Interview courtesy of:
Interviewed by David Barsamian
February 23, 2000
Ralph Nader, founder of Public Citizen, is a longtime advocate for consumer safety and workers rights. He has exposed the misdeeds of the corporate sector as well as the political system. He is perhaps best known for Nader's Raiders and for sparking debate on issues ranging from the Corvair to the Dalkon Shield. In 1990, Life magazine ranked him among the century's 100 most influential Americans.
David Barsamian: On February 21, you announced your candidacy for the Green Party's presidential nomination. I'd like you to comment on something that John Nichols, editorial page editor of the Capitol Times in Madison, wrote under the title, "Run, Ralph, Really Run." He says, "Ralph Nader is running for President, and a fair number of progressives are excited by the prospect. They should be. Run properly, a Nader candidacy could offer the electorate a dose of radical democracy and a progressive alternative. But will Nader run a serious campaign? His track record is not encouraging."
Ralph Nader: In 1996 I started getting letters from environmental groups and others in various states saying, Would I put my name on the ballot of the Green Party? I said, I'm willing to do that, but I don't want to indicate in any way that I'm going to run, raise money or campaign. I will do media interviews, etc. I fulfilled that promise. They knew right from the beginning that I was standing in for the presidential slot of the Green Party.
Now it's different. Now I'm running. It's a serious campaign to build the Green Party to significant status so that it begins electing members of the party at the state and local level around the country, which is already happening, from Santa Monica, California, to Hartford, Connecticut, and to increase the likelihood that we'll have a national discussion on corporate power abuses and winner-take-all political rules, garnished by huge hurdles in a number of states to even getting on the ballot by smaller party candidates. We're going to raise $5 million. We're going to go for matching funds.
We have a very good website at VoteNader.com. In one day, we received over 2,800 e-mails, even before C-SPAN ran its first of three runs on my press conference announcing my candidacy. I think we're going to have some very good energetic and committed people in place. We hope to have a staff of thirty in Washington and around the country. The first order of business is to get on the ballot in these difficult states like Michigan, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So in 1996 I stood. In the year 2000 I'm running.
DB: It's no secret that many people admire and respect your work over the years. One refrain I constantly hear, even from people who disagree with you, is that they respect your integrity and they know that you're not on the take. But I have a sense that you're shy, and I hate to use such a word like exploiting, but I can't think of a better one, of using your prestige and position to advance a progressive agenda.
RN: You're probably right. I really don't like to brag about our past achievements, although they are, over thirty-five or forty years, quite significant. I think they improved the health and safety of the country and shown what individual citizens can do and exposed a lot of corporate and government abuses. But I always look forward. I never achieve anywhere near what I'd like to achieve, so I don't like to look back and boast. It is important to remind people, especially young people who are demoralized and disengaged, that we've had some great victories, along with other people in our history, just starting with one or two people, whether it was getting the coal mine health and safety laws through in the late 1960s or the environmental consumer protection laws.
All these started with a very small number of people who built up a public constituency and developed what Judge Learned Hand called the "essential public sentiments" in behalf of needed changes. I think we will be talking about these achievements and how it's becoming more and more difficult for citizen groups to achieve as the citizen culture is being closed out by a corporate-controlled political machine at the local, state and national level. Corporations have taken over the political government and turned the government almost actively against its own people, either by blocking access to participation or by impeding the efforts of consumer, environmental, labor, small taxpayer and clean-money reform efforts.
I always like Cicero's definition of freedom, to show you how little has changed in terms of wise insights in this world. This was a little over 2,000 years ago. He defined freedom as "Freedom is participation in power." I also recall Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' statement, which I closed my press conference with. He said back a little over sixty years ago, "We can have democracy or we can have the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both." That's really the touchstone of this campaign.
