When asked if he's ever been to Burning Man, or would ever like to go, the 80-year-old Nader smiles and shakes his head. Norquist continues talking about the intricacies of the desert gathering—its gifting and bartering culture, the layout of the streets—but Nader isn't here to discuss Burning Man. He picks up a copy of his latest book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, which is sitting on the table in front of him, puts it back down, and says finally: "How much time do we have?"
Norquist and Nader are not a new political duo; they've been working together for decades. Norquist remembers holding a press conference with Nader on term limits in 1992—"the least-successful press conference" in memory, he recalls. Nader remembers Capitol Hill briefings they participated in on the history of corporate welfare in America: tax breaks, subsidies, and otherwise favorable treatment from the government toward large corporations at the expense of other companies (a phenomenon that conservative purists such as Norquist sometimes call crony capitalism).
But something in Washington has changed in the years since Norquist and Nader first launched their quixotic partnership. Throughout recent political history, bipartisanship usually meant both sides meeting in the middle. These days, it increasingly means the fringes finding common ground against the middle. In that respect, the passionately conservative Norquist and the uncompromisingly progressive Nader were arguably years ahead of their time.
The causes that Nader tackles in his book—fighting corporate welfare, defending civil liberties, opposing costly wars, championing prison reform—are all topics on which the ardent Left and the deeply-skeptical-of-government hard-line Right are already marching in lockstep. Consider the coalition of House Democrats and Republicans that nearly managed to pass a bill last year reining in the National Security Agency; or the strong opposition from the Right and Left when President Obama briefly considered asking Congress for authorization to use force in Syria last year; or the recent alliance between Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Cory Booker on criminal-justice reform.
Norquist says conservatives have, over time, grown less dismissive of his partnership with Nader, particularly on the issue of criminal justice. "In the past, people would be like, 'What are you doing in the same room with Ralph?' " he recalls. But over the years, as right-wingers have grown more serious about prison reform, they've become more accepting of their liberal partners on the issue. "There's less of the 'Oh, isn't this odd?' from people on the right."
That doesn't mean that everyone is so accepting, of course. Nader still catches hell for pairing up with Norquist, and at the press luncheon, he makes clear he has little patience for such complaints. "Why should we indulge in this kind of political vanity and be overwhelmed by what I call the yuck factor?" he says. "This is what the liberal intelligentsia needs to get over. They don't have the empathy! They're too busy writing articles and being in the top 1 or 2 percent of income in this country to get over it. ... The liberals are more rigid on all these issues, I've found, than people who are really conservatives."