Book Review: A Nader Novel

Liberalism has long held a reputation for hoarding the influential celebrity talent: Redford, Streisand, etc. Consider last fall, when candidate Obama received an aesthetic donation from rapper, whose "Yes We Can" video featured Scarlett Johansson, while GOP admen resorted to piping in old Jackson Browne—who promptly sued. But when it comes to art that has swayed power brokers instead of voters, the free-market fundamentalism of Ayn Rand tilts the balance rightward. Federal Reserve icon Alan Greenspan wrote in his memoir that Rand was a "stabilizing force" in his life. Congressman John Campbell told The Washington Independent that Atlas Shrugged—in which John Galt organizes an industrialists' strike against a socialist state—is his "instruction manual."

Because Rand's broad (and repetitive) novelistic brush strokes invite mimicry, it's no surprise that a thinker on the left would mount a similar tract-as-fiction in response. What's shocking is that Ralph Nader thinks he's the man for the job. Beyond polemics, Rand was also a romance novelist, which explains her enduring appeal to bookish and hormonal high-schoolers. But unlike the author of a tome as worshipfully phallocentric as The Fountainhead, the consumer advocate turned third-party presidential candidate doesn't know from sex appeal. When Nader writes about an "aroused citizenry," he means a public eager to fill up its free hours with the business of joining consumer unions.

His novel—or, ahem, "practical utopia"—is titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, and it is grimly fascinating in the way only the most misbegotten failures can be. In its 733 pages, Nader conscripts 17 real-life millionaires and billionaires into a collective of reverse Galts who choose to work charity's will. The crew—which includes George Soros, Bill Cosby, and Ross Perot (really)—is led by Warren Buffett. Do not waste your time wondering whether these people might agree on a place for lunch, since the group quickly gives itself one year to enact a laundry list of reforms, from the small-bore (providing energy-saving lightbulbs) to the grandiose (rescuing the nation from "civic anomie"). Conveniently, 150 pages elapse before the right offers much pushback. (For those scoring at home, the radio interview in Atlas between Dagny Taggart and Bertram Scudder is re-rendered by Nader as a clash between Ted Turner and somebody named Bush Bimbaugh.)

The book is easy to mock, particularly whenever the gaggle convenes and starts reciting portions of Nader's stump speech. But focusing too much on these risible devices will cause you to miss the true sadness of the story, which reveals a major American figure with indisputable accomplishments finally losing all feel for the nation he aims to influence. For example, Nader seems to think The Onion has correspondents who attend political debates. He asks readers to believe that a scolding New York Times op-ed by his version of Phil Donahue could become a hot subject for local news broadcasts. During our real-life moment—when center-left health-insurance-reform proposals generate comparison to Nazism—Nader's dramatic imagining of an even bolder progressive revolution doesn't look irrationally exuberant as much as obstinately out to lunch. The irony is that Nader has become a Galt-like figure himself, preferring to go on strike from an imperfect two-party system rather than live in it. Utopianists of all stripes should take a hard look.