The question of this campaign is, to every citizen, Do you want to be more powerful? Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of being entertained into trivial pursuits? Are you tired of having your children exploited by corporate hucksters? Are you tired of having the promise ofAmerica being held back by the greed and power of a few dominating the many? That question is going to be asked. It's not going to be, Support me and I will do this and that. It's, Do you really want to be more powerful in your role as taxpayers against corporate welfare, as workers to organize trade unions, as consumers to advance the health, safety andeconomic rights of ordinary people, and as voter citizens to be able tobuild the most important instrument for justice ever devised, a strong democracy? Do you want to be stronger? That's the question. If you do, you'll join this campaign.
DB: In your 1996 campaign, you insisted on focusing on corporate power and its abuses. You made a comment to William Safire of the Times that stung a lot of people. You said you wouldn't get involved in "gonadal politics." Is this year going to be any different?
RN: First of all, the concentration of the campaign will be on building democracy and opposing the concentration of corporate power and wealth over our government, marketplace, workplace, environment, childhood, educational institutions, corporate globalization, WTO, etc.
DB: I grant you that.
RN: I didn't mean that in any pejorative way. If you look up in any Oxford dictionary, the word "gonadal" means that which begets. I could have used the word sexual politics. I guess it would have been more understandable. But no one goes back longer in terms of fighting for civil rights and civil liberties. My first article, for example, was on American Indians and their plight on the reservations. I fought against the restrictions on women being prohibited from civil juries way back before some of the more prominent issues of homosexual rights and abortion came onto the political scene. The Green Party has an excellent position on all these issues. They have people who are far more experienced and who have worked in these areas than I am, and they will be speaking out on these issues as well. I feel most comfortable speaking out specifically on issues I've worked on.
DB: I understand that. But nevertheless, people will want to know your views on sanctions on Iraq, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Chechnya and Kosovo. You've got to be prepared to answer those questions.
RN: They'll be answered in terms of frameworks. Once you get into more and more detail, the focus is completely defused. The press will focus on the questions that are in the news. If Chechnya is in the news, they'll want to focus on that. We should ask ourselves, What kind of popular participation is there in foreign and military policy in this country? Very little indeed. We want to develop the frameworks. For example, do we want to pursue a vigorous policy of waging peace and put the resources into it from our national budget as we pursue the policy of building up ever-new weapons systems? Corporations are very much involved in a lot of these foreign policy and military policy issues. In fact, one might say they are most involved compared to anyone else in military policy budget through the Pentagon, with huge amounts of money going to unnecessary weapons systems, even by conventional military analysts' opinions.
DB: I understand your wanting to focus on that which you know and do best, taking on corporate power. Nevertheless, it would not take more than a couple of minutes to state your views, for example, on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I don't know what your position is on it.
RN: Of course I'm for it.
DB: People need to know that, right?
RN: Certainly. Arms control is extremely important.
DB: These are the kinds of things your campaign will need to flesh out.It's not going to take an enormous amount of time.
RN: That is not off my experience screen. I'm quite aware of how the arms race is driven by corporate demands for contracts, whether it's General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin. They drive it through Congress. They drive it by hiring Pentagon officials in the Washington military industrial complex, as Eisenhower phrased it. That would be definitely an important issue. There are people who I've spoken to in the Pentagon who think, for example, that the F-22 fighter aircraft is an inadvisable project that is strategically not needed and pushes the frontiers even of manned pilot stamina in terms of g-levels, in other words, increases the risk of pilots blacking out.
DB: What are g-levels?
RN: The gravity levels that they pull down in these extremely high speed military aircraft. It's beginning to affect the pilots. They tend to for short periods of time pass out and recover while they're still in flight.
DB: This is not a completely black-and-white issue. For example, U.S. corporations are dying, literally, to get into Cuba and Iran. Ideology is keeping them out. What are your views on that, on Cuba, for example?
RN: How are they dying to get in? They were dying to get in Iraq and sell Saddam Hussein military weapons before 1990. They want to get into other countries to sell arms. I don't think that's a good way to get in. What do they want to sell Cuba?
DB: Casinos and hotels.
RN: Of course. Casinos, hotels and junk products and junk food and try to undermine their organic agriculture expansion and their more self-reliant health system and get people into dependency through all kinds of pharmaceuticals. They're trying to export their model of economic expansion that is destructive of the environment and of self-reliant communities.
