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Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man

Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq war. Thank you, Ralph, for the tax cuts. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the environment. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution.

—Journalist Eric Alterman on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid, in An Unreasonable Man.

Ralph Nader burst onto the national scene—and into conference rooms and Congressional committee hearings on Capitol Hill—in 1965, with the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, his indictment of GM’s Corvair and its predilection for rolling when taken into tight turns at high speeds. That flaw was aggravated by the lack of safety features designed into the Corvair and Detroit’s other “psychosexual dreamboats”: cars with no seatbelts or airbags or padding, made of rigid steel that made even minor collisions potentially fatal. The book, which spun out of a 1959 article in The Nation, presaged Nader’s modus operandi in the years to follow: meticulously researched, strident advocacy that aimed not only to inform the public but to effect change through government regulation.

Nader’s rise to fame was abetted, ironically, by GM’s efforts to suppress his findings: The auto manufacturer hired private investigators to pry into Nader’s personal life and sent women to try to seduce him into compromising situations, in an attempt to gather fuel for a smear campaign. The investigators found nothing. Nader tipped the Washington Post to the somewhat obvious tactic, and GM’s president was soon sitting before a Congressional committee, issuing a public apology—and elevating Nader to the status of populist hero.

He sued GM for invasion of privacy, settled for $450,000—a landmark sum for such a case—and used the money to bankroll a series of public advocacy campaigns and consumer watchdog organizations that, in the following decade, scored a remarkable slate of victories. It is difficult to overstate the impact he and his earnest young acolytes, dubbed Nader’s Raiders by journalist William Greider, have had in the arenas of consumer rights, environmental regulations, worker safety laws, women’s rights and of course automobile safety. From the Clean Water Act to the creation of OSHA, Nader and the advocacy groups he founded have profoundly improved the public and private spaces in which Americans live and work. The scourge of American corporations, their lobbyists and the shills they helped to elect to office, by the mid 1970s Nader was perhaps the nation’s most popular populist.

Even after the Reagan Revolution curtailed his effectiveness in Washington, and the subsequent rightward drift of the Democratic Party further marginalized him, he remained one of the most persuasive, intelligent voices the progressive wing of the Democrats could field. Even as, and perhaps because, he was cast out into the cold in the 1980s and 1990s, he remained a hero to the American left—to people like Eric Alterman, who now considers Nader a deluded megalomaniac. Alterman and many others credit Nader’s 2000 run for president as the Green Party candidate with splitting the progressive vote and handing the election to George W. Bush.

After 2000 Nader became, depending on your point of view, the most infamous spoiler or scapegoat in the history of American presidential politics. (Or at least since Ross Perot helped to usher in the Clinton era in 1992.) In Florida—where Nader picked up more than 90,000 votes—he polled so well before the election that some of his campaign workers begged him to drop out of the race and urge his supporters to vote for Gore, to prevent a Bush presidency.

The razor-thin margin of Gore’s loss was a wound re-opened four years later. Nader’s decision to run for president again in 2004 as an independent led even former colleagues and supporters of his 2000 campaign to throw up their hands: What’s wrong with Ralph? they asked. With the stakes raised so high by the Bush administration’s policies, why is he stabbing the Democrats in the back again?

Those questions presuppose Nader’s responsibility for Bush’s win in 2000, a supposition that is addressed in a new documentary, An Unreasonable Man, by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skovran. The film is a welcome addition to the history of Nader’s role in the 2000 campaign, and a compelling portrait of a man who has spent his life in public service.

Nader, of course, argues that the question is bogus: first, he says, Gore didn’t lose—the election was stolen; second, Gore and the Democratic Party ran a bad campaign that lost Gore’s home state of Tennessee and plenty of other states without help from Nader; third, recent studies suggest his candidacy made no mathematical difference anyway; and finally, third parties don’t owe anything to the two major parties, which are corrupt and arrogant and mostly interchangeable.

Furthermore, Nader says, he hasn’t changed at all: His positions are the same as they always were and so are his methods. His allies and his opponents may vacillate but his progressive agenda remains the same year after year.

“I’m now in a situation where most of my opponents agree with me” on public policy issues, he told Artvoice last Saturday afternoon during a telephone interview.

He went on to discuss his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, the upcoming presidential race and the state of public citizenship in the United States. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

On Friday, March 2, Artvoice presents a teleconference conversation with Nader after the 6:30pm screening of An Unreasonable Man at the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, 639 Main Street (855-3022). Filmmaker Henriette Mantel—who worked for Nader in the late 1970s—will also be present to answer questions after the screening.

