralph is on an ego trip, trying to recapture the headlines that routinely came his way in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Calling him “Ralph” in the previous paragraph is not intended to convey some artificial sense of intimacy. It just means I’ve known and liked the guy for a long time. I share, with nearly two generations of people who once worked for him, a feeling of gratitude.

Yes, I’m one of those—what, hundreds, thousands?—whose first work in Washington came courtesy of one of Nader’s projects. No, I wasn’t some big-time “Nader’s Raider,” just a cog in a large operation called the Congress Project. I barely knew the big guy then. At age 20, I was among dozens who arrived in Washington in the summer of 1972, determined to help Nader tell the truth about how Congress really worked, and to provide what we hoped would be useful profiles for voters about their representatives.

Whatever our social contributions were, I remember the summer as a joy that only deepened my addiction to and fascination with politics. I was so proud to be working for Ralph Nader that I photocopied my first paycheck bearing his signature—I cashed it because I needed the modest sum he was paying us—and kept that copy on my bulletin board for years. I’m still happy to tell my kids I briefly worked for the man.

In recent years, our relations have stayed friendly, in a combative sort of way. He calls periodically to complain about this or that—most recently the paucity of my coverage of his presidential campaign and always the fact that I don’t go as far down his political road as he’d like. He called me a “scared liberal” on a talk show once, and smiled when he told me about it afterward. I translated that as: “E.J., you won’t follow the logic of your arguments to my conclusions.”

I suspect I’m typical of the sort of reformer who’s just not good enough for him. What that means, roughly, is that we both worry about economic inequality, the decay of democracy in the face of a flood of big campaign money, and the fact that the social protections democracies enact don’t fare too well in a global economy. But I’m not sure Nader has a workable alternative to the global capitalist system he attacks so eloquently. I’m not as convinced as he is about the perils of global trade. And like it or not, our future collective wealth will depend in large part on the success oflet’s name the systemcapitalism.

Yet Nader never gives up on trying to persuade and cajole, and when I said I wanted to talk to him about the problems raised by his candidacy, he cheerfully agreed.

At this point in the narrative, the obvious move would be just to stick the knife in an—d say it outright: “Sorry, Ralph, you did great—stuff, but this presidential candidacy is ludicrous and dangerous.”

In fact, there are many reasons to think that his third party strategy will not achieve his goals for social justice and democracy, and might well set them back. It’s not clear his brand of anti-corporate politics will ever produce the progressive majority he says he’s seeking. And Nader’s tendency to write off those to his immediate right as “cowards” is a way of brushing off arguments and criticisms that he might usefully take more seriously.

But Nader’s own central claim deserves to be taken seriously: that third parties can advance first principles. There’s a distinguished history of third party figures—the abolitionists before the Civil War, the Populists at the end of the 19th Century, the La Follette Progressives in the 1920s, the Norman Thomas Socialists and Farmer-Laborites in the 1930s, the Libertarians in the 1970s and early 1980s—exerting influence on the impure and opportunistic Republicans and Democrats.

Nader is under no illusions. He knows his role is like theirs and cites this history as his ultimate rationale. “When I was at Princeton, Norman Thomas came to speak,” Nader said, recalling his student days during our interview last week. “And I asked him a question. I said, ‘Mr. Thomas’—and you know he was a wonderful human being—’what do you think your greatest achievement was?’ He said: ‘Having my agenda stolen by the Democratic Party.’ And he listed it.” Nader laughs. “So, they are welcome to this.”

He adds quickly: “I do not think they are going to accept this agenda, because they are too beholden and I don’t think the Democratic Party is capable of internal reform, although I would like it to be.”

In that brief statement, we get to the core contradiction of Nader’s candidacy. He is really saying two things at the same time: (1) that the Democratic Party is hopeless, that it has become “a corporate party,” gone “full time for business money” and, therefore, a new progressive party is necessary, yet (2) that this corporate party just might be redeemed and, anyway, it would surely be better for the country if the Democrats won enough seats to take back the House of Representatives in November elections.

“I would prefer a Democratic House, I really would,” Nader says. “That would give us time not to play defense so much, which eats up a lot of the citizen group time.” He even thinks—not implausibly—that he may pull voters to the polls who will back him at the top and then vote Democratic in House races where the Green Party isn’t contesting.

And just for good measure, Nader is now arguing that his candidacy may not be hurting Gore. He also accepts the view that he helped Gore by pushing him toward a rhetorical populism, and he points out that Bush’s chances of winning are now in doubt, according to recent polls. “The Republicans must be nutty putting this man forward,” he says of Bush. “Because I have been in Texas, I know his record. I know he can’t handle defending it.”

Which raises the question: If there’s enough of a difference between these two parties to care which one holds Congress, and if Nader believes that Bush is that much of a disaster, why should progressives risk a vote for Nader and the Greens in the first place?

