Reviled by liberals after the 2000 election, Ralph Nader has no apologies. When he announced "Meet the Press" that he planned to run for president in 2004, many reacted with disbelief.
Nader's career as a public advocate has made him a hero--we can thank him for seat belts, clean air laws, workplace safety laws, campaign finance reform and freedom of information. But some who voted for him in 2000 later admitted a mea culpa, getting behind an Anybody But Bush campaign long before any Democratic candidates emerged. Even the Green Party refused to back him this time around. Nevertheless, Nader's message hasn't changed: He wants voters to reject the two-party system, which he says amounts to corporate-controlled government no matter who's in charge.
The candidate is on a nationwide campaign to get on the ballot in every state. He made a brief stop at N.C. State University's campus recently, speaking to approximately 200 students, The News & Observer reported. Later that evening he debated Alan Keyes in Charlotte--presidential debates are also controlled by the two parties, Nader says, and he's helped to launch the Open Debates Project to try to create an independent debate-sponsoring group that would not be beholden to any party. To get on the ballot here, Nader will need thousands of signatures and volunteer support. He spoke to The Independent about why he's the best man for the job.
The Independent: I understand that North Carolina is a tough ballot access state. Could you talk about the process of trying to get on the ballot?
Ralph Nader: Well, the two parties have passed laws in the state legislature that make it very difficult for third party independent candidates, and discriminate even worse against independent candidates. So for example, an independent candidate needs to get 98,000 signatures verified; a third-party candidate needs about 58,000. Someday that will be challenged in court, because that's peculiarly unconstitutional. You have to get about 80,000, because the state officials have a practice of picking at them for trivial reasons and disqualifying them. Tennessee requires less than 300 signatures and North Carolina requires 58,000. There should be one federal standard for federal elections, not 50.
Some commentators say they support your running even if they don't plan to vote for you because they feel you can inject certain issues into the debate that might not otherwise be discussed.
In a sense, we're all hostage to the electoral college, two-party oligopoly, winner-take-all system, and we have to ask ourselves, how long are we going to tolerate its shrinking choice for the American voter as the two parties fold into the more and more complete grip of giant corporations?
This is a system that was set up 200 years ago and it was premised on party competition, which is decreasing at a very rapid pace--just look at redistricting, where the Democrats and Republicans, depending on who controls what state, carve up the states so that they turn more and more state legislative districts and Congressional districts into one-party-dominated districts where there isn't even an appearance of competition by the other major party. Ninety-five percent of the House seats now are non-competitive, according to the politicians on Capitol Hill. And in state legislatures, fully 40 percent of state legislators don't even face major party opponents in the election. It's just like a job for life. They've reached the grotesque stage of picking their voters. I mean, we're supposed to pick the candidates running for election and now they're picking us.
I think a lot of people will agree with what you're saying, but then wonder, how does voting for you for the presidency solve that problem?
First of all, it keeps it on the front burner after November '04. You can be sure the two parties aren't going to talk about this. [It puts] more and more pressure and organizing to change the system. And that's all you can hope for. Otherwise, it gets more and more entrenched and young people start thinking there's no other way. And there is another way, a lot of other ways.
You've responded to the liberals who've denounced you for running by saying that liberalism's self-esteem has sunk so low that liberals have low expectations. It reminded me of that famous Bushism from the 2000 campaign, "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
The worse the Republicans get, the more the Democrats can become bad and get away with it. And then they turn around and say to the liberals and their party, "You've got nowhere to go except to vote for us." And we're going to continue dialing for corporate dollars, and we're going to continue having the same policies 90 percent of the time with the Republicans, however different our rhetoric is. We'll have the same military policy, and the same foreign policy and the same Federal Reserve policy, and the same occupational health and safety policy, and the same agriculture policy, etc. Once you do that, the liberals have to reduce their expectation level and go for the least worst. And that gets worse every four years, it gets worse and worse and worse. In effect, the Republicans are determining the expectation level of the liberals.
In the interview with Tim Russert where you announced your candidacy, you said you decided to run in order to bring in people who are alienated from the political process and to re-energize the political debate. That sounds a lot like what Howard Dean is credited with doing. I know locally there are a lot of Democratic precincts that had never been organized before that have recently organized by Dean folks.
