The Passion of the Ralph

On Saturday, March 27th, I went to see Ralph Nader speak. I was a little surprised at myself, but it happened.

Naturally, I disagree with almost everything that Nader says on any topic. Even when he correctly diagnoses a problem (e.g. corporate welfare), he gets the root cause or the optimal solution wrong. Yet he is a very popular man in young peoples' politics. Why?

After seeing him speak, I can point to two things. First, he is very charismatic when he wants to be. He's made an ass of himself many times in the media, and his speeches are generally serious, but he includes just the right amount of humor and just the right amount of charming smiles, and the effect on a basically left-leaning audience is something close to magic. This is a talent that libertarians as a group have yet to develop. In my experience, the average libertarian is more intelligent than the average person; also in my experience, the average person thinks that the libertarian is a pedantic jerk because of poor presentation skills. As a group, we have trouble communicating ideas succinctly, and John Q. Citizen's eyes start to glaze over as we go on and on, logically, correctly, and unbearably, given any chance to do so. Nader knows better. He knows that an audience wants to be engaged sincerely, not lectured down to. This has allowed him to convey ridiculous ideas to all kinds of people who actually take them seriously. Nader himself said that if you expect little from people in life, you get little. If you expect a lot, you get a lot. Poor libertarian communicators everywhere: if you're going to bother to speak to someone, don't think that he or she can't get it or you might as well not waste anyone's time. The Naders of the world always win in a competition between sincerity and haughtiness.

The second thing that makes Nader so appealing, and which is also a libertarian shortcoming, is that even though he paints a dire picture of the present, his vision of the future is full of hope. He tells eager young people that they can in fact change the world for the better. All is not lost, the future is what you make it. This is a very positive message whose appeal should be obvious, especially to the young and idealistic whom we are losing to Green nonsense. Libertarians tend to be very pessimistic--with good reason, to be sure, but the never-say-die attitude is what people want to hear, and more importantly is what actually changes things.

I don't think Nader will get too many votes this time around. Many on the left are too scared of another four years of Bush, and the push to unite behind Kerry seems extra strong. However, the fact that this man got 2 million votes in 2000, even when nobody had any illusions that he could win, is at least a partial testament to the vision he offers young people.

That said, I still dislike everything but his attitude. Nobody but me seemed to notice that at the beginning of his speech he strongly criticized any company with low union involvement, but later praised Southwest Airlines for their efficient service. Hey Ralph, are you listening? Get this: they have low union involvement. Unlike some other airlines, where even the people who routinely mishandle bags are unionized, only Southwest's pilots are unionized. This is not an accident.

Another thing he did well, lest I forget, was to deflect one of my hostile questions. For the first two-thirds of the speech he told us that the corporations were taking over and essentially brainwashing us all starting in childhood. I asked him that if we're so easily duped by corporations, how can we be trusted to run a democracy? He ran with it and turned it to his advantage, and told us about how he became more aware of the situation and applied it to his personal life, and how we could do the same. Touch?.

I still think most of his ideas are nonsense. Maybe if I forget everything I know about ethics and economics and then listen to him again that could change. But I doubt it. That does not mean that he can't teach us libertarians a few valuable lessons.

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I've given up trying to

I've given up trying to convert my friends. In one case it's because she is passionately left-wing and our arguments quickly turn sour. In all the others it's because they simply don't give a damn. They care about having some liberty, but don't see having more as being very attractive or necessary. Essentially they're comfortable with statism because it's relatively benign in our western countries. It's difficult to arouse their interest and their passion.

I'm thoroughly convinced that the only people capable of conversion are those naturally inclined toward idealism and ideology. What's needed is a passion for justice - anything less allows one to shrug, and say 'good enough'.

What good are people who can

What good are people who can be swayed by this kind of "magic"?

I spent last weekend at a

I spent last weekend at a "Designs on Democracy" conference in Berkeley. It was for "progressive" design/media/communications folks trying to figure out how to get their messages out more effectively.

Basically they realized that the right wing has gotten very good at using some very slick techniques to frame arguments in a way that works to their advantage, and they want some of the action.

These days, I'm not much of a "progressive," but I thought I might learn a thing or two from the conference anyway.

One thing I got was that there are many ways to phrase an argument. Even if you're committed to integrity and honesty and you throw out all the ways that don't match those criteria, you've got a lot of ways to choose from. So it's worth your while to think about how your arguments are crafted, and you're not necessarily being wickedly manipulative or shady for doing so.

For instance, I think if libertarians addressed liberals with arguments on the basis of their shared values instead of on more abstract principles or on more speculative discussions about the possible effects of different policies, they might make more headway.

