The Next 20

The Folly of Ralph Nader

In the 2000 election, the high priest of anti-consumerism turned politics into the very thing he hated most.

Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders. 

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Shawn Thew/Getty Images, Brian Snyder/Reuters.

On Oct. 13, 2000, 15,000 zealous progressives packed Madison Square Garden for one of Ralph Nader’s super rallies. They paid $20 each for admission, evidence of their passion, since political rallies are almost always free. That year, many on the left were disappointed with the Democratic nominee for president. Al Gore was a wonky centrist and a stilted speaker who appeared to possess few core principles. For progressives, his association with Bill Clinton, icon of triangulation and political compromise, counted against him. At a time when the left was outraged over our corrupt campaign finance system, Gore was dogged by questions about money he’d received from sketchy donors with ties to foreign governments.

At best, Gore offered progressives a continuation of politics as usual. True, the Republican in the race seemed a right-wing buffoon, but Nader told his followers to vote their hopes, not their fears, and his message about citizens banding together to overturn entrenched, amoral corporate interests spoke to many people’s deepest aspirations. Bush and Gore, he said at Madison Square Garden, are “both for cracking down on street crime but ignoring corporate crime, which takes far more lives.” In response, the crowd erupted in chants of “Let Ralph debate!” Young people flocked to Nader, and hip musicians played his rallies: The lineup in New York included Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, and Ani DiFranco, whose ’90s cool had not yet evanesced.

Nader concluded his almost hourlong speech by calling the evening “the most memorable political rally of the year 2000.” Some who were there felt they were witnessing the flowering of an epochal social movement. “The protest movement that has been growing on a grassroots level, as evidenced by the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle, reached its political coming-of-age last night,” the Village Voice wrote.

At the time, it felt like nothing short of a rebellion against consumer capitalism. Nader had made his name campaigning against the blandishments of corporations, first as a consumer advocate and then as a gadfly political candidate. “Who designed this economy, anyway?” he asked at Madison Square Garden. “I think it’s time to have it designed as if people mattered, not as if General Motors, Exxon, DuPont, and the other corporations matter!”

But the past 16 years of American political life have disproved every fantasy on display at the Garden. Eight of those years were given over to a George W. Bush presidency that seemed like a long-running rebuke to Nader’s loose talk of the political parties being more or less the same. During the Bush years, the Netroots, a group of centrist and in some cases center-right Democrats, emerged as the most significant counterweight to the Republicans, demonstrating just how far right the political center of gravity had shifted. Not until Barack Obama’s presidency ushered in an era of rising progressive expectations did we see a new wave of left-wing militancy.

In retrospect, the paradox of the Nader campaign is that the high priest of anti-consumerism turned voting into an act of individual self-affirmation, a kind of lifestyle choice. He addressed voters the way companies address consumers—as atomized individuals whose personal experience is paramount. “Welcome to the politics of joy and justice!” he roared at the Garden. Despite the zero-sum structure of American presidential elections, he told voters they needn’t settle for one of two dispiriting mass-market options built of innumerable compromises, or worry about the broader effects of their vote. This was bespoke politics.

Nader’s movement never constituted a real cross section of the left; even sympathetic observers noted that it was overwhelmingly white. After attending another of Nader’s massive rallies in Chicago, Salim Muwakkil wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “This lack of racial diversity among Nader supporters is particularly striking, given the 66-year-old candidate’s progressive positions on economic democracy and social justice.” Yet plenty of people on the left saw Nader as the era’s great political hope. “Nader and the Green Party represent the best opportunity in half a century to place a progressive agenda on the national scene,” wrote Juan Gonzalez in the left-wing magazine In These Times. He added: “It has brought hundreds of thousands of white youth into electoral politics in much the same way that Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition movement brought disaffected blacks to the voting booth in the ’80s.”

To the Nader campaign, the super rallies were meant to force mainstream recognition of his movement’s scope. “It was the most visible way to show that we could get more people out to more rallies than the other major parties,” Nader told me in a recent interview. “That should have been a real eyebrow-raiser for the mass media. We filled the Portland Coliseum in Oregon and got almost no media. Eleven thousand people, that was the first rally, and we got maybe a squib in the New York Times.”

Sixteen years later, supporters of Bernie Sanders would also decry a “media blackout” on coverage of his enormous campaign events. That’s only one of the obvious and striking parallels between the Nader and Sanders campaigns. Both men were gruff, older leftists—Nader, like Sanders, didn’t like kissing strangers’ babies—who became unlikely youth culture heroes. (It helped that both called for free tuition at public colleges.) Nader and Sanders both believed a populist message could draw disaffected nonvoters into the electoral process, promising not just a challenge to the Democratic status quo but a political revolution. In a recent phone interview, Nader called the similarities of his movement and Sanders’ “uncanny.”

