The Next Nader?

If you were Phil Donahue, it would be tough to go to the supermarket. Some people would recognize you from your years as a talk-show host. They’d probably be friendly. Others would recognize you from your months as America’s most visible Ralph Nader supporter. They probably wouldn’t be. I saw Phil Donahue the other night. I asked him what it’s like to go shopping these days. Do angry Democrats shout at you in the aisles? “Yes,” he replied, “and when it happens, I am proud to tell them if I had to do it over, I would.”

He means it. Phil Donahue is totally unrepentant. He doesn’t regret stumping for Ralph Nader. He doesn’t apologize for the damage Nader did to Al Gore’s campaign. He doesn’t seem particularly upset that George W. Bush is president. Donahue recognizes few distinctions between the two major parties, but if forced to choose, he probably dislikes the Democrats more.

“McAuliffe & Co.,” he calls them. “The corporate-money-besotted Democratic Party.” His eyes bulge when he talks like this. He doesn’t blink. If there’s one thing that makes Donahue mad, it’s the fact that Big Business runs the country. In the tiny world where Phil Donahue resides – at the leftward terminus of American politics – “we don’t think corporate power is good, as both parties feel. No, no, no.” Nor does Donahue believe that capitalism is a fundamentally benevolent system, or that encouraging a free market is the most democratic means of arranging a society. Donahue considers these notions propaganda, spread by the “industrialists.”

My first thought was, What an odd thing to say. When was the last time you heard the word industrialists used as an epithet? It has the flavor of a Rockwell Kent painting or a tract by William Z. Foster, as outdated as it is unfashionable. My second thought was, What ever happened to people like Phil Donahue? There used to be a lot of them. There aren’t anymore.

Twenty years ago, it was easy to find liberals willing to criticize the market, or even to question the basic assumptions of capitalism. Then, suddenly, they seemed to disappear. Clinton is one obvious cause. It’s harder to attack affluence when the man you voted for is loudly taking credit for it.

At the same time, the appearance of the average tycoon changed. This made things even more confusing for traditional liberals. “They weren’t used to the fact that they should be protesting people who wear Birkenstocks to work,” says David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise. “The corporate titan used to be a white guy in a suit. Suddenly, your corporate titan is Steve Jobs, who reads alternative magazines and supports alternative foundations. How do you handle that?”

The short answer is, you don’t. Or in any case, most liberals didn’t. Over time, you stopped hearing liberals talk so much about the poor and the homeless and the tragedy of income disparities. The country got welfare reform and nafta. Except around election time, you heard less from and about organized labor. In general, there was a dramatic reduction in whining about the unfairness of American society. Most of these changes were good.

But not all. Class-warfare liberalism may have been annoying, but it served a purpose. Greed isn’t a positive thing. Liberals used to say this. Accumulating wealth for its own sake is a pretty boring way to spend one’s life. Liberals pointed this out, too. Selfishness is bad. Making money doesn’t make you heroic. These were valuable sentiments.

So, it turns out, was liberal guilt. Liberals don’t seem to feel very guilty anymore. New Economy liberals are the least guilty-feeling of all. A couple of years ago, I had dinner with a group of rich dot-com types in San Francisco. One of them, an ardent Democrat who had recently made millions quickly and easily, explained that he didn’t feel guilty at all about anything. Guilty rich people, he said, are “fucked up.”

I used to agree, until I met the alternative. Guilt provides some perspective. Without it, it’s easy to believe you deserve what you have.

If you believe you deserve what you have, you could come to think that the more you have, the more deserving you are. From there, it’s a quick trip to the obvious conclusion: The people with the most are the best people.

This attitude is bad for the human soul. More to the point, it’s terrible for journalism. For the past ten years, the media generally have sucked up to corporate power without apology. It has been, in the business press particularly, an orgy of throne-sniffing. This has ended. The hangover will soon set in. Imagine, if you can, the fits of journalistic hand-wringing to come, the wailing and the breast-beating, the endless stream of self-flagellating critiques in media-studies journals. I can hardly wait.

In the meantime, an exhibit from the orgy: Consider the treatment of a single fantastically rich guy – Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft – in two stories that ran a few years ago in Fortune. In the first, from July 1998, we learn this about Myhrvold: He is “a gourmand who loves French food.” For vacation, he plans to go “fly-fishing in Mongolia.”

In the next Fortune profile, which ran the following July, we learn this about Myhrvold: He’s leaving Microsoft. (“In essence,” Myhrvold is quoted as saying in the previous profile without any clarifying commentary from the reporter, “the DoJ wants Microsoft to fire me so we can’t innovate in products.”) This is sad, since Myhrvold is a “smiling, cuddly” man with “many interests” who is “also clearly brilliant, charismatic, and up-front about being rich.”

The interview itself takes place on the patio at Le Cirque. Myhrvold boasts that the kitchen in the vast new house he is building was designed by the same person who did the kitchen at Le Cirque. Except, Myhrvold says, “mine’s better.”

The whole thing reads like a GQ cover story on Julia Roberts. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is, nobody seemed to notice. Nobody mocked Fortune for running it, probably because the same story could have run in virtually any other magazine.

Where do the Naderites go from here? Probably not back to Nader, maybe not even back to the Democratic Party. The Democrats you hear most often mentioned as candidates in 2004 – Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, John Edwards – are if anything even more offensive to liberal sensibilities than Al Gore was. Paul Wellstone is an articulate spokesman for traditional liberalism, but it is hard to imagine him becoming a national figure.

Which leaves John McCain. McCain isn’t a liberal, strictly speaking. On a number of issues that matter to the left – abortion, American intervention abroad – he’s at least as conservative as George W. Bush. He’s also a free-trader. On the other hand, McCain consistently hits the right thematic notes: for the role of the individual in politics, against the corrupting influence of money in American life. He’s personally appealing. He’s restless in his job. Watch him closely over the next few months. If he starts revising his positions on the WTO, it could be a sign: McCain-Donahue 2004.

The Next Nader?