Ralph Nader and the Legacy of Revolt

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Walt Contreras Sheasby

RALPH NADER, ANNOUNCING his presidential candidacy in Washington, D.C. on February 21, 2000, said, “The struggle between the forces of democracy and plutocracy has ebbed and flowed throughout our history … The earlier nineteenth-century democratic struggles by abolitionists against slavery, by farmers against large oppressive railroads and banks, and later by new trade unionists against the brutal workplace conditions of the early industrial and mining era helped mightily to make America and its middle class what it is today. They demanded that economic power subside or be shared.”

This essay argues that Ralph Nader’s citizen politics recapitulates a long-standing agony over the meaning of populism, socialism and progressivism, resulting in ambiguity over issues of class conflict and the democratizing of the state and the economy. Is democratic action to be seen as a challenge from below or as regulation from above? Resolving that question will be an inescapable task of the new politics of the 21st century, an issue left unresolved by the failure of popular movements in the early years of the last century.

During his last campaign, Nader said of these movements that “the expansion of the power of the many vis-a-vis the domination of the few raised our society to new levels of human possibilities.” (Nader 1996) According to Nader, however, these social conflicts have to be put in perspective: “This country has witnessed class warfare by the rich against the middle class and the poor far more frequently than it has witnessed class warfare by the middle class and the poor against the rich.”

Nowadays, he says, “economic policy debate tends to label policies favoring the rich as class warfare, while attacks on the poor and middle classes are known as reform” (Bauerlein 1995). Nader is an avid reader of the history of this country, the rise of bullying financial and industrial empires, and the response to this subjugation by populists, socialists and progressives. Asked what his goal was by Robert F. Kennedy, he said it was “nothing less than the qualitative reform of the industrial revolution” (Manchester 1973).

This was, of course, the aim of the three popular movements that exploded onto the American scene from 1870 to 1925, the populist, socialist and progressive currents. But two controlling myths have distorted the popular understanding of class struggles at the dawn of the post-Civil War industrial revolution.

The first myth is that there was a basic continuity between the populist and progressive movements. As Richard Hofstadter puts it, “Progressivism incorporated the heritage of Populism and Bryan Democracy” (Hofstadter 1963, 7). The second myth is that there was basic opposition between the populist movement and the socialist movement:

“And socialist voices in all their variety — Christian, Marxian, and Bellamyite — were at odds with most unionists and agrarian rebels, who affirmed their faith in private property and the malleability of the class structure,” as Michael Kazin puts it (Kazin 1995, 30).

Both issues have moved out of obscure history journals and into a lively public discourse as a result of the Ralph Nader campaign this year. The campaign has revived both myths as it seeks to form a third party linked to political traditions of a century ago. But which tradition?

The Green presidential campaign of 2000 offers a unique opportunity to further explore the political bases of Populism and Progressivism, their historical opposition, and thus the contradictory nature of the new, emerging “Progressive Populist” movement.

Why Progressive Populism?

There seems little doubt that Nader has become more radical over the years, but he would object to being described as a socialist. Although many liberals nowadays call themselves “progressives,” few of them understand the historical dimensions of the term, and fewer still understand what Nader is trying to do by building a third-party “progressive populism.”

At his February 21 campaign kickoff, Nader said about the third party, “The new populism, which the Green Party represents, involves motivated, informed voters who comprehend that `freedom is participation in power’…” What is interesting is not the homily, but Nader’s use of the term “the new populism,” which more closely defines his perspective than it does that of the Greens. While it may not be possible to precisely pinpoint Nader’s world-view, one can certainly rule out the idea that Nader simply wants a return to corporate social liberalism.

The Lincoln Star Journal, reporting May 14, 2000 on the Greens in Nebraska, headlined the story, “Nader says Green Party has Rural Agenda, Populist Roots.” It quoted him as saying: “It’s in the tradition of the progressive populist movement over 100 years ago when farmers changed the political landscape for the better.” Once, flying out of Tulsa to colleges in Kansas, Illinois and Ohio, he told his companion, “If the change is going to come, it’ll come here” (McCarry 1972, 307).

Interviewed after a 1996 swing through Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma, he lamented that folks “don’t have much of a historic connection to the farmer progressive revolt of the turn of the century, which started in Texas and went into Oklahoma, a revolt against the big railroads and the big banks at the time” (Barsamian 1996, 27). Nader has called Populism “the country’s most fundamental political and economic reform movement since the Constitution was ratified” (Krebs 1995).

Jim Hightower endorses Nader’s view, saying, “We don’t have to take what the Powers-That-Be give to us. We can create a new politics, just as others before us have had to do: the revolutionaries of 1776, the abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists, the A.F.L., the Wobblies, the C.I.O., the civil rights movement, the antiwar protesters” (Hightower 2000).