Looking back at the Nader campaign from the vantage of 2016, however, what’s most interesting is not how similar it was to Sanders’ but how different. For decades, there has been an argument on the left over whether it makes more sense to work inside the Democratic Party or outside it. In the Nader and Sanders campaigns, we now have models of how each approach has fared under comparable circumstances. Nader believed that with enough imagination, he could turn his followers’ zeal into a new political formation that would force the Democratic Party to move leftward or be supplanted. “Because of the Green parties in Europe, we thought it could happen here,” Nader told me. “They have a different system: proportional representation, easier ballot access. Even with that we thought maybe we could still do it.”

He and his followers knew that they weren’t going to win the 2000 race. But they believed that they could win 5 percent of the vote nationwide, which would ensure the Green Party millions of dollars in federal matching funds for the 2004 election. That would allow them to build the Green Party into a force that could eventually seriously contest elections. In a long In These Times profile, David Moberg wrote that Nader “talks about leading the Greens into a ‘death struggle’ with the Democratic party to determine which will be the majority party.” A strong Green Party, Nader believed, would work for change year-round, not just during election years. “In Nader’s vision,” Moberg wrote, “the Green Party can succeed by recruiting a million people who each contribute $100 a year and 100 hours of their time to build a ‘civic action’ party that fights on issues in between elections, allying with labor and community groups and building storefront offices to help consumers.”

Nader was unconcerned about the prospect of throwing the election to George W. Bush by siphoning votes from Gore. The week after the Madison Square Garden rally, Nader spoke to an overflow crowd at Chapman University in Orange, California, where he implied that Bush would be better for the left than Gore. “If it were a choice between a provocateur and an ‘anesthetizer,’ I’d rather have a provocateur,” he said. “It would mobilize us.”

The next eight years put this proposition to the test. Nader told me that the 2000 election “showed the pundits that, together with our votes and Gore’s votes, we had a majority progressive turnout.” Perhaps it did, but without winning office, the display of a progressive majority counted for nothing. Bush won, beating Gore by 537 votes in Florida, a state where 97,421 voted for Nader. (Nader’s enormous rallies didn’t translate into impressive turnout, and the Greens garnered only 2.7 percent of the national vote.) Bush was certainly a provocateur, governing from the far right despite lacking a mandate, but there was no countervailing Green mobilization. After the election, the movement Nader had been building—the one that seemed so alive that night at Madison Square Garden—completely dissipated.

Nader attributes this partly to the weakness of the Green Party. “What happened is, the Green Party ranks are very thin around the country,” he said. “They don’t know how to multiply themselves. It’s a peculiar characteristic: Green Party people, they don’t like to raise money, they allow themselves to live in neighborhoods and communities where they become minorities of one.” After the 2000 election, Nader said, he held around 30 fundraisers for the Green Party in various parts of the country, but it was “like pulling teeth. I managed to raise few tens of thousands of dollars with all kinds of effort.” The Greens, he said, “never raised enough money to open offices or storefronts, which is sign of a rising party. They didn’t raise enough money to have a staff or organizers. Therefore they lost their lift from 2000, which was a great lift for them.”

That last part is debatable, since the Greens also faced a furious backlash from progressives who blamed them for helping to elect Bush. Nader’s run, said Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, “did not help the Greens grow. It didn’t get them on a significantly greater number of ballot lines. It didn’t get them a burst of popular support. It hurt them in lots of ways. Though it’s not like they were starting from that great a baseline.”

If his run didn’t expand the influence of the Green Party, Nader concedes that it also failed to push the Democrats to the left in the following election. “That’s how deeply degraded and mired they are in the corporatist mentality,” he said of the Democrats. So what did his campaign accomplish? Nader told me that one of his campaign workers became mayor of Richmond, California, and others “went into politics at various levels.” The campaign, he said, “helped produce some waves that eventually lapped up on the shores of Occupy. A lot of Occupy people really were young interns in some of our groups.”

Ultimately, though, Nader’s most powerful example was negative, providing Bernie Sanders with a template of what not to do. Sanders, Nader said, is “obsessed by the way I was shunned. He hasn’t returned a call in 17 years. He’s told people 100 times he didn’t want to run a Nader campaign.” Determined not to be marginalized as Nader was, Sanders worked within the Democratic Party instead of going to war with it.

