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Hitting Them Back

An interview with presidential candidate Ralph Nader

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Ralph Nader picked an interesting time to launch his presidential campaign in North Carolina. While 80 percent of the state's registered voters were skipping the party primary elections last Tuesday, including their meaningless "beauty contests" for president, Nader was on college campuses in the Triangle staking his claim to be a legitimate, progressive alternative to "Gore the drab, and Bush the dreary."

Nader said he'll sue, if necessary, to get himself on the North Carolina ballot as the candidate of the Green Party. By primary day, he'd already missed the state's effective deadline for independent and third-party candidate filings. North Carolina's ballot-access laws are the worst in the country, Nader said. Candidates are required to submit 51,324 signatures of registered voters by the beginning of May to get on the November ballot. The rules are unconstitutional, Nader said, and he'll challenge them in court unless the State Board of Elections extends the deadline for him.

Green Party organizers in the state had collected just 2,400 signatures by primary day. Nationally, they've put Nader's name on the ballot in 15 states so far, and expect to add another 19 states by the end of May, with an ultimate goal of at least 45.

Since the mid '60s, Nader's consumer advocacy has sparked such organizations as Public Citizen, Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Center for Auto Safety and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. He ran what The Nation charitably called "a non-campaign" for president in 1996, with a self-imposed spending limit of $5,000, and got just 700,000 votes in 22 states. This time, he's aiming to raise $5 million and earn at least 5 percent of the national vote, the threshold to qualify the Green Party for public financing in the 2004 presidential election. (The Reform Party is getting $12.6 million this year based on Ross Perot's 8 percent showing in '96.)

Already, Nader says, a nationwide Zogby Poll gives him 5.7 percent in a four-way race, more than Reform contender Pat Buchanan.

In free-swinging speeches at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, the 66-year-old firebrand argued that supporting the Greens is the best way for younger voters to advance the progressive causes he's fought for all his adult life. Yes, the party is tiny, he conceded. But so was the Republican Party in 1854, when it was formed in reaction to the major parties' refusal to fight slavery. Six years later, Abraham Lincoln was president. "Never underestimate small political starts," said Nader.

Between his campus appearances, Nader met with Independent staff members Bob Geary, Barbara Solow, Afefe Tyehimba and Bob Moser at the Silk Road Tea House in Chapel Hill. He's an intense, unsmiling presence, passionate about his views and given to bad mimicry when it comes to politicians ("I'll fight for yoouuuu," he'll suddenly mewl, after Al Gore). His views are nothing new to most Americans, of course. But in the doleful context of American politics circa 2000, they still seem startlingly different.

Independent: Why are you running for president?

Ralph Nader: To defend the strength in our democracy. Democracy is being squeezed very badly in recent decades and citizen groups can't get anything done. They're closed out by the Congress, White House and regulatory agencies. So you either close up shop, lift the white flag, retire to the Hamptons--or you do something.

A lot progressives are excited about your candidacy--but would be more excited if there were a real chance that you could win. How do you make the argument that progressives should support you this year and risk throwing the election to George W. Bush?

You've got stagnant political energies that are trapped by the two-party system and by the mindset that you've got to vote for the least of the worst or the lesser of two evils or the evil of two lessers, whatever way you want to put it. That's a form of imprisonment, a form of incarceration. If we're gonna liberate the political and civic energies of people we have to do it in a new formulation, and a new political party is one part of that.

Why do you think the Green Party is the best vehicle for liberating those energies?

It starts with a very good platform: public financing of campaigns, national health insurance, strong labor laws for facilitating trade unions, a good civil-rights and civil-liberties platform, excellent environment proposals. And you can build it as you go along. The party doesn't have entrenched baggage or ties to vested interests.

Assuming you don't win the White House in November, what would constitute a Nader victory?

You cannot lose in this effort. You bring thousands of young people into progressive activity, that's a win. You bring hundreds of people into local and state candidacies, that's a win. You break 5 percent, you get federal funds [for the Green Party] in the next round. You cost the Democrats a few states.

We're going to surprise a lot of people. We're already at 9 percent in California, and the response from the Gore campaign is that they're not losing any sleep over this--which is exactly what I want to hear. Slumber on, Albert Gore, slumber on.

Is victory then a Democratic loss? Would you be satisfied if the headline says, "Nader Cause for Democratic Loss"?

If I was a Democrat I would, because they need a four-year cold shower to wake up. You know the Democrats are rotten, because when they win elections, they explain it by having taken some of the Republican issues and become more like Republicans. If they lose, they explain it by saying they weren't enough like the Republicans and were "too liberal."

