Party Crasher

The 2000 election was such an embarrassing episode in American democracy—and for so many reasons—that it sort of makes you sick to bring it all up again. There were, of course, the candidates from the major parties, one the flabbergastingly arrogant son of an ex-president who spoke (according to a well-publicized study) at a fourth-grade level and could never quite convince many of us that he thought at a level appreciably higher than that; the other a vice president whose sense of self was so vague that he kept inventing new and increasingly unconvincing ones for public consumption, a habit of inconstancy that at least jibed with his baffling revisions of principle (especially on the environment). Then there was the $200 million their campaigns and associated PACs spent trying to get them elected, money that came overwhelmingly from wealthy individuals and mammoth corporations—which the candidates, with faces so straight they may as well have been, well, dead, blithely insisted indebted them to the donors not a single bit. Add to that the fact that—in a country with a 20 percent child poverty rate, the worst fourth-to-12th-grade educational system in the Western world, a 500 to one ratio between the salaries of Fortune 500 CEOs and their entry-level workers, ecological disasters looming from sea to polluted sea, and tens of billions of dollars wasted in Pentagon bloatage and corporate welfare—the biggest campaign issues were “character” (as in you won't catch me fucking interns) and prescription subsidies for the elderly. Throw in the Florida thing, which culminated in a Supreme Court decision so politically motivated that many European observers called it what it was—a fix—and you start wondering why people bother to vote at all. (And then you realize hardly anybody does: the 31 percent turnout for California's just-completed primary was the lowest on record.)

Amidst this mess, though, was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who won 2.7 percent of the popular vote, which stands as the most successful run by a left/progressive presidential candidate in the U.S. since Robert La Follette ran in 1924. Because Nader had virtually no money for campaign ads, and because he wasn't allowed to participate in the presidential debates (though the polls showed the public wanted him included), he earned his votes the hard way: on the road, speaking directly to voters or to news organizations that might provide free column inches of newspaper reportage or precious seconds of TV face time. We should remember that even when he did pick up media coverage, 90 percent of the time, the context was “Is Nader a spoiler? Is Nader taking votes away from Al Gore?” Even toward the end of the campaign, when Nader was filling Madison Square Garden with the kind of energetic, idealistic supporters this country hasn't seen since Robert Kennedy ran in '68 (and who were willing to pay 10 bucks apiece to get in), the media either yawned or kept fidgeting about how he was “taking votes away” from Gore. (Nader's response to this was sensible: he wasn't taking votes away from anybody. Gore didn't have any right to the progressive vote; if Gore earned the progressive vote by, let's say, standing behind labor or the environment instead of NAFTA, GATT and the corporations who supported him, Gore would get that vote.) And when the Florida debacle emerged, the media and the Republicrats huffed their “I told you so”s, cast Nader as an ego-driven despoiler of the “process,” and went back to the business of prepping the country for what Nader calls “a giant corporate takeover of our society.”

It might help to know that Nader is not a socialist or commie. He isn't even anti-capitalist. You won't find Marx, Engels or even Eugene Debs mentioned in Crashing the Party, his book about the 2000 campaign. He lauds corporations when he thinks they're doing a good job—like Southwest Airlines, which he admires for their safe, efficient service and the way they take care of their employees. Nader is, in fact, the newest product in a long American political tradition, starting with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson on through the Populists, Progressives, New Dealers and the moderates among the New Left—a tradition that distrusts large business interests not because the profit motive is inherently evil but because it naturally attracts abuse, abuse that it is the government's role—as the people's only powerful advocate—to curtail. He wants a humane, honest capitalism—that is, an economic system that reinforces rather than threatens political principles of liberty, justice and equality. He wants a clean global environment; equal rights for everybody; a health-care system motivated by, of all things, a desire for public health rather than merely healthy quarterly earnings; an end to poverty and exploitation of workers; and the end of corporate welfare—the kind where, for instance, desperate local governments pony up hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to lure sports franchises to their town (who won't, in turn, share their future profits with the taxpayers), or where the feds give the commonwealth away (federal lands to mining companies or radio bandwidths to media giants) for nominal fees or for free. He wants Americans to regain sovereignty over U.S. economic and ecological affairs, instead of ceding them to NAFTA tribunals answerable to nobody. He wants open government and full participatory democracy, which means the end of elections like we've had these past 20 years, when winning candidates were either complete corporate suckups (Bush, Gray Davis) or independent zillionaires (Bill Simon, Michael Bloomberg). Nader wants, if public opinion polls are any indication, what most Americans want, and he has an impressively wonkish series of reasonable, practical proposals to make his desires political reality.

That Nader wants what most Americans want and still got only 2.7 percent of the vote can't be explained merely by the fact that his woebegone, wonky sexless personality doesn't project presidentially. (Nader isn't remotely egotistical, which, in politics, is a problem. If the Greens' Martin Luther King Jr. stepped forward, whoever he or she is, American politics would find itself in a fertile turmoil.) It always goes back to the way campaigns are financed and thus delivered to the electorate through the media. Nader couldn't get his message out. Why? It wasn't just that he couldn't afford the commercials. He was cut out of the all-important presidential debates, which, he points out, were put on by a private, bipartisan (not nonpartisan) committee sponsored by large corporations bent on preventing disturbing episodes like the 1992 Ross Perot candidacy from ever happening again. This private commission determined that no candidate could debate unless he held up at 15 percent in the polls—a historically prohibitive benchmark: no third party, save Perot's self-financed campaign, has won at least 15 percent of the votes since Millard Fillmore in 1856—and the major networks and we the people bought into it. Why? Because most of us are sheep, and the herd instinct is strong. The corporations need sheep; Nader and participatory democracy can't abide the species. Where you gonna stand, what you gonna be in 2004?

Crashing the Party by Ralph Nader; St. Martin's Press. Hardcover, 383 pages, $24.95.

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