AV: What do you say to people who argue you cost the Democrats the presidency in 2000?

RN: First of all, nobody costs anybody the election, because the whole point of running for election is to take votes from everywhere else. Bush tried to take votes from everyone, Gore tried to take votes from everyone. So why did they focus on the third-party candidate? Because they think the third-party candidate is a second-class citizen, and the two parties own all the voters, and everyone else should shut up and stand in line.

The second is, I think Gore did win it, in Florida and around the country, but it was taken from him in a whole series of documented ways: from Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush in Tallahassee before, during and after the election, and all the way to the Supreme Court which, five-four, politically blocked the Florida Supreme Court from finishing its statewide recount.

And third, Gore ran not a good campaign. He could have picked up on some of our proposals, which the old Democratic Party would have immediately adopted, like living wage and a good uniform, universal healthcare plan, cracking down on corporate crime against consumers and holders of pensions and investors. Those are all vote-getting things. And instead they ended up not land-sliding a bumbling governor from Texas who couldn’t put three sentences together and whose abysmal record they did not publicize during the campaign.

They’re always making blunders, and after watching, year after year, Democrats becoming very good about electing very bad Republicans, and not able to defeat probably the worst, most craven Republicans in American history, you have to come to a conclusion that they have to be challenged from the outside.

People are prisoners of this 200-plus-year-old system. The least-worsters basically say to the Democrats, “We’re with you, no holds barred, we’re not going to make any demands on you to discomfit your fundraising abilities, because we think your opponent is so much worse.” Well, when you do that you lose your bargaining power, and the corporations are pulling both parties in their direction, without any pull in your direction.

That’s what the least-worsters do. They want to be least-worsters, fine, but they should demand more of Gore or Kerry. I mean, we checked 19 pro-Kerry groups in every obvious area: environment, consumers, civil rights, poverty, tax reform, women’s rights and so on. We checked their Web sites in ’04 and not one of them was making any demands on Kerry. And meantime he had more and more blurred his differences with Bush.

AV: Recently you said, “If my mother had raised George W. Bush, we would not be in Iraq today.’’ There are many people who still feel that if you hadn’t run in 2000 we wouldn’t be in Iraq today, and we wouldn’t have had massive tax cuts for the wealthy, rollbacks in environmental protection and attacks on civil liberties. Do you still believe, as you said at the time, that there was really no difference between a George W. Bush and an Al Gore presidency?

RN: Well, obviously…the way I put it is that the similarities between the two parties are now towering over the dwindling real differences that they’re willing to fight over. So you know, Social Security, Medicare, civil liberties, gay and lesbian rights—the Democrats are obviously superior. But we’re not a one-issue people. Our groups are not one-issue; we have 30 or more issues over the year that we’ve championed. If you go department by department, what’s the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? The Defense Department, the Treasury, Federal Reserve, Department of Agriculture, even the regulatory agencies were a disaster under Clinton. The auto safety agency was basically closed down, turned into a consulting firm; in eight years it didn’t propose one fuel-efficiency standard. OSHA was basically shut down; not one chemical control standard issued under Clinton-Gore. FDA was the worst in 29 years of oversight by Dr. Sidney Wolf of Public Citizen, who is the main watchdog of the FDA.

The question is, when do they both flunk? And what’s our breaking point? If an individual doesn’t have a breaking point, then an individual has signed up for political servitude with the party that the individual is loyal to. You have to have a breaking point. You have to be able to say to a party, “You go one step further and it’s over. I’m abandoning you.”

But the least-worsters don’t do that. The Democratic Party could have stopped Bush on the war, could have stopped Bush on the Patriot Act, could have stopped Bush on the tax cuts for the wealthy, and obviously could have landslided Bush and sent him back to Crawford in 2000. It’s amazing how many second, third, fourth, fifth, eighth, hundredth chances the least-worsters give.

AV: Did you see Al Gore’s film?

RN: Oh yeah, I’ve talked to him about it personally. I stood in line to have him sign [a copy of his book]. He was very cordial. He knows what happened in 2000. He knows he didn’t run the best campaign, number one. Number two, he thinks he won and it was taken from him. And he’s not about to blame me.

AV: Do you ever regret not having dropped out in 2000?

