It isn’t easy being Green with Nader

By Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
February 11, 2001

Photo of Ralph Nader's campaign poster: "Green for the Red, White and Blue"

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In garnering 5 percent of the statewide vote in the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader achieved major-party status for the Green Party in Minnesota — which is exactly what Dean Barkley’s 6.8 percent in his Senate bid did for the Reform Party in 1996. Two years later, Barkley’s modest third-party success at the ballot box came to fruition with the election of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota’s governor on the Reform Party ticket.

In 2002, the governorship, Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat, and all eight of Minnesota’s congressional seats will be up for grabs. All Minnesota needs to shock the world yet again, is for a charismatic former XFL player to step forward in 2002 to lead the charge under the Green Party banner. Fat chance. Yet it would be surprising if the Green Party did not field a candidate for statewide office in 2002.

It’s too soon to speculate about prospective Green Party contenders in 2002, but closer scrutiny of Ralph Nader would make a good start. After all, he emerged from last year’s election as the undisputed front-runner for orchestrating the Green charge in the next election cycle.

If you’re under 40, Nader’s been around forever. Over 40, and he becomes a cultural icon, like Elvis. And, tireless activist that he is, he’ll likely stick around. Nader’s father lived to the age of 98. With genes like that and a health obsession second to none, Ralph Nader may yet become the Strom Thurmond of the Green Party.

Ralph Nader was born in 1934, in Winsted, Conn., to immigrant parents from Lebanon, Rose and Nathra Nader. He had two older sisters, Claire and Laura, and an older brother, Shafeek, now deceased. A brilliant student, Nader graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1955, going on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1958.

Nader burst upon the political scene in 1965 with his book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, which was instrumental in the passage of the Motor Vehicle Act and Highway Safety Act of 1966. Thus, he became the founder of the modern consumer movement, attracting a following of dedicated activists, the famous “Nader’s Raiders.” notes that Nader has helped establish “more than 50 ‘groups,’ ‘centers,’ ‘projects,’ and ‘organizations.’ ” Life magazine has named Nader one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, and the Los Angeles Times named him one of the 50 people in the past century who most influenced business.

With a track record as impressive as his, why couldn’t Nader draw more than 2.7 percent of the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election? After all, Ross Perot gained 19 percent of the vote in 1992 as a third-party candidate.

First, Perot ran on a populist, centrist platform, whereas Nader appealed primarily to left-of-center voters. Second, Nader lacked Perot’s deep pockets in an era where money has become the root of success in presidential politics. Third, in 1992, the big issue was “the economy, stupid,” in contrast to 2000, when the election coincided with the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Fourth, unlike Perot, Nader was barred from the presidential debates. And finally, Perot had more personal charm and charisma than Nader — and that’s saying something.

If strong situational forces cast Nader’s candidacy adrift, it was ultimately swamped by the visible cracks in his persona. Nader, a private, solitary man, is dutiful, diligent, conscientious, and uncompromising.

In public life, introverts like Nader come across as cold, aloof, and uninspiring, no matter how admirable the substance of their message. They seemingly lack empathy, which makes it difficult for them to resonate with voters. And despite their merits, highly conscientious politicians seem pedantic, stiff, and prudish.  Nader’s notion of “ideas over emotion” both reflects and reinforces these personal tendencies, making him a “self-styled ascetic workaholic,” as an associate once described him.

That is the optimistic perspective.

Nader’s dominant, controlling orientation and distrusting nature, in conjunction with his aloofness and extreme conscientiousness, make him a close match for the profile of a personality type that personality expert Theodore Millon labeled “the puritanical compulsive.” Millon describes these personalities as “austere, self-righteous, highly controlled” individuals whose “intense anger and resentment … is given sanction, at least as they see it, by virtue of their being on the side of righteousness and morality.”

For them, the world is divided into saints and sinners, and they arrogate for themselves the role of savior. Their mission is to root out vice, evil, and iniquity, their wrath becoming, as Millon puts it, “the vengeful sword of righteousness.” There is heroism in the epic struggle of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” But in politics, the problem with puritanical pursuit of principle is that it moves inexorably toward ever-greater degrees of fundamentalism.

In 2002, the Green Party will no doubt strive to field a candidate with Ralph Nader’s sense of purpose, commitment, and principle. But to be competitive, the party would be well advised to pick someone with a personal style very different from Nader’s.

Politics is the art of the possible. In politics, fundamentalism — to strive, to seek, to find, and then to smite — is not the American way.

Dale Fredrickson, Peter Habenczius, Krystle Klema, Richard Martinson, Susan Schulzetenberg, and Julian Tasev contributed to this article. Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist, is an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. You may write to him in care of the St. Cloud Times, P.O. Box 768, St. Cloud, MN 56302.