Common Good Politics: A Review of Nader’s BookBy Jeff Taylor for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Sioux Center, Iowa. To paraphrase Kipling’s reference to cultural differences, conventional wisdom in American politics says “Left is Left and Right is Right, and never the twain shall meet.” In regard to East vs. West, the poet goes on to say that strength of will and body transcends geography. Ralph Nader’s new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, makes a comparable point about politics. Strength of wisdom and principle transcends ideology.
Since the late 1980s, I’ve supported efforts to unite the common people. In my view, such unity was possible through a transcendent populism based on grassroots democracy, political decentralization, traditional morality, economic justice, and a substantially-altered foreign policy. After being a Reagan Republican in 1980 I became alienated from politics, partly because of the betrayal of conservative principles inherent in President-elect Reagan’s top appointments, and I moved into an apolitical phase. By the time I regained my interest in politics and current affairs six years later, I belonged to the emerging U.S. Green Party.
Moving from being an admirer of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, and other advocates of the traditionalistic, patriotic, pro-life, small-government wing of the Republican Party to being an admirer of Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and other advocates of the progressive, pacifistic, pro-ecology, social-justice wing of the Democratic Party (plus the Green Party) may seem like a surprising and dramatic shift. Because of my understanding of transcendent populism and morality, I did not find it to be irrational or uncomfortable. Working through a variety of parties over the years, my principles have remained fairly consistent since my days as a kid.
I was first attracted to the Greens by their Ten Key Values. Two of the Green values—decentralization and personal responsibility—can be easily seen as conservative values. There are several others that are compatible with conservatism, properly understood (e.g., grassroots democracy, nonviolence, ecological wisdom, community-based economics). Most American conservatives today are not peace-minded or environment-minded, but it is conservative to support conserving human life and conserving God’s creation.
Unfortunately, the Green Party has failed to live up to the promise of its Ten Key Values. When it began, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the West German Green Party attracted mostly disenchanted Social Democrats but also some populist, eco-minded Christian Democrats. Gradually, its ideologically-transcendent nature diminished as it became more conventionally leftist. The U.S. Green Party, with roots in the Counterculture and New Left movements, was solidly on the left side of the spectrum from the start.
Despite a stated commitment to decentralization, Greens often default to a knee-jerk defense of federal, or even global, bureaucratic control in policy debates, thereby acting more as an auxiliary of the Democratic Party than as a genuine alternative to big-government liberalism. This approach undercuts one of the original appeals of the international Green movement: its slogan “We are neither Left nor Right; we are in Front.” Some Green leaders have emphasized a deep ecology philosophical basis for the party in a way that gets past conventional modern liberalism. They have also attempted to build bridges to the populist Right but these efforts have not met with much practical success. The Nader campaigns were only marginally more successful in this regard. (Unstoppable does not mention the Green Party despite Nader having been its presidential nominee two times.)
While it has some appeal to post-1960s American progressivism, the Green Party has European roots. There is an older homegrown tradition with cross-ideological potential: American populism. For two centuries, populists have looked to Thomas Jefferson for political inspiration. Building on a foundation of the Grange, Single Taxers, Greenbackers, the Farmers’ Alliance, and labor union socialists, the People’s (Populist) Party of the 1890s attempted to craft a transcendent populist coalition: North and South, white and black, rural and urban. It had some success as a third party in the South, Midwest, and West until it largely merged in 1896 with the anti-monopoly, pro-silver Jeffersonian revival within the Democratic Party. That revival was led by William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. Bryan’s leadership of the national party passed into the hands of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Democrats have never recovered from the ensuing betrayal of Jefferson’s thought.
Nonetheless, the political thought of Jefferson did not become obsolete and it has often sparked transcendent populist coalitions since the 1930s. All were ad hoc and most were ultimately unsuccessful but they illustrate the ongoing relevance of Jeffersonian thought. When the Greens proved to be an untenable vehicle for Right/Left-transcendent values, I largely returned to major-party politics ranging from Brown and Feingold on the Democratic Left to Buchanan and Paul on the Republican Right, with quadrennial votes for Nader thrown in for good measure.
