Nader -- a conservative?

Posted: Sep 20, 2000 12:00 AM
The strongest evidence that Al Gore's current lead in the polls may not be all it seems is the increasingly shrill attacks on Ralph Nader by Gore's allies in the national media. This suggests that they are more worried about the election than the Gore campaign lets on publicly. On Sept. 18, for example, Nader received a one-two punch from Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker. Mallaby argued that Nader has no real reason to run for president, because the liberal advocacy groups he has founded and inspired are such a powerful force that his campaign is superfluous. He ridiculed him as "Nader of the Lost Bark." Hertzberg, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, went even further, accusing Nader of being a liar. What apparently galls him is Nader's argument that there is little real difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties on key issues such as free trade. These are only the latest attacks on Nader by Gore's allies. Anna Quindlen in Newsweek, Anthony Lewis and Paul Krugman in the New York Times, E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, and practically every issue of the New Republic have attacked Nader unrelentingly as a threat to Gore, and thus a de facto agent of George Bush and the Republicans. There is an old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. With this in mind, I began to wonder if there wasn't something about Nader that I, a political conservative, could support. I figured that anyone so hated by the liberal establishment couldn't be all bad. It turns out that Nader has conservative roots and a not implausible argument that he is a conservative. I am not sure if it is his first published article, but the earliest piece I was able to find by Ralph Nader was published in the ultra-conservative American Mercury magazine in March 1960. (The American Mercury was a highly respected magazine in the 1920s and 1930s, but fell on hard times and was sold to some ultra-conservatives in the 1940s, who turned the magazine sharply to the right. Until the founding of National Review, it was the most prominent conservative publication in America.) Nader's article is entitled, "Business Is Deserting America," and it makes arguments he is still making today about the evils of free trade. He argued that America's trade deficit was the result of U.S. corporations moving their operations to foreign countries, in pursuit of low-wage labor and higher profits. These corporations then exported goods formerly manufactured in the U.S. back to the U.S. from Europe and Asia, creating a trade deficit. Nader was critical of both the corporations for disloyalty and the federal government for encouraging foreign investment by these companies. The second article I discovered by Nader appeared in the October 1962 issue of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, a venerable free market group. This article is called, "How the Winstedites Kept Their Integrity." It tells about a battle fought by the citizens of Winsted, Conn., Nader's hometown, against a federal public housing project proposed for their town. Apparently, the town housing authority got some "free" money for public housing from the federal government and planned to build 50 such units in Winsted. Subsequently, a grass-roots campaign rose up against the project and several referenda were necessary to kill it. Nader's sympathies are clearly with the protesters, even though such people are routinely called racists today for trying to keep minorities out of all-white suburbs such as Winsted. Surprisingly, Nader makes a convincing free market argument against public housing that is as applicable today as it was then. He pointed out that the town was not getting something for nothing from the federal government, because local taxpayers would have to foot the bill for city services provided to the tenants, since no local property tax could be assessed on the federal property. Wrote Nader, "A vicious circle begins to operate; as private property is undermined by public competition, private investment is discouraged by the threat of more public housing. As local property taxes increase, the prospects diminish for new or expanding industry." Nader went on to conclude that Big Government was to blame, in words that could easily have been spoken by Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan. "Giant government has outgrown the capacity of the institutions designed to restrain its encroachments and abuses. ... Any government intrusion into the economy deters the alleged beneficiaries from voicing their views or participating in civic life," Nader wrote. It is easy to dismiss these conservative sentiments. After all, Nader's campaign consists mainly of attacks on big corporations, and he has long advocated expanded government power to protect consumers. Nevertheless, there is a conservative strain in Nader's thinking that survives to the present day. For example, in his acceptance to the Association of State Green Parties in June, Nader appealed to conservatives for support. "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 want a fair and responsive marketplace, for their health needs and savings?" he asked. This is not just rhetoric. Nader really believes that his values are conservative. In July, he made a strenuous effort to convince David Brooks of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine that it should support his campaign. Nader even bragged to Brooks about the many conservative leaders he has worked with over the years, naming Bill Bennett, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer and Grover Norquist. Indeed, there is an old-fashioned, small town aspect to Nader's worldview that is conservative. The problem is that Nader long ago sold out that vision to the trial lawyers who bankroll his operations. And despite Nader's repeated talk about empowering citizens and renewing democracy, he has consistently supported the totally non-democratic court system in making law and policy, against the elected representatives of the people. This is neither liberal nor conservative, but authoritarian. As one of Nader's former colleagues, David Sanford, wrote about him in 1976, "He is, I believe, an authoritarian, a man on a white horse, and I for one hope that he will never ride into the White House." That is a sentiment I second.