That's a good thing. He seemed to be able to galvanize people. But you see what happened to him. I mean, he didn't take over his party. The entrenched interests of the party, the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council, the corporate democrats, are still in control of the party. They saw him as an insurgent. They ganged up on him first in the debates and the media finished him off. It was an amazing flameout. So we'll see what he does.
What about the Dean supporters. Are you hoping to get support from them?
It's up to them. We certainly are going to appeal to them. Some of them will come to us because they were with us in 2000 and went over to Dean. We went to the Dean headquarters in Vermont and Manchester, N.H., and we saw a lot of people who used to work with us in 2000 (laughs).
You've been a hero for your public safety and justice advocacy. But the organization you founded, Public Citizen, even though you're no longer affiliated with it, took a pretty bad hit after the 2000 election. They lost 20 percent of their membership and a lot of donations. Some people might say this run and the heat you're taking from it is diminishing your ability to do that kind of public advocacy work you've been so effective at.
Well, that's being blocked by the two parties. For the past 25 years, at an increasing rate, they're closing the doors on citizen groups in Washington. That's one of the reasons I'm running--I can't get anything done.
The permanent corporate government in Washington continues its grip on our departments and agencies, regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats are in control. The defense department is in the grip of the defense contractors, the banks control the treasury department. It doesn't really matter who's in charge, Democrat, Republican. There's some differences in the marginal areas as to how far to go to privatize Social Security or subsidize the drug industry and so on, but by and large, although there are some excellent members of the Democratic Party in Congress, they're not the ones who are controlling the show.
That idea, that there's no genuine difference between the two parties, is the most provocative thing you say. There are so many people now who would say that there's a tremendous difference.
That's because they're focusing on their single issue, and we focus on the whole government. Sure, there's a difference on pro-choice and how they handle Social Security and Medicare. I can see for example if your biggest issue is pro-choice, that you can say, well, there's a tremendous difference between Republicans and Democrats. As I say to the pro-choice people who oppose our candidacy, "You're pro-choice but you're not pro-choice in terms of there being more than two parties on the ballot, are you?" And then I say to them, "What if both parties were against choice? Would you start a third party? You'd start it before I even ended the conversation with you." You see what I mean?
We're talking about food and drug; we're talking about occupational safety; we're talking about the military budget, which continues to grow under both parties; we're talking about how the treasury department is catering to big business in so many ways, the crooked tax system that taxes working people higher than taxing wealth. We're talking about the rising power of agribusiness crushing the family farm, like ADM and Cargo and the giant packers. We have many, many yardsticks, and when you add up the yardsticks, here's what you can conclude--that the similarities between the two parties tower over the dwindling differences that the Democrats are willing to fight over, not just provide rhetoric.
They were rhetorically against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, but they allowed them to go through when they were in the position to block them. In fact, the big one in 2001, the Senate had just gone under Democratic control after Sen. Jeffords turned independent and voted with the Democrats, and they still let it through. In my book, Crashing the Party, in the appendix it has 20 major areas that Clinton-Gore were taking positions on or not doing anything about, and the heading of the two pages listing them are "Wouldn't George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have done the same thing?"
Some of your critics say you're putting yourself forward as a candidate out of ego. Someone asked me, "What if we did vote for Ralph Nader and he somehow made it into the White House, and then he dropped dead of a heart attack. What would be left?"
You can't win an election like this unless millions of people mobilize themselves and work on the local and state level. They're not going to go away. This is a struggle about justice. You want to talk about egos, I'll show you a few egos in the Democrat-Republican party.
We're struggling for living wage, universal health care, a different kind of tax system, affordable housing, a crackdown on consumer abuses, a crackdown on corporate crime. Forty-seven million American voters working full-time do not make a living wage--they're earning less than $10 an hour. You cannot live today in America on less than $10 an hour gross, before deductions, before the cost of going to work.
We'll get over this hump of getting on the ballot and then we get down to the real issues. And the real issues are going to be commanding ones.
Ralph Nader's campaign site: votenader.org
Open Debates Project, a non-profit petitioning the Federal Election Commission to allow an alternative to the Commission on Presidential Debates that would be independent of the Republican and Democatic parties, and would allow third party candidates to participate: www.opendebates.org
Ralph Don't Run: a campaign to convince progressives not to support Nader's candidacy, for fear that it will cost Democrat John Kerry the election and secure President Bush a second term: www.ralphdontrun.net