I've seen Ralph speak once

I've seen Ralph speak once and have heard the man speak on television several times. Not once have I seen this "powerful orator" so many people describe him as.

He mumbles often, in fact I'd say it's all he did when I saw him. He stutters just as much. He rambles. He's always making that circular movement with his hands. He gulps often, if he slapped on the green t-shirt, I'd be hard-pressed to not start calling him "Shaggy".

It floors me, going back years, to hear people gush things like "If they'd just let Ralph into the debates - whoooo - watch out!". Watch out alright, the dope'd get creamed. The mesmeric, mystical orator everyone's so hung up on I have yet to see and at this point I rather don't think I ever will. The most recent television appearances I've seen by him strike me as increasingly doddy.

John, The people that are


The people that are swayed by this act might not become the intellectual leaders of the future, but they will end up supporting the intellectual leaders of the future. They'll vote for them, subscribe to their editorials, read their books, and help them throw their statist weight around. If actual liberty is ever to be achieved, rather than blog fantasy liberty, the people swayed by "magic" will have to be receptive to it.

Can we achieve actual liberty behind the backs of the masses?


This was a basically friendly audience, and mainly of young people, so Nader probably felt much more comfortable. In fact, the room was too small, so people, including yours truly, were sitting in the aisles. That's very encouraging for a speaker.

Maybe he got a better speechwriter. Maybe he stuck to basics. He did have a section about how he didn't spoil the 2000 election and how he won't spoil this one which felt very rehearsed. But there was no stuttering, rambling, hand-waving, or gulping. In this appearance, Ralph was on.

I went to see ol' Noam speak

I went to see ol' Noam speak in Austin in September of 2002. He spoke with a quiet, detached, and ironic tone that at the same time pointed an angry accusatory finger at everything to the right of, well, Nader. Part of Chomsky's speaking appeal must be in his presentation: this deliberate and brick-by-brick approach to criticism. The large (upwards of 250?) crowd was extremely enthusiastic and supportive and I didn't bother to ask any questions.

Haven't been to any other politician/pundit talk. But if I could last through the "left-libertarian" and his speech, I'm sure I could handle Nader.

Dave Gross, I agree that

Dave Gross,

I agree that free marketers should appeal to shared values, and then build from that common understanding in correcting liberals' misunderstanding of how economics works. Generally speaking, I think the Naderite, anti-globalist Left has its heart in the right place, but needs to use its head more. They are right in perceiving the present corporatist system as evil, but fail to see the central role of statism in maintaining corporate power.

There's a big difference between the corporate liberals who have dominated Democratic policy for the last seventy years, and the rank and file supporters of the party. The former have regulated and subsidized the economy mainly in the interests either of big business, or of expanding the state as a base for their own power. And they have sold such policies to the rank and file as a "populist" restraint on the power of big business, when in fact those policies were designed by the like of Gerard Swope and the Business Advisory Council, and the army of investment bankers and corporate lawyers who have staffed every Democratic administration since 1932.

The Democratic establishment's working class supporters know they're getting screwed, but mistakenly believe the corporate liberals have their interests at heart. Pointing out the actual effects of the liberal regulatory state in maintaining the power of big business would be revolutionary. Many well-meaning people who call themselves "liberals" would be amazed to see the analysis of the corporate state by thinkers like Rothbard and Joe Stromberg, or Rothbard's radical proposals for dismantling corporatism back during his New Left alliance in the St. Louis days.

hmmm... interesting. I

hmmm... interesting. I think Libertarians happen to benefit from a self-enclosed ideology-- similar to marxism-- which makes arguing so easy. If you argue with a marxist you have to trudge through so much ideology and nail them down to just one or two erroneous core propositions in order to make the whole thing fall. By and large I think Libertarians are very similar.

Libertarian's have a difficult time because they can argue, seemingly logically (for identical reasons to those explained above) for things that seem so grossly counterintuitive to their listeners. That sort of "with us or against us" philosophy leaves alot of people against you. Not that it's your fault- it has alot to do with the philosophy itself.

charles- if you want an

if you want an opportunity to ask Noam a question I can get it to him. Actually if anybody thinks they want to argue with the premier "left-libertarian," I'd be willing to facilitate it if you're polite. I'm a member of an online forum that can ask him questions directly (and obviously get answers.) Anyway, I'm sure that Chomsky packs a greater punch than Nader, for sheer breadth of knowledge alone.

So anyway- let's make that a challenge: can you guys pool your resources and get Noam on a one point? I'd be very surprised.


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