May 30, 2014

Timothy Noah is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.” He writes twice weekly for MSNBC.com.

Ralph Nader wants liberals and conservatives to work together. In his new book, “Unstoppable,” he cites many instances in which such cooperation ought to be possible, at least theoretically. But the book’s greater value may lie in the opportunity to contemplate, almost half a century after he first stepped onto the national stage, where Nader himself fits on the ideological spectrum.

Any discussion of Nader must begin with the acknowledgment that he is a great man. He created modern consumer advocacy when he published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” his 1965 book about auto safety, and he founded a network of nonprofits dedicated to muckraking and lobbying in the public interest, challenging the government on a host of regulatory issues that previously received scant attention. It’s a backhanded compliment to Nader that the stampede of corporate lobbyists into Washington starting in the 1970s began as an effort to counter him (before it acquired a fevered momentum of its own).

Most people would situate Nader on the left. That’s a reasonable judgment but also a simplistic one, because in many ways he is fairly conservative — conservative enough to harvest favorable book-jacket blurbs for “Unstoppable” from the likes of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and anti-immigration activist Ron Unz. No doubt part of Nader’s appeal to such folks is their sheer gratitude that he helped keep Al Gore out of the White House (though with a margin as thin as the one in Florida’s vote count, you could blame Gore’s 2000 defeat — or, if you prefer, thwarted victory — on just about anything). But the right’s affinity for Nader is not based solely on partisan interest. He holds more beliefs in common with conservatives than is generally recognized.

Income distribution, a long-standing concern for the left, has seldom interested Nader, except insofar as government can be stopped from redistributing upward. He favors much stronger government regulation of corporations, but his argument is that corporations would otherwise avoid the sort of accountability that any well-functioning market demands. If a pro-regulatory, highly litigious libertarian can be imagined, that’s what Nader is.

“Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Allianceto Dismantle the Corporate State” by Ralph Nader. (Nation Books)

“Any government intrusion into the economy,” he wrote in 1962, “deters the alleged beneficiaries from voicing their views or participating in civic life.” He probably wouldn’t put it so tea-party-ishly today. But he remains much less enamored than most liberals of representative government as a solution to life’s problems. Nader’s allegiance is not to politicians and bureaucrats, whom he routinely excoriates, but to the citizens who petition them, sue them and vote for or against them. His ideal is a small community (like Winsted, Conn., where he grew up) that unites to force corporations and unresponsive government to act in the public interest. Think of every Frank Capra movie you ever saw. People often assume that Capra was a New Deal Democrat, but in fact he was a lifelong Republican.

An entire chapter of “Unstoppable” celebrates the Southern Agrarians, a reactionary populist movement of the 1930s that cast “a baleful eye on both Wall Street and Washington, D.C.” Nader admires the Southern Agrarians not for their racial attitudes (most of them were notably racist and anti-Semitic) but because they believed fiercely in maintaining small-scale rural economies in which both ownership and control stayed local, often in the form of a co-op. Squint a little, and the Southern Agrarians may start to resemble today’s left-wing microbrewers and locavores.

Much of the left’s agenda, “Unstoppable” argues, can be justified by citing revered conservative authors. Adam Smith described the invisible hand but also the “bad effects of high profits.” Friedrich Hayek condemned certain cartels and monopolies. Russell Kirk, who feared untrammeled government and capitalism, wrote that John D. Rockefeller and Karl Marx “were merely two agents of the same social force — an appetite cruelly inimical to human individuation.”

Nader cites these and other examples to argue that left and right should band together against the common enemy of “corporatism.” It’s really more the Naderite left he’s talking about, and an ever-shrinking pool of principled conservatives. But let’s hear him out. The issues he has in mind for a left-right alliance break down into three categories.

Category One is the Centrist Agenda. This consists of ideas that are uncontroversial but difficult to achieve in practice. They include promoting more efficiency in government contracting and spending, requiring an annual audit of the Pentagon budget, reviving civic education in schools, and preventing private exploitation of “the commons,” i.e., anything that’s owned by everybody — public lands, public airwaves, the Internet, etc. (One of two people to whom Nader dedicates “Unstoppable” is my late friend Jonathan Rowe, a journalist whose 2013 book, “Our Common Wealth,” argues for better stewardship of the commons. Like Nader, Rowe makes the case that there are good conservative reasons to do this.)

