On a recent Thursday morning, Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist are sitting in a small conference room at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. In a half-hour, the left-wing consumer-safety crusader and the right-wing free-market enthusiast will hold a press luncheon on what Nader calls "convergence"—policy crusades, such as promoting prison reform and opposing corporate welfare, where liberals and conservatives can make common cause.
But before we get to the ideological details, we first discuss Burning Man. Norquist—who returned a few days earlier from the infamous countercultural festival in the Nevada desert—describes his wardrobe choices. "I had just straight desert clothes, sweat-through long-sleeve shirts and pants that could become shorts, and so on, so I was all set. If you go to the normal desert, that's what you'd wear, this stuff," he says. Norquist reclines slightly in his chair, his jacket slung behind him; Nader sits a few seats away clad in a soft gray pinstripe suit, resting his chin in his hand and nodding intently.
"And I had a French Legionnaire's hat with the back cover that comes up under," Norquist continues. "That's what I wore the whole time, with a couple of different T-shirts. But I brought with me a Soviet officer's uniform, something I got in Afghanistan years ago, which, when it gets cold at night, if you've got to wear something for the cold, that's a great thing to wear .... And I had Moroccan flowing robes that I got in Morocco, and I thought, 'Well, if everybody's looking like Gandalf or something, I'm prepared.' But they don't."
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."
It's also true that plenty of differences continue to separate the two men. Norquist is famously friendly toward reporters; Nader, on the other hand, recently wondered to a journalist from Politico what it is that reporters do all day. (If he'd asked Norquist, he would have gotten an answer: They interview Grover Norquist about Burning Man.) Needless to say, there's no shortage of philosophical differences as well. Before they go to the podium, Nader tries to convince Norquist that the stalwarts of the Austrian School weren't as opposed to welfare as they are sometimes thought to be. "We're not completely in sync," Norquist admits. "I'm more radically free-market down the line, evidently, than Hayek was. But there still are a lot of areas where we have come to agreement."
Then they go onstage, where Nader tells liberals they need to get over the 2000 election, Norquist is asked to answer questions about abortion, and guests dine on frosted yin-yang cookies. For the final query of the question-and-answer session, both men are asked what they'd do if they were emperor for a day.
"Shoot the emperor," Norquist replies. "No emperors, ever."
"Abdicate," Nader says.
Norquist doesn't miss a beat. "I like his answer better!"