Could Nader spoil the Democrats' election dreams once again?

Ralph Nader - the man blamed for siphoning votes away from Al Gore in 2000 and effectively delivering the White House to George Bush - is back. With no hope of winning, why does he bother?

Fasten your seatbelts, Ralph Nader is back to the horror of America's Democrats and the delight of the Republican party. In 2000, Nader ran for the Green Party, siphoning votes away from Al Gore and effectively delivering the White House to George Bush. Now he's at it again, throwing his hat into the ring to stand as an independent, or as far as the Democrats are concerned a "spoiler".

Nader, one of America's most ardent consumer champions, certainly knows how to get up the noses of competing politicians. Other people may see him as a self-indulgent, stubborn old man who should have hung up his campaigning hat long ago, but he sees himself as a "full-time citizen, the most important office in America for anyone to achieve", and one charged with fighting an endless battle against corruption and corporate exploitation.

Born in Connecticut to Lebanese immigrants in 1934, Nader was schooled in argument and radical politics at the dinner table. He always wanted to be an attorney, but his second childhood love was cars. At the 1939 World's Fair he fell in love with the General Motors exhibit. "I ran around shouting GM! GM!' Little did they know."

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After Princeton, he headed for Harvard Law School, studying car engineering design in his spare time. His conclusions were damning. "It is clear Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence," he wrote "but not despite the five million reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities and 1.5 million injuries yearly for safety."

That was just the opening shot. The real blast came in 1965 when, having given up his legal career, Nader published Unsafe At Any Speed, a devastating attack on GM and a ropey little coupe called the Chevrolet Corvair in particular. It became a publishing sensation.

GM went after Nader with a vengeance, using every dirty trick, even hiring prostitutes to seduce him and, when that didn't work, attempting to smear him as a homosexual. It backfired badly: the scandal made Nader a hero and forced the motor industry to tighten up safety standards. GM, meanwhile, had to pay compensation.

Nader used the cash to set up Public Citizen, a campaigning group that seized the agenda in the 1970s. "Naderism" became shorthand for a movement that struck a chord throughout the industrialised world and teams of young lawyers "Nader's Raiders" flocked to the cause. Their victories were remarkable: the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act and the Freedom of Information Act were all his victories.

Had he confined his zeal to fighting greedy mega-corporations, he would have remained one of America's most fted men. But when Nader began training his guns on the Democrat party (see below), civil war ensued. His opponents, pointing to a sizeable fortune accrued from a series of best-selling books, attempted to paint him as a hypocrite. But Nader is so clearly devoted to his crusade that the charges never washed. "The forces of injustice never take a day off and neither do I," he says. Nader was never loveable, concludes The Independent, but by forcing "his complacent, bloated country to look at itself through an unfamiliar moral prism his imprint on the US is indelible."

Why we should all learn to love Ralph Nader

Nader, who captured just 0.3% of the vote in 2004, hasn't the faintest chance of winning, or even, say Obama and Clinton supporters, of ruffling the Democrat vote this time.

So why is he bothering? The answer, he says, "is to keep the flame alive". If the progressive agenda "is not placed before the electorate every four years, then it atrophies", and mainstream Democrats have long since sold out. "A choice between the worst [Republican] and least worst [Democrat] is no choice at all," he says. "The only difference between them is the velocity at which their knees hit the floor when the global corporations come into the room." Since no one else is prepared to stand up for the "locked out, shut out, marginalised and disrespected", he told NBC news, "I have decided to run to shift the power from the few to the many."

Political analysts call Nader, 74, yesterday's man, yet he continues to inspire acolytes, says The Washington Post, and no one has yet usurped his position as "Activist of all Activists". But his greatest impact these days seems to be in foreign parts. Africa News recently called for "an African Nader" to tackle big business. In China, they already have one: Wang Hai has spent the past decade fighting shoddy producers (and the thugs they hire to beat him up) tackling scandals ranging from fraud through to tainted toothpaste on behalf of consumers and the environment.

There are echoes of Nader there, says The Guardian, and in time Americans will forget his role as a "wilful political prankster" and "menace" (to quote The New York Times) and remember the debt they owe him. They have every reason to thank Ralph Nader whenever they strap on a seatbelt.