Original positing: August 13, 2007
Do you remember the 2000 presidential election in the United States? Can you still remember clearly what you were thinking about the two major candidates and the choice to be made? There wasn't all that much enthusiasm about either of them. It all seems a long, long time ago, for it happened before "9/11," that day of infamy that changed our world in ways that no one anticipated.
The two men between whom American voters had to choose have changed considerably since then. George W. Bush was the Republican nominee. He bore a famous last name, even sharing a first name with his likable father, who had left the White House only eight years before. But what did the second George Bush stand for? It was hard to say. He talked about "compassionate conservatism." He didn't seem to have many ideas about the international arena; indeed, he didn't come across as a man who had traveled much.
And then there was Al Gore. He had sought the presidential nomination once before, back in 1988. But that was before he became Bill Clinton's right-hand man. The pre-Clinton Gore was a strong advocate of environmental protection and restoration. During this chapter of his long public career he wrote a widely-praised book: Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.) Greens loved him. But as Clinton's vice president his green hues turned to brown, to the point that people wondered just where he stood. And so, when the 2000 election rolled around and Gore was his own man, supposedly, many of the greens opposed him.
By 2007 Gore seems to have gotten his former halo back. There is talk on the Internet that he should be the 2008 presidential candidate of the Green Party. Of course there are also many people who think he should be the candidate of the Democratic Party, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would have something to say about that.
The new Al Gore is known especially as the maker of a highly-regarded and much discussed documentary film entitled An Inconvenient Truth (2006). He has also issued a new book about "the politics of fear, secrecy, and blind faith." It doesn't take too much political savvy to figure whose politics he is attacking in this book, which deals with much more than just "green" issues. The book is entitled The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy, and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision Making, Degrade Our Democracy, and Put Our Country and Our World in Peril (New York: Penguin Press, 2007). In this book he announces:
Faith in the power of reason -- the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power -- remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.
American democracy is now in danger -- not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.
It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse.
Stirring stuff. And there are a great many Americans who must be applauding Gore for speaking out in such a forthright manner -- philosophers among them. After all, philosophers are the ones who are supposed to believe in reason, debate and a healthy "public discourse."
Ralph Nader is also a fellow who loves to debate. And he is a strong proponent of green values. Would he therefore be among the Al Gore boosters who look to Gore run for President in 2008 and thereby force certain key issues onto the agenda?
Wait a minute, you say to yourself. Isn't Ralph Nader the villain of this entire piece? Isn't he the one who, in effect, handed Bush the keys to the White House back in 2000? Wasn't he the Green Party's presidential candidate that year? Didn't the votes he siphoned away from Al Gore turn the tide in Bush's favor?
The historically informed are inclined to nod -- yes, these things did happen. But the story is a bit more complicated than that. Nader is indeed a strong advocate of debate, and he did strive mightily in 2000 and the years leading up to it to get his country to take the environmental challenge seriously by debating the issues. He didn't just play to the cameras and bask in the limelight. In terms of taking on corporate greed and green issues, Nader has a record -- both in the limelight and in the shadows -- that goes back decades. He is not a man to take lightly -- or to be lightly dismissed.
There was an episode back in 1972 where Nader showed up at the airport in order to catch an Alleghany Airlines flight from Washington to Hartford. When Nader presented his ticket to claim his seat, he discovered that the flight was "overbooked" and that he had been "bumped." It happens that "overbooking" was a common practice in those days. Nader took strong objection, sued the airline, and won, splitting his winnings with the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, which he had been on his way to address before being derailed -- or deplaned. The result was that airlines came to an important realization: passengers who are bumped from flights need to be compensated.
The Nader debater, as I have come to think of him, has reason to feel both proud and frustrated when he looks back on his participation in the political process. He has given voice to his feelings and conclusions in a book about the 2000 campaign. That book, entitled Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), has some interesting things to say about Al Gore and the nature and degree of his commitment to green issues back in the days of Clinton's second term, when Gore, as heir apparent, had an excellent shot at becoming the next president of the USA. But anyone close to the brass ring tends to get co-opted by the corporate interests. And so Gore needed some pressure from the greens to keep him from cozying up too much to big business. Do you remember how he debated Ross Perot on free trade on November 9, 1993? Perot thought free trade posed a threat to American jobs, especially the ones that pay well and provide benefits. (Wherever did he get that idea?) Gore showed that he can certainly hold his own in debate as he defended the big-business line on the glories of free trade!
What to do in terms of holding Gore's feet to the fire? Assail him in public? Nader thought it would be wise to talk with him in private. But that turned out to be easier said than done. In his book Nader tells the story:
...a few months after the election in 1996 [TP: when Nader also ran for president as the Green Party candidate], we made the first of numerous attempts to sit down with Vice President Al Gore and run by him a number of significant policy initiatives. My assistant, Carolyn Jonah, started what turned out to be the extraordinary process of accessing the vice president. At first his staff requested a written letter with the topics we wanted to discuss with him. Fair enough. We sent the letter and followed up with another call. Then another call. And another. Soon the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, until finally Carolyn received the reply: "The vice president has no time to meet with Mr. Nader." I called him directly to see what was amiss. He called back in a few days, and I recounted our frustration with his staff in giving us the runaround.
"They have?" he asked, as if surprised.
"You weren't aware that they were not letting us meet?" I asked, reminding him of a constructive meeting we had in 1993 at his office. "Then can you give me a time when we can get together?"
"Well," he replied, "let's talk now."
"There are several major topics," I replied, briefly listing them, "and I doubt whether you have the time or whether it is best to discuss these on the telephone. Can't we find a time to meet?" I fully expected him to agree and refer me to his scheduler.
"Well, I'll see," he said and politely ended the conversation.
That was the last I heard from Al Gore, until he began telling crowds in the closing days of his 2000 presidential campaign that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush.
So what went wrong here? Was the great debater who had put Ross Perot in his place overcome by an attack of frictophobia, thinking that it's best to stick your head in the sand when someone takes issue with you on principled grounds?
We all know what happened in the election of 2000. Gore led slightly in the popular vote, but Bush, after much wrangling between lawyers, and some court challenges, and recount after recount, came up with a slight majority in the electoral vote column, which meant that he moved into the White House.
A great many greens and progressives were furious with Nader: without Nader in the race, Gore would surely have gone over the top. Nader's book about the 2000 race is in good measure a response to the charge that he cost Gore the presidency (see especially pages 104ff and 244ff).
The book is also a fine review of issues that have to do with the growth of corporate power in the United States. Nader quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who declared: "We can have a democratic society or we can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both." [Page 203] Nader maintains that the USA is becoming a plutocracy -- government by and for the wealthy. (In an appendix to this document I have reproduced some of his comments on such matters; the appendix also includes a bit of material from the statement Nader issued when accepting the presidential nomination in 2000).
Throughout the book Nader also uses the term "duopoly." What we find in American politics is not one-party rule -- or a monopoly on power. Rather, the two parties operate a duopoly. Between the two of them, they limit the political discourse that goes out through the key medium -- television. And so Nader devotes considerable attention to how third-party candidates are excluded from the presidential debates, which then turn out to be no real debates at all, but essentially joint campaign appearances staged for television (see especially Chapter 12: "The Commission on Presidential Debates").
Nader also looks wistfully across the northern border: in Canada they know how to go about these things! He informs us: "Canada seemed to have no trouble in November 2000 having its two national debates include five candidates for the office of prime minister." But here his research is lacking in thoroughness. One of those "five candidates," of course, was the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who was certainly no candidate for prime minister, for even if all of his candidates should be elected, he would still have only 75 seats in a parliament of more than 300 representatives. Moreover, Canada also has a Green Party, and its leader is routinely excluded from leaders' debates, a matter that should have drawn a protest from Nader.