It remains to be seen what will come of Sanders’ primary campaign. His new organization, Our Revolution, ran into trouble as soon as it debuted. There were mass resignations by staffers who objected to the leadership of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former campaign manager, and to the group’s tax status, which allows for large donations from anonymous sources. Yet Sanders rightly takes credit for pushing Democrats to adopt the most progressive platform in the party’s history. And some of his campaign veterans have formed an ambitious group, Brand New Congress, to recruit new progressive candidates to run in 2018.

“The test case for me is going to be whether this Brand New Congress project manages to run lots of people in two years,” said Sifry. “That would be unprecedented.” The group, he said, is “based on the understanding that if you really want to change politics in America you actually have to change Congress, not change the White House alone. My guess is that given the current problems that Our Revolution is having, Brand New Congress has a much better chance of being the main focal point of the Bernie swarm going forward.”

Nader himself said that Sanders was smart to work within the two-party system. “By running as a Democrat, Sanders declined to become a complete political masochist, and he avoided exposing his campaign to immediate annihilation by partisan hacks,” Nader wrote in a March Washington Post piece, “Why Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democrat.” “Because if he had run as an independent, he would have faced only one question daily in the media, as I did: ‘Do you see yourself as a spoiler?’ ”

Even today, the question still infuriates him. “We all had an equal right to run for election,” he said. “We’re all either spoilers for one another, or none of us are spoilers. That’s what they could never get through their heads. We’re not third-class citizens.”

This emphasis on the right to run, rather than the wisdom of running, is telling. Nader may have seen the citizenry as a collection of frustrated consumers but he departed from the doctrines of his consumer advocacy on one key point. He always demanded that corporations act responsibly, even if it interfered with their ability to sell whatever they want. In politics, however, he celebrates candidates’ freedom to claim their market share and voters’ access to an unfettered political marketplace whatever the cost to their common interests. (When he speaks about the “majority progressive turnout” in 2000, he’s acknowledging that his voters and Gore’s voters wanted some of the same things, which, through a failure of collective action, they didn’t get.) Nader has made the analogy between politics and the free market explicit. “What would happen if small business was not allowed to compete?” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in June. “Economic stagnation from the absence of better goods and services. Because small parties cannot compete, we’re witnessing ideological and political stagnation.”

Thus Nader treats any calls for candidates to stand aside, even in the interest of that candidate’s own ideals, as an offense against democracy. Indeed, in the spring of 2008, amid growing demands for Clinton to drop out of the Democratic primary, Nader wrote her a letter—“in almost poetic style,” he said—urging her to stay the course. The letter, which he posted online, reads in part:

Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice
This is America
Just like every other citizen, you have a right to run
Whenever you like
For as long as you like
It’s up to you, Hillary.

Nader, obviously, is no fan of Clinton’s politics. By urging her to stay in the race, he wasn’t arguing that she might accomplish something noble. He was championing her right to self-expression, which he seems to view as integral to electoral politics. “I can’t tell you how important it is to emphasize the civil liberties aspect of third parties,” he said. “Running as a third-party candidate is the consummate use of the First Amendment to free speech, free assembly.” In this vision, rallies like the one in Madison Square Garden are their own reward. What matters is being heard.

Yet Nader’s 2000 campaign and its anticlimactic aftermath show us the limits of that approach. Animating his campaign, as well as those of third-party candidates who have come after him, is an assumption that the two-party system is as much a mental construct as material reality, and that it could be disassembled if enough people awakened, took the proverbial red pill, and set themselves free. “We’re fed this corporate brainwashing, many times a day, that we are powerless,” Green Party candidate Jill Stein told the left-wing journalist Chris Hedges in February. “And therefore we have to choose between two oppressors. It’s really important to reject that lesser-evilism and stand up and fight for the greater good.”

That’s a good slogan but a misguided one. It is not corporate propaganda that turns presidential voting into a binary choice—it is the unwieldy electoral system outlined in the Constitution, in which a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes to emerge victorious. In parliamentary systems, coalitions of parties can form governments. In ours, the coalition-building has to happen inside the party, since otherwise an outright Electoral College victory is impossible. This reality is so basic that it feels patronizing to describe it and yet every four years, a sliver of highly mobilized citizens emerge who think they can wish it away. “It’s a political prison,” Nader said of the two-party system. “We’re trying to break out of the prison and not accept those preconditions.”

Yet the preconditions remain, whether one accepts them or not. Despite his third-party background, Sanders understood this as Nader did not. It’s a near-tragic irony that Nader, of all people, confused the grubby work of politics—the deal-making, the favor-trading, the assemblage of ungainly coalitions—with the wish-fulfilling work of marketing.