Nader: Influence for Good or Ill?

Dear Bob,

In stating that the Prospect invited me to review Nader's book, you're too kind. I actually invited myself, and I intended all along to use my review for a broader discussion of Nader. I don't believe the editors I worked with had any different impression.

I didn't "blame" Nader for the right-wing business backlash of the 1970s. I pointed out (as an aside) that Nader discounts President Bush's depredations by predicting they will lead to a progressive counter-mobilization. If we accept this calculation, I wrote, it is only fair that we discount Nader's triumphs by the conservative counter-mobilization he did incite. You argue that "any reading of postwar history" will refute the notion that Nader inadvertently goaded 1970s conservatism. In fact, my New Republic colleague and Prospect contributor John Judis writes in "The Paradox of American Democracy" that much of business's political activity was actually public-minded, rather than narrowly interested. His book discusses this shift, and cites Nader as one of the causes. You may disagree with Judis' reading of postwar history, but surely you must concede that it is a reading of postwar history.

You paint Nader's candidacy as a reaction against the Democratic Party's rightward shift. But as I argue, and as Martin's biography makes very clear, Nader's attack on the Democrats has much more to do with him than with them. Martin describes how Nader would suddenly turn against his allies in Congress and their legislation for no apparent reason. He was making "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" indictments of Carter and Reagan more than 20 years ago. Nader's behavior, not to mention his own words, suggest that this results as much from his own psychology as from any real changes in the Democratic Party.

Yes, I mention Nader's accomplishments only in passing. Your book, "Everything for Sale," devoted less attention to capitalism's merits than to its flaws. When you want to challenge the conventional wisdom, you can't spend half your space repeating arguments everybody already knows. (And yes, I think it's funny that a paranoid conspiracy theorist happened to become the object of a conspiracy. Don't you?)

Thrice you accuse me of "rage." I do enjoy excoriating dishonest and venal politicians, of whom Nader is merely the latest. If you think that such excoriation can only result from rage, then you must think I spend all my working hours in a state of rage. Although you were on book leave during much of my year at TAP, surely you saw enough of me to know that I'm a fairly calm guy.

In fact, I think it's your ideological disillusionment with the Democrats that's causing you to take up some shaky arguments. You cite Frank Rich as saying the Democrats have no plans for Iraq or the economy. Actually, many of them do, but because "the Democrats" consist of many politically and ideologically competing Congressmen, as opposed to a single administration, the party does not have a unified plan. You also, with Nader, state that Gore should have easily won the election. (Ironically, the Democratic Leadership Council you both so detest agrees.) I think the cultural backlash against Clinton counterbalanced the political benefit of the strong economy. That's why Bush was leading Gore by 20 points in early 1999 -- before any campaigning took place -- and why Gore's pollsters, who wanted to win, didn't allow Clinton to campaign with their man.

Nonetheless, these are side disputes. My central contention is that Nader is systematically dishonest, and especially so on the topic of his helping to elect Bush. I further argue that his helping to elect Bush is not a side issue but one of essential importance in evaluating not only Nader's campaign but his entire career. In response to this you reply only that Nader may have forced Gore to run a more interesting (and, you seem to imply, effective) campaign. First, I don't think that's true. Gore's "populist" theme was largely a way of stressing issue areas where Gore had the more popular stance and allowing Gore to attack Bush rather than defend Clinton. Nader was probably a small part of the calculus. Second, to the extent that Nader forced Gore thematically to run further to the left than he would have in a two-candidate race, I don't see why that necessarily helped Gore -- Bush's attacks on Gore as a big-spending liberal late in the race seemed to have some effect. Finally, all this is pure speculation, and it can't count for very much against the hard facts of time, money and votes drained away by Nader. I think that you have left my central thesis standing, and, given your fondness for Nader, that is quite damning of him.

Jon Chait