Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Talkies: "An Unreasonable Man"

In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. The election occurred little more than a month after I began my freshman year of college. My political sensibilities were hazy and iconoclastic. In practice this often meant rebelling against the comfortable liberalism of my hometown, where Saabs, granola, and the honor system were unquestioned ways of life. I had no idea who I was going to vote for until a friend introduced me to the Ralph Nader campaign.

"An Unreasonable Man," a documentary by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, does an excellent job of capturing the appeal that Nader held for young people like me. Voting for Nader showed that you were informed, intelligent, idealistic, and willing to take on the status quo. Most importantly, Nader convinced people that they could make a tangible difference by relentlessly following their own beliefs. There is, of course, no better way to sell to the youth than to appeal to their vanity.

As Unreasonable documents, I was hardly the first or the last young American to rally to Ralph Nader. The film justifiably claims that the millions of consumers who benefitted from Nader's influence as a consumer advocate will probably never give him the recognition that he deserves. The first half of Unreasonable is thus a fitting testament to the debt America owes to Nader, and a welcome attempt to resurrect his image among liberals.

The party poopers appear in the form of two savvy liberal thinkers, The Nation's Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, who are given airtime to voice their grievances with Nader, but whose criticisms are portrayed more as indulgences than legitimate observations. The issue in question, naturally, was Nader's ill-fated run for president in 2000, along with the far more disturbing rejoice that he exhibited following Al Gore's supposed defeat.

The film duly rehashes the major arguments: One side claims Nader's candidacy threw the election to George W. Bush, the other that Democratic missteps did far more damage than Nader, who was not deliberately trying to sabotage Gore. The claims are presented and elaborated without shedding much new light or arriving at any clear resolution. The truth, it seems to me, is that both views are correct. What's most shocking is the inability of liberals on both sides of the Nader debate to understand why the Republicans have been so successful in setting the nation's political agenda. The conservative strategy is articulated by Buchanan in the film, but is treated largely as a historical artifact. It appeared to have totally bypassed the audience at my screening, which used the Q&A time at the end of the film to pose questions about multiparty elections in Cuba (????) and rail against Nancy Pelosi's failure to pass a measure cutting funds for American troops actively fighting in Iraq.

Unreasonable is a fine tribute to a distinguished career and a competent look at one of the most rancorous debates among American liberals. But perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates how completely liberals have failed to challenge a fringe conservative ideology that has become political orthodoxy. Nader has yet to couch his anti-corporate efforts into a coherent political platform that can compete with the socially conservative, anti-government frenzy that conservatives have stroked for 30 years. Perhaps, as Sean Wilentz has claimed, the issues are simply not compelling enough. In any case, it's worthwhile to note that the Birkenstock liberals at my screening angrily jeered a question about labor organizing from a US postal worker simply because they thought his question was taking too long. The sooner the left realizes that elections are not won in debates at the Commonwealth Club or graduate school seminars, the better it will be for America.

As a longtime admirer of Nader, I fully support his right to run when he wants and campaign where he chooses. I think the nation as a whole would benefit from the inclusion of third party candidates, including Nader, in televised debates. But I would also contend that voters who truly believe in progressive ideals have the responsibility not to vote for him. Nader sent the Democrats a message in 2000, but where has it left us? The Democrats are no more liberal than they were seven years ago. Nader has become a pariah and the fallout has affected the ability of progressive groups like Public Citizen to do their jobs effectively. It is, as David Remnick has observed, painful to note how different the nation might be had Al Gore been elected in 2000. In 2004 I voted for John Kerry. In 2008, I will vote for Edwards, Obama, or even Clinton. Progress may sometimes depend on the unreasonable man. But just as often, it falls to those who can compromise for the common good.

2 comments:

Todd Gitlin said...

You say: "The film duly rehashes the major arguments: One side claims Nader's candidacy threw the election to George W. Bush, the other that Democratic missteps did far more damage than Nader, who was not deliberately trying to sabotage Gore. The claims are presented and elaborated without shedding much new light or arriving at any clear resolution. The truth, it seems to me, is that both views are correct."

But this judgment, like the film's, evidently, is faulty. Please see my critique at http://www.tpmcafe.com/blog/coffeehouse/2007/feb/08/canard_watch_it_quacks_like_nader

Regards, Todd Gitlin

Jonathan said...

Professor Gitlin,

Thanks for taking the time to read and leave your comment. I wrote my senior thesis on the history of American mass media, and relied a great deal on your work.

To me, the most glaring omission of the Harvard study wasn't empirical (ads vs appearances vs number of times compared to a Louis Carroll character), it was the lack of recognition that Ralph was clearly lavishing his most punishing invective on Gore. I believe (and you may disagree) that Ralph would have campaigned differently given the benefit of hindsight, but it requires some audacity to clam that Nader went after Bush with the same vigor as his attacks on Gore. Of course, it does make sense to hold the Democrats to a higher standard...

Thanks again for your note