By Matthew Rothschild, September 28, 2009
I saw Ralph Nader yesterday, indefatigable as ever.
He was on tour for his new book, and his first work of
fiction, "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us."
The plot is about how seventeen famous billionaires,
like Warren Buffett and Ted Turner, all of a sudden
come to their conscience and spend some of their money
to bring about the anti-corporate and pro-democracy
changes that Ralph Nader has spent his life campaigning
This is a Hail Mary pass for progressive change, and it
is an expression of Nader's frustration-even
desperation-at our inability to tackle what he rightly
calls "the permanent corporate government" in
His approach, in the book, is about as top-down as you
can get, though he says it's top-down, bottom-up-the
billionaires spend the money so that people at the
grassroots can effectively organize.
He seems to have lost hope in the labor movement and
the environmental movement and the citizen's movement
and the broad civil rights movement getting together or
a new progressive movement rising up organically.
Throughout most of his career, Nader acted on a theory
of social change that centered around establishing
citizen groups in Washington and across the country
that could act as a counterforce to the corporate
Then, when that didn't succeed, and when the Democratic
Party became increasingly corporatized, Nader ventured
into third party presidential politics.
In 2000, he ran as a Green, and talked of establishing
that as a durable third party that could act as
centrifugal force against the Democratic Party moving
ever rightward. But Nader became disenchanted with the
Greens, and decided to go it alone the last two times.
And in a sense, he's going it alone this time in this
Rather than rely on the citizen's movement, rather than
rely on the labor movement, or a unified progressive
movement, Nader is relying on the George Soroses of
this world to save us, as the title says.
"The progressive movement is good at documenting
corporate power," he said in his talk in Madison,
Wisconsin. "It's good at diagnosing. It's good at
coming up with proposals. But that's the end."
The problem, he says, is one of resources. "You cannot
fight trillions of dollars in big business money with a
few millions and expect to win."
The citizen movement, he said, is "totally amateurish"
compared with how well organized and funded the
corporations are. "This mismatch is a disaster," he
said. "The progressive movement is going nowhere if it
does not address the problem of resources."
Nor does he have hope in a new youth movement.
Nader was addressing a couple of hundred people in a
classroom at the University of Wisconsin, but there
weren't many students there. Maybe that was a good
thing, since he was harshing on them.
"If people are too busy updating their personal
profiles on their facebook page," they won't engage in
civic action, he said.
"The screen is the opium of the masses," he said. He
added that we have a whole generation living a virtual
existence, and we haven't come to grips with the
negative consequences of that.
He also criticized today's students for their weak
grasp of U.S. history. For them, "The Vietnam War is
like the Peloponnesian Wars."
Nader had some sharp criticism for Barack Obama, too.
"It's very sad to see the continuity between Obama and
Bush," he said, rattling off "Afghanistan, renditions,
No Child Left Behind, and the faith-based initiative."
But he's not surprised that Obama is doing the bidding
of the corporate establishment. "In 100 ways, he
signaled he was their man" during the campaign, Nader
said. "Did ever talk about corporate crime, even when
Wall Street was collapsing?"
Nader said Obama "learned too much from Bill Clinton"
about the need to compromise with corporate power. And
he said that Obama's personality is not right for the
times. Unlike FDR, Obama "does not like conflict," he
said. Instead, he wants to please.
There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these
days. Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has
hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He's
dented it more than anyone else in America. But he
knows it's still chugging, even more strongly than
Nader understands that he's losing. He understands that
we're losing-we who believe in democracy, we who care
But if our only hope is with a handful of billionaires,
we're in a lot worse shape than I thought.