Ask Uncle Ralph
May 20, 2014                    

The Baffler Blog

Whenever someone buttonholes me and demands to know my position on tort reform, corporate governance, campaign finance, regulatory enforcement, citizen utility boards, or reductions in the defense budget, I just reply: "Ask Uncle Ralph. He has all the details." He does, too.

Ralph Nader, now eighty years old, has always been such a whirlwind of activity-speeches, demonstrations, talk shows, organizing and mentoring citizen groups, pestering Congress-that many people are surprised to learn how prolific an author he is. Starting with Unsafe At Any Speed almost fifty years ago, he has written or co-written thirty-six books. Five have appeared in the last five years, not counting this year's Told You So, an aptly-titled 500-page collection of his weekly columns over the last half-century.

Probably the best-known and least appreciated of his recent books is Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a 700-page political fantasy sneered at from the New York Times and The Nation and others. The Author's Note preceding the text began: "This is not a novel." The gist of nearly all the book's reviews, however, was: "This is not a very good novel." Most left-wing reviewers added censoriously: "Does Nader really think that well-intentioned billionaires are the only hope for radical political change?" This was almost as obtuse as criticizing a book with no literary ambitions for not fulfilling its literary ambitions. Did reviewers not notice the quotation marks around the title or read the author's prefatory explanation of where it came from? (It was an ironic paraphrase of the widely reported cry of despair from one of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, on realizing that the federal and state governments weren't going to be much help.)

Only the Super-Rich is premised on a fantasy: suppose that sufficient financial and organizational resources existed to fight the plutocracy--how would we go about it? Nader's answers, laid out in great detail (and admittedly unexciting prose), add up to an astute and plausible war plan. True, those resources do not actually exist, as of now. But some of what Nader envisioned can be done even without them, and merely showing how it might be done is very useful for raising morale-perhaps even for raising money. The left, however, was largely uninterested.

Which may be why Nader's new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books, 240 pages, $24.99) reaches out to the right. You might think that after Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, every liberal and leftist in America would have thought long and hard about how to persuade those tens of millions of non-elite Republicans to stop voting against their own interests. Apparently not. Nader has. For decades, in fact. What's more, he's been successful at it. For example, in the 2000 election-get this, you liberal Nader-haters-the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans voted for Nader. (See The Daily Kos for the final nail in the coffin of the "Nader Elected Bush!" myth.) The same was true of his first presidential primary, in New Hampshire in 1992.

Why would any conservative vote for someone universally labeled an ultra-liberal, the country's prime crusader against corporate fraud and abuse, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's public enemy number one? Because a lot of them hate the corporations and the corporate state as much as leftists do, and are equally disgusted with the two major parties. Substantial public majorities favor single-payer health care, tax hikes on the rich, raising the minimum wage, cutting the defense budget, increased spending for education, and reducing the role of money in politics, yet most or all of these things are off the table politically. It's true that the members of this anti-corporate, anti-militarist majority disagree sharply about many other things. But why can't they nevertheless achieve the goals they have in common?

Unstoppable is a step in that direction. Nader has rounded up humane and sensible statements from quite a number of conservative eminences, including Friedrich Hayek, Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and George Will, and cites the surprisingly reasonable positions occasionally taken by generally unreasonable politicians like Chuck Grassley, John Kasich, and Alan Simpson. He even turns up a grain of good sense in the platform of the Texas Republican Party. It is just conceivable that some conservatives, if challenged by down-to-earth, un-smug, non-sloganizing liberals, for the sake of limited but nonetheless important goals, would respond.

There's already one hopeful sign. The American Conservative magazine is about as friendly to Wall Street and the CIA as The Nation is. Its writers have spoken out consistently and forcefully against preemptive war, Executive-Branch secrecy, wasteful defense spending, unconditional bank bailouts, corporate-dictated "free trade" agreements, and the corruption of politics by money. It has published leftist heroes like Alexander Cockburn and Glenn Greenwald, as well as leftist nonentities like yours truly. It has just excerpted a chapter of Unstoppable, and in the same issue, Pat Buchanan devotes his monthly column to commending the book.

How to begin? Nader being Nader, Unstoppable features a twenty-five-point anti-corporatist platform and an outline of strategy for the "convergence" movement. Sounds like wishful thinking, you say? Well, good luck waiting around for the Democrats.