In standing for election as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2012, I defined traditional conservatism as: (1) respecting values that honor God, (2) protecting human life, (3) ensuring civil liberties, (4) pursuing justice for all, (5) decentralizing power, (6) keeping the federal government within its constitutional constraints, (7) encouraging free enterprise rather than crony capitalism, and (8) practicing a foreign policy that emphasizes true national defense instead of policing the world and becoming entangled in unnecessary wars. These are the exact same principles I held when I was seeking to attend the Democratic National Convention in 1992. There is no incongruity for me. Application of these principles can vary and lead to disagreement between liberals and conservatives, between progressives and traditionalists, but they hold great potential for common ground. This is the thesis of Ralph Nader’s new book.
Uniting two seemingly opposite ideologies—what Nicholas of Cusa, in a different context, called a coincidence of opposites—has worked for me as a single individual. The question is: Can it work for others? Is the Nader prescription useable beyond the handful of Americans who consciously recognize the transcendent utility of democracy and liberty? I think it is.
Nader identifies the genesis of the book in his experiences as a boy with diverse customers in his family’s restaurant in Winsted, Connecticut. He acknowledges his own “ultraliberal” reputation as an adult but argues that certain core values transcend conventional political labels. He defines his proposed alliance of liberals and conservatives (LibCons or LCs) as “a coming together” by “free-thinking Americans” who have a “deep aversion” to “the wars of empire and corporate control over their lives, particularly the ever-tightening influence of Big Business on the mainstream media, elections, and our local, state, and national governments.” Nader notes that these “power grabs are then turned against the people themselves in harmful and lawless manners.” (pages x, xi)
Not surprisingly, given his history, Nader is an astute analyst of American politics. He distinguishes between “corporatist Republicans” and genuinely conservative Republicans. (American Greens used to call the latter “value conservatives” to distinguish them from their plutocratic rivals within the GOP; today, the labels are often Establishment vs. Tea Party.)
Nader writes, “It turns out that the Republican Party has a double life: the main party dominated by corporatists and the adjunct party relying on conservatives and libertarians to produce the margin of votes for victory in elections. The corporatist Republicans let the libertarians and conservatives have the paper platforms and the core ideological issues, pat them on the back at party convention time, and then move into office, where they are quick to throw out a welcome mat for Big Business lobbyists with their slush funds, who are anything but libertarian or conservative in their demands.” (13) He goes on to comment, “I have not met a conservative who calls himself a corporatist, but I have met many a corporatist who masquerades as a conservative—the better to forge a false communion with authentic conservatives as a way to increase the giddy power of the corporate state.” (15)
The book is full of mostly-forgotten political history. For example, Nader correctly describes National Review under Buckley as “mostly routine corporatist fare in ‘conservative’ garb.” (14) He calls attention to the misuse of conservative authority figures such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Russell Kirk by corporatists on behalf of plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). A number of genuinely conservative voices receive favorable mentions by Nader, including The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan, Andrew Napolitano, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, Robert Taft, and the Cato Institute. One of my favorite U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is positively mentioned several times. Nader shares some interesting anecdotes about his interactions over the years with politicians, including Senator Grassley, Senator Hank Brown, Congressman John Kasich, and Governor Ronald Reagan (18-21, 47-50).
Nader spends a chapter on contemporary examples of hands reaching across the ideological/partisan aisle “though often slapped back by wily corporatists.” As I’ve detailed in my recent book, Politics on a Human Scale, both major parties at the national leadership levels are dominated by individuals committed to power, wealth, and empire above all else. They have little genuine interest in democracy, liberty, community, or morality. There are insurgents within the Democratic and Republican camps, however, who are more honest and principled.
Two chapters are devoted to 25 proposed reforms that could be supported by an alliance of LibCons. It is a good list, focusing mostly on democratic politics, economic populism, constitutional fidelity, and a prudent foreign policy. An important category of political issues is almost entirely missing from the list: moral/social/cultural issues. This is the rock upon which many temporary alliances between liberals and conservatives have splintered apart.
