I rish writer George Bernard Shaw once described "an unreasonable man" as a man "who persists in trying to adapt the world to himself." Filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan felt that this definition fits no one better than consumer advocate and political activist Ralph Nader. Their documentary about the man who some see as America's conscience, and at the same time as the 'spoiler' in the 2000 American presidential election, has caused as much controversy as Nader himself.
It was the waste of human life behind the wheel that prompted Ralph Nader to become a political activist more than 50 years ago.
The numbers of the victims were staggering. The results of his campaign against unsafe cars stunning. By the late 1950s American cars had seatbelts and later on, airbags.
Historian David Bollier says that by the late 1960s and 1970s, Nader had become one of the most active American consumer advocates. "For about a decade" says David Bollier, "Ralph had the field almost to himself. He had built a legislative record as a private citizen that would have been the envy of any modern president."
Filmmaker and long time friend Henriette Mantel says Nader was so popular at the time that people turned to him for any kind of help. "He had a box with a lot of dry ice," says the filmmaker. "And I thought 'what is this?' and I opened it. A guy had sent his lung to Ralph because he was upset that they had taken out his lung and he didn't know if it was really cancerous."
So, what turned Ralph Nader the consumers' champion of the '70s into a pariah for many Democrats during the 2000 presidential election? The documentary An Unreasonable Man sheds some light.
It maintains that as the political influence of American corporations grew, Nader felt that both the Democratic and Republican parties had failed the American public. "We really need multiparty development in this country," says Ralph Nader, "because we don't have a government of, by and for the people. We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for the Dupont."
That conviction led him into the presidential arena in 2000.
Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by a very narrow margin. No one was more angry with Ralph Nader than many Democrats. They felt he should have backed out of the presidential race and endorsed Al Gore. They called him dishonest, unethical, a megalomaniac.
But on and off screen, Ralph Nader showed no regrets. In an interview with Voice of America, he did not distinguish between Republicans and Democrats. As he put it, "The two parties, by the laws they have passed all over the country against third parties have basically sent the message to any dissent inside the electoral arena, 'Shut up, get in line, because only one of two major candidates is ever gonna win.' That is not a democratic society."
That is why Ralph Nader says he does not see the Democratic Party as an ally or a viable political option. He called the party "the lesser of two evils."
But former U.S. representative Tom Downey disagrees. "You know, 'the lesser of two evils.' Well, there is a pretty big gap between these two evils."
Downey says if Gore had been elected in 2000, the world would be different today. "We would not be at war in Iraq. We would not have the budget deficits that we have. Our standing in the world would be very different." "So," he adds, "it's fair to say that because he chose to run and indulge himself in that way, the history of the world is far worse, certainly in a way that HE would understand."
Whether Nader is accountable or not, the documentary An Unreasonable Man does not take sides. But it DOES help people understand who Ralph Nader is and why he acted the way he did.