Have progressives made a mistake of lumping all conservatives together and fueling their political energies into hating them? Or are there what Ralph Nader calls “anti-corporatist conservatives,” who loathe undeclared, endless wars as much as progressives? And should progressives seek alliances with these anti-corporatist conservatives to oppose unnecessary wars, corporate welfare, NSA violations of our privacy, and many other issues where there is what Nader calls “convergence?”
Earlier this year, AlterNet published a C.J. Werleman review of Ralph Nader’s new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books, 2014), that paints Nader as having lost either his mind or soul and become a dull-witted lackey for the Koch brothers. Yet, Nader’s book is endorsed by Robert Reich, Cornell West, and other critical-thinkers on the left (along with conservatives opposing corporate cronyism). Whom should we trust?
Before Werleman begins his condemnation of Unstoppable, he assures us, “I like Ralph Nader. I like his politics and I like the causes he has championed,” and he lists some of Nader’s accomplishments, including auto and highway safety laws, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
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Then Werleman launches his attack: “But Ralph Nader wants liberals to back libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)”. . . . But does Nader seriously believe liberals are prepared to sacrifice the other 90 percent of their ideals to rally behind a neo-confederate, Koch brother-shill like Rand Paul?”
In fact, Nader never says this or anything close to this. The index in Nader’s Unstoppable reveals three mentions of Rand Paul on pages 43, 92 and 109:
p. 43: “In 2013, Senator Wyden [D-Oregon] teamed up with Republican senator Rand Paul to introduce legislation that would legalize industrial hemp grown in the United States.”
p. 92: “In fact, in 2013, a debate over the military and domestic use of drones broke out, sparked by Senator Rand Paul’s twelve-hour filibuster, which brought together mainstream conservative and liberal think tanks, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and citizen activists of both Right and Left.”
p. 109: “In March 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy [D-Vermont], chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the new senator Rand Paul introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, allowing judges to impose sentences below mandatory minimums.”
Nowhere in Unstoppable does Nader ask liberals to sacrifice any part of their ideals to rally behind Paul. In fact, Nader tells liberals just the opposite, telling them to be uncompromising in their principles, “To create a convergence that will work and endure, at the onset those from the Left should have a take-us-or-leave-us stance, indicating they are not ready to compromise their principles but will work with any good-faith conservative who shares this one goal.”
After Werleman fabricates the premise that Nader is asking liberals to sacrifice their principles to back Rand Paul, he portrays Nader as naïve to libertarian goals such as deregulation and tax policies, and thus naïve to how horrible it would be to have them in power. Nader is not naïve at all, and that is why he is not talking about forming a political party with libertarians, but forming coalitions and alliances on specific issues where there is convergence.
Such Coalitions Have Worked to Increase Democracy
The fact is that such convergences have already been successful, and this empowerment has been contagious – most obviously with victories legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, as well as victories in marijuana decriminalization and medical use in many more states.
There are other areas that Nader’s coalitions have had successes, and Nader begins Unstoppable with one such forgotten successful convergence that resulted in the stoppage of a proposed nuclear power plant in the early 1980s.
The Clinch River Breeder Nuclear Reactor in Tennessee was estimated to cost $400 million in 1970; but by the early 1980s, $1.3 billion had been spent on it even before a tree was cleared from the 92-acre site, and the General Accounting Office reported that the project would ultimately cost taxpayers $8.8 billion. The Breeder Reactor was supported by the nuclear industry, and corporatist politicians in both the Democrat and Republican parties, especially Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R).
The Breeder Reactor was initially opposed only by environmentalists, consumer groups and progressives. However, eventually libertarians and anti-corporatist conservatives began to oppose it on the grounds of protecting taxpayers from government waste. Working together, they formed an umbrella group called Taxpayers Coalition Against Clinch River. This umbrella group included the Friends of the Earth, the National Taxpayers Union, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, the Council for a Competitive Economy, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Audubon Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Conservatives and libertarians successfully reached their fiscally conservative friends in Congress, while liberal/environmental/consumerist groups were similarly successful with their friends in Congress. On October 26, 1983, this coalition was victorious, as the US Senate vote 56-40 against any further funding of the Breeder Reactor. Nader points out that single-issue groups, such as opponents of nuclear power, can more easily converge with conservative organizations that oppose government boondoggles.
Another example of convergence that I have personally been involved with is the battle against the psychiatric-pharmaceutical-industrial complex and its expansionist diseasing/medicating of our humanity. Noteworthy figures in the history of this human rights/consumer rights movement include both Erich Fromm, the leftist psychoanalyst, along with Thomas Szasz, the libertarian psychiatrist, both passionate antiauthoritarians who confronted mental health professionals for coercing and controlling people (e.g., psychopathologizing homosexuality in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM until the early 1970s, and “treating” it).
Obstacles to Coalitions and Convergence
Nader is not naïve to obstacles to convergence, and he devotes a chapter to this issue.
One obstacle to convergence is that many would-be convergence advocates, across the political spectrum, have good reason to fear social and political ostracism. Nader offers the example of what the Republican Congressional leadership did to antiwar Republicans following President Obama’s attack on Libya in 2011 (an attack for which he disregarded the War Powers Resolution Act). Obama’s actions created an alliance of antiwar Democrat and Republican members of Congress who wanted to vote on a resolution by Democrat congressman Denis Kucinich requiring the president to withdraw from Libya within 15 days. Pro-war Republicans, with the support of pro-war Democrats, moved to squelch this resistance. Ultimately, a Republican leader of the rebellion against these pro-war forces, Republican congressman Walter Jones, had his seat on the House Armed Services Committee taken away by House Republican leaders.
Nader discusses why liberals often shy away from convergence. Often, he believes, it has to do with concerns over funding and peer pressure against certain associations. Nader points out that many liberal organizations receive funding from foundations with corporate-connected boards of directors who may, for instance, like environmental causes, but who do not oppose tax loopholes, corporate subsidies, or other areas beneficial to corporations. And Nader points out, “Moreover, there are liberal writers who may agree with some convergence, but reject it overall as a strategy because they do not want to give any credibility whatsoever to the ad hoc convergent partners from the right.”
Pragmatically, there are times when alliances with certain individuals or groups can discredit a movement: for example, when human rights/consumer movement organizations are not well known to the general public and another well-known group or individual with highly negative baggage joins this struggle. An example that I’m personally familiar with is Scientology’s efforts at allying with organizations battling the psychiatric-pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Scientology’s reputation is so negative (with its pseudoscientific/financially exploitative auditing treatments, extraterrestrial creation myth, and Time and Rolling Stone reports of it as a secretive, litigious, malevolent cult/racket) that, as investigative journalist Robert Whitaker points out, it would have actually been smart for drug companies to secretly fund this religion, so as to make it the face of opposition to Big Pharma’s corruption of psychiatry.
However, movements such as opposing unnecessary wars and corporate welfare – that are already supported by the majority of Americans and already include well-known credible people – are not vulnerable to this kind of discrediting. When in 2010, Ron Paul joined with Barney Frank and others to try to reduce the military budget, did any progressive really believe Ron Paul’s involvement discredited this movement? And when in 2013, Senator Wyden (D-OR) teamed up with Rand Paul to introduce legislation that would legalize industrial hemp grown in the United States, did any progressive believe that Rand Paul hurt this movement’s credibility?
Perhaps the major obstacle to convergence is funding. Today, convergence has no infrastructure and no institutions to support it, and Nader believes that this is necessary for effective activism. With several decades of activism and political experience behind him, Nader argues that it is difficult to accomplish anything politically without serious money. And so Nader ends Unstoppable with a “Dear Billionaire” letter, hoping that some Warren Buffett type will have enough genuine public interest to fund the institutions required for convergence. It is painful to those of us who care about democracy that big money is so necessary to gain power, painful that Nader and ordinary people can’t come up with it, and painful that the only option that veteran anti-corporatist quarterback Nader sees is this “Dear Billionaire” Hail Mary pass. Nader funded his earlier activism with the $425,000 that he scored in 1970 from a General Motors harassment lawsuit. However, it is sad but perhaps true that corporate authoritarian rule has become so omnipotent that it renders Nader’s once cooler ways of gaining activism seed money impossible.
Among the Left, libertarians, and the American people in general, there is widespread opposition to: senseless, endless, wasteful, undeclared wars; corporate welfare, cronyism, handouts and bailouts; an insane drug war; the NSA and other violations of our privacy; NAFTA and other job/sovereignty destroying treaties – and many other issues. However, corporatists – a term used pejoratively by both Ralph Nader and Ron Paul – have effectively been able to divide and conquer American anticorporatists who agree on these issues. And liberal writers such as Werleman, perhaps unwittingly, are aiding and abetting this corporatist strategy.
No tyranny, including the current corporatocracy, wants diverse groups to recognize what they have in common and to work together. Tyrants and other control-freaks know full well that achieving even small victories can transform people from a psychology of helplessness, hopelessness and defeatism to a psychology of empowerment. Coalitions and alliances that result in victories can inspire people to seek even greater power and demand true democracy.
Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite.