Holy Ralph's Biggest Crusade

By Small, Patrick | New Statesman (1996), August 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Holy Ralph's Biggest Crusade


Small, Patrick, New Statesman (1996)


One of the most noted aspects of the US presidential election so far has been the lack of substantial policy difference between the two candidates. Bill Clinton has made off with the Republicans' best clothes and watched Bob Dole trail in his wake. But the president's positioning has revealed a gaping hole on the left. It could just be that the American Greens will fill it -- and have a significant impact on the outcome of the election. The Greens are a minor party, but in Ralph Nader they have found a substantial presidential candidate.

Life magazine once described Nader as one of the 20th century's 100 most influential Americans. He was an articulate champion of environmental responsibility, civic action and consumer rights long before these were fashionable causes. He made his name in 1965 with a crusading book Unsafe at Any Speed, an expose of the US car industry and an emotive call for stringent safety regulations. He then launched scores of citizens' bodies, attracting countless "Nader's Raiders" to Washington in the late sixties and seventies. Citizen activists across America were inspired by his uncompromising approach. He set up the Centre for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, the Disability Rights Centre, Congress Watch and public interest research groups active in 26 states. He has done more than anyone else to make Americans think about health, food, car safety, energy and pollution.

Now 62, Nader is America's great ascetic. He lives alone in a small Washington flat. He doesn't own a car. His black scuffed shoes are legendary. He has been described as saintly, Holy Ralph, the Great Incorruptible. Gore Vidal once called him "the true unicorn [in] a land of mangy carnivores."

For years Nader insisted he would never run for public office. But by last October, exasperated at Clinton's drift to the right, he declared: "If he is just a Republican President, what's the point?"

Clinton's subsequent announcement that he would approve legislation abolishing the national 55mph speed limit is thought to have crystallised Nader's decision to run. "He's killing and injuring tens of thousands of people a year," Nader told the Village Voice. "More air pollution, more imported oil, higher auto-worker compensation rates and $20 billion in health costs."

So when, last November, a group of eminent California greens approached Nader to dip his toe in electoral waters by entering the California Green Party's presidential primary, he accepted. California, with its 54 votes in the electoral college, holds the key to the election: Clinton must carry it to have any hope of a second term. But what may have begun as an attempt to seek leverage over Clinton by threatening to deprive him of California's votes soon galvanised Greens and progressives across America, mushrooming into a quasi-national campaign. He has now qualified for the ballot in 11 states, with hopes of adding at least another 20 by the end of the summer.

Nader attributes his decision to run to "the coming together of the Republicans and Democrats into one party of, by and for big business."

He expands: "These parties are not offering an adequate choice given their duopoly over politics. Clinton has become George Ronald Clinton: pro the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, pro the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, giving in to one corporate demand after another, not fighting back and drawing the line against Dole and Gingrich on the deregulation of health and safety agencies.

"There has to be a new political movement which emphasises democratic growth and which encourages the involvement of younger Americans who are turned off by the political system."

His iconoclastic outlook fits comfortably with an all-pervasive environmental agenda. "The whole sustainable economy approach runs throughout my ideas of political economy. It involves giving workers more ethical whistle-blowing rights, making it cost more for corporations to pollute than not to pollute, using solar energy throughout the economy, harnessing the huge buying power of the US government to stimulate innovation for more environmentally-friendly products. …

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