RN: No, because first of all you destroy any kind of third party heritage when you turn your back on tens of thousands of people who sweated their minds, hearts and feet out for you.

Second, it’s not clear, even very pragmatically, what would have happened. The exit polls showed that 25 percent of my votes would have gone to Bush, 40 to Gore and the rest would have stayed home. Then there’s a study by Solon Simmons at George Mason University; he’s actually looked at the data, [which say] people came out who weren’t going to vote to vote for Gore, because they thought I was hurting Gore.

There are a lot of dynamics. An election is about chemistry before it becomes math on election day.

AV: Your 2000 campaign provided a huge initial lift to the Green Party nationally, but by 2004 internecine fighting seemed to have undone that. Can the Greens become a viable third party?

RN: Not with this present attitude. The bickering turns people away from joining it. They go to a meeting of the Green Party and observe this rather arcane bickering, or personal bickering, and they don’t come back. That’s one reason you don’t see the ranks swelling.

And then they have these Trojan horses inside where they can’t decide whether they want to build a third party or whether they want to keep the Greens at an absurdly low level in order to help the Democrats. That’s why they didn’t decide whether they even wanted a presidential candidate until late June [2004] in Milwaukee at their convention. And then some of the supporters of David Cobb said they wanted him precisely because he would get few votes…they were behind the scenes dickering with the Democrats, saying, “Don’t worry, he won’t go into the close states.”

That really saps the solidarity of the party. If you’re in a third party, you either want to build it or get out of it. A lot of the older Greens who had leadership roles are turned off as well, and they have significant stature in the party—they could take it back and weave it into something stronger.

AV: Your 2004 campaign as an independent cost $4.5 million and garnered far fewer votes than in 2000. What do you think it accomplished?

RN: One, it kept the progressive agenda alive at a presidential level. Because if you go four years, four years, four years without progressive agenda being carried across the country, you end up with a generation of Americans who don’t even know what you’re talking about.

The second is, always a campaign recruits the leaders of the future, and so you’ve got these people in their 20s who worked their hearts and minds out for you, but they’re learning skills. They’re going to be running for office, they’re going to be organizing civic activity. That’s true for older people too who have gotten discouraged: They get a re-entry.

The third—and this is going to be sort of counterintuitive—we have now documented as never before how truly lawless, vicious and determined the Democratic Party is to deny our voters the right to vote for candidates of their choice by keeping us off the state ballots. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, Oregon, on and on. My campaign manager, Lisa Amato, is writing a book on this. That would not have been documented without our provoking the fangs of the Democratic Party in hiring Republican corporate law firms like Reed Smith in Pennsylvania to deploy dozens of lawyers and paralegals to keep us off the ballot. One day we were summoned into 10 Pennsylvania courtrooms on the same day. And never before in American history has anybody been fined essentially, made to pay the costs of the Republican corporate law firm—transcription, handwriting expert fees—for defending one’s own candidacy to be on the ballot. That’s what happened to me in Pennsylvania: $90,000. It’s never happened before.

And the judges are either politically partisan or they don’t have a clue about candidates rights. They’re like the judges in the ’20s on minority voters rights. Candidate rights has not yet risen to the stature of constitutional recognition among the judiciary right up to the Supreme Court. They just think it’s politics as usual. And without candidates rights, what good are voter rights?

So we have really documented that. This book is going to have so many new data and descriptions in state after state. Unless we break this two-party system’s grip on American elections, which in turn is turned over to corporate cash registers, corporate control, really there is nothing in the future but downhill. Our democracy is deteriorating by the year, in all indicators.

AV: How do you propose to separate corporate money from our politics?

RN: Public funding. You have a maximum $300 check-off on your tax return. You don’t have to give if you don’t want to give anything. That goes to a public fund, and ballot-qualified candidates tap into it, and then they get a certain amount of free time on radio and TV.

AV: Did either campaign affect the Democratic platform?

RN: Zero. Kucinich couldn’t even get his paragraph in.

AV: That must be frustrating for you, who enjoyed such remarkable successes in your first 20 years of activism.

RN: I’ve learned from past experience that if you want to attain a goal you’ve got to be willing to lose and lose and lose, until either you prevail or those who come after you prevail. But a lot of people don’t like to lose, or they can’t endure losing. Well, I can do both—I can endure winning and I can endure losing. Enduring winning means that you don’t get satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, you keep going; you don’t become a jet-setter. And enduring losing means that you lay the basis for another push, for another struggle, for more and more people supporting reform.

