There was a time in Washington when a letter from Ralph Nader to the president or a Cabinet official might evoke not only a response but a press conference, news reports and action. Nader, with his armies of lawyers and citizen action committees behind him, could mobilize formidable forces, inside and outside government, on behalf of citizens. But with the rise of the corporate puppet Ronald Reagan, and once Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party sold out to corporate power in exchange for corporate money, electoral politics became farce, legislation and laws were turned over to lobbyists and corporate attorneys, and the citizen, whom Nader has spent his life defending, became irrelevant.
Nader still writes letters to the powerful, pounded out on his 50-year-old manual Underwood typewriter, but they are rarely answered. That he writes them, that he refuses to surrender and doggedly struggles against all odds for a restoration of American democracy and the rule of law, makes Nader one of the moral and intellectual giants of our age.
Nader’s newest book, “Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015,” a collection of letters to Barack Obama and George W. Bush (whom Nader once called “a corporation running for the presidency masquerading as a human being”), was inspired, he said, by the letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and between Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Harold Laski. In Nader’s letters the path to ruin built by corporate and imperial power is laid bare and the vision of a future freed from environmental catastrophe, corporate totalitarianism and financial exploitation and collapse is spelled out with quixotic clarity. Bush and Obama may not have read these letters, but American citizens should. True to Nader’s understanding of the vital importance of public utilities and public service, he dedicates the book to “the U.S. Postal Service, the people who make it work, and those citizens who have defended its critical role in thousands of communities throughout our country’s history starting with Benjamin Franklin.”
“Correspondence with presidents or politically elected people is the only way a citizen can connect with an elected representative, and deliver a fact,” Nader said last week when he spoke at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square in New York. “If you try to do it through the press, it’ll either be blacked out, censored, filtered, ignored. If you try to do it at a fundraiser, there are no deliberative dialogues at fundraisers. If you try to do it at a rally, where the attendees are preselected, you put your hand up and ask a pointed question they’ll escort you out of the auditorium. The only way you can try to connect with your political rulers, whether it’s legislators, governors, presidents, whatever, the only way you can connect is through correspondence. And that is being shut down at an accelerated rate, especially since the onset of the Internet. It’s as if the politicians said, ‘You don’t have to write us letters, you can always tweet us, or you can always send us an email.’ Well, the White House shut down its fax machine, and has an email restriction to 2,500 characters.”