The Left and the Right are united against the economic and political establishment in the Center on the primary issues of our day. On secondary and tertiary issues, however, there are strong differences and these are the divisive, hot-button issues that are emphasized by those with power. It is the age-old divide-and-conquer strategy. This approach is called “displacement of conflicts” by political scientist E.E. Schattschneider. Using the corporate press (mainstream media), political appeals are made to citizens on the basis of special interest, not the common good. If the majority of people who are politically and economically oppressed were to join hands, they might be able to overturn the power of the economic elite and its political hirelings.
Nader’s ignoring of the emotional and divisive moral/social/cultural issues is a weakness of the book. This problem must be openly addressed. It is implicit even in his list of 25 reforms. As might be expected, the list has a more leftist tinge than rightist. There is no “Protect unborn human life” or “Protect marriage as it has been understood by all of human civilization until the past couple decades.”
Nader’s own social liberalism—even if not primary or dogmatic, in comparison to many progressives—leads to a few clunker lines in the book that will not resonate at all with social conservatives. Support for Planned Parenthood and praise for its founder Margaret Sanger by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife are recounted as an example of conservative opinion makers sometimes shaking the “standard mythology.” (31) In fact, Scaife’s pro-abortion, pro-population control views are in line with an older narrative that is not widely known today. The taproot of the abortion rights movement is the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, which was driven by wealthy families and big foundations. Sanger was immersed in this world so it is not surprising that an heir of the Mellon fortune admires her work.
Similarly, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is described as a “highly regarded conservative jurist.” (134) She was a Reagan appointee but consistent conservatives were angered by her selection in 1981 because her record as an Arizona politician made clear that she was pro-choice on abortion and she subsequently upheld Roe v. Wade. Her political and judicial records are that of a corporatist, not a conservative.
Nader points to fairness and locality as two concerns that unite most Americans (16). This is true but deep differences in theology and morality keep many of us apart. I urge political decentralism as a solution to this problem. Decentralization of power is a tactic that is ideology- and party-neutral. It has across-the-board potential. For instance, the people of Indiana, Massachusetts, California, and Alabama, respectively, can each choose their own desirable path for statecraft and commonweal.
An emphasis on freedom and decentralism appeals to some cultural liberals because they are willing to settle for “freedom of choice” in New York and Oregon, even if it means allowing “right to life” in Nebraska and Mississippi. Of course, some activists on both sides of this and other divisive issues insist on an all-or-nothing strategy of nationalizing every problem and every conflict. Such an approach has mostly failed cultural conservatives when it comes to legalized abortion and now it is doing the same when it comes to politicized homosexuality. (Why? Three reasons: Rejection of traditional morality by Democratic leaders, dishonest exploitation of the party grassroots by Republican leaders, and usurpation of power by unelected, elite-minded judges.)
Despite this omission, for the most part Nader has a sober understanding of the difficulties of creating a Left-Right alliance. One chapter is spent on 10 obstacles to conservatives working for convergence with liberals against corporatists. He briefly mentions some liberal obstacles as well.
The following chapter focuses on the 1936 book Who Owns America? The book, originally planned as a follow-up to the more-famous I’ll Take My Stand by the Twelve Southerners associated with Vanderbilt University, possessed a decentralist-agrarian-distributist perspective in assessing the American economic and political landscape during the Great Depression. To his credit, Nader argues that the book illuminates our own time. At the end of his own book, he gives Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) special thanks for keeping Who Owns America? and “so many other works by thoughtful conservatives in print.” (By the way, a group of twelve FPR-affiliated writers led by Jason Peters is working on a contemporary response to I’ll Take My Stand for a book publisher.)