As a student of American political history, I know that third parties are marginalized by a two-party rigged structure. And now they’ve added to it by keeping you out of the debates. Even though national polls wanted me and Buchanan on in 2000, they keep you out of the debates. It’s the only way you can reach tens of millions of people, no matter how hard you campaign in 50 states.

AV: You told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recently that if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee in 2008 you would consider another run for the presidency.

RN: Did you see my appearance on Wolf Blitzer yesterday [February 23]? He raised that exact question. I said, “That was your interpretation.” I said there’d be a greater need; I wish other people would respond to that need. Like Bill Moyers running for the Democratic nomination. He’s had very, very gritty experience in the White House with Lyndon Johnson and his subsequent record equips him very well.

There is definitely a need. You know, she’s floating to the nomination as if it’s a coronation. She’s slowly knocking these guys out of the box by the sheer potential of how much money she can raise. Bill just said he’s going to raise himself a million dollars a week for her. A million dollars a week! They used to talk about a presidential campaign requiring millions of dollars, then more recently tens of millions. Now they’re talking in terms of hundreds of millions per candidate. She’s knocked out Mark Warner. Vilsack has fallen. You’ll see Biden and Dodd—they’ll all be dropping out, because they won’t be able to raise any money.

It’s a very ugly winner-take-all mentality that seizes the very minds of the voters. As one civil rights leader introducing me in Flint Michigan in 2000 said to the audience, “The two parties keep telling us to vote for the winners—and we keep losing.” That’s the result of this 215-year-old imprisonment into a two-party elected dictatorship—with the Electoral College making it even more farcical.

AV: Who among the Democrats would you actively support?

RN: Dennis Kucinich. Ex-Senator Mike Gravel—if you look at the speech he made three weeks ago, that was extraordinary. He’s going to give Kucinich a run for the progressive wing.

AV: What do you think of the new film about you, which centers on how your presidential campaigns have affected your legacy?

RN: I thought it gave the contrary views a good airing and set some historical records straight, and gave a nice flavor of a time in Washington when things got done here, because there were some politicians in charge of committees who came to Washington to represent people and not big business…that’s in the area of consumer, environmental and worker safeguards. That would be very inspirational to some young people who want to improve their society but feel a bit overwhelmed and demoralized. Because it shows young people like themselves going to Washington at my invitation and sponsorship and creating power out of their sheer determination and research and advocacy.

AV: In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an unpopular war in Vietnam, an even less popular military draft, and there was a cultural revolution that was sweeping the country. Did that receptivity to change contribute to your influence?

RN: I say that in the movie. The antiwar marchers and demonstrations, civil rights, provided an atmosphere for us to succeed in these other ways.

AV: How about today?

RN: No. That’s what’s missing, among other things. The rest of the film reflects what happened after Washington shuts down on citizen groups, with the two parties selling their soul and making it very hard to get anything done…very hard even to get a hearing to persuade the powers that be in Washington to get anything done: hearings on our petitions with the Food and Drug Administration, auto safety and so on.

The city is closed down. In part because there isn’t that ferment around the country, back home, where these 535 men and women and two in the White House come from. We shouldn’t underestimate the phrase that I have enunciated all over the country, that half of democracy is just showing up.

AV: Your early work created a blueprint for citizen activists and public advocacy lawyers—this potent combination of litigation, lobbying and public shaming.

RN: That’s a good way to put it. Because a lot of people around the country sort of back out of engaging the powers that be in their communities because these people think that they have no power. Well, that’s exactly how every social justice movement started in this country: people who have no power creating power from their determination and engagement. It’s true of the anti-slavery, the women’s right to vote, the labor movements and the farmer populist progressive wave of the 19th century. They all were started by people with zero power. And they kept building and building and building.

AV: Where do you think the next populist movement will come from?

RN: The emergence of a new generation of leaders who can mobilize folks. Second, disasters—although given the reaction to Katrina...God, it’s just incredible. What do they need? You’d think there’d be a real angry mobilization. Given the neglect and the abdication and the profiteering in Mississippi and New Orleans…maybe it’s going to take more.

The other thing is, you know, I think things are coming together for a lot of people. But not enough to produce a third party movement, unless a billionaire gets in like Perot. A billionaire could turn the presidential race into a three-corner race. Bloomberg could get in, for example, and do it, which would provide a lot of outlets and break the two-party grip that is so suffocating on people who want more voices and choices, and who want more of the important agendas for the future direction of the country to have center stage in a presidential election year.