DB: Let's talk about campaign finance reform. That's one of the issues you're focusing on, the grip of big money in politics. That great sage of American politics, Rush Limbaugh, says that if money were so decisive, then both Ross Perot and Steve Forbes would have been elected President.
RN: The answer to that is, it's money associated with monied political parties who are associated with other industrial and commercial campaign contributions. Both Perot and Forbes were rebels, multimillionaire rebels, Forbes being very reactionary, but they were fighting the combination of business money and the two parties, who are subsidiaries of this business money. So it's not surprising that they didn't win, although Perot got 19 million votes in 1992, which is pretty substantial. The key thing is whether Rush Limbaugh can give us an example of someone who spends a huge amount of money and doesn't buck the political apparatus and try to overwhelm it in getting nominated.
DB: What about money as free speech? Would you be keen to challenge the Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Veleo, which defined money as free speech?
RN: Yes. It allows public financing if you don't take private financing. It permits soft money which can be constitutionally prohibited by legislation, which is what John McCain wants to do. It allows independent expenditures and billionaires funding their own campaigns, and that has to either be subject to a reversal by the Supreme Court of Buckley v. Veleo or a constitutional amendment. However, legislation can say that if someone raises $20 million of his or her money and spends it on TV, that the TV can be required to give equal time to less affluent candidates. There are ways to dull the effects of Buckley v. Veleo, and I think we're going to see more Supreme Court decisions chipping away at it.
DB: Your position is at odds with the ACLU, which does see money as free speech.
RN: I think the ACLU has gone off into orbit. They seem to spend a lot of time defending the constitutional rights of tobacco industry advertising, which is a very dubious constitutional position to take in the first place. Commercial speech should not be treated the same as non-commercial speech under the constitution. I disagree with them on the campaign finance issue.
DB: What are your observations on the demonstrations at the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle? Do you think they might be a spark for a new movement for social change?
RN: I think they have been. They've gone back from Seattle to have meetings in church basements and union halls and town squares. I get the feedback all the time. This was a movement grounded in a lot of hard work before Seattle, went to Seattle and bounced off the global media attention to their issues in Seattle and is now energizing more and more local communities. The whole issue of corporate globalization, the corporate model of economic development, the autocratic systems of governance embedded in the WTO, which subvert our legitimate local, state and national sovereignties, imperil our existing health and safety laws, should they be superior to those of other countries who are exporting to us and say that they're trade barriers and take us to tribunals in Geneva which are secret kangaroo-type courts and beat us there, because the mandate of GATT and now the WTO is trade über alles. Trade subordinates all over consumer, environmental, health, safety and workplace standards. I think all these issues are going to be part of this campaign.
DB: At Seattle's Town Hall, before a packed audience, you debated David Aaron, a high Clinton Administration trade official. He criticized your position on the WTO. You then challenged him to a five-hour debate on trade issues. He eagerly accepted. Is that debate going to happen?
RN: I sent him a follow-up letter asking for us to get together and plan it. Then I read in the Washington Post about a week ago that he was leaving his job by the end of March to join a corporate law firm that specializes in global trade issues in Washington, D.C. It's almost a caricature of a response. He's not a lawyer, he's joining in a non-lawyer capacity, but he's joining it. I haven't heard from him since.
DB: What are your views on Richard Grossman of POCLAD, the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy? He criticizes the piecemeal, one-by-one approach of addressing corporate crimes and advocates revoking their charters to do business whenever they harm the common good.
RN: I agree with both. I think you've got to do the retail law enforcement, which of course not only helps people immediately who are being harmed or cheated by these criminal violations or fraudulent behavior, but it informs people. Every time there's a prosecution, every time there's law enforcement, it informs people of the misdeeds of these corporations. On the other hand, you've got to go to the basic charter that state governments and in some respects the federal government provides to create these corporations and the conditioning of proper corporate behavior historically by these charters when they were given by legislatures in various states in the early part of the nineteenth century has been forgotten.