Category Two is what I’d call the Right On Agenda. It consists of ideas that are controversial to some degree but (to my mind, at least) extremely worthwhile. These include adjusting the minimum wage automatically to inflation, as proposed by the Obama administration — and supported by Mitt Romney before he ran for president. One argument Nader could make here, but doesn’t, is that such automatic adjustments would deprive Democrats of a political stick with which they’ve lately been beating Republicans who don’t want to raise the minimum wage.

Another controversial but worthwhile idea is to break up the “too big to fail” banks. Several prominent conservatives already support such a move, including Washington Post columnist George Will; Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Limiting the size of banks appeals to both left and right because it would eliminate any need to bail them out in the future. Now proponents just have to win over centrists such as former treasury secretary Tim Geithner, who has pronounced any effort to end “too big to fail” “quixotic” and “misguided.”

A third controversial but valuable idea suggested by Nader is to rein in commercial marketing to children, especially through TV. This is exploitation, plain and simple. Trying to stop it has been the life’s work of Peggy Charren, founder of the now-defunct liberal group Action for Children’s Television. Nader notes that the evangelical right is also troubled by the way toy companies and fast-food restaurants are permitted to hawk often-questionable products to kids.

Category Three is what I’d call the Nutty Agenda, a rubric that should be self-explanatory. Nader favors further direct democracy through initiative, referendum and recall, but the results from these have seldom been encouraging. California’s Proposition 13, for instance, launched a nationwide revolt against property taxes — Thomas Piketty’s worst nightmare — and hobbled California’s state budget for a generation. Nader’s advocacy in this instance reflects his too-severe impatience with representative democracy. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that his ideal republic would conduct government business almost entirely by plebiscite, with the rest settled in the courts.

Nader would also like to end fast-track trade agreements, a goal more in tune with the left (and less so, I think, with the right). But although I’m sympathetic to many of his pro-labor and environmental arguments, the damage done by fast-track trade deals would not, I believe, exceed the likely damage that protectionist Senate amendments would do to slower-track agreements.

“End unconstitutional wars,” another overlap on Nader’s left-right Venn diagram, sounds reasonable enough — Nader is correct that a strict reading of the Constitution assigns exclusive warmaking authority to Congress. But Congress has demonstrated in a thousand ways since 1941 that it doesn’t want to assume much responsibility, pro or con, for foreign interventions. How does one force it to? Nader is pretty vague about that in “Unstoppable,” but elsewhere he’s said he’d like to impeach President Obama for “war crimes.” He similarly wanted to impeach George W. Bush for waging war “based on false pretenses.” This seems indiscriminate, to say the least, and another sign that Nader deems representative government highly disposable.

Of course someone has to pay for all this politicking. One of the zanier directions Nader’s thinking has taken in recent years is the belief that public-interest-minded rich people can be relied on to restore political power to ordinary citizens. This is the theme of his 2009 novel, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us.” In the book, rich self-described “Meliorists” enact single-payer health insurance, elect Warren Beatty governor of California and persuade Wal-Mart to unionize.

Back here in the real world, though, the main way rich people have lately exerted significant power over the political process has been through conservative super PACs. During the 2012 Republican primaries, pashas such as Sheldon Adelson, Harold Simmons and Foster Friess were calling the shots as never before. One especially touching belief of Nader’s, expressed in a chapter of “Unstoppable” titled “Dear Billionaire,” is that rich patrons can be persuaded to cede control over how their money is spent in pursuit of the common weal.

Cooperation ought to be possible, even in this age of political bad faith, between left and right. That Nader is pursuing it so vigorously in the current hyper-partisan environment is yet another reason to admire the man. But at least to some extent, when Nader thinks he’s talking to conservatives, he’s actually talking to the quirky conservative within himself.

Timothy Noah is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.” He writes twice weekly for MSNBC.com.

UNSTOPPABLE

The Emerging Left-Right Alliance
to Dismantle the Corporate State

By Ralph Nader

Nation Books. 224 pp. $25.99

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