Ronnie Dugger also notes that “The Populists’ National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union started with a meeting of seven people in a farmhouse in Lampasas County, Texas. I propose the emphasis on Populism because the nineteenth-century Populists denied the legitimacy of corporate domination of a democracy, whereas in this century the progressives, the unions and the liberals gave up on and forgot about that organic and controlling issue. I propose that we seize the word Populism back [and] restore its original meaning in American history, that of the anti-corporate Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s” (Dugger 1995, 8). Dugger, however, has little company in distinguishing Populism from the Progressives.

Nader’s Progress and “New Populism”

Nader, interviewed by Bernard Shaw on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on May 30, 2000 said, “My concern is to marshal a strong base around the country, to build a new, third progressive political party — the Green Party.”

In doing so he has the support of many self-described progressives. The Green-led coalition in 2000 includes the Progressive magazine, founded in 1909 as LaFollette’s Weekly by Robert LaFollette Sr., as well as activists enrolled in the New Progressive parties in Wisconsin and Minnesota, inspired by the legacy there of his 1924 campaign on the Progressive Party and Socialist Party tickets.

It also includes the Progressive Populist newspaper, edited by James M. Cullen out of Storm Lake, Iowa, which brings together as columnists not only the “Connecticut Yankee” Ralph Nader but also Texas Populists Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Ronnie Dugger, Laurence Goodwyn and the other alums of the Texas Observer.

It includes the homely Washington newsletter the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who works with the Green Politics Network. Nader’s coalition includes the Alliance for Democracy, founded by Ronnie Dugger, which explicitly honors the old populist Alliance as an alternative to both corporate liberalism and democratic socialism. Smith and Dugger are both at odds with the radicals in the Green Party USA, and Cullen’s Progressive Populist has also editorialized against what this current calls “Marxist-Lentilists.”

Yet Nader’s coalition also embraces the Independent Progressive Politics Network, which brings together various Marxists and radicals, including some who have forsaken Gus Hall campaigns, and even aging veterans of the Progressive Party bid of Henry A. Wallace in 1948 or Vincent Hallinan in 1952. The IPPN also includes left Greens and Black and white community organizers.

The diversity of these forces is encouraging, and the four months after his nominating convention will see the list expand dramatically. But it is hard to conceive of the Nader campaign jelling into a unified ideological party with a specific vision of the future, and even the co-existence of left and right wings of the Greens is in doubt. The intellectual crisis of the Nader campaign reflects a longstanding agony over the meaning of populism, socialism and progressivism.

In 1996 Nader said of his campaign, “This is not only to build the progressive political force, but also to emphasize the power of global corporations over our political and economic instituions, cultural institutions, which the two candidates won’t discuss.”

In a lecture at Cornell University on April 23, 1996 Nader said, “What many of us do not learn in our history books is just how cautious our forefathers were about the rise of corporate power.” They’d perceived the Hudson’s Bay and East India companies as instruments of imperial power, he explained, and put limits on company charters. But as the economy grew stronger, such safeguards began to fail (Goetz 1996).

In a Syracuse New Times interview on May 3, 2000 Nader swept through the turn of events since 1776 and all that. “The main criterion for a progressive is the progressive stand on corporate power: whether the sovereignty of the people will be supreme over the sovereignty of the corporation; whether the corporate government will run the political government. This goes back from Jefferson through Madison, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, the whole farmer-populist-progressive movement, trade union movement, environmental movement, and consumer protection movement. That’s what it’s all about. Corporations have too much decision power and need to share and give some of it up to the people.”

Leaving aside the typically populist exaltation of Jefferson and Lincoln, who resisted any expansion of government in the economy, and the nod to Madison over Hamilton, the one who did favor energetic government, it is the inclusion of TR, the Rough Rider, that chafes. Nader is sophisticated enough to realize that the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and even Richard M. Nixon were all premised on the interests of the ruling capitalist class as a whole, and on the superiority of U.S. militarism and imperialism.

Concessions to labor, minorities, the poor or women always had to be couched within the subordination of those interests to the rule of capital. That is the distinguishing feature of bourgeois progressivism or corporate social liberalism, as opposed to the old populism of the Gilded Age, or the “new populism” that Nader wishes to build.

Decline of Welfare State Liberalism

In the current era, the liberal rationale of social reform has been eroded by the various conservative assaults on Keynesianism, with a rise of neoliberal economics and free-trade institutions. Clinton-Gore and the Democratic Leadership Council and Tony Blair and New Labour today represent that turn, but it has been developing since the late `70s.