Calling Franklin D. Roosevelt “a perceived champion against concentrated power” and referring to the plutocratic and pro-New Deal media as accepting the “inevitability” of Big Business being balanced by Big Government, Nader points out that the southern agrarian conservatives of the 1930s had a real alternative: “There was espoused a political economy for grassroots America that neither Wall Street nor the socialists nor the New Dealers would find acceptable. It came largely out of the agrarian South, casting a baleful eye on both Wall Street and Washington, DC. To these decentralists, the concentrated power of bigness would produce its plutocratic injustices whether regulated through the centralization of political authority in Washington or left to its own monopolistic and cyclical failures. They were quite aware of both the corporate state fast maturing in Italy and Nazi Germany and the Marxists in the Soviet Union constructing another form of concentrated power with an ideology favoring centralized bigness in the state economy. They warned that either approach would produce as an end product unrestrained plutocracy and oligarchy.” (159, 140)
There were superficial similarities between the platforms of W.J. Bryan, Robert La Follette, and other early-twentieth-century prairie populists and the presidency of FDR but the differences were not only of magnitude but of kind. In the 1930s and 1940s, Norman Thomas, John T. Flynn, and George Orwell were correct in seeing that there was an ideological kinship between pragmatic, power-centric forms of mid-century statism—Soviet, German, and American. In the United States, we are still living with that legacy of statism.
Nader has a reputation as someone who puts his faith in federal regulation. But bureaucratic regulation is a means, not an end, for Nader. The end has always been grassroots democracy and social justice. Personally, I would like to see regulation kept to a minimum and kept at the state and local level, as per the Tenth Amendment. I do think, however, if we’re stuck with a Leviathan federal government, it ought to operate on behalf of We the People, not Wall Street.
Nader approvingly quotes from a chapter in Who Owns America? by John Rawe: “No State or Federal regulation is ever adequately enforced to protect private individual owners in any field of commercial production. The immense power of the incorporated monopoly always has its ways of circumventing legislative programs.” This is known as co-optation or agency capture, and is associated with what conservatives who truly believe in free enterprise call “crony capitalism.” Nader criticizes contemporary conservatives who reject Big Government without proposing “an alternative locus of power” that would check the machinations of crony capitalists. (143) (Using Jeffersonian language, Andrew Jackson called this elite class “a monied aristocracy dangerous to the liberties of the country.”)
In searching for an alternative to Big Government to check misdeeds by Big Business, Nader is returning to his youth. He has always had a traditionalistic, small-business, patriotic streak that is compatible not only with Jeffersonian liberalism exemplifed by Bryan and La Follette but also with Jeffersonian conservatism exemplified by Taft and Goldwater. In his book The Seventeen Traditions, in the chapter on patriotism, Nader writes, “Father was an incessant critic of power—business and governmental, local and national—and one who was never afraid to propose a solution. . . . [Mother and Dad] intuited what Marcus Cicero said over two thousand years ago in ancient Rome: ‘Freedom is participation in power.’”
Nader’s first publication in a national magazine was “Business is Deserting America,” published in March 1960 by American Mercury, an Old Right periodical. The article’s opening sentence seems to mock foreign aid such as the Marshall Plan: “After World War II, our government’s favorite foreign hobby was the giving of America’s earnings, paid in taxes, to European nations in order to rebuild their war-ravaged economies.” Shortly thereafter, Nader refers to the U.S. government’s “ingrained gullibility to internationalism.” The main point of the article is a condemnation of overseas corporate investment and production: “Spawned—and having prospered—under a free enterprise system, American business firms are deserting our shores, and taking their American capital and know-how, are setting up in socialistic countries of Europe. From this vantage point they strike back to undermine the economy that permitted them to turn liberty into license.”
This patriotic emphasis on America First—an emphasis compatible with a humanitarian, non-imperial type of internationalism—has never gone away. In 1996, Nader wrote an editorial in the Washington Times calling on the owners and managers of multinational corporations to say the Pledge of Allegiance at every annual shareholder meeting. For example, “General Motors Corporation pledges allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He followed this up with letters to the CEOs of the 100 largest U.S.-based corporations. The response? Only one big company said, “Yes, that’s a good idea” . . . and they didn’t end up doing it. The other 99 were not very interested in pledging allegiance to America. Pat Buchanan, a friend of Nader and his equivalent on the Right when it came to presidential politics during the 1992-2000 period, drew attention to Nader’s interesting proposal in his syndicated newspaper column.
