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Ralph Nader’s Surprising Retro Gambit to Stay Relevant

For over 50 years, Ralph Nader has served as the self-appointed conscience of the American left, the safety inspector of a Democratic Party that, in his judgment, is too corrupted by corporate influence and partisan hackery to pay attention to the problems that really matter. His invectives against mainstream Democrats — combined with lingering resentment over his ill-fated presidential campaign in 2000 — have relegated him to the margins of Capitol Hill, a sidelines position that he relishes as inverse proof of the righteousness of his crusade.

But these days, Nader’s marginality is proving to be more of a source of frustration than of pride. Even the most progressive members of the Democratic coalition won’t take his phone calls.

AOC?

“I stopped by twice in her office, sent her emails and telephone calls — she never calls back.”

Bernie?

“[He’s] the chairman of the Budget Committee, and he hasn’t had a hearing about corporate crime. He keeps talking about corporate crime, why not a hearing?”

But Nader, now 88 years old, isn’t giving up. Instead, he’s decided to make one more bid for relevance using a medium that befits his old-fashioned approach to politics: the print newspaper.

Since April, Nader has been working with a team of about fifteen freelance writers and journalists to publish Capitol Hill Citizen, a new print newspaper that provides a decidedly un-mainstream look at Congress. The paper’s coverage centers on the issues that Nader had devoted his career to exposing — and which, in Nader’s view, the mainstream press refuses to touch: the growth of corporate influence on Capitol Hill, the steady erosion of congressional power, the perennial corruption of U.S. lawmakers and, of course, the follies and failures of the mainstream political media. The Citizen’s mission, said Nader, is to direct national attention toward the sort of big-picture stories that get overlooked by Washington’s scoop-obsessed press corps — and to do it without any of the bells and whistles of digital media.

“Online is a gulag of clutter, diversion, ads, intrusions and excess abundance,” says Nader, explaining the paper’s retro format. “People are fed up with the distraction and the maniacal matrix of the internet.”

It’s hard to argue with that, given the growing evidence of online media’s corrosive effects on Americans’ mental and civic health. But is a return to print media the solution to America’s crisis of quality information? Nader, somewhat quixotically, is convinced that it is, and even as the rest of the D.C. media ecosystemdrifts inexorably toward a “digital-first” approach, he’s betting — against extremely long odds — that the urgency of the Citizen’s pro-democracy message will overcome the antiquated nature of its medium.

“People really want more, you know,” Nader says. “They’ve ordered the first [edition], and they want more.”

Who exactly “they” are remains to be seen.

The first two editions of the Citizen — the pilot edition was published in April, and the second edition appeared in June — showcase the type of unapologetic muckraking that first propelled Nader into the national spotlight. The front page of the pilot issue, which runs 40 tabloid-size pages long, features a deep dive into the Office of Congress Workplace Rights’ biennial report on occupational safety hazards on Capitol Hill, which found a total of 4,167 hazards between 2018 and 2019 — a 56 percent increase over the prior two years. Fourteen of these hazards were deemed “most severe,” with the majority pertaining to “fall protection” or “exit routes.” (The report does document the death of one federal employee who was struck by a falling tree on the Capitol grounds in 2017 — but otherwise, the violations don’t exactly rise to the level of “Unsafe at Any Speed.”) Below the fold, a color photograph of Noam Chomsky teases an exclusive interview between Nader and the gray-haired lefty icon: “Noam Chomsky: Canceled before cancel was cool.”

Although the paper’s editorial philosophy is clear enough, its financial model remains a bit more nebulous. For now, the paper is subsidized by Nader’s non-profit organization, the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, which Nader founded in 1968. The first run of the pilot edition included 4,000 print copies, 750 of which were delivered by a distribution service to every member of Congress and to the offices of the various congressional committees. Another 2,000 copies were sent via snail mail to individual subscribers, who can request a print copy via the paper’s bare-bones webpage in exchange for a $5 donation. The remainder were sent for free to activists and journalists in Nader’s network. (The paper’s launch has received scant coverage in the mainstream press, though the first edition did receive a plug on Instagram from singer-songwriter Patti Smith in April.) Moving forward, Nader says, the plan is to maintain a monthly printing schedule paid for by a mix of print subscriptions and individual donations. A third edition is hot off the presses this week. “Why no hearings on the bloated Pentagon budget?” asks a headline on the front page.

As his somewhat lackadaisical approach to fundraising suggests, Nader is taking his new project seriously, but not too seriously. The paper’s tagline, “Democracy Dies in Broad Daylight” is a thinly veiled jab at the Washington Post’s self-important motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Behind the joke, though, is a real criticism: that the most serious obstacle to hard-hitting public-interest reporting isn’t a lack of access to sensitive information but rather the reluctance of the mainstream media to publish stories that might ruffle the feathers of their corporate overlords.

“Anytime you read an exposé in POLITICO or the Washington Post or the New York Times or whatever, just ask yourself: How much of that was really available?” says Nader. “I mean, these newspapers are not subpoenaing secret information — it’s been available.”