That, of course, is the standard argument that Gore and the Democrats will make between now and Nov. 7. Big issues are at stake in this election: tax policy, government spending levels, social security privatization, health care, and future Supreme Court appointments that could produce a court majority primed to rip apart the very environmental and regulatory laws Nader spent a lifetime promoting. There’s also campaign finance legislation, abortion, labor law and appointments to the regulatory agencies.

Nothing makes the importance of the election more obvious than the urgency conservative activists have attached to a Bush victory—to the point of stifling their public demands to give Bush a clear path. If they know how important the Bush-Gore choice is, why shouldn’t progressives?

After conceding, indirectly, that he generally thinks Democratic candidates are better than Republicans, Nader then proceeds to dismiss every possible argument that who is president really matters. Even if Gore wins, he said, the Republican-led Senate will “have absolute veto power over any nominee to the [Supreme] Court.” That makes moot the question of who is actually named. He trashes the regulatory record of the Clinton administration, though it’s hard to imagine he’d be happier with the regulatory approach of a Bush administration. And he argues that if the elder George Bush had won in 1992, “there would be no GATT, no WTO, no phony welfare reform.” (Well, sure. And only Nixon can go to China. But is he seriously suggesting that the best strategy for blocking Republican programs is to elect a Republican president?)

Eventually you get to the inner logic of his position: Who cares who’s president? “The White House,” he says, “is a corporate prison.”

Try telling that to a politician Nader admires, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). At a forum sponsored by The Nation magazine during the Democratic National Convention, Jackson said that middle-class progressives could afford to dismiss the importance of the presidency and risk a vote for Nader and Bush’s election. His poorer constituents, who are far more dependent on what government does or doesn’t do, cannot.

“Some of us are making decisions from the perspective of philosophy and the luxury of our comfortableness, and how we are personally situated in the economy,” Jackson said. “But there are other members of our coalition, who are not here, who have everything at stake.”

In fact, Nader is willing to take risks that Jackson isn’t. “Do things have to get worse before they get better?” Nader asks. He clearly thinks they do. As he put it to my Post colleague Dana Milbank, a “provocateur” like Bush would rally the left more than an “anesthetist” like Gore. Of course if things got bad enough, voters might feel wistful about the anesthetist that might have been. History suggests we should be wary of the idea that a political choice to make things worse will ever make them better.

There’s an irony in my attitude toward Nader’s candidacy. Going back 30 years, I always thought he underplayed the importance of electoral politics in social and political reform. He loves court suits and investigations; I think it takes elections to ratify and advance reform.

Nader says his candidacy reflects his recognition that elections matter. This may be one of the few times Nader has admitted he was wrong about something. “I always saw myself as a citizen advocate and a builder of citizen groups.” He adds: “I probably should have done this in 1992.”

But this time, he’s in electoral politics but not of it. He can’t possibly be in it to get elected. He’s in it to fight what he calls those “cowards” (he regularly uses that word about Gore) who know what they should do but don’t, and the “whores” who are straight up in wearing a “for sale sign” for special interests. He exempts a handful of politicians from these labels, and even speaks warmly about some—Jackson Jr., Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Washington state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, who’s running for Senate.

Yet you wonder if any political system could ever be pure enough for Nader. If he ever got to occupy that “corporate prison” called the White House, you could imagine his moving immediately for his own impeachment.

Nader’s candidacy offers one of the purest cases of the distinction between the “ethic of ultimate ends” and the “ethic of responsibility” that the great sociologist Max Weber described 80 years ago in his essay “Politics as a Vocation.” Weber wrote that “the believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order.”

“If,” Weber continued, “an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” But the believer in an ethic of responsibility “does not feel in a position to burden others with the results so far as he is able to foresee them; he will say: These results are ascribed to my action.”

Weber concludes: “Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.”

Ralph Nader’s life has been built around the ethic of ultimate ends, and good for him. I’m grateful he’s out there challenging our smugness. The global economy is not working well for everybody, and is disastrous for some. There is something wrong with a system that privileges trade above all other values including human rights, the rights of workers and the environment.

You don’t have to agree with Nader that corporations are the root of nearly every evil to see his attacks on “corporate power” as constructive rather than dangerous. All through our history, our democracy has depended on critics of concentrated power, whether private or public. If Nader didn’t exist, we’d try to invent someone like him even though he’s one of a kind.

But this presidential campaign of his is built on the flawed assumption that it makes little difference whether Bush or Gore wins. It assumes, mistakenly, that a vast leftist majority would express itself if it only had a chance. There is a potential progressive majority in the country, but it will come into being only by uniting the forces Nader leads with the more moderate reformers who drive Nader crazy. Somehow or other, I think he knows that.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.