In fact, the Clinton administration has initiated the kind of deficit-slashing and de-inventing government cutbacks that would have met overwhelming opposition if pushed by a GOP White House. As conservative Republican economist Murray Weidenbaum put it, “If it was only Richard Nixon who could go to China, perhaps only Bill Clinton can bite a similarly tough domestic bullet” (L.A. Times, Jan. 17, 1993). Or as Al From of the DLC boasted, “We changed from the party that supported big government programs for everything to the party that declared the era of big government is over” (L.A. Times, Aug. 26, 1996).

As Nader has put it (Washington Post, May 25, 2000), “If you can’t rely on the so-called liberal party, it’s really all over.” You have “the inexhaustible collapse of the Democratic Party in every conceivable fashion.”

It is arguable that Nader’s speech when announcing his candidacy had ambiguous formulations about democracy, which many listeners might interpret to mean that capitalism in the 1960s and `70s was somehow less under corporate control, more genuinely democratic, with politicians who were more responsive to the public interest.

There are indeed many liberal Democrats who see the social spending of the ’60s and ’70s as the Golden Age, before the “Rise of Reaganomics.” Few radicals, however, would deny that there were any gains made in that earlier period of Cold War liberalism. A list of the reforms Nader is credited with initiating includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Freedom of Information Act, the Meat and Poultry Inspection Laws, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and many others.

Nader is certainly aware that these key reforms were won by hard struggles in the `60s and `70s, and he was a significant factor in even more organizing struggles, putting together dozens of major organizations. The Public Interest Research Groups had more than half a million student members by 1970. “I like to think of myself as a Johnny Appleseed, getting consumer groups started and letting them grow on their own,” Nader has explained (Bollier 2000).

To suggest, however, that Nader saw this as a Golden Age of the Welfare State is a distortion. He thought the Kennedy Administration injected some spirit into the country but accomplished nothing of substance (McCarry 1972, 163). He emphasizes the role of militant mass movements in his distinction between the `60s and `70s versus the `80s and `90s.

In 1992 Nader reminded a Washington interviewer that they had talked in 1968 as thousands of antiwar protesters marched and chanted in the street below the hotel room: “Two decades later, he said, they should be out there again — protesting even louder about what their government is doing to America” (Playboy 1992, 56).

“After a brief decade (1965-75) of consumer, environmental and civil rights movements countervailing corporate power,” Nader says, “the global companies consolidated their position and have since concentrated their influence over both political parties, our federal government, our economy and our very culture” (Nader 1996).

Nixon signed many of Nader’s ideas into law, but “It was because of the wave of demonstrations out of the sixties, which lapped over into the early seventies. So between 1969-’70-’71, there is a wave of progressive legislation …” (Frost 1994, 11).

Nader was never infatuated with the elites in Washington, DC; but he did respect Robert Kennedy, saying: “Although he was a politician, he had the ability to become spontaneously concerned or indignant.” After RFK’s assassination on June 5, 1968, Nader showed up, apparently by himself, at the funeral in Arlington cemetery, and riding home with a reporter friend he kept saying, “What are we going to do now? What are we going to do …” (McCarry 1972, 137).

By 1971 he told a student audience, “We can no longer say, `All we need is a few good men in government.’ We’re beyond that. Even good men in government can’t make these institutions work.” (McCarry 1972).

Since 1988 he has criticized himself for not being more oppositional in that earlier period, for not putting enough emphasis on opposition to the war in Vietnam and for not joining in the civil rights demonstrations. A biographer who covered seventeen of Nader’s speeches in the late sixties noticed that “The audience sits absolutely quiet, never applauding except when Nader mentions the Vietnam War, which is rarely.” (McCarry 1972, 294).

In those days, however, Nader was never a supporter of liberal anti-communism or military Keynesianism. At the same time, he made it clear that he was not a fan of the Soviet Union. He also was never identified with the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, which he has consistently refused to join, even turning down offers of a vice-presidential spot with George McGovern in 1972.

He is now more deliberate and vocal than ever before in his opposition to military spending and foreign policy adventures. On April 25, 2000, in a speech at the University of Wyoming, Nader said, “Our foreign policy has propped up dictatorships and supported oligarchies that repressed their people horribly  . . . When are we ever going to be on the side of the peasants and the workers? When are we going to be on the side of democratic forces?” His mutual ties with organized labor have deepened, and he takes more of an internationalist view of labor issues — both of which have their downsides, as his support for excluding China from the WTO betrays.

Nader and Muckraking

In all of this, however, Nader remains what he has always been, a self-described modern populist. To try to be more specific, he looks back to that point of intersection between the social criticism of the Gilded Age and the farmer-labor movement that culminated in the radicalism of Eugene V. Debs.

