Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 12, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Filed under: Film,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

Last night I attended a press screening for “An Unreasonable Man”, a documentary on Ralph Nader that opens in theaters around the country later this month. It is an absolute must for anybody who is trying to understand the ongoing political crisis in the United States, reflected most recently in the Democratic Party’s abject failure to mount an effective challenge to Bush’s escalation in Iraq. It is also a stunning dramatic portrait of why Ralph Nader rose to the challenge of resolving this crisis despite having to face a torrent of abuse and political/economic/legal reprisals.

“An Unreasonable Man” reminded me of an observation I made a month or two ago in an email discussion. In places like Colombia, the left’s biggest obstacle is physical violence organized by the army, police and paramilitaries. In a rich democracy like the United States, the left instead has to endure social pressure and the threat of ostracism. It is to Ralph Nader’s everlasting credit that he has stood up to this kind of bullying as if it were a bullet aimed at his head.

The liberal media’s portrait of Ralph Nader is that of a Jekyll-Hyde. There is a “good” Nader who took on GM, built the consumers’ rights movement, inspired progressive legislation, etc. Then there is the “bad” Nader who somehow out of the blue (bit by a vampire?) decided to help elect George W. Bush. This is explained as a function of his “megalomania” and his inability to see the obvious, namely that the Democrats are better than the Republicans.

In a brilliant stroke, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan include interviews with Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, two of the more hysterical critics of the Nader campaigns. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the film reminding the audience of Ralph Nader’s perfidy. They only end up indicting themselves through their willful refusal to acknowledge why Gore lost in 2000. Nader’s campaign manager Theresa Amato presents that case most effectively. Her affable demeanor is in stark contrast to the glowering Alterman and Gore, who spit out their words. She points out that Gore could not even win in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of the 2-term incumbent Democrat president and vice-president. She also pointed out that the margin of victory in Florida for Bush was less than the vote totals for a slew of 3rd party candidates. Why blame Nader for “stealing” 527 votes from Gore in Florida when even the SWP candidate received more votes than that?

Since Ralph Nader has led a monastic existence for his entire adult life, there is not much in the way of biographical material that would present itself in a project such as this. His career and his life are practically equivalent, just as is the case with somebody like Fidel Castro. The key to understanding Nader’s evolution is his family life in Winstead, Connecticut. In interviews with his sisters Laura and Claire, we learn that their father, a Lebanese-Christian, was so passionate about discussing politics that friends warned him about driving customers from his restaurant. His reaction was to say that they could go. As an immigrant to the United States, he believed in the bill of rights and other democratic guarantees and refused to be blackmailed into silence.

Nader’s mother was just as outspoken. After Winstead’s downtown was heavily damaged by a flood, she made sure to get Senator Prescott Bush (George W.’s grandfather) to promise that he would fund a dam. When he was in Winstead for a typical “meet your senator” visit, she stood patiently on line until her turn. When Bush shook her hand, she made the case for a dam and wouldn’t release his hand until he agreed. With parents such as these, it should not come as any surprise that Nader sticks to his guns.

The film begins with Nader’s famous confrontation with Detroit over safety. We see some amusing old commercials that depict cars as the key to happiness and success with the opposite sex. What they never revealed was how dangerous they were, like unprotected sex with a stranger in some ways. Nader decided to look into auto safety after a classmate and good friend at Harvard was killed in an automobile accident. While Nader was no expert in the matter at that time, he soon became the country’s leading authority and the nemesis of the big three auto-makers.

William Greider and James Ridgeway, two journalists who were instrumental in publicizing his early career, give testimony to his tenacity and his brilliance. Furthermore, both of them–despite their connection to mainstream liberal publications–both understand why Nader decided to risk the enmity of wealthy liberals who were all too happy to back his consumer rights activism but not his electoral bids: he is driven by idealism, not Machiavellian calculation. Ridgeway, who does not mince words, says that people like Alterman and Gitlin are “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers” you’ll ever run into.

In his early career, Nader was no enemy of the Democratic Party. His consumer organizations worked closely with the Democrats and actually stumped to get them elected. His status as an insider was cemented after Jimmy Carter’s election. Carter invited Nader down for some consultations after taking office and it was expected that his administration would defend the rights of the consumer.

As a symbol of that breakthrough, Carter appointed long-time Nader associate Joan Claybrook as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Once again demonstrating that principles were more important than political horse-trading, Nader broke with her when she agreed to an air-bag regulation that he deemed inadequate.

