An Unreasonable Man

If future historians see fit to excavate the origins of the modern commons, they will not be able to avoid the singular contributions of Ralph Nader. This is abundantly clear from the new film, An Unreasonable Man, which just began a nationwide release. Produced by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, the film traces the 43-year arc of Nader’s career as a “public citizen” since his first clashes with corporate power in the early 1960s. Ralph was only 29 when he first went after General Motors and unsafe automobile design. This month he turns 73.

As the film shows, Nader time and again offered himself up as a political lightning rod in an attempt to break through the bland self-delusions of conventional politics. His goal was always to open up entirely new activist fronts that could reclaim our common wealth, social justice and democratic practice. Hence his pioneering campaigns for auto safety, drug and product safety, clean air and water, open government, safe energy, tax reform, pension reform, union democracy, whistleblower protection, and on and on.

I worked for Ralph and his groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and became something of an historian of the modern consumer movement. Many cornerstones of today’s commons movement were set in place by Nader and his corps of activists. For example, a 1973 Nader report focused on land use in California. A 1980 Nader-convened conference, “Controlling What We Own,: called for citizens to regain control over such common assets as the airwaves, public lands, and federally financed electric power. A 1990s project headed by James Love focused on “taxpayer assets” such as federal drug research and databases.

Of course, this history, which was already fading from public memory, was dramatically eclipsed by the results of the 2000 election. Many Democrats still blame Nader for denying Al Gore the presidency, and by extension for all of George W. Bush?s impeachable offenses since 9/11. The film wades into this thicket, featuring vituperative attacks by Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman as well as responses from Nader campaign staff and others. When allies lament that Nader has ruined his legacy, Ralph retorts, “I don’t care about my legacy. What are people going to do, rip out seat belt and air bags from their cars?”

Nader would probably like Rhett Butler’s line in Gone With the Wind — “Who needs reputation when you’ve got courage?” A sentiment that more of us ought to emulate. Yet the truth of the matter is that reputation is a form of political capital, and Nader’s share of it has declined precipitously, assisted by his candidacy and the Democratic Party’s scapegoating. Notwithstanding his disinterest in “reputation,” his ability to act as an effective proxy for John Q. Public in Washington political debates has been hurt, a fact that his corporate adversaries surely welcome.

As the Bush Administration’s lawless rampage continues, with lame responses from most Democrats, the question posed by Nader’s career — Can citizens reclaim their common wealth? — remains as urgent as ever.

By way of full disclosure, I am one of the talking heads in this film, focusing mostly on the 1960s and 1970s. (I like to joke that I have more screen time than Bill Murray and Susan Sarandon.) Personally, I find the debate about Nader’s role in the 2000 election exhausting and unresolvable. It usually devolves into a “did-not/did-so” impasse that hinges on how you feel about the Democratic Party, corporations and Nader’s personality. Did Nader’s polarizing advocacy go one bridge too far in the 2000 election? Or was it a necessary, inevitable confrontation with a Democratic Party that has slid irreversibly into centrist timidity and corporate servitude?

The answer may lie in how we wish to regard “an unreasonable man.” As described in the famous George Bernard Shaw quotation, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

It’s hard to imagine that seat belts, safe cars, the Freedom of Information Act and nutrition labeling were once considered unreasonable propositions. That is the paradox of political progress and cultural change; demands for a different order initially seem unrealistic and even outlandish. The sobering question for our time is whether a more responsive electoral process and a reclamation of the commons are just too “unreasonable” to entertain.