THE NATION MAGAZINE

Nader’s Road to Utopia
By Richard Lingeman

Not content to foment a consumer revolution, to start up policy-action groups like Public Citizen, to write and publish a string of investigative reports and, oh yes, to run for president, Ralph Nader has written a novel–his first. The title is Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!

If you’re thinking the peerless organizer of popular movements has sold out to the big bucks people, well, the book is fiction, see. It’s the story of social upheaval catalyzed by a team of progressive-minded billionaires. As Nader tersely explained to me: “Reform can only happen top down-bottom up. Not bottom up alone. You’ve got to have the big boys to take on the big boys.” You need money to make change.

The protagonists in Nader’s novel are seventeen elderly billionaires who invest their fortunes to bring about a more just and humane America. As you’ve probably guessed, this is a utopian novel. Why utopian? Having seen so many worthy nonfiction muckraking books ignored, Nader says, he decided fiction would be a better way to draw attention to his ideas. He also felt that the honorable tradition of utopian novels (Looking Backward, A Traveler From Altruria, News From Nowhere, Walden Two, Always Coming Home) had fallen into desuetude. In their day, such fictions inspired concerned citizens with powerful alternative visions. But in the 1950s the genre came under attack by conservative academics and ideologues, who charged that socialist utopias were a fast track to totalitarianism (see Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia for details). Also, reformers lost confidence in their dreams.

Of course, the right has its utopian novels. Witness the continuing popularity of Ayn Rand’s tracts The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (the latter has sold 300,000 copies so far this year, presumably to Glenn Beckheads arming themselves to resist Obama “socialism”).

For his progressive purposes Nader finds that the utopian novel allows one’s imagination to forage freely in policy pastures for down-to-earth solutions. “There’s a utopian novel in every civic practitioner,” he says. Meaning: political activists who know a lot about social problems and solutions can fruitfully imagine fictional scenarios of how they would be achieved. In the past Nader might have sat down and written an investigative book. Now he is presenting his ideas as fiction grounded in reality.

Nader’s novel differs from traditional futuristic utopias in that his seems to be set in a vague, pre-Obama present; also, it describes the process of successful change rather than the new world that results (success being utopian for the left). And the seventeen billionaires in the novel are named after real-life superrich folk and their character traits are drawn from the counterpart’s biography. The ring leader is the Daddy Megabucks of them all, Warren Buffett, whom Nader imagines being radicalized by the suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He ships food and medicine to the victims and then travels to the scene to direct rescue efforts. When an old lady cries out, “Only the rich can save us!” he has an epiphany: he will enlist progressive billionaires to rain money on the American desert of indifference.

So he recruits a team of power hitters, including George Soros, Ted Turner, Ross Perot, Barry Diller, Bill Cosby, Yoko Ono and others. At secret meetings at a five-star resort in Maui they plot a host of citizen-action programs to tackle the problems of dirty elections, paid-for politicians, corporate arrogance, dysfunctional schools–and down the list. Then they put their “dead money” to good work, supporting an armada of citizen groups with names like Citizens’ Utility Board, People’s Chamber of Commerce, National Trust for Posterity and Congress Watchdogs, which implement smart reforms. There’s a Clean Elections Party, which runs third-party candidates, and Sun God demos for green energy. Individuals form themselves into Delaware corporations, with all the excessive privileges of corporate personhood. And oh yes, another group unionizes Wal-Mart by setting up competing stores on decaying Main Streets.

Well, as the man says, it’s a utopia. You gotta believe.

About Richard Lingeman
Richard Lingeman is a senior editor of The Nation. His books include Small Town America: A Narrative Hisory, 1620-Present; Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945; An American Journey: Theodore Dreiser (a two-volume biography, now available in one abridged paperback edition from John Wiley & Sons); Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street (Random House) and, most recently, Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships (Random House)