When voters perceived Walter Mondale as a continuation of Carter administration ineptitude, they elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan, and every politician who succeeded him including the “liberal” Bill Clinton, has been hostile to the kind of pro-consumer legislation that Nader fought for. Finally Nader decided that it would require action in the electoral arena in order to counteract a two-party crusade against everything he believed in and fought for. Put succinctly, it was not Nader who changed but the Democratic and Republican Parties. It was these two powerful institutions that were subverting the Jeffersonian dreams of his parents. Nader believed in small-town values, including town meetings and family-owned businesses. If it took a radical challenge against an increasingly monolithic pro-corporate two-party system to turn the country around, he was willing to step forward even if it seemed Quixotic.

When some of his old friends and associates interviewed throughout the film worry about how posterity will view Nader (Jekyll or Hyde), Nader assures his interviewers that there is nothing that his liberal critics can say that will tarnish him. Even though a seat belt in your automobile does not have the legend “Made by Nader” stamped on it, it might as well have.

The title of the film comes from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists”, a section in the 1903 “Man and Superman”:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Long live Ralph Nader and long live being unreasonable!

Film website, with schedule information about openings this month.


  1. Nice review. Does the film contrast 2000 and 2004? As far as tarnishing his legacy, I think what might do that is if he runs in 2008 and beyond, and becomes sort of a “laughable kook,”
    though I for one would probably continue to vote for him.

    Comment by md — January 12, 2007 @ 7:28 pm

  2. The film focuses mostly on 2000, but there is a telling segment that deals with Nader approaching Kerry over a 3-point program that they could unite around. It doesn’t even include Iraq, but was about fairly straightforward domestic issues such as reforming labor law, etc. Kerry refused to agree to any of it. I myself am not sure that Nader will run in 2008. I think that Camejo would have been a better candidate, but now that he has developed lymphoma, I don’t know what’s in store. I think that the ideal Green candidate would be somebody a bit younger and with more of a grass roots connection. I can’t think of anybody myself, but I am sure that mounting social contradictions will produce some individual down the road.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 12, 2007 @ 7:42 pm

  3. Its tempting for me to bite the bullet by quoting from George Stephanopoulos’ autobiography, All Too Human: A political education(1999). For what its worth I think he was the conscience and most progressive of Bill Clinton’s early inner circle. He claims Al Gore was a big NAFTA cheerleader, something Stephanopoulos was ambivalent about(before joining the 1992 Clinton campaign he had been a top aide to Rep. Gephardt, the top democrat in the house opposed to the trade bill and a big supporter of organized labor). After the close vote in the house and the white house’s arm twisting to please wall street, Stephanopoulos recalls having a conversation with Gore. For all practical purposes Bill Clinton had joined political forces with Newt Gingrich on this issue.
    From pp.220-21; “You know Mr. Vice President I have to eat some crow. You were right about NAFTA: I was wrong.”
    “No, no, no, George.” he said with a smile. “You were right. We were going to lose–until I debated Perot.”(Gore had debated Perot on Larry King Live).
    Then just before ducking into the Oval[Office]Clinton cut in with an exit line: “I like that: win…win…spin.”

    My two cents is that Ralph Nader viewed Gore’s gung ho position as a betrayal to core beliefs of the left wing of the democratic party resulting in part to his 2000 presidential campaign. Nader had nothing to do with Al Gore’s debate mishaps. He was overbearing & unlikable in the first one(rolling his eyes and sighing loudly when Bush spoke), passive in the second, before getting the right tone and style in the final debate. Had he played it right from the start the election might have been put out of reach early on.

    In an attempt to be fair to Gore, he was never close like the Clintons were to people like Dick Morris. Stephanopoulos didn’t think much of Morris either. Carol Browner, the EPA administrator during the Clinton administration was a Gore protege and a relatively honest broker compared with the current crowd. In contrast Clinton was a reluctant environmentalist, his record as governor of Arkansas was poor, almost as bad as Bush’s envirinmental record as governor of Texas.

    Comment by m.c. — January 13, 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  4. What about allegations made against Nader by this “realchange.org” (http://www.realchange.org/nader.htm)

    Even if it’s a front for the Democratic Party, are these charges true?

    Comment by E.Y. — January 16, 2007 @ 4:19 am

  5. Some of realchange.org’s allegations are true, some are false. I myself put together a rather unsparing analysis of Nader in 2000 that includes the following: “When it was reported that the Naderite Center for Auto Safety received $10,000 from the American Trial Lawyers Association just before an important no-fault legislation was voted on (and defeated) in the Senate, many people judged that this amounted to a bribe. In exchange for silence, the Nader machine got a hefty payoff.”

    Full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/Nader2000.htm

    That being said, he redeemed himself by challenging the 2-party system, a fundamental first step in changing American society.

