On a visit to New York City in the lead-up to the 2008 US Presidential election, I was walking along a Manhattan street when someone thrust this flyer into my hand:
Wow. The legendary consumer and industrial safety advocate (Unsafe at Any Speed) and left wing political activist Ralph Nader would be speaking that very night on 95th Street. At the time, I was staying with a friend near 96th and Amsterdam Ave, so that was literally right in my backyard. Of course I went along.
Oh, what a disappointment.
To my chagrin, what I observed saw was a tired-looking elderly man, a firebrand in his time, running through a routine, going through the motions, recycling clichéd talking points. I know that sounds harsh.
Speaking personally (it’s a blog, remember?) to me that night Ralph Nader appeared under-powered and anachronistic. He seemed to be regurgitating generic, well-worn policy points and slogans* to attack the current bogeyman of ‘the right’ — at that time the GOP’s John McCain, but it could have been anybody. (A little bit like the Greens here in NZ, he was also undercutting the Democrats from the left. What do you think the effect of left-wing ‘vote-split’ like Mr Nader’s was? Was it more, or less than the effect of, say, a Ross Perot or a Ron Paul on the right? Hard to say.)
But anyway, back to the Ralph Nader rally. These events are hard work. I know, I’ve organised a few public events. And it’s clear to anyone that whipping up enduring enthusiasm as a minnow in a political pond dominated by the US two party system is virtually impossible.
Here’s the flyer I was given at the event (note the more up-to-date photo of Ralph Nader used):
Mr Nader still had some chops as a public speaker, I saw, and some ‘pull’ as a celebrity. But he seemed frail. A shadow.
At the same time it seemed apparent he was being promoted, protected and nurtured by a coterie of younger, current generation left wingers on the make — activists who appeared to have attached themselves to the ‘Ralph Nader’ brand’s albeit fading star power — hey, remember, I was drawn by it! They were — and this is natural — riding his coattails.
As is the way which such events, big or small, a lot of time and energy was ‘invested’ in raising funds from ‘the faithful’. (Political campaigns cost money.) Fund-raising can feel as awkward or cringe-making (but necessary) whether in Manhattan or the Mount Albert Memorial Hall. (I take my hat off to local yokel Martyn Bradbury who managed the fund-raising process at two anti-GCSB Bill rallies I attended recently with an admirably low level of such awkwardness. Good work.)
Independent (i.e non-mainstream) candidates like Ralph Nader cop criticism for ‘vote-splitting’. It’s pretty clear such vote-splitting hurt Al Gore’s chances in his incredibly tight race against George W Bush … far more than Obama’s landslide against McCain was affected by Mr Nader’s efforts.
I support the rights, indeed, the obligation of ginger groups (from the left or the right) , to push their barrows out into the political marketplace at any opportunity and peddle their so-called ‘extreme’ ideas. But look at the bullet points on that Nader handbill. They’re hardly ‘extreme’ (well, by New Zealand standards). It seems to me that standing like this (whatever the result) is a mechanism for such policies to get ‘talked about’. And never forget: at one stage Negro emancipation and votes for women were seen as crazy fringe ideas.
An aged lion
Don’t get me wrong: I was glad I went to that rally, glad for the education. I’ve thought about it a lot since then.
But it saddened me to see this mighty lion of a man, so apparently lacking in punch and power that night. Thinking about it now puts me in mind of other high profile ‘elder statesmen’-types who, through a combination of physical, mental and ethical degeneration, eventually reach the end of their useful professional life.
Like Ralph Nader, a ‘brand name’ may still have pulling power — and especially if it’s been carefully cultivated and protected. A ‘marquee name’ can still sometimes attract, just like Ralph Nader’s. Some legends can extend their shelf life by surrounding themselves with a political-style marketing machine — perhaps, as in Mr Nader’s case, staffed by younger, more virile activists and professionals focused on PR or reputational ‘deliverables’. That’s a natural tactic, and observable — not just with the geriatric Colonel Sanders, whom we discussed recently.
But eventually the facts need to be acknowledged: There comes a point where the man behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, no longer has ‘it’, is no longer providing a service ‘fit for purpose’.
There comes a time to stop flogging a dead horse.
* I did (and do) like the slogan ‘Free From Corporate Handcuffs’. Nice.