In Canada we worried for a time that we had one-party government, but then Stephen Harper led his Conservative Party to victory in 2006 and became prime minister. In the USA there does indeed appear to be some sort of duopoly. When Henry Ford was making cars cheap enough for ordinary people to buy early in the twentieth century, he used to say: The customer can have his car painted any color he likes, provided it's black. The duopoly is more broad-minded: it offers two colors -- red and blue (red seems to have changed its political meaning in the zany days of George W. Bush). Will the duopoly make room for green as well? Al Gore might do well to think this question through. He would make a very interesting presidential candidate for the Green Party. Nader was not the Green Candidate in 2004, and so it doesn't appear that he has any inside track for such a nomination. (The Green Party nominee in 2004 was David Cobb, while Nader ran on the Reform Party ticket.)
I regularly teach a course in environmental philosophy, which includes an important anti-frictophobia theme. I tell the students that it's fine that many of us in the class and many other folks as well are green in our political orientation, but greens still have to be able to disagree with one another on the question what it will take to heal our planet. Not every green proposal holds water (bad pun intended). Greens need to debate with one another vigorously, just as much as people in other political camps. Meetings and classes in which greens come together should not be cheerleading sessions. We have to be able to take some heat.
In that spirit, I am not here to cheer for Nader, or even for Gore, now that he is stumping the green trail. My objective in this essay is mainly to call attention to Nader's fine book, a book which I salute not just for its angle on the 2000 presidential election but even more for its review of certain issues.
The things I like about the Nader debater's recital of his frustrations are essentially three in number. First of all, I salute him for his opposition to the corporate takeover and globalization-without-end mentality. I agree that in good measure such thinking represents the shrinking of democracy. Secondly, I love the green emphasis, and I often vote for the Green Party myself in Canadian elections, although I am not one of its members (I am also known to vote for Conservative candidates, but never the Liberals). Thirdly, I love Nader's emphasis on the need for debate. It has occurred to me that Joan Rivers might have made a good running mate for him: "Can we talk?" Perhaps he should have sent her to Al Gore to see whether she could get him talking with people who should be his green allies.
I believe not only that third- and fourth- and fifth-party candidates should get plenty of media exposure but that there should be referenda placed before the people every now and again, as some states in the USA are wont to do. I have even made a proposal, in a earlier Myodicy essay, about referenda and how they could be used fruitfully in terms of dealing with the question of separatism in Quebec. I agree altogether with Nader: involve the people! He laments: "Civic hopelessness has become a cultural trait, bred into us at an early age when we are taught to believe instead of to think, to accept rather than to reflect." [Page 199] Some decades ago, when I taught for two years in a Christian elementary school: I told my young charges constantly: Use your noodle! I am no fan of experts and pundits.
I would like to see candidates competing for the endorsement of political organizations. Greens could run but then withdraw in favor of a mainline party candidate who supported their stuff (this wouldn't work under the Canadian system, where there is no strict counterpart to a state governor or a national president). I also believe in proportional representation in a legislature.
Politics needs to get away from photo opportunities and joint public appearances disguised as debates. Nader has good reason to be green with envy. Greens should be saluted for their platform; they need to be heard. Nader appeals to the Norman Thomas analogy (see p. 279). Thomas ran repeatedly for President under the Socialist banner and exercised quite some influence on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Here in Canada we have the role of Tommy Douglas to consider. Douglas had two political careers: he was a successful and popular Premier of Saskatchewan (1944-61), where he pioneered government-sponsored health-care insurance, and then he went on to become national leader of Canada's long-standing third party (1961-71), the New Democratic Party or NDP (formerly the CCF).
Was he respected in the latter role, or dismissed as a windbag who could better be kept out of leaders' debates? The people have spoken on that issue. When CBC television sponsored a survey to find out who is the greatest Canadian of all time and invited the people to vote (over 1.2 million cast their ballots), the people's choice was not Pierre Elliott Trudeau or even Don Cherry but Tommy Douglas! Again, Nader could be green with envy.
Debate is needed as much as ever. Frictophobia is our enemy. And so, in the spirit of stimulating debate, I am reproducing a few passages below that will give readers a first-hand taste of what Nader has to say.