DB: What Richard Grossman is doing is reminding us of our history and how there used to be a clear distinction between the artificial persons of corporations through the charter mechanism and the rights of real persons, until that distinction became increasingly blurred by the Supreme Court decision in 1886 which declared corporations to be "persons" under the Fourteenth Amendment. From then on, corporations drove relentlessly to amend state constitutions in their favor, to get laws through, to get judicial decisions that gave them incredibly more superior privileges and immunities compared to real people and gave them almost all the constitutional rights of real people. Therefore, you have corporate sovereignty prevailing over people sovereignty. That's what Richard Grossman in his discussions in committees all over the country is trying to get more and more people to focus on.
DB: Let's go back to your presidential campaign. I'd like you to address the issue of Greens as spoilers. In New Mexico, the Green congressional candidate took votes away from the Democrat, and a very conservative Republican was elected.
RN: And then he was defeated two years later. And now there's a Democrat.
DB: This year in Boulder, in the Second Congressional District, Ron Forthofer is the Green candidate, running against the Democratic incumbent Mark Udall.
RN: I'm very weary of the two parties spoiling the chances of new parties that can regenerate the political process. So the spoilers are the two-party duopoly, really one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup, who are violating the natural law of regeneration, which is, if you want to have politics regenerated, just like nature, you have to give small seeds a chance to sprout. The political system now, dominated by the two parties who carve up districts where each one of them is dominant and not competitive with each other, congressional districts for example, these two parties have generated such a spoiled system, it's impossible to spoil them in any third party manner. You can only purge them, displace them or at the least discipline them to remind them that they're supposed to represent people, not big corporations.
DB: You're going to face questions on the campaign trail like on Roe v. Wade. If McCain or Bush is elected because of votes going toward the Greens, they'll appoint Supreme Court justices. Roe v. Wade will be overturned.
RN: There are massive numbers of issues that are very important that the two parties are blocking, such as significant arms control, control of devastating environmental contamination, heading off a rampaging genetic engineering industry that is far ahead of the science that should be its governing discipline, not to mention poverty, avoidable disease, illiteracy, collapsing infrastructure, corporate welfare, distortions of public budgets, etc.
So while we all have our major issue or two, we have to keep in mind that there's a lot else at stake in trying to replace the present corrupt political system. Having said that, I don't think that Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned. I think the Republicans will destroy their party if they push this to the limit. They're already very, very cautious about not taking a hard stand the way Pat Buchanan has, for example. The reason why they're doing that is because they know they're going to lose a lot of votes if they do.
DB: Talk about your campaign in terms of an insurgency. Earlier you mentioned seeds, and that prompted a metaphor in my mind of an acorn growing into a mighty oak.
RN: That's what we've got to do. We do have a winner-take-all political system that discourages small parties and small starts and independent candidates from trying to start a new direction or a new movement. That's why we need a debate on proportional representation, which I think can be quite practically applied relatively soon at some municipal jurisdictions and work up from that.
After all, the first woman ever elected to Congress was Jeanette Rankin, elected in November 1918. When she was over ninety years old, she came to visit us in Washington and told me that she would never have been elected if the two seats in Montana had not been under a law that required them to run at large. She came in second in an at-large election and therefore became a member of Congress. Her point was that if she did this in all the states, say, there are 37 seats in New York, the top 37 vote-getters would go to Congress.
That's why I think that we have to think of the structural obstacles, not just ballot signature hurdles, which are by the way more onerous than any Western country. In Canada, last time I checked, you could run for the Parliament by getting fifty signatures and paying $50. I think in all these areas we've got to focus on not just getting candidates who've got the fortitude and the energy to challenge the status quo incumbents, but also to strategize in a more fundamental structural way and to pick the districts where there are no major party opponents to the major party candidate who is in office.
You've got about 75 House districts in 1998 who did not have an opposing major party candidate, even on the ballot, against the incumbent, whether Republican or Democrat. I think the Greens can begin picking those vacuums, not only at the Congressional level, but also at the state and local level. I don't think enough has been known and publicized about how many one-party districts there are in the U.S., where the other opposing party has forfeited the trust of the public in participating in at least a two-party competition process. They don't even give us a two-party competition, never mind that the two parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I think those are real openings for Greens.