AV: Noam Chomsky says that no one knows what benefits a free market might provide because no one’s ever tried it. And I’ve heard you described as the country’s only true advocate for a truly free market. Would you agree with that, and if so what does a free market mean to you?

RN: Free market means access to the market. It means breaking up monopolies, oligopolies, cartels. And second is that consumers help make a free market by being more informed and perceptive. They can reward quality competition instead of being bamboozled by deceptive ads and images and slogans. And the third, a free market has to have rules. Even Adam Smith agreed to that. Adam Smith, by the way, hated corporations. The way the right wing uses Adam Smith…

So, there has to be regulation. Do you have a free market in selling defective cars? Contaminated food? Those are basically the three; I could add things like entry by co-operatives and economic entities other than the stock-held corporation.

AV: Your new book, The Seventeen Traditions, is less overtly political than your others. Why the departure?

RN: Actually it’s an ode to my parents and how they raised us. But it’s very useful for other young parents raising children today. I think the family values subject has been monopolized by the right wing, and they’ve used it in a very manipulative manner; you look at the content they’ve put into it and it’s heavily subservient to power. Whereas my dad and mom had a seamless transmission from household values into civic values in the community and into business practices in the restaurant that my father had. Family values were beyond the household and they informed and oriented the civic arena and the business arena. It involved standing up to unjust power, or channeling power.

It really reflects parents who have enough confidence in their judgment to continually inform their judgment and learn from their own children. My parents were immigrants from Lebanon—they came at the age of 19—so it was a new culture and a new language. They had to learn from their children. So one of the traditions is reciprocity.

AV: What’s your opinion of the House’s nonbinding resolution against the troop increase in Iraq?

RN: Two weeks ago I thought it was just a way to get the Democrats off the hook with their antiwar constituency: “Look, we’ve done something!” But it seems to be going further. They’re now talking about some sort of appropriations restraint, and, more interesting, of trying to repeal the 2002 war resolution.

AV: Are Democrats showing some grit?

RN: A little grit, but unfortunately the Republicans can block that. They have the votes to block it. But that doesn’t mean the Democrats shouldn’t try, because I think that resolution was, as all war resolutions, unconstitutional. Congress should either declare war or not declare war, not assign its war-declaring authority through a resolution to the White House.

They should initiate impeachment proceedings. This is the most impeachable president in American history—at least five major impeachment accounts that he can be nailed on: the fabrication of the war, that’s one big one; torture; wiretapping without judicial review; the criminal negligence of exposing undertrained and underarmored troops to the warfront; the detainee issue, arrests without warrants, habeas corpus.

AV: Do you think Representative Henry Waxman’s hearings will be effective in reining in government spending abuses and corporate fraud?

RN: Yeah, I think so. Again, it’s whether they can overcome the Republican block. But Waxman’s very good. He was good even before, you know; he did his investigations before the Democrats took over. It’s interesting that the best Democrats in the House by far are the old ones, the ones who have taken control of the committees now. It’s just such a transparent picture of the decay of the party.

AV: What does that say about how young people view politics?

RN: It says that politics is now viewed as such a dirty game, such a cash-amassing game, that it’s driven out a lot of good people who would otherwise run for office at the local, state and national level. That’s one of the things that propelled me to go forward in 2000. Because I never intended to do this, but when Washington shuts down on your attempt to improve it, you’ve got to do something other than to go to Malibu and watch the whales.

As I said on Wolf Blitzer, when he mentioned Vilsack dropping out, I said this is just another symptom of a very serious crisis in the American political and electoral system. This is very, very serious. We are losing our democracy.

AV: Your greatest supporters, at least in terms of numbers, have traditionally been young people, usually college age. Do you still attract a lot of young people?

RN: Yes, but never enough.

AV: Does the fact that your message appeals to young people make you feel optimistic?

RN: No, because I look at it quantitatively. Just like in the ’60s, it was really quantitative. Not that it was ever a majority of college students, but it wasn’t a fraction of one percent.

AV: Are you an optimist in general, regarding the future of this country and the world?

RN: Well, a long time ago I studied all the philosophical pessimists and concluded that there was no function to their thought. So there’s no other way. Pessimism has no function, and therefore you always have to look forward.

Otherwise you’ll become proficient in rationalizing your own futility. Which a lot of disappointed, demoralized liberals do when they get together in the cafeteria or around the table.