Ralph Nader: scapegoat or saviour 


Film tries to explain the enigma

Don’t expect An Unreasonable Man, the Independent Lens documentary about Ralph Nader, to provide closure. His backers still consider him an honorable, unflinching advocate who holds business and government’s feet to the fire. His detractors insist he caused the election of George W. Bush and seven years of misery, going on eight.

The film doesn’t try to explain away Nader’s 2000 presidential bid; instead, it works to explain him. The result isn’t perfect, but I’m not sure anyone could have done better. You can ask Nader all the questions you want about Bush, Iraq, torture, No Child Left Behind and more, and you can get spittin’ mad, the way author Eric Alterman does. But all you’re going to get is this response, if Al Gore had run a better campaign, if John Kerry had done his job, if the Democrats had stood up for what they’re supposed to believe in, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

An Unreasonable Man gets its title from a passage in George Bernard Shaw’s 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.”

And as filmmakers Stephen Skrovan and Henriette Mandel remind us, Nader is responsible for a wealth of societal progress. Seat belts and air bags in cars are his doing. So are landmark pieces of legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Freedom of Information Act, which Nader pushed onto unwilling corporations and skeptical legislators.

But in 1980, Ronald Reagan framed the debate as one of either health and safety or economics. Incredibly, for Nader and his supporters, the public chose economics. (Nader has always pushed the belief that health and safety makes good economic policy.) He gave the pendulum 20 years to swing back, but it never did. So in 2000, he decided to run for president and, well, you know most of the rest.

But did Nader cause Gore to lose Florida — and, therefore, the 2000 election — by 537 votes? The most interesting revelation in An Unreasonable Man (it was a revelation for me, anyway) comes from Barry Burden, an associate professor of government at Harvard. He looked at where Nader campaigned and where he ran ads and found no evidence that the consumer advocate tried to play spoiler in any swing states.

That may well be true, and Nader is certainly a convenient scapegoat. But it doesn’t make the result any easier to take. And that’s why as good as An Unreasonable Man is, it won’t end the discussion.


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Marc D. Allan

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