The critics of the Gilded Age, from Wendel Phillips, Samuel Clemens, Ida M. Tarbell, Frank Norris, Jane Addams, and the young John Dewey and Upton Sinclair, were a diverse lot of veritists, reformers, and “muckrakers,” as Teddy Roosevelt dubbed them in 1906. Like the wretch in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, they were always raking the muck for straws, never glancing above at the brightness of the day.

One historian noted that “Roosevelt smeared the muckrakers … not because he thought their writings false but because he feared a socialist result from their revelations” (McNaught 1968, 259). The effect on public opinion was well understood by Herbert H. Croly, who explained the transition in Progressive Democracy in 1914:

“When the wave of political ‘muck-raking’ broke over the country, it provided a common bond, which tied reformers together … As soon as public opinion began to realize that business exploitation had been allied with political corruption, and that the reformers were confronted, not by disconnected abuses, but by a perverted system, the inevitable and salutary inference began to be drawn … The old system must be confronted, and superseded by a new system … (Croly 1999, 10)

Some critics like Jane Addams remained aloof from the growing socialist movement; but others, like Sinclair, became enthusiasts in the era of his hero, Jack London, and of stalwarts like Eugene V. Debs, Margaret Sanger and John Reed. Ralph Easley of the National Civic Federation, the forerunner of the Progressive movement, warned reformers of “the menace of socialism as evidenced by its growth in the colleges, churches, newspapers” (Zinn 1980, 37).

A Socialist in Ohio described the effect of the Party’s organ on the typical subscriber: “The Appeal to Reason comes into the home of this man and he begins to sweat from anger.” It was “the first act in the making of a revolutionist”(Kolko 1976, 240). The paper reached a circulation of over 500,000 in 1912. An historian says, “Not only was socialism not Un-American, it was becoming respectable” (McNaught, 260).

When Nader read Marx, he read him as a muckraker: “What happens in this kind of society, is that … decisions are made and then seven or eight tiers below, the impact is felt. That’s why Marx had such a terrific impact. He developed an analysis which clearly focused on the victims, whom he called the oppressed, and the perpetrators, whom he called the ruling class, the capitalists.”

Nader says of Marx, “I’ve always been convinced that his principal appeal was that he took the first stage of abstract perpetration in the early stage of the industrial revolution and made it personal” (McCarry, 1972, 140).

Nader recalls as a 14-year-old “shaking with excitement” as he pored over the work of early muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens on the political corruption of the cities, Upton Sinclair on the brutality of stockyard working conditions, Ida M. Tarbell on the Rockefeller oil monopoly, and George Seldes on the lords of the press (Playboy 1992, 56; Bollier 2000).

One of Nader’s favorite authors from that time on was Upton Sinclair, especially his novel The Jungle (1906), which created a movement culminating in the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1907. Nader appreciated the symbolic occasion of Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the landmark Wholesome Meat Act on December 15, 1967, when Nader and Sinclair, both key figures in the reform of the meat industry, were brought together for the first time to witness the signing.

Sinclair, aged 89, was in a wheelchair, but struggled to stand to meet Nader. Long afterward Nader said, “I sort of felt that two historic consumer ages were meeting — Upton Sinclair and I were together in the White House. Maybe this time, I thought, the work will have some effect” (McCarry 1972, 321). Asked “who powered your drive?” Nader included “… Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, the progressive leaders, too numerous to mention, around the turn of the century. There are plenty of people to be inspired by” (Frost 1994, 14).

Another model for Nader was that of the Socialist Party, which pioneered many of the reform demands eventually accepted by the major parties:

“This business of looking at third party candidates as quixotic defies the lessons of history. Norman Thomas, who graduated from Princeton, came back and lectured when I was there, and I asked him what his greatest achievement was; and he said, having his agenda stolen by the Democratic Party. And I said, what do you mean, and he said well … social security, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, labor rights, consumer protection. Did you know abolition of slavery started with a third party? The women’s right to vote started with a third party” (Harding, 1996).

A few years later, as a graduate law student at Harvard, Nader researched the history of U.S. populism, socialism, and progressivism and co-authored an article on third parties for the Harvard Law Record. He pointed out, “Their importance, as any history text will attest, has been far greater than their size. Herman Singer, editor of the Socialist Call, spoke of history when he stated that minor parties have, by and large, contributed to American political life by submitting criticism, offering sugges- tions and challenging the values of existing parties, thus contributing toward the expansion of political discussion” (Nader and Jacobs 1958, 4).

As important as the muckrakers and socialist reformers have been, however, it was the formation of mass movements in American history that provided the dynamics of change as unions, cooperatives, and new parties took up radical ideas and visions and changed the way people thought and acted. To understand Nader’s political consciousness, it is necessary to reconstruct the issues that those movements brought to the fore.

[To be continued in our next issue.]

ATC 88, September-October 2000