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Opinion Two decades after playing ‘spoiler,’ Ralph Nader fights for Democrats

Ralph Nader on Capitol Hill in October 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For first time in his 88 years, Ralph Nader is campaigning for the Democrats, not against them.

The legendary consumer advocate and four-time presidential candidate will never be forgiven by many Democrats for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by playing the spoiler (a label that still infuriates Nader) on the Green Party ticket. Back then, Nader liked to say: “The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.”

It’s not that Nader suddenly likes Democrats. It’s that Democrats are the only thing standing in the way of an authoritarian takeover of the United States — and this is no time to be carping over trifles. “What’s different now is in 2000 there wasn’t a fascist drive coming over the horizon,” he told me this week. “Right now, we’re dealing with the greatest menace to a modest democratic society since the Civil War.”

And so, earlier this year, Nader got together with Mark Green, a left-wing former Democratic politician from New York, and about 20 progressive activists, writers and academics, to form an organization called Winning America, which just produced a lengthy set of recommendations for Democrats titled “Crushing the GOP, 2022.”

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“Ralph once said he’d be a Democrat when the Martians invade,” said Green, who has known Nader for half a century. “They invaded and they’re here and they’re a few inches away from engaging in a fascist takeover of our few-century democracy.” He said that Nader’s father, a Lebanese immigrant, had told his son not to join either major political party because “they’re both bad.”

But such bothsidesism no longer applies. The new incarnation of Nader’s Raiders want Democrats to “punch back” against “the worst GOP in history — serially corrupt, violence-prone, anti-labor as well as compulsively dishonest and authoritarian.” They write: “Unless Democratic nominees tell a story about what 2023 and 2025 would look like if reactionary Republicans return to power — ending Obamacare, urging higher taxes on 75 million people, corporatizing Social Security and Medicare, shredding the social safety net/regulatory protections, jailing girls after abortions, overturning Marriage Equality, spurring more MAGA mobs threatening officials under (again) an outlaw president — the minority party will try to coast to victories by simply blaming Biden, Blackness and Wokeness (whatever that means).”

Nader gained fame in 1965 with his publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” and his storied career included such triumphs as inspiring the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

But then he turned to third-party and independent presidential runs in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. In Florida in 2000, Nader won 97,488 votes; if even a tiny fraction of those left-leaning voters had gone instead to Gore, who lost Florida by 537 votes, the Democrat would have won the state and the presidency.

Nader lost his relevance after that — he still complains that Democratic officials won’t call him back — and he still insists he’s not to blame for electing George W. Bush. But he’s starting to make peace with the “spoiler” brand. “I’ll forgive the Democrats for scapegoating me,” he said.

His latest collaborators — figures such as Green, the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, former Texas official Jim Hightower, tax writer David Cay Johnston, Color of Change’s Heather McGhee, Greenpeace’s Annie Leonard, Medicare-for-all advocate Steffie Woolhandler — are generally older, and overall Whiter, than the party’s activist core. But some elected Democrats are welcoming the gesture from the old gadfly. Prominent House Democrats Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Jamie Raskin (Md.), Jim McGovern (Mass.) and John Larson (Conn.) sent Winning America’s recommendations to their peers in a “Dear Colleague” letter last month.

The recommendations — essentially a hard-edged economic populism — aren’t revolutionary. But the peace offering from a guy who spent most of his long career quarreling with Democrats shows how enormous the stakes are in the midterm elections.

When I spoke with Nader, still sharp in his ninth decade, I sensed a tinge of regret about his role in the outcome of the 2000 election. “What I knew was historically little parties launched great ventures — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor, farmer — and they never were elected, but they pushed one or the other of the two parties,” he said. But it didn’t work.

“This is another way of approaching it,” he continued. “After 2000, my Democratic friends said, ‘Ralph, look, why don’t you work with the party?’ … Okay, so we’re now working with the party.”

That change of heart might be 22 years late, yet it has never been more urgent.

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