Ralph's Road Show

From the beginning, Nader's visit to Austin was sold-out activist central.

Ralph Nader and Patti Smith
Ralph Nader and Patti Smith (Photo By John Anderson)

Wafting through the atmosphere of the Toney Burger Activity Center Saturday evening, an ephemeral whiff of patchouli oil served to identify the majority makeup of the crowd on hand for the Ralph Nader "super rally": young, hip, and sincere.

Hours before the rally, the $10 tickets were selling like rolling papers at Planet K on South Lamar. Behind the counter, two long-haired fellows argued the finer points of democracy vs. anarchy, raising their voices over the radio blast of KGSR, as Jody Denberg chatted amiably about the event with Patti Smith. "I'm going to get there early," Denberg promised. He was not alone -- by curtain time, the poured-concrete-and-chain-link event center had become sold-out activist central.

The prospect of hearing Smith, Jackson Browne, and homegrown populists Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower, also brought out a fair number of Gen-Xers and baby boomers, on up through the decades. Then there were those refreshing newcomers, cheerfully uninformed but eager to learn: "What's grassroots?" one young man whispered to his seatmate. Then later, "Who's Jim Hightower?"

He'd soon find out. The object of the evening was to educate, inspire, and unify people across the board to begin building a viable -- horrors! -- Third Party on a mission. The ultimate goal? To organize, plan, and execute the Coup of the New Century: wresting the U.S. government out of the hands of big business. Is that possible? The crowd of several thousand appeared to think so. By the time Nader hit the stage to a resounding standing ovation, anything seemed possible.

Nader's speech touched on nearly every aspect of the progressive agenda (campaign finance reform, national health insurance, solar energy, organized labor, poverty, etc.), and offered this grim observation of the current political spectrum (R to D): "To show you how far we've declined, we are now looking back on Richard Nixon with great nostalgia." Recalling how Congress rebuffed Nixon's proposals to replace punishment for drug offenders with rehabilitation, and to abolish poverty, Nader asked wryly, "If Richard Nixon thinks we should abolish poverty, who are we to object?"

Democracy Rising, Nader's newest unification road show, organized and sponsored the evening's program of music and oratory. A full-force coalition-building session preceded the rally, with more than 100 organizations represented (and local campaigners Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, Jeff Heckler, Daryl Slusher, and Eddie Rodriguez also drumming up support). The Campus Greens -- likely the fastest-growing grassroots organization, with about 500 campus chapters across the nation -- made up the largest segment of the crowd. And Austin's resident populist agitator Hightower took the opportunity to introduce folks to his latest pet project: the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour, described as a traveling democracy-organizing festival, which kicks off in Austin on March 23 (e-mail rollingthunder2002@lycos.com for more info).

The Rolling Thunder effort is what Nader hopes to see sprouting across the country. "People have the power if they organize that power," he said, echoing the Patti Smith anthem that closed the show. "The way you confront organized money is through organized people. It all starts with every individual's civic self-respect."

Department of Amplification

"We want to amplify the voices from the grassroots," said Ralph Nader. "Only the rumble of the people has any effect in Washington." Nader spoke with a small group of reporters a couple of hours before his "People Have the Power" rally. He addressed local issues -- the Longhorn Pipeline controversy, the Austin Fair Elections Act -- while explaining that his new "Democracy Rising" campaign (www.democracyrising.org) is an attempt to connect these local issues (and the activist groups devoted to them) with a broader national agenda. Nader is most closely associated with Public Citizen and more recently the Green Party, but he describes Democracy Rising as an independent organizing effort focused on getting more people into local activism. "We want to demonstrate that the progressive forces are out here," Nader said, "and find ways for them to recruit new members and create a general mobilization to put pressure on Congress."

Nader's 10-point national agenda includes campaign finance reform, living-wage initiatives, increased environmental protection, criminal and civil justice reform, national health care, and an end to corporate welfare. The progressive movement seems to have forgotten how to mobilize large numbers of people, he says, something the 19th-century populists and the original union movement did well over many decades. "So this is a learning experience for all of us," Nader said. "We need to carry these efforts on from one generation to another, so we don't have to start every time from scratch."

Nader described a trio of "nefarious forces" against democracy -- "autocratic ideologues," "commercial militarists," and "corporate welfare freeloaders" -- gaining strength in the wake of 9/11. If these forces are allowed to triumph, he believes, "By far the greatest damage to our economy and our democracy will be by our own hands -- far beyond the dreams of the terrorists." He called on local activists to generate momentum against the D.C. tide, saying, "The only reservoir in our democracy is back home."

Nader rejected the commonplace charge that his presidential candidacy last fall aided the "nefarious forces" by defeating Al Gore. "Even the Democratic pollsters no longer believe that," he said, citing exit polls showing his vote was not decisive in Florida. "In fact, it was the Green vote that carried the Senate race [for Democrat Maria Cantwell] in Washington state," he said. "I haven't received a letter of gratitude for that one -- even though it made the Senate 50-50, and set the stage for [Democratic control of the Senate].

"And what have they done with it?" he asked, pointing to the Democrats' lock-step approval of Bush administration policies, especially the repressive "Patriot Act." "When do these guys flunk?" He denounced the attempt to discourage independent candidacies as "arrogant -- as if the country belongs to the two parties, and the rest of us should just shut up." For Nader, that prospect is inconceivable.

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