I recently watched my good friend Ralph Nader give a rousing speech before a standing-room only audience at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The presentation was vintage Nader: He railed against the power of large corporations, used his biting sense of humor to poke the politically powerful, as he stepped on the toes of political friends (liberals foolishly won’t work with conservatives on issues of common interest because of a “yuck factor”) and foes alike, while happily spinning iconoclastic arguments ranging from an unexpected call for strong border enforcement (to protect wage levels) to urging government regulation of the emerging sharing economy such as Airbnb.
Nader was promoting his newest book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. But his ultimate purpose wasn’t racking up royalties. Nader authors books for the same reason he mounted three Quixotic presidential campaigns (the first two of which I was part of): as a means to maximally amplify his ideas. Idealist that he is, Ralph truly believes that if he just works hard enough, speaks often enough, writes prolifically enough, and is interviewed frequently enough, he can convince us to democratically mold America into his vision of a just and virtuous society.
In the days afterward, I thought about Nader’s longevity as a leader and pondered why his “power of one voice” remains vibrant and influential nearly fifty years after exploding into the public’s consciousness with Unsafe at Any Speed. If I had to use one word to describe a very complicated phenomenon, it would be “authenticity.” Whether people love him or hate him, they know that Nader means what he says and willingly absorbs brickbats for his beliefs just as he basks in plaudits. In this age of spin, angle-playing, poll-testing, and consultant-driven PR gimmickry, there is tremendous power in that—as Nader’s ubiquitous accomplishments as a self-described “full time citizen” without formal political portfolio bountifully attest.
On the other side of the political street, authenticity also fuels Rush Limbaugh’s astonishing successes. Limbaugh has been a national public figure since the late 1980s, pioneering a new form of communication that profoundly changed the face of national media. As a “midlist” nonfiction author who once guested regularly on the nation’s many local talk radio shows, I lament the loss of thousands of these venues, destroyed by the blazing triumph of Limbaugh’s national syndication model of programming. But I can’t help but admire how Limbaugh—who like Nader, rose to prominence without the backing of family influence or fortune—forced the nation to take notice of his conservative political ideology.
Some denigrate Limbaugh as “just an entertainer.” I wouldn’t use the word “just” in that sentence, although, to be sure, he entertains. Limbaugh is one of the most talented broadcasters to have ever worked, a man who can make dropping a pencil interesting radio. Still, people love or hate Limbaugh because beneath his bombastic schtick of having “talent on loan from God” and despite occasional faux pas (like calling contraception advocate Sandra Fluke a sexist slur that turned her into a national figure), they know that Limbaugh truly believes his consistently communicated message of old-fashioned patriotism, limited government, and the ultimate compassion of promoting self-reliance. Indeed, as distinguished from his public persona, anyone who has listened to Limbaugh regularly knows that these beliefs are core to his very being.
The power of authenticity can move metaphorical mountains. But here’s the conundrum: Like “The Force” of Star Wars fame, it is morally neutral. Authenticity can increase righteousness, and also, promote wickedness. It can be wielded both for good and for ill.
Thus, Jack Kevorkian was authentically nihilistic and the driving power of his defiant death obsession dragged many away from adherence to the sanctity of human life. In direct contrast, Mother Theresa’s authentic compassion led the world to her door (Christopher Hitchens notwithstanding), resulting in a Nobel Peace Prize and her founding of the Missionaries of Charity.
We will always be attracted to the clarion call of the authentic lone voice. But wisdom dictates that we take great care in deciding whether to follow. This requires the development of character and adherence to moral principles that allow us to discern whether we are hearing a voice of one virtuously crying in the wilderness or a Siren whose real intent is to dash us upon the rocks.