We want the Democrats to lose with the explanation that they weren't progressive enough. They weren't countervailing the concentration of corporate power and wealth enough. They weren't moving to progressive taxation of corporations enough. They weren't moving strongly to protect consumers. We want that explanation, and that's going to be a win.

See, the question I'd turn around is this: What is the limit of the least-of-the-worst voting decision? Let's say I believed in it. In 1976 I believed in it; 1980 I believed in it; 1984 I believed in it; 1988, 1992, 1996 ... What have I got for it if I'm a Democrat other than chaining myself to a legitimization of this downward political spiral into the political pits?

On the other hand, it's up to Gore, right? If he wants to take away our issues, to grab away our votes, he's free to do so. But he can't do so by groveling to the corporations. He can't do it by trying to expand NAFTA.

If Gore does pick up on your issues, is there any hope that he would follow through with them in office?

No. He speaks with chattering teeth and forked tongue, garnished by anal flutter. He's a coward from top to bottom, and he's betraying his own impassioned position in his book [Earth in the Balance] in 1992. There's clear framework here; we're not hypothesizing. He said internal combustion is a major threat to the global planet, then he and Clinton gave the industry an eight-year holiday from fuel-efficiency standards. A year or so ago he traveled to Detroit to get on his knees to prove to the auto companies that he's their friend.

And last week at Earth Day, instead of laying it to the auto companies, he pledges a further expansion of the billion-dollar partnership funding the clean engine and getting nothing in return. So the auto companies get a billion-and-a-quarter dollars, with another quarter-billion on the way, to do what they should do anyway in a time of massive profits: produce efficient engines for their cars. In return they do not promise to produce a prototype, they do not have a deadline, they collude in order to do nothing, they're exempted de facto from the antitrust enforcement policy of the administration, and they don't have to meet any mandatory fuel-efficiency standards. Now I ask you--could the Republicans have conceivably done worse?

And when the election is over and you're not president ...

What makes you think that?

Because you're essentially telling us that.

No, I'm not. I'm just saying you don't develop ceilings for yourself or floors for yourself. You float like a butterfly and sting like a bee [laughs].

On your Web site, VoteNader.com, you're calling for the "energies of committed citizens." That speaks to a belief that people are still very naturally politicized and ready to stand up. But what is your campaign doing to galvanize disenfranchised communities?

We're trying to run with citizen groups on the ground on all levels--whether they're dealing with a polluted river or a corrupt political situation. The country is full of groups, right? So instead of parading in front of them and expecting them to be bystanders and onlookers, we connect with them. I went on a picket line with the head of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, where the University of Wisconsin was contracting out employees with no minimum benefits and low pay. We were with a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta which the establishment does not like and is trying to squeeze out because it's on Peachtree Street in the business district and has 500 homeless people and they didn't want to see it. So they haven't given them a kitchen permit for two years.

So that's what we're doing. And that's the way it should be. The political should lock arms with the civic. When the political is rooted in the civic, it's not going to forget where it came from. When it's rooted in political-action-committee money and fancy dinners in the Denver Hilton or the Washington Hilton, that's where it's going to be coming from.

There's no shortage of grassroots groups living in this country that are (a) discouraged, (b) very separate and (c) local. It will take an enormous effort, will it not, to draw them into the national political organizing effort?

No, it won't take an enormous effort. It does take some modest fairness from the mass media. Remember, John Anderson went from 1 percent to 20 percent [in the polls during the 1980 campaign. Anderson finished with 7 percent of the vote.] Who knew John Anderson, right? Things can move very quickly.

The problem is that there are a number of progressives who are pretty adept at rationalizing their own futility. You've seen it: You've come into restaurants like this and they have a brilliant diagnosis by the time the appetizer comes, they deepen the diagnosis and the injustice of the land by the time the entrée comes, they're elaborating the diagnosis of the systemic injustice by the time dessert comes, then they rationalize their futility, get up and leave. That's a self-indulgence and that's unacceptable.

But earlier today, didn't you say that things have gone downhill for progressives since the '50s and '60s?

No, it went up for about 20 years. To the extent that corporations are behaving better now, it's due to what happened in the '60s and '70s. They've got to recall their cars, right? They have to have certain standards for pollution control--though they're nothing like what we would like.

But since about '79, it has been pretty much downhill. The composition of Congress has changed; restrictions on access to the courts have gotten tighter. The political-action-committee money grip on our elections has gotten more pervasive, more quid pro quo. And there's the ability of global corporations to transcend our jurisdictions, giving them more leverage over labor, over our government, over shipping factories abroad.

