In fairness, An Unreasonable Man offers both perspectives on Ralph Nader; the “wicked”-ly naïve megalomaniac that cost Gore the 2000 election, and the idealist who stands up to government even in unfashionable times. It is not shocking that more screen time is given to the latter.
The documentary provides an overview of Nader’s career in all of its incarnations, starting with his run as a proponent of automobile safety and ending with his 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns (though the 2004 campaign is barely mentioned).
Nader starts off as an uncontroversial and somewhat heroic figure, who is motivated to change automobile safety regulations because of a classmate who became paraplegic after a car accident. He expounds his views that accidents are the result of the internal design flaws of vehicles in his 1965 Unsafe at Any Speed, targeting General Motors’ (GM – $32.99) Corvair specifically, and buzz killing an era that equates cars with sex and power.
After the book comes out, so does another side of his personality. Nader becomes paranoid that people are following him, but as one of the interviewees points out, “He’s only paranoid because people are following him.” In fact, many of those involved in the book besides Nader are harassed, and when it is confirmed that GM is doing the harassing, Nader gets a formal apology from GM as well as a $425,000 settlement, making this a landmark Invasion of Privacy case and Nader’s a household name.
The film traces the evolution of “Nader’s Raiders,” a following that materializes after the case, who Nader immediately puts to work, publishing a series of books, starting various organizations and passing a number of green bills (Clean Air Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Freedom of Information Act) all before it was hip to be green.
His streak comes to a halt in 1978 when he fails to pass the Consumer Protection Agency Bill, even after encouraging supporters to send nickels to their Congressmen to demonstrate their support (an eccentric ploy), and he spends the 1980’s rebuilding the traction he had enjoyed in decades past.
The thing about being eccentric is that sometimes it adds to a political persona and sometimes it detracts. Proposing that civic paratroopers drop into towns to spread his message and proclaiming hot dogs to be “missiles of death” made Nader a memorable political figure, but it also attracted fellow paranoids, like the man who sent his lung to Nader’s neurotically cluttered office because he didn’t believe it was really cancerous. Additionally, throughout the film we see Nader alienate a number of powerful allies when they disagree with his decisions, such as Joan Claybrook and Michael Moore (not unlike another “with us or against us” political personality).
Nader’s ultimate and deepest betrayal is by the Democratic party itself. When Clinton and Gore won’t meet with him in their second term, he doesn’t get mad, he gets even. “Nobody wanted to step forward,” he says, “I didn’t want to step forward.” But not only does he step forward, he stays the course despite the opposition of his own supporters (again, not unlike our current president). His tunnel vision eventually alienates even his own Nader Raider’s, who stress in their interviews that it was never their ideological support of Nader that wavered, but rather their sense of the reality of the 2000 election that made them rethink his presidential run.
Watching the movie, you can’t help but be convinced that Nader’s motivation is fueled by genuine outrage at injustice. He is outraged at being kept off the 2000 ballot, he is outraged at being turned away from the debates, even with a ticket given to him by a student with connections (another eccentric stunt). He is outraged at being censored by a political system that lost sight of the values on which it is based. The quote at the beginning of the film states, rather poignantly:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
But Nader does adapt himself to the world. The Regan administration is an example of a time when Nader recreates himself as a grassroots activist and re-launches his career. When he is turned away from the 2000 debates, he declines the opportunity to get arrested, opting instead to adhere to the authority of the police. His 21st Century reincarnation should have been an attempt to navigate the system from within, not as a disgruntled hippie, but as a camouflaged cog in the machinery. One of the critics in the film points out that if he had played it like the Christian Right, he could have used his time and energy to hijack the Democratic party the way the Christian Right hijacked the Republicans. Instead he comes across as a loud, proud martyr, doing more for the Nader brand than for its people.
Understandably, Nader refuses to take responsibility for Gore’s 2000 defeat. As filmmaker Henriette Mantel sputtered during the Q&A after the screening, an election is like a football game that you can’t just hand over to the other team. Yet considering how many statistics the film provides about lives that were saved and ways in which the world was made better by Nader’s involvement in it, it seems misleading to exclude statistics showing the reverse consequences of an eight-year Bush administration.
Nader stood up to the system at a time when, as he says, “Democrats have lost their nerve”, but by the end of the movie we’re left wondering, isn’t it uncharacteristic of a liberal alarmist who seeks out worst case scenario when it comes to the safety and welfare of the public, to force his way into an election as though oblivious to the worst case scenario for his own party?