Politics

Speaking Lies to Power

Ralph Nader fudges the truth just like a real politician.

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Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, by Ralph Nader, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 383 pages, $24.95

The subtitle of Ralph Nader's new campaign memoir is "How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President." On page 261, Nader states flatly that it's "not true" most of his 2.8 million votes otherwise would have gone to Al Gore. His evidence? "Exit polls by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg showed that 25 percent of our voters would have voted for Bush, 38 percent would have voted for Gore, and the rest would not have voted at all." In a February appearance on C-SPAN, Nader quoted the same figures as fact, without attribution.

Well, it is not a fact, and it is not "the truth." More accurately, it is the one survey Nader could find that comes close to serving his own personal agenda -- in this case, to suggest despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary that maybe he didn't cost Gore the election after all.

It turns out there were other surveys addressing this very question, but Nader doesn't like bringing them up. The Voter News Service, which interviewed 13,000 voters instead of Greenberg's 1,000, estimated that Nader supporters would have chosen Gore over Bush by 47 percent to 21 percent, with the rest abstaining. A CNN study of Florida -- where Bush beat Gore by 537 votes and the Green Party candidate received more than 90,000 -- put the Gore preference at a whopping 60 percent. Both polls were in the public domain by November 8, 2000, when Nader answered his first two "Did you spoil the election?" questions at the morning-after press conference by quoting that legendary number-cruncher, Tom Brokaw. First, he offered this: "Tom Brokaw said that most of my vote came from nonvoters who came in for the first time, young voters, and people who dropped out of voting for many years." When confronted with the Voter News Service data, Nader replied: "First of all, I really don't know the way these figures play out. If you hear Tom Brokaw, you would think that was not the case."

Eighteen hours earlier, I had watched the Nader 2000 crew engage in a far more flagrant manipulation of the truth, more egregious than anything else I witnessed during my two months covering the campaign for the lefty news site WorkingForChange.com. Even before the first preliminary exit poll data crossed the wires, young staffers, on the orders of campaign headquarters, were frantically devising multiple formulas to "prove" that Nader didn't cost Gore the election, no matter what the results might say later. "That's shocking," I told one of the harried idealists charged with carrying out the deception. The faces around the computer, for what it's worth, did not register any surprise.

We've come to expect this kind of professional dishonesty from the two major political parties, which is one of the reasons many of us find them repellent. But coming from a "purity" candidate who wants to lecture us on "how to tell the truth," it suggests a certain self-delusion. It's one thing to display the schizophrenia inherent in trying to cobble together a coalition of disaffected lifelong Democrats and party-hating anti-globalization activists. It's quite another to "speak truth to power" by fudging it.

On the campaign trail, I saw Nader tell a variety of whoppers: that "the Social Security 'crisis' is a phony problem invented by George W. Bush to make his Wall Street buddies even more rich," that Western Europe had "abolished poverty," that Americans get "90 percent of their news from television." In Crashing the Party his tall tales range from the banal (saying that a disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show "went well," without mentioning that he was mocked by Jay Leno, a guest, and several newspapers after blurting out the word "Strawberries!" when asked what he does for fun) to the vindictive (falsely accusing several reporters of being uninterested in his appeal to "nonvoters" because "their experience had taught them not to inquire into such elusive quests") to the fantastic ("Most of our stands and positions are supported by most Americans").

Most Americans, it seems safe to wager, are not in favor of abolishing the death penalty, doubling the minimum wage, taxing every stock transaction, beefing up the Internal Revenue Service, reorienting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to "fight global infectious diseases," charging broadcast companies "billions" in spectrum "rent," rewriting the Constitution to create European-style proportional representation, and erecting a Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut. Yet Nader seems to believe that if we just remove the corporate blinders from our eyes, Americans will naturally embrace this political program and the Greens will become a "majoritarian" party.

This delusion would be harder to maintain if people actually challenged Nader on his positions, but they generally don't. His campaign was woefully undercovered by the national media -- WorkingforChange was the only news organization, to my knowledge, that followed him around full time for as long as three months -- and the cross-examinations he did receive were almost exclusively limited to his impact on the Gore-Bush race. In left-liberal circles, the policy debates usually centered on Ralph's preference for "indiscriminatory injustice" issues over identity politics. His simplistic and extremely rare forays into international affairs -- which rarely went beyond withdrawing unilaterally from trade treaties and orienting policy to "support workers and peasants for a change instead of dictatorships and oligarchies" -- were basically given a bye.

Nader's all-consuming ideology, the lens through which he views everything from auto safety to "chit-chat," is that corporations, if left unchecked, will seize control of everything and enslave mankind.

Corporatists, Nader writes, "opposed the Revolutionary War…maintained slavery, opposed women's right to vote," and fought against "civil rights, civil liberties, consumer and environmental protection, Medicare, Medicaid," etc. Not getting enough press coverage? That's because "corporations…are not likely to go out of their way to cover candidates who are critics of their major advertisers." What's the worst thing you can call George W. Bush? "A corporation, disguised as a human."