The constructs of NAFTA and WTO are really an international form of autocratic government. The WTO court is closed to the public, to the press--no public transcript, no independent appeal and no enforceable conflict-of-interest [rules] on three trade judges who are judging health, safety and environmental issues about which they know nothing.

And these snide commentators looking at those ragged demonstrators two weeks ago, and laughing at them! Instead of taking the demonstration as a rebuke to the mass media, who have repeatedly ignored thoughtful press conferences, thoughtful reports, thoughtful congressional testimony--never reported a line, and forced the coalition against the IMF, World bank and WTO into the streets.

The Rainbow Coalition has much the same strategy you've described, of working with grassroots groups. Have you talked to Jesse Jackson about your campaign?

I've called Jesse, but he has a hard time returning calls. He's thrown his lot into the Democratic Party, and they make him an emissary here and he gets a little bit of his positions accepted there, and he doesn't want to break off. He says, "I've been on the outside and I've been on the inside and, believe me, it's better being on the inside." Well, good luck. He's using them and they're using him and he knows it. And it's too bad, because he could lead a major third-party movement.

The Clinton administration failed with its initiatives on race. If you were elected president, what would you do differently?

I'd turn race relations into class relations. I don't see people who have decent standards of living ripping into each other on the basis of race. To some extent the military has demonstrated that. They opened up equal opportunity and you see black, Hispanic and white military people getting along pretty well. By and large, that's a significant success story because they get the same pay, the same opportunities, they've got to obey the same people, a white private has to obey a black sergeant.

Clinton is not willing to do that. Clinton is petrified of the phrases "class warfare" and "redistribution of wealth"--even though we have been redistributing our wealth upward, with the top 1 percent of the wealthiest having the financial wealth of the bottom 95 percent. He won't tackle that, he won't touch it. That's why he won't go after consumer protection in the ghetto. This is really absurd. These people are being ripped to shreds by business criminals. The kids are being poisoned by lead-based paint peeling off the walls; the landlords are not taking it out. The police don't distribute their protection sufficiently in the poorer areas. Other municipal services are delivered in a discriminatory way, based on class as well as race, and these people are paying 40, 50, 80 percent interest. Buy television sets or furniture and you end up paying five times the amount. Where's the protection? The laws are on the books. They are not being enforced.

Gore and Clinton have never made a consumer-policy speech, not once. I've asked them repeatedly. John F. Kennedy did. Lyndon Johnson did. These people, they cannot upset big business. They cannot upset crooked local business.

The issues you're talking about will be well understood in low-income communities. But how will you get the attention of the middle class?

You show me any audience in this country, label it any way you want to label it, and I'll get through to them, whether they're evangelical Christians, conservatives, moderates, progressives, liberals, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers. I'll get through to them because they all have the same touchstone: It's getting worse and worse. The people are losing control over their country. At every level, at every dimension, including their own children. Their children are being seduced by these corporate hucksters, from overmedication to the exploitation of the violent, addictive, pornographic entertainment that's inflicted on them.

What culture would allow its children to be turned over 30 hours a week in pre-teen years to these corporate hucksters, these electronic child molesters? They're just getting into their minds in the most disgusting way.

Look, let's talk about corporations for what they are. Corporate crime kills, injures and makes more people sick by far than street crime, although when you ask a politician "What's your position on crime?" the politician immediately assumes it's street crime, not corporate crime. When politicians are asked their position on welfare, it's assumed it's poverty welfare, not corporate welfare. When politicians are asked about regulation, they automatically assume it's government regulation, not corporate regulation.

The ability to regulate corporations is made difficult by their multinational nature, obviously. And then the argument will be made: You can't have laws against laissez-faire treatment of corporations or they'll move to Mexico. How do you get at that?

Because their biggest market is the West, you get at that by saying they don't get into this market unless they meet certain standards abroad. So we have trade agreements that lift up standards against brutalized child labor, that allow independent union organization and due process in the courts. If our companies want to go and build factories in those markets, then those laws pertain.

That's the fallacy of free trade: There is no free trade, it's corporate-managed trade. When they go abroad for cheap labor, that labor cost and that environmental cost and the other costs are kept down by brute force by the dictators that they're supporting. That is an unfair trade method, and the way you respond to an unfair trade method is to block it at the border, say, "You're not coming in."

What kinds of regulations would you like to see on the tobacco industry?

Eliminate all advertising by tobacco, and really enforce the protection of children who are still being lured in various ways. Push for anti-smoking clinics to be funded by the tobacco companies all over the U.S.--free, so people don't pay. Push to delethalize the cigarette through research. Tax the cigarette companies at the source heavily. Right now we tax the pack of cigarettes, but you can also tax the profits. You gotta get it at both sides. Because if you tax the cigarettes, they just transfer it on to the cigarette smokers. You gotta hit them back.

