Ralph Nader’s ‘Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State’ – can it work?
I never got into Survivor. I know it was an important milestone in so-called Reality TV. But I identified more with the (fictitious) chaos of Modern Family over a staged, pseudo-scripted game show (though I confess to having a soft spot for Gene Simmons Family Jewels). Let’s face it. Fifteen strangers stranded on exotic islands while cameras roll was always a dubious premise. But Survivor did get something right. It showed the critical role of “the alliance” in achieving social change—in other words, winning.
Credit for the alliance strategy goes to Richard Hatch, a rather infamous (and very naked) early Survivor winner. He realized the game was nearly impossible to win without a tight group of people supporting each other. Thus, he formed a close relationship with three other players, and the fearsome four devastated the remaining participants.
I thought about that last week when my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, participated in a conference organized by Ralph Nader. The event was built around the themes in his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. In it, Nader rails against what he sees as a destruction of civil liberties, dysfunctional and bankrupt corporate welfare policies, over-militarization of law enforcement and foreign policy, free-trade agreements, and “unpunished crimes of Wall Street against Main Street.”
Now, Ralph has some good points (and some not so good), and there’s certainly room for cooperation on the points of agreement. But I have a more fundamental concern over his effort to create a “Left-Right Convergence” of libertarians, progressives, and conservatives to address the above mentioned ills: Can it work?
Interest groups and political alliances are an integral part of the American political landscape. But America didn’t invent them. We know from Machiavelli’s The Prince and Cicero’s On the Commonwealth that alliances and interest groups flourish in every democracy and even within authoritarian regimes. Fortunately, James Madison understood that a diverse nation like the United States provides fertile ground for checks on the tyranny of the majority. And the fragmentation of Federal powers encourages the proliferation of what I call “strange bedfellow” alliances.
At CEI, we know those well. Over the years, we’ve teamed up with Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, and ActionAid USA against the federal ethanol mandate. We worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council to defeat a bailout of the federal Highway Trust Fund. And we even got Public Citizen’s former chief attorney to write an amicus brief in support of our challenge to the multi-state tobacco settlement of 1998.
I suspect Nader is trying to tap into “libertarian populism,” an attempt to push conservatives to look to the working class as key swing votes. It crafts narratives that the game is rigged in favor of big business and the politically connected—that today’s oligarchical strains are not a product of the free market.
And there, perhaps, lies the rub. Nomenclature matters. Libertarians disdain placing modifiers before “capitalism.” Conservatives shake their heads at juxtaposing “populist” and “libertarian.” Progressives seem suspicious of “free markets.” And all seem unable to agree what these words mean.
Will Ralph Nader’s efforts to attack corporatism (good) morph into attacks capitalism (bad)? At the conference, an audience participant began a question with, “If you’re going to quote a good economist like Greg Mankiw, then allow me to quote another good economist, Karl Marx… .” OK, that doesn’t help. Later, a self-identified sociologist stated that progressives and conservatives should not make minimum wage a big deal (good) because we won’t need to worry about a “basic” income if we provide free health care, urban transportation, and education (um, bad).
This may be harder than I thought. Can I trust enough the motives of other members of this “convergence” for my organization to participate? Gosh, can we truly give peace a chance!!? Perhaps.
Adam Smith believed that economic life is integrated with the customs, morals, and societal habits that surround it. Francis Fukuyama expanded on this insight by emphasizing the importance of mutual trust within a community of economic actors as a cornerstone to a flourishing society. When disparate actors trust one another to achieve specific policy objectives, they can succeed. Unfortunately, over the last 40 years, we have seen a decline in perceived trustworthiness among fellow Americans. Perhaps it’s no wonder that we have political stagnation.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “[T]he art of association then becomes, as I have said before, the mother of action, studied and applied by all.” But the transient world of politics is more reflective of the popular Highlander series—there can be only one.
At the end of that early Survivor season, Hatch and his alliance partners inevitably turned on each other, leaving a single victor. Will a left-right convergence be unstoppable? If they get it right, I hope so, because there is so much more at stake than short-lived television fame.
Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).