If you are willing to say bad things about corporations and good things about the Green Party, you are a Friend of Ralph, no matter what lunatic nonsense you may also spout. Nader rallies usually contained the classic elements of any IMF protest: "Fuck Capitalism" banners, middle-aged American revolutionaries praising Fidel Castro, kids handing out Maoist newspapers, pig puppets for freeing Mumia.

Post-speech question-and-answer sessions frequently were showcases for doctrinaire Marxists quoting ready-made lies about American foreign policy and shadowy media cabals. Not once in two months, or in 383 pages, did I see Nader try to call any of his supporters on their wrongheaded ravings -- unless they had something to do with identity politics or with tipping the election to George Bush.

If anything, Nader has bent over backward to portray his beloved "Seattle Coalition" as a remarkably coherent movement of reform-spirited democrats grossly misunderstood by the corporate press. "What, pray tell, were they protesting that the media found so difficult to describe?" he writes about protesters at the Republican Convention. After a laundry list of causes, he answers his own riddle: "Simply put, the entire agenda for progressive liberal politics."

So you have a movement of people whose incoherent fantasies are not challenged by their putative leader and a candidate whose fibs and crude renderings of international affairs receive little scrutiny from either the media or his own supporters. This is the politics of soft consensus, not a rigorous culture of truth telling, and the sooner Greens confront this disconnect, the sooner they will escape from the political margins.

What do Nader supporters agree on? Almost all share his anti-corporate ideology, most are reflexive critics of American foreign policy, and many harbor the conceit of considering themselves part of the brave minority courageous enough to voice "dissent." When talk about global issues gets too specific, they're more than happy to defer to Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn, each of whom Nader singles out for praise in the book. Taken together, it is an intellectual feedback loop, and feedback loops make for slippery footing when the hammer of history crashes down.

That is what happened on September 11. And the reactions from the Naderite left were disastrous.

In the first days, anti-globalization protesters made new signs and became the anti-war movement without missing a beat. The Seattle Coalition's chaotic mouthpiece, Indymedia.org, ran articles calling the Pentagon victims "war criminals." Chomsky, in his first published paragraph after September 11, compared the attack to a previous U.S. bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. Said complained of "people flinging about words like 'terrorism' and 'freedom,'" terms he considers "large abstractions [that] have mostly hidden sordid material interests." Zinn suggested the U.S. will never be truly safe from terrorism until it adopts universal health care. An Ohio Green, Jim Klosterman, wrote -- on September 11 -- that "the United States' foreign policy with Israel and the military aid to them may be the [ex]acerbating fact that lead [sic] to the sad events." Bogus statistics about dead Iraqi babies competed for space with aggrieved rants about Henry Kissinger. While warm bodies were still being pulled from the World Trade Center rubble, a bruised nation was receiving earfuls from its "dissidents" about how the U.S. was finally getting a taste of its own medicine. Those who took note of the rhetorical onslaught might never forget.

Nader, wisely, kept a very low profile at first, declining to be interviewed and discouraging public questions about September 11. As far as I can tell, his first published column after the attacks didn't appear until late October; it was about nuclear plant safety. His first major speech on the topic, on October 11, reiterated his "workers and peasants" formulation, asserted that "we're not going to be able to bomb our way to justice," and warned, "How many hundreds of thousands of Afghanis are going to die or starve to death or be sick to death because they don't have medicines as a result of this destruction?" During his book tour, he's been repeating a line about "burning down a haystack in order to look for a needle -- and they still haven't found the needle." When asked by interviewers what he would have done in lieu of bombing, he speaks of invoking "the doctrine of hot pursuit" using "spies, bribes, and commandos." And then the conversations quickly move on to "wartime profiteers" and cockpit safety regulations.

September 11 showed that when it comes to foreign policy and critical thinking, the Naderite left is not yet ready for prime time. Which is a shame, because the consumer advocate and his followers have many useful things to say about corporate welfare, third-party access, political hypocrisy, civil liberties, drug legalization, and a host of other issues the Democrats and Republicans largely ignore. And for all its excesses, the leftist foreign policy critique about supporting dictators and addressing "root causes" has found new resonance in the past months. Nader is clearly licking his chops at the Enron collapse, and all signs point to an even more vigorous run for the presidency in 2004.

But you can't launch a convincing "purity" campaign if you don't respect the facts. When the filmmaker Michael Moore introduced Nader at campaign rallies, he was fond of saying that the candidate was "ready to rock this nation with the truth!" Since September 11, that's been about backwards: The nation has shown it is more than ready to rock Michael Moore and his pals with its very own version of "the truth." Ralph Nader needs to learn that there are people who care as much about the issues as he, yet honestly arrive at very different conclusions. He needs to stop judging people's virtue by whether they support him for president. And unless he wants to become the same kind of politician he claims to despise, he needs to stop treating facts like pastries in a buffet line.

"Politics, as it is practiced, is the art of having it both ways," he writes, with some disgust, on page 8. A year into the Bush presidency he helped deliver, Ralph Nader looks very much like he's practicing politics.