What did you think of the tobacco settlement and the role of trial lawyers in it?

Heroic greed at work. That's what it was. It was a terrible agreement with a lot of bad fine print, but it was better than nothing. It did break through. The tobacco companies are on the defensive. Sure, they're still making money, transferring the costs onto the smokers. But the higher the cost of tobacco, the lower the death rate. That's what studies have shown over the years.

Your organizations have been criticized for depending on trial lawyers' contributions, and some will wonder whether you can be an independent player on issues of tort reform.

That's a false predicate that was fostered by some blowhard trial lawyers quoted in Forbes magazine years ago. They said, "Oh, we support him in every way." I called the guy up and said, "Oh really? This is news to me, brother." Public Citizen gets less than 1 percent of its money over the years from lawyers--all lawyers, including trial lawyers.

So what is your opinion of trial lawyers?

In our type of political economy, if you don't have vested interest on the side of the oppressed and weak, they'll wipe out their rights. So, more power to the trial lawyers. Do you know any other force in American society that can bring corporations to justice? I don't. The regulators don't do it, the legislatures aren't doing it. It's our civil-justice system, provoked by the initiative of trial lawyers, many of whom are first-rate people, some of whom are quite greedy, but all of whom are extremely energetic and bold. They take huge risks. You know any other profession that will only get paid by its clients if it wins and doesn't get paid if it loses? Wouldn't it be nice if your doctor only got paid if you're healthy?

What The Wall Street Journal forgets is that the trial lawyers do not create the wrongdoing, and they don't make the decisions. It's the judge and the jury, and 80 percent of the judges in our country were formerly business lawyers. They're not radicals. They don't read Karl Marx on their lunch break. And yet these trial lawyers are pilloried from A to Z. It's as if they are doing something criminal.

Well, their fees are considered excessive sometimes.

Not by the standards of corporate executive pay. Think of Disney, Eisner--$200 million a few years ago.

You'd put an end to that, though.

Sure, I'd make the shareholders vote on executive compensation and that would put an end to it.

And then could we limit lawyers' fees, too?

It's up to the attorneys general.

As your campaign is growing, so are the smears. It's been said that you project yourself as a holier-than-thou Everyman, though in reality you are quite wealthy, and that you're prone to being harsh with people who work for you.

The people I've worked with are extremely independent. I give them huge autonomy. Actually, I'm too soft on them compared to years ago. I say, "This is the area you want to work? Go with it." They go with it. They don't check in, they don't check out. They're on their own, as long as they produce an accurate product.

I've never said I'm poor. But what I have is reaped by any corporate executive in a week. I'm very frugal; I don't spend much on myself. The money I have is spent on the project, past, present and future. So I keep a reserve for future projects and future contingency. I look at what I have as basically a trust fund for the public in terms of the projects we've been pursuing over the years.

I give away 50 percent of adjusted gross income to 501(c)(3) charitable institutions. Last year, Bush gave away 16 percent and Gore gave away 6 percent, up from 1 percent.

What other crimes am I accused of? That I'm self-righteous. Self-righteous people use the word "I" a lot. Not me.

You could also be accused of being too austere for a country that is bubbling over with prosperity. You think people are ready to listen to your message?

You've seen the figures: 20 percent child poverty. Majority of workers making less today and working longer than 25 years ago. This is reality; I'm giving you statistics. You talk to anyone, they're running around frantic, trying to make ends meet. Commuting longer, less time with the kids. They don't listen to Greenspan saying our economy is prosperous and sound. They see what happens every day. They're in deeper and deeper consumer debt. They can't make ends meet.

This isn't austerity. We've got to recognize our priorities. The biggest thing we can do with our lives is advance justice in society, period. That's the great mission of human beings without which there is no liberty, no freedom. And I define freedom the way Cicero defined it 2,000-plus years ago: Freedom is participation in power.

In order to be a powerful presidential candidate, as you've said, you'll need to break through in the mass media. How will you do it?

If you do something outlandish--I have seven things I can do that are outlandish, which I'll not tell you--that'll land you on Page One. But I'll not do it. I'm not going to have the media drive me into outrageous misbehavior. That's what they're basically waiting for. It's not going to happen.

Will you tell a personal story in the campaign, the way John McCain did so effectively?

I am the personal story. What, you think I have free time?

But people will want to know what's in your heart, not just what's in your head.

They're merged. They were operated on a long time ago to merge by my parents. My parents said, "Your heart is your mind and your mind is your heart." EndBlock

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