Toward the end of his book, Nader criticizes modern liberals for a lack of vision and thought. As someone who has been on the receiving end of lots of knee-jerk, brain-dead liberal hatred ever since he “cost Al Gore the election”—the same Al Gore who failed to carry his home state and would have discovered the true culprit in his election loss if he had just looked in the mirror—Nader is speaking from experience. Of course, he has also seen first-hand the multitude of compromises, lies, and sell-outs by Democratic Party leaders in DC for six decades. Two specific examples in the book are naiveté toward “communist despotism” and ignoring of “union leaders’ corruption” but the examples are legion.
Examining populist conservatism, Nader summarizes, without objection, Pat Buchanan’s view that “the Republican Party of Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan” has been hijacked “by both the neocons and the corporatists” who “have combined to destroy our sovereignty, our constitutional restraints, and our reasonable economic self-determination.” He quotes Buchanan’s rejection of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” (a phrase coined by Charles Beard and used as a book title by Harry Elmer Barnes and, more recently, Gore Vidal).
The final chapter of the book is entitled “Dear Billionaire.” While written in upbeat language, there is something plaintive about having to place one’s political hopes in one’s “Super-Rich Friend.” Like his book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! from a few years ago—written in the wake of his fourth and final national campaign for the White House—it seems to be a tacit admission that grassroots action is not enough in a land where the Almighty Dollar reigns.
In the Epilogue, he gives his rationale and it makes sense (sad though it may be): “The operational fuel for these efforts is money. Justice needs money; it always has in American history, whether for abolition of slavery and early women’s rights movements or the civil rights and environmental drives of our generation. Far less than 1 percent of the affluent in today’s America can put convergence on a fast track. . . . Granted, donated money can dilute, control, or even corrupt. But received with the requisite alertness and clear understanding, money can have a greatly enhanced effect in overcoming the naysayers and skeptics about anything getting done in our gridlocked country.” (192)
Earlier in the book, Nader refers to one public-minded wealthy person who has taken the lead in fostering a Left-Right alliance. George O’Neill Jr., a member of the Rockefeller family and a Buchanan Republican, funded a potentially important conference of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to discuss U.S. foreign policy on February 20, 2010, in Washington, DC. While disagreeing on many domestic issues, the 40 or so individuals at the Come Home America conference were united in opposition to the bipartisan policy of empire and war. Nader—or perhaps an editorial assistant—gets the list of participants slightly wrong by including some invitees who were unable to attend. Medea Benjamin, Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Robert Pollin, Cindy Sheehan, Dave Wagner, and Tom Woods were not present at the hotel that day. Their writings were included, however, in a book published by the group later in the year.
The list of attendees in the book caught my eye because I was privileged to be one, thanks to the kindness of Bill Kauffman and generosity of George O’Neill. On a personal level, it was an awesome experience and I was thrilled to be able to interact with Nader in a small-scale setting during the afternoon. (He was the featured speaker at lunch and remained for the rest of the day.) I was also excited, and shocked, when Dan McCarthy of The American Conservative told me that Ron Paul had won the 2010 straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the same city on that very day.
Some of the other participants that I especially enjoyed getting to know included Paul Buhle, Allan Carlson, William Greider, Lewis McCrary, Murray Polner, and Sam Smith (six that are not mentioned in the Nader book). While it was a highlight of my life, I share Nader’s disappointment that more did not happen in the real-world of politics as a result of the conference. It shows that fine thought and words—spoken or written—do not necessarily produce meaningful action.
In the end, a book is only a book. Still, Unstoppable is an excellent and important book. It is full of details and wisdom. It is well written. It is easy to read. It should be widely read. It illustrates how a nuanced and irenic political philosophy is able to embrace seeming opposites on the ideological spectrum. If there sometimes can be convergence between East and West, certainly the same can be said of Left and Right.