Near the end of An Unreasonable Man, a sympathetic but not uncritical documentary portrait of Ralph Nader by a former protege, Henriette Mantel, and Steve Skrovan, the film’s subject allows himself the bitter pleasure of joining his fellow left-wingers in what has now become the cliche of wondering if George W. Bush is “the worst president ever.” Until then, Mr. Nader’s stubborn refusal to take responsibility for Mr Bush’s election in 2000 by splitting the progressive vote had made perfect sense. For if you accept the Naderite view that the two major parties are increasingly indistinguishable, then the value of his offering the electorate a real choice must far outweigh any trivial differences there might have been between a Gore and a Bush presidency. But now here was the man himself telling us that, in effect, the barbs of his Democratic critics — whose hatred and vitriol directed at him appear here at times to be even greater than the same directed at the President — were justified all along.
For if the Bush presidency is as bad as he says it is, doesn’t that mean that there are important differences between the parties? How can he go on justifying his failure to back the Democrats — if not Mr. Gore, since he was then ignorant of how bad Mr. Bush would be, then at least John Kerry in 2004? The critics would say, as some of them do in this film, that the reason was pure personal vanity. I don’t believe this. Everything we see of Ralph Nader the crusading “public citizen” and consumer advocate in the 30-odd years before 2000 which occupy most of An Unreasonable Man suggests that vanity and merely personal ambition are not among his flaws of character, if any such flaws there be.
But it is also true that he himself could be regarded as the progenitor of his critics, and not only because many of them got their start in politics as “Nader’s Raiders” in the 1970s and ’80s. For they, like their mentor, are creatures of the same1960s-era belief in politics as a struggle between the forces of light and darkness — the same belief which now casts Mr. Nader himself as Prince of Darkness. There is a kind of poetic justice, then, in the spectacle of so many former disciples turning their hatred on him. You begin by making a devil of General Motors and you end by being made a devil of yourself.
Yet Mr. Nader had and has an important point to make about the ill-consequences which have ensued from politics’ becoming a branch of marketing, and An Unreasonable Man does a good job of letting it emerge. Ms. Mantel and Mr. Skrovan trace the change to the influence of Tony Coelho on the Democrats in the 1980s, when the party of the little guy learned how to go after the big corporate contributors whose benefactions had hitherto gone mostly to Republicans. I think they could have looked a lot further back than that, but the point remains that when politics becomes an attempt to win market-share, the two major parties have to come ever closer together to fight for the same few swing voters in the middle. As a result, political “debates” — including the Bush-Gore debates in 2000 whose exclusion of Mr. Nader is the subject of some of the most interesting passages in the film — are reduced to dueling platitudes.
Moreover, the shrinking of substantive differences between the parties means that trivial and personal ones become exaggerated. Making a market for your political product cannot be done by changing what has been carefully designed to appeal to the maximum number, so it must be done by attempting to create incidental differences in contemptible ways — that is, by vicious attacks on an opponent’s character and fitness for office rather than his policies. We’ve seen this brought to a new height in the last two elections, which the Democrats have sought to make turn on President Bush’s personal shortcomings — perhaps as payback for the Republicans’ doing the same to Bill Clinton.
Yet it means that, without any coherent policy of their own on the Iraq war, they have treated the main foreign policy issue of the day as nothing but a source of examples of the President’s “lies,” incompetence, or stupidity. Thus when, in 2004, John Kerry was asked what he would do differently about Iraq, his answer was: “Everything!” The scandal of the fact that such a ludicrous evasion can now pass for political seriousness is exactly what the candidacy of Ralph Nader should have pointed up. But though he has been admirably forthright about the war himself, he also changes the subject by indulging in what Mr. Clinton once called “the politics of personal destruction” when it suits him to do so.
Probably, he cannot do otherwise. This, after all, is the man who went after the meat-packing industry by calling hot dogs “missiles of death.” It’s not exactly his fault that such hyperbole has now become the common political currency, but neither is it entirely inappropriate that he has become its victim.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic. He is the author of the new book, Honor: A History (Encounter Books).