The Nader for President rally was a raucous affair and Mission High School was filled to capacity, with a substantial crowd packing the lobby and overflowing into the street. It was the logical place for such an event, the middle of San Francisco’s Mission District, a hub of far-left activism where you’re as likely to see an advertisement for a forum by the International Socialist Organization as a billboard for Absolut vodka.
As I entered the auditorium, Nader’s runing mate, Peter Camejo, was already warming up the crowd. Camejo, a former Trotskyist turned Green, gives a good speech: the stentorian voice, the slashing polemics punctuated by applause. There I was, surrounded on every side by rambunctious Reds, wondering: what the heck am I doing here?
As if in answer to my question, Nader finally strode onto the stage. He looked impossibly serene in the midst of that storm of applause, and his voice—steady and sure—reinforced an aura of integrity that seemed to emanate from his very person.
We’re getting poorer, he said. In spite of government propaganda about how things are getting better, our standard of living, compared to the way our parents lived, is declining. The Left, content to settle for less, has given up fighting for real progress, while the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans on such issues as “the concentration of power.”
Nader explained that his campaign is important “pictorially” because the two major parties, left to themselves, will merely consolidate the status quo: there will be no one to pull the political dialogue in a new direction. He spoke of “the domination of multi-national corporations” intent on “erecting a corporate globalization scheme of international autocratic government called WTO and NAFTA.” The avarice and cowardice of the two parties allows this to happen. Invoking the legacy of the populist and progressive movements of the last century, Nader urged the crowd to remember the fighting tradition of ordinary people who stood up to the railroad monopolies and bankers. They didn’t “settle for less,” he declared, and neither should you.
He kept coming back to the theme of a liberal intelligentsia that has betrayed the cause of progressive reform. They are, he charged, at once arrogant and too accommodating. They “presume to tell you that [your efforts on behalf of Nader] will help to re-elect George W. Bush—but when push actually came to shove in Florida, what did they do?” “Who elected George W. Bush?” he asked. “It was the Democratic Party! Even after they won the election they blew it!”I cheered when he cited Gen. Smedley Butler’s book War is a Racket as an example of how corporate interests manipulate patriotic sentiment, socializing the risks of overseas investments and pocketing the profits. The Democrats are a big part of the problem: “In Washington they say that George W. Bush must be defeated because of the War in Iraq. Who voted for the War in Iraq? John Kerry. They say our civil liberties are being sacrificed by the Patriot Act. Who voted for the Patriot Act? Every Democratic Senator except Sen. Russ Feingold voted for the Patriot Act.”
What we have in this country, he declared, is “corporate socialism.” You should’ve seen the dirty looks I got as I applauded vigorously. Socialism, to this audience, doesn’t have anything to do with corporations, it can’t. But Nader is no Red; he knows better. Although all 11 varieties of Trotskyists were there in full force, earnestly hawking their pamphlets, the rhetoric that was coming from the stage was hardly music to their ears.
Nader’s distrust of bigness, either corporate or governmental, his fear of centralized power, his sharp critique of the managerial-bureaucratic mentality, all recall the distinctively American tradition of individualist populism. Just as Nader rebelled against the corporate socialism of the Democratic Party establishment, so the mostly Midwestern progressives turned against the New Deal when it became a stalking horse for corporatism and war. Nader’s views are attractive to the Left but are rooted, at least in part, on the libertarian and populist Right.
He wasn’t always a leftist icon. One of his first published articles appeared in the Oct. 1962 issue of The Freeman, a libertarian magazine. The piece, “How the Winstedites Kept Their Integrity,” told the story of how a proposal to build a public-housing project met with opposition in Winsted, Conn., Nader’s hometown. He attacked the aesthetic aspect of government housing projects as symbolic of “the drab, uniform, barrack-type existence” that awaits its tenants. He writes:
Living under the government as landlord neither teaches children the value of property (which is one reason why public housing deteriorates so quickly) nor produces the environment for the exercise of independence, self-reliance, and, above all, citizenship. Any government intrusion into the economy deters the alleged beneficiaries from voicing their views or participating in civic life. The reason for this goes beyond the stigma of living in subsidized housing. When public housing becomes, as it has over the nation, a source of additional patronage for local distribution to contractors, repairmen, and tenants, the free expression of human beings is thus discouraged.
What riled Ralph about the Winsted housing project was that locals were denied access to information by bureaucrats and had to resort to three referenda before they could scotch the plans of political insiders to milk private profit from the public teat. It’s the same old Ralph, albeit a bit more libertarian than we’re used to.
As he stood on the stage, denouncing corporate socialism and foreign wars, that calm, clear voice ringing with modest sincerity, I thought: no wonder they’re so afraid of him that they’ve hired an army of corporate lawyers to deny him ballot status and shut down his campaign.I know Ralph Nader is supposed to be a man of the Left, the Eugene Debs or the Norman Thomas of our times, but as I listen to him on the stump, I keep hearing the voice of the Old Right.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.