Does this mean that I judge Nader to be greener than Gore (the Al Gore of 2007)? Not necessarily. I also have great respect for Gore's recent crusade against environmental despoilers. But Gore has a better record of capturing people's attention than Nader does. We need to hear from them both! [END]
When Nader accepted the 2000 nomination to run for president as the Green Party candidate, he issued a public statement which included the following account of the objectives of the Green Party:
The Green Party stands for a nation and a world that consciously advances the practice of deep democracy. A deep democracy facilitates people's best efforts to achieve social justice, a sustainable and bountiful environment and an end to systemic bigotry and discrimination against law-abiding people merely because they are different. Green goals place community and self-reliance over dependency on ever larger absentee corporations and their media, their technology, their capital, and their politicians. Green goals aim at preserving the commonwealth of assets that the people of the United States already own so that the people, not big business, control what they own, and using these vast resources of the public lands, the public airwaves and trillions of worker pension dollars to achieve healthier environments, healthier communities and healthier people.
These goals are also conservative goals. Don't conservatives, in contrast to corporatists, want movement toward a safe environment, toward ending corporate welfare and the commercialization of childhood? Don't they too want a voice in shaping a clean environment rooted in the interests of the people? Don't they too want a fair and responsive marketplace, for their health needs and savings? Let us not in this campaign prejudge any voters, for Green values are majoritarian values, respecting all peoples and striving to give greater voice to all voters, workers, individual taxpayers and consumers. As with the right of free speech, we may not agree with others, but we will defend their right to free speech as strongly as we do for ourselves. Available online: www.ratical.org/co-globalize/RalphNader/062500.html
During his 2000 campaign for president, Gore addressed the Senate of the State of New Hampshire, a state that keep some fine traditions of old-fashioned political discussion alive. Here's his report on what he said:
I decided to use my few minutes that day to speak about the unspeakable -- that the large corporation is the dominant institution in our society. This very assertion was made way back in 1959 by William Gossett, then a vice president of Ford Motor Company and later president of the American Bar Association. Forty-two years later, the global corporations have ascended to far greater power over our elections, government, workers, and consumers, including children, jamming commercialism into just about everywhere.
I mentioned how public budgets are being massively distorted by the proliferating array of taxpayer subsidies, giveaways, and bailouts (known as corporate welfare) to corporations. And I described how these transnational companies have no allegiance to any country or community other than to control them. Company executives have yearned for years for their company to be "anational" -- outside any national jurisdiction. While this literally has not yet transpired, corporate globalism is creating its autocratic systems of governance under the guise of global or regional trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization and NAFTA. Increasingly, these modes of governance that subordinate nontrade standards, such as consumer, environmental, and worker conditions, to the supremacy of international commerce, will avoid and thereby undermine local, state, and national sovereignties. All this I said quickly because I wanted to revisit some New England history with them.
In the early 1800s, Massachusetts began legislating charters for the nascent textile factories that created their corporate form of limited liability for their investors. These charters constituted tight rein, stipulating what the new company wanted to manufacture, the term limits of the charter, which was then up for review and renewal, and the public purposes -- standards -- incumbent on the company.
People in those days were wary of these artificial legal entities called corporations having too many privileges and immunities. There were vigorous debates in the legislature and other forums. When companies misbehaved, their creator -- the state government -- could and did revoke their charters. The attorney general of Ohio revoked the charter of Standard Oil Company of Ohio late in the nineteenth century. Then came the corporations' single greatest legal victory. In the case of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in 1886, without even being asked by counsel, that a corporation was a natural "person" for purposes of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Today, the modern corporation has all the rights of real human beings, except for the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and all kinds of privileges and immunities that human beings do not or cannot have. Until we come to terms with this issue of "personhood" and the grave imbalances that follow, the warning of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the 1930s about these big companies becoming Frankensteins in our midst will be more prescient than ever. [From pp. 123-125 of Crashing the Party]
© Theodore Plantinga 2007
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