    It should also be mentioned that one of realchange.org’s accusation is ridiculous, namely that he is “just another politician”. If that were the case, he’d run as a Democrat.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — January 16, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  6. […] Proyect’s blog […]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect reviews “An Unreasonable Man” « UFO Breakfast Recipients — January 22, 2007 @ 6:44 am

  7. yeah, i think the thing about being driven by idealism is right on – not that Nader is incapable of being machiavellian at all since his brilliant political skills, that is in being an activist and getting things done will is already legendary. The man is SUCH an inspiration, for me at least. The guy is a lightning rod, he’s got tons of charisma and personality, and makes alterman and gitlin look like little resentful boys. Be well Ralph!

    Comment by peter de simone — January 26, 2007 @ 3:44 am

  8. I simply cannot stand it when someone says Nader “stole” votes from Gore, or even worse from Kerry. Neither one of those people owned my vote.

    There is terror and then there is terror. Kerry ran a campaign of terror: “Vote for me out of fear.” Screw that. I vote for who I want to. As a Massachusetts resident I called Sen. Kerry’s office on the eve of the War Powers Act vote. A very flustered aide told me that he’d received hundreds of calls like mine, but the Senator was still planning to vote yes on the act. I told the aide that if Kerry voted for the war, he would never receive my vote again. I honored that pledge, and have extended it to Sen. Clinton and every other self-serving pseudo-liberal who supported the War Powers and Patriot Acts.

    I can’t wait to see this movie. I’m going on opening night this friday.

    Comment by robwo — March 14, 2007 @ 3:22 am

  9. I just came from the movie and it brought tears to my eyes. While Mr. Nader has climbed to the top of the ladder in my book, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Bill Maher and all those others who have “deserted” him, have slipped off the bottom rung.

    Never has a man done so much for the people of his country. And when he tried to do more by making the public aware of the revolting condition of our own government, he was blockaded at every turn. The footage on his being denied entrance to the debates made me want to scream…which I did later when someone accused him of costing Gore the election. “Gore WON the election,” I had to yell out!

    I stand by him. If you do, he is still paying off legal bills caused by the Democratic Party trying to stop him from getting on the ballot in 2004. You can receive some of his books for a contribution.

    Comment by Sharon Kilgore — May 12, 2007 @ 7:46 am

  10. law man

    Charles\’ Law is a direct mathematical relationship.

    Trackback by law man — August 12, 2007 @ 11:15 am

  11. It’s frustrating that more mention wasn’t made in the film about election reform and Instant Runoff Voting. The “spoiler” issue shouldn’t even exist and we wouldn’t even have to have this debate over Nader’s 2000 and 2004 runs if we fixed the system. Nader himself and everyone who cares about his platform, whether for or against his having run, should all be working together to pass measures like IRV.

    I wrote about the omission of this issue from the film at Instant Runoff Voting Excluded: An Unreasonable Omission from An Unreasonable Man. Thanks.

    Comment by Howard Ditkoff — December 24, 2007 @ 8:04 pm

  12. So the way to contend with the corporate supersystem is to become, as you say, a monk? Ralph is a Princetonian, a relic of the ascetic gaseous left – and you think being “unreasonable” is somehow laudatory?
    Yes, the “cost the election” twaddle is bizarre, as you rightly point out. Gitlin and Alterman’s undoing in the film is comical, but here we are in January 2008, with this self-appointed saint of the anti-corporate suit-and-tie brigade still determined to lead a non-existent crusade. Nader got us seat belts, fine and worthy, but he was there during the agglomerating accumulation of crony capital from the 70’s until now – so what are we supposed to be inspired by? We are all deep into the mess, implicated and involved up to our cell-phone fingers in this supersystem, including Ralph with his fine stock portfolio, parties at Studio 54 – okay the last is not true, but damn, does the future have to be so anti-hedonic? He stands for the fun of that godawful cliche “speaking truth to power” while wearing a hair shirt. Thanks – now get off the stage.

    Comment by Martin — February 2, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

  13. Having read the comments to “An Unreasonable man”, some good, some critical, we are at a point in society that demands OUR PARTICIPATION!
    Life is not all fun, and if you believe it is, then you are ignoring a fundamental part of life that is soooooooo necessary. I believe in the ideals that Ralph Nader champions, the belief that we are all “The People”, and that when corporate funds are accepted, strings ARE attached. I can only hope that our divided, distracted, diverted populace does something other than electing one of the corporate shills running, we’ve had 200 years to have a representative government, and still have a corporate power structure that has run us into the ditch YET AGAIN! Lets do something different this time,
    Vote Sanity, Vote Nader.

    Comment by Tim Matthews — August 27, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

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