I was among the crowd who gathered this Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in Manhattan to hear Ralph Nader speak about his new book Unstoppable, devoted — as the subtitle puts it — to “the emerging left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state”.
Those who only vaguely remember Nader as a hero to left-liberals for advocating increased government regulation might be startled to hear him assert that “authentic conservatives” should favor “community self-reliance”; predict that corporate power will never be defeated “unless we drop our animosity” for the opposite end of the left-right spectrum; assert that one of his main reasons for opposing corporations is that they “destroy the process of simple capitalism”; discuss the common ground he has found with “an audience of very conservative evangelicals”, George Will, Grover Norquist, and Newt Gingrich; and speak highly of Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek (explicitly noting his affiliation with “the Austrian school of economics”), Ludwig von Mises, Russell Kirk, and Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft.
Nader’s key causes in the fight against corporate power — all of which he was confident the right as well as the left could find reasons to support — were defending civil liberties, opposing war and empire, enforcing laws against corporate crime, ending bailouts and other guaranteed forms of corporate welfare, and increasing the minimum wage. While the increasing “verbal agreement” between left and right on issues usually assumed to be partisan has been impressive, the question is how to move towards taking the action necessary to actually undermine corporate power. For each particular issue, a coalition would form by concentrating on working together in specific areas of common interest, agreeing not to let areas of disagreement stall the process. This becomes increasingly easier the more the focus moves from theory to practical issues, down to a coalition including “people who don’t like potholes”.
He related his success in winning over fiscal conservatives by explaining the burdensome costs of corporate power, whether it being the taxpayer tab incurred when governments buy from corporations without attempting to control costs, or the sheer operating costs of incarceration necessary for upholding drug sentencing minimums being “enough to give a conservative jitters”. While existing think tanks like The Heritage Foundation, The Cato Institute, and The Progressive Policy Institute would play a part, their inevitable drift back towards their base in the existing left or right camps means that ultimately “we need independent converging institutions” with a base in anti-corporatists of both left and right. As the emphasis on increasing the minimum wage indicates, the strategy is far from a laissez-faire purist one, but for the most part its role for government is to stop actively supporting corporate power. While he criticized Occupy for avoiding the political process he considered a necessary component, he noted the tangible effect of local economic alternatives in meeting many essential economic needs, preventing capital flight, and keeping consumer dollars out of corporate hands.
And get together the left and right already has. Nader noted that he had attended left-right meetings against militarism, and pointing out the near-unanimous passage of the auto safety legislation his muckraking instigated, quipped “there were a lot of Republicans then”. Referring to the public as the “landlords” of the airwaves draws on a tradition of Georgist ideas of public ownership rights to natural resources that includes supporters as far apart on other issues as William F. Buckley Jr. and George Lakoff. The book has been blurbed by both Grover Norquist and Cornel West. The talk received a warm reception from a mostly progressive audience, many of whom were going to see Elizabeth Warren at the same Barnes & Noble the next day; when Nader related the time when “the Occupy people met with the Tea Party people” an audience member exclaimed “I was part of that!”
The entrenched animosity among culture warriors, the assumption that mass industrialism and commercialism is the apex of human progress, and various other shibboleths will no doubt lead many to dismiss the left-right alliance strategy out of hand. Let’s hope the book, and the strategy, can push past that and get enough momentum to become truly “unstoppable”.