Nader gets up to speed

Jul 12, 2000 at 12:00 am

To the youth of America, I say ... the lessons of history are clear. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.

Ralph Nader, accepting the Green Party presidential nomination.

Early on, I wasn't ecstatic over Ralph Nader's latest presidential bid. I had him pegged as one of yesterday's heroes trying for a new shot at the limelight.

True, he is the father of the modern consumer movement, standing up against General Motors and other demons when that took great courage. Yet, there was always a touch of the self-styled saint, or crank, that made me a trifle nervous. He doesn't own a car, wears a rusty black suit and has no close attachments, no mate, partner, children. Historically, saints have a hard time understanding the failings of us lesser sinners, and when in power tend to send great heaps of us to the gallows. Plus, while I liked knowing old Ralph was out there, and even wished he'd been on the Michigan ballot last time, this year I feared that his full-court campaign was most likely to help put that smirking fool Alfred E. Neuman, aka George W. Bush, in the White House.

Al Gore, tin man though he be, was – is – clearly better than Bush. Simply imagine Alfred E. – sorry, Dubya – faced with a complex foreign crisis. Damn straight, me worry. Yes, the last eight years have been disappointing as hell for anyone who hoped for anything mildly progressive from an allegedly Democratic presidency.

Well, we didn't get it, other than a miserably botched effort at health care reform, and now the country and the Congress are far to the right of where they were in 1992.

And we are told, sorry, better be content with this, remember, Bush Minor would be worse, leastways, he'd put anti-abortion terrorists on the U.S. Supreme Court, etc.

Meanwhile, we are supposed to shut up as Gore panders to the right, as he did stupidly over Elian Gonzalez, and hope that we might get a few crumbs, someday.

Trouble is, that's not working. Voters are drifting away from the stagnant Gore campaign. Faced with a real Republican and an ersatz one, many Democrats will go bowling. Every new poll shows Al a little further in the hole.

And suddenly, Ralph Nader, nominated two weeks ago by the Green Party, is surging – and in a way not completely explainable by Goreboredom. What's more, his supporters, still a tiny band, are the only enthusiastic-sounding people anywhere. "Both national parties now exist as wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America. Someone has to do something. Ralph has, and I say, let's join him!" says Jim Hightower, the populist Texas broadcaster. William Greider, author of the best book about what is wrong with our system, Who Will Tell the People? (Simon & Schuster, 1992), is also supporting Nader. "What I would like to see is a season of white-knuckle fear among the Democratic establishment," he writes in the July 17 issue of The Nation. Today, he says with uncanny accuracy, the Democrats have degenerated into nothing more than "a business-first party that will selectively defend social guarantees against the other business-first party." Fact is, throughout American history, almost the only way the major parties ever get nudged in the direction of progress is when third parties scare ’em. We have forgotten it was Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs, heroic democratic socialists, who laid the groundwork for unemployment insurance and Social Security. Finally I read Ralph Nader’s too-long-for-prime-time acceptance speech, delivered in Denver two weeks ago, and realized Old Cranky had his finger on the problems. "Big business has been colliding with American democracy and democracy has been losing."

What's worse is that we now see this as normal – or have given up believing we can do anything about it. Most workers in our country, he noted, do not have the basic rights and protections – health care, day care – nations in Western Europe gave their citizens many years ago. We are working longer and more stress-filled hours than ever and even though this is the greatest boom in history, taking home less than in 1973. Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth and power is greater than ever before; Bill Gates is worth as much as the 120 million poorest Americans combined.

What Nader wants to do is not win the election, but wake America up. "How badly do we want a just and decent society, a society that raises our expectation levels about ourselves and our community ... a society that has the people planning the future of the country, not global corporations?"

Nobody thinks he will be elected. Not yet. But he might get enough support to force the others to talk about issues really relevant to Americans. And if by the fall Nader registers 15 percent in the polls, they have to put him in the debates.

Wouldn't that be something? Wouldn't that shake up the establishment, especially the corporate media, who think Americans really care about whether Gore made fundraising calls from the White House or Bush snorted coke in the 1970s?

I can't promise I’ll vote for Nader if polls show a close race between Gore and Bush on Election Day. The lesser is just too evil. But if the outcome seems clear either way, I think I will vote for the future. That is, in favor of having one.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]