In truth, I was somewhat surprised that Nader had agreed to talk to me at all, given that the first edition of the Citizen included two separate articles savaging POLITICO and its parent company, Axel Springer, for promoting a culture of “pay to play” journalism by taking money from corporate sponsors. (For the record, sponsors do not have any say over POLITICO’s editorial content.)

When I mention these criticisms to Nader, he chuckles.

“Well, try to get them to really go after the pharmaceutical and military-industrial complex,” he responds. “It’s a problem.”

Nader’s criticism is not reserved for so-called mainstream publications: “The independent media needs a kick in the rear, too,” Nader tells me. But one gets the sense that his qualms with progressive outlets might be motivated as much by personal animosities as by real ideological disagreement.

“The Nation has not reviewed any of my last 12 books — not even mentioned them! — nor has the Progressive, nor has In These Times, nor has Washington Monthly,” Nader fumes. “I didn’t come to Washington in a UFO, you know.”

Nader’s grievances aren’t strictly true — Washington Monthly published a lengthyinterview with Nader about his 2014 book “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State,” and The Nation and The Progressive have both published flattering stories about him in recent years. But Nader’s sense of isolation does reflect the reality that his particular brand of progressivism — which combines an unflinching critique of corporate power with a certain nostalgia for the small-d democratic ethos of the pre-digital age — fits uneasily into the current ideological matrix of the American left.

Indeed, the Citizen includes a handful of articles that run flagrantly afoul of the progressive movement’s current political pieties. The pilot edition, for instance, includes a broadside against the Congressional Black Caucus’s ties to corporate America, and in his interview with Chomsky, Nader inveighs against the left’s “politically correct tyranny,” calling it “debilitating,” “distracting,” and “almost immolating in terms of the younger generation.” An article in the third edition denounces the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the AOC-led Squad as “the core of [the] fake populist movements in the Democratic Party” and puppets of the “Progressive Industrial Complex.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nader’s new project hasn’t won him back many friends in Washington.

“‘Don’t push Bernie, don’t push Elizabeth [Warren], they’re doing good work,’” Nader says, repeating the advice of his fellow progressives. “What do you mean ‘don’t push’? It’s all about pushing!”

Conspicuously absent from the first two editions of the Citizen is any extended coverage of the story that increasingly dominates mainstream headlines: former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election and the GOP’s swift embrace of Trump’s hard-line election denialism.

As Nader explained, this isn’t because he thinks that these stories are unimportant, but rather because he sees Trump as the logical extension of the anti-democratic corporate politics that took root in Washington long before Jan. 6.

“Trump is a corporate state,” says Nader, citing the previous administration’s efforts to cut financial regulations and weaken agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “You’re getting an extension of corporate domination of the government, which is the clinical definition of fascism.”

But behind Nader’s familiar jeremiads against corporate malfeasance and pay-to-play politics, his primary criticism of Congress is in fact quite simple: that it’s exceedingly difficult for an average citizen to speak directly with their elected representative.

“[Members of Congress] will respond to birthdays and grandchildren and graduations give RSVP on invitations — they’re very good at that — but when it comes to serious letters … it’s reserved for people who are donors” — a word that Nader pronounces, somewhat confoundingly, with the emphasis on the second syllable (“do-NOR”). “Major lobbyists connected to major donors” — again, with the syncopated pronunciation — “they would get through.”

Might it be the case that members of Congress are just uniquely reluctant to take calls from Nader, whom many in Washington still blame for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000? Perhaps — but Nader’s got a point. In a piece for the paper’s pilot edition, Russell Mokhiber, of the Corporate Crime Reporter, documents his exhaustive efforts to contact the members of his congressional delegation — West Virginia’s Sens. Joe Manchin, Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Alex Mooney — to discuss their positions on corporate crime. Mokhiber uses all the resources that are available to the average citizen to try to reach his representatives — filling out forms online, calling regional and Washington offices, sending follow-up emails and making follow-up calls — but to no avail. In the end, he receives only one response, a form letter from Manchin thanking him for “sharing his perspective on the Build Back Better Act.”

As Nader pointed out, the firewall that representatives have erected between themselves and their constituents poses a real threat to the basic principles of representative democracy — and yet it remains practically invisible to the mainstream reporters who spend a significant portion of their professional lives rubbing elbows with elected representatives on Capitol Hill.

“We have a First Amendment right to petition our government, right? Well, how much is that right worth if our government never responds?” Nader says. “It’s basically a dead letter in the First Amendment — it’s done. You can’t do it.”

To Nader’s credit, there is a certain consistency — in a “the-medium-is-the-message” sort of way — between the Citizen’s retro format and Nader’s old-fashioned approach to politics. Both suggest that to reinvigorate democracy, America needs to return to the basics: a face-to-face conversation between a representative and her constituents. A newspaper that you can actually hold in your hands.

“People see a clarity when they have a newspaper in hand,” says Nader. “That’s all they’re reading. Nobody’s trying to grab their attention in any other way. They really appreciate it.”

Seems redundant with “quixotically” in the same sentence.

Long odds is part of the definition of quixotic, but most important it has the sense of nobly archaic and unrealistic idealism. So, yes, a little redundant, but not completely.

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