Glenn Greenwald Is Ralph Nader

Photo: Vincent Yu/AP/Corbis

The debate over domestic surveillance is not a debate about what we think about Glenn Greenwald. But Greenwald is a fascinating character. His resemblance to Ralph Nader is not one that, so far as I can tell, anybody has thought to make. But the resemblance is striking. It’s not a resemblance of historical place — Greenwald is neither going to lead a new regulatory wave nor get a Republican elected president. The resemblance is characterological and ideological.

For Greenwald, like Nader, the lawyer is the key protagonist in his political drama. Political victory is a series of successful lawsuits. He is wildly litigious:

In 1997, Achatz and Greenwald filed another lawsuit for broken elevators in their building. (They lived on the 32nd floor.) They later moved into another building in Midtown Manhattan, and countersued after being sued by that landlord for having a dog that weighed more than 35 pounds. They sued American Airlines and its parent company for not placing the right number of miles flown in their frequent-flier account.

Greenwald, like Nader, marries an indefatigable mastery of detail with fierce moralism. Every issue he examines has a good side and an evil side. Greenwald, speaking not long ago to the New York Times, said something revealing about his intellectual style:

“I approach my journalism as a litigator,” he said. “People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.”

That is a highly self-aware account. Of course, the job description of a litigator does not include being fair. You take a side, assume the other side is lying, and prosecute your side full tilt. It’s not your job to account for evidence that undermines your case — it’s your adversary’s job to point that out.

I won’t pretend to be neutral here — I’ve tangled with Greenwald numerous times. So, for instance, he called me a “McCain worshiper,” and it is true that I have written some highly favorable things about John McCain. I’ve also written some highly critical things. I pointed out to Greenwald that, when I have called McCain, among other things, a “dangerous sociopath,” it would at least complicate the picture in such a way as to preclude me from being called a “worshiper.” But no, Greenwald dug in deeper, assembling all the evidence he could muster for his side and ignoring all the evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

Greenwald, like Nader, does not believe in meliorist progress. If you are not good, you are evil. Even at the heyday of his career, when he was one of the most powerful figures in America and his brand of crusading regulation reigned nearly unchallenged, Nader was constantly denouncing congressional liberal allies for failing to pass sufficiently pure iterations:

 In 1970, Nader championed a report by his staff savaging Ed Muskie, the liberal senator from Maine. Muskie, who helped engineer the Air Quality Act of 1967, had a reputation as an environmental ally, but Nader's report called the act "disastrous," adding, "That fact alone would warrant his being stripped of his title as 'Mr. Pollution Control.'" 

That same year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to create a Consumer Protection Agency (CPA), what Nader called his highest legislative goal. But, just days after praising the bill, Nader turned against it, saying that "intolerable erosions" had rendered the bill "unacceptable." As Martin writes, "Without Nader's backing, the bill lost momentum" and died in committee. The pattern repeated itself, as the CPA passed either the House or the Senate five more times over the next six years, but Nader rejected every bill as too compromised.

That is the echo of Greenwald’s suspicions of the Democratic agenda. President Obama scaled back some of the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies — torture, warrantless wiretapping — but kept in place others. One could make the case that he did not change enough, but that is not a Greenwald sort of argument. He insists that Obama is worse than Bush. Obama’s health-care reform was not just a step along the way to Greenwald’s ideal, it was a monstrous sellout that probably did no good at all (“there is a reasonable debate to be had among reform advocates over whether this bill is a net benefit or a net harm.”).

This way of looking at the world naturally places one in conflict with most liberals, who are willing to distinguish between gradations of success or failure. Nader and Greenwald believe their analysis not only completely correct, but so obviously correct that the only motivation one could have to disagree is corruption. Good-faith disagreement, or even rank stupidity, is not possible around Greenwald. His liberal critics are lackeys and partisan shills. He may be willing to concede ideological disagreement with self-identified conservatives, but a liberal who disagrees can only be a kept man.

For Greenwald, like for Nader, the evils of liberals loom far larger than the evils of conservatives. The most annoying question in the world is the one posed to them most frequently: Aren’t the Republicans worse? They are loath to give their critics the satisfaction of an affirmative response, which they fear will justify ignoring their urgent denunciations. So much of their intellectual energy is devoted to formulating complex chains of reasoning as to why just the opposite is true. “The only difference between [Gore and Bush] is the velocity at which their knees hit the floor,” said Nader. Greenwald insisted that “even if Obama is the lesser of two evils, he’s the more effective of two evils.” Statements like this make their putative allies more nervous, or even provokes them to break with them altogether. But this only convinces them all the more deeply of their uncorruptable virtue.