DB: For years, the lesser-of-two-evils argument has been advanced as a reason to vote for either the Democrat or the Republican. Peace activist Dave Dellinger calls that the "evil of two lessers." What are your audiences responding to?
RN: Most people other than those who are political apparatchiks give the back of the hand to that. That's almost a joke these days. They're not interested in being told, You've got two choices. One, to go vote for the least worst, or stay home. They want more choices. If they want to buy a car, they don't want just two cars. If they want to buy a house, they don't want to be told, you've got to buy one of these two houses in this city. They want choices.
They also, judging by the reactions in my audiences, are overwhelmingly supportive of a binding none-of-the-above law. So if you don't like who's on the ballot. You can go down and vote for None of the Above in your voting precinct. If None of the Above wins more votes than any of the other candidates, it cancels that particular election, sends the candidates packing and orders, within thirty or forty-five days, a new election and new candidates.
The other thing, the WTO is really a hot button issue. Global warming, exploitation of low-income consumers and bank redlining and insurance redlining is very hot-button in local neighborhoods. HMOs in many states, especially California, is another really hot button issue, people being denied or given impersonal medical care, being unable to rely on the judgment of their doctors and nurses, who are under restrictions to maximize the profits of the HMOs that they're contracted with or employed by. And corporate welfare is getting to be a bigger issue. Everybody now knows what the phrase corporate welfare means. In certain industrial towns, industrial health and safety conditions. Massive commuting hours, working longer and longer hours to make ends meet by more and more members of every family.
It isn't just that a majority of workers are making less today, inflation-adjusted, than they made in 1979, despite record macro-prosperity whose gains are being siphoned off by the top few percent of the wealthiest people and most of the rest of the people are being left behind. It's not just that. It's that they're having to put more and more time in, 163 hours more a year compared to twenty years ago, and they're having to spend money on things that they didn't have to spend money on thirty or forty years ago because of more commutes, more cars per family, more auto insurance policies, more fast food restaurants instead of eating at home, more time away from the kids, you have to buy $70 Nintendo games and bring the commercial entertainment into the home. That's a form of a pay cut.
That's why when economists say they don't understand why people think they're so hard-pressed, one reason is not only that they're not making more money inflation-adjusted, but it's having to spend more on things that they didn't have to spend money on years ago, before this corporate, mall-dominated suburban sprawl-proliferating political economy got established.
DB: The Green Party national convention is going to be held in Denver on the weekend of June 23. In 1996, Winona LaDuke ran as your vice presidential running mate. Have you talked to her about possibly running again?
RN: I have, and she's committed to running again. I'm absolutely delighted. I urge that everyone read her new book called All Our Relations, which describes the ravages of corporations and government activity on the reservations of our first natives. It is a beautifully written book published by South End Press.
DB: Few people know of your Arab heritage. Your parents were born in Lebanon. You rarely mention this. I was wondering how that background influenced you.
RN: It was a very civically responsible upbringing. My parents said to the children, The other side of freedom is civic responsibility. My father said that when he sailed past the Statue of Liberty. He took it seriously. So we were always encouraged to participate and try to improve our community and not be passive onlookers or bystanders. Our parents would take us to town meetings in my hometown, which were often pretty robust displays of discussion between the citizenry and the selectmen and mayor. I think it was also a time when children had some solitude. They weren't glued to video games and television thirty or forty hours a week. We played in the backyard instead of sitting on a couch gaining weight, getting out of shape, munching potato chips and watching some violent cartoon show.
DB: What about the heritage of Arab culture?
RN: We grew up learning the language. The proverbs were always a part of encouragement and admonition in the household. It was a very nurturing type of cultural upbringing.
DB: I understand someone has a birthday on February 27. Do you have any information on that.
RN: That's my birthday.
DB: Happy Birthday, Ralph.
RN: Thank you.
For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact: David Barsamian Alternative Radio P.O. Box 551 Boulder, CO 80306 (800) 444-1977 firstname